Ridley Scott’s ‘Blade Runner’ as cult film – an essay
“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. All those moment will be lost, in time. Like tears, in the rain…Time to die.” (Roy Battey, Blade Runner)
“like science fiction pornography – all sensation and no heart.” (Pat Berman State and Columbia Record, Columbia, South Carolina, July 2, 1982)
In this essay I have chosen to discuss Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner as a primary example of a ‘cult’ film. I will begin by exploring the various definitions and debates surrounding the term ‘cult cinema’, and the different categories of cult film, with particular focus on the debate over the relevance of the ‘midnight movie’ phenomena in the age of the internet, TV, and video/DVD rental. I will then analyse Ridley Scott’s 1982 science fiction film Blade Runner as an example of the cult category ‘the resurrected financial/critical flop’. I will then explore the reasons why this film attained cult status, looking at its appeal to niche audiences, and also its appeal to those attempting to unravel the mysteries and mistakes surrounding its production history. I will explore the relevance of generic hybridity in a film’s progression from cult to mainstream success, and ask whether or not a cult film can still retain its cult badge of honour once it has achieved this success.
What is ‘Cult’ Film? Definition and Debates
“The spectators of a cult film dwell within its world. They look at their film obsessively; they watch and re-watch it indefinitely. They know all the lines by heart.” (Alain J. Cohen, 2003:149)
“it is a type marked by both its highly specified and limited audience as well as a singular pleasure that this audience finds in the film’s transgressions.” (J.P. Telotte, 1991:7)
To understand the question of what constitutes a ‘cult’ film, I find it helpful to begin at the beginning, with the etymological root of the word ‘cult’, which is the Latin cultus, meaning both ‘worship’ and ‘cultivation’. According to J.P. Telotte the word signifies “an act of adherence and mastery, submission and domination”, and that therefore the term ‘cult’ is underpinned by this “duel impulse” to both worship and control (1991:14). This association of film with religion is also explored by Hoberman and Rosenbaum in their exploration of the ‘midnight movie’ phenomena. They claim that “[i]f the origins of art are to be found in religion, the movies are surely the universal secular faith of the twentieth century” (1983/1992:15).
Both Telotte and Anne Jerslev concur that it is the activity of the audience which is responsible for the conversion of a film into an object of esoteric worship, where a ‘supertext’ is created by the audience’s appropriation of the original text (Telotte 1991:7, Jerslev, 1992). Telotte’s “duel impulse” can certainly be attributed to this appropriation and conversion process. Jamie Sexton and Mark Jancovich also emphasise audience appropriation and reception processes. All four writers assert that a film enters the cult canon through a process of resurrection, whereby a critical failure, or a conventionally popular film, regains a second life through its adoption by niche audiences (Sexton, 2006:198, Jancovich et al, 2003:1).
Categorising Cult: The Midnight Movie, the Transgressive and the Resurrected
“it is very difficult to think of the cult film outside of the cult film experience…In this experience, we celebrate a most pleasurable transgression, as we vicariously cross over into taboo territory – the self’s terra incognita – and then emerge to tell of it.” (Telotte, 1991:16)
In his influential essay ‘Beyond all reason: the nature of the cult’, J. P. Telotte identifies two types of cult film; the “resurrected classic” and the “midnight movie”. As a ‘resurrected classic’ he uses the example of Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca (1942) which was hugely popular when originally released, and continued to be reclaimed by future generations. He asserts that both classic films and screen icons “work so powerfully upon us because of their placement in time. For despite their rootedness in an era, they display a remarkable ability to live on through and, in effect, outside of history” (1991:8-9).
Writing in the early 1990s, when midnight movie going was still a popular pastime in the US, Telotte also identifies “midnight movies” as his second type of cult film, and uses Jim Sharman’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) as his primary example. Describing the midnight movie audience as “usually the middle-class teenager and young adult, the 17- to 24-year-old group”, he asserts that the midnight movie-going experience is a sort of “rite of passage for an audience which sees itself as “separate from the cultural mainstream” (1991:10). Hoberman and Rosenbaum also draw parallels between transubstantiation in religious rituals and the midnight movie experience (1983/1992:16).
Unfortunately all three writers suffer from a heavy American bias, which is clear in Telotte’s description of what he calls the “typical venue” for cult films as “the midnight showing, usually at suburban mall theatres rather than art or rerun houses”. He even claims that “this alternate viewing practice seems essential, a defining characteristic of the midnight movie” (1991:10). The focus of all three authors on the midnight movie phenomenon as the primary evidence of cult audience activity is both outmoded and inaccurate in today’s age of internet fandom, fanzines and TV and video/DVD audiences. It is now more accurate to use the midnight movie phenomena as a description of cult audience behaviour, not as a category of cult film. Hoberman and Rosenbaum, to their credit, do acknowledge that “[w]hen the rise of television destroyed moviegoing as a mass habit, it simultaneously enhanced the opportunities for film fetishism and ritual screenings. Movies became integral to the celebration of religious events” (1983/1992:30. See also Sexton 2006:211).
Building on Telotte’s own writing, I prefer to re-categorise his example of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, as an ‘excessive/transgressive’ cult film, with a strong midnight movie history, including a tradition of dressing up and audience participation. Similarly Robert Wise’s The Sound of Music (1965) shares this midnight movie history and dressing up participation, however it is not a transgressive/excessive film, it is a ‘resurrected classic’. Therefore, it is important to separate the behaviour of audiences from the type of the cult film.
According to Barry Grant, ‘transgression’ can appear in the form of content, attitude or style (Grant, 1991:123. See also Sexton, 2006:209, and Timothy Corrigan 1991:31). The film’s generic hybridity and visual cultural references also signal its stylistic, collage-like excessiveness, but perhaps most significantly it is the film’s attitude which is the most transgressive. Sexual liberation and sadomasachictic excess are the primary themes of this alternative musical. The films of John Waters are also an example of this deliberately shocking ‘trash’ cinema. Transgression can also take the form of technical incompetence, as the films of Edward D. Wood Jr. have proven. According to Barry Grant, the transgression of technical competence is often admired in an ironic fashion for being “trash” (Grant, 1991:124, see also Sexton, 2006:209).
Cinematic success appears to only have relevance to one category of cult – the resurrected classic. There is in fact a category which depends on cinematic failure as the initial engine of its cult. The resurrected financial/critical flop is the category which Blade Runner falls into.
Blade Runner as Resurrected Financial/Critical Flop
“I suspect history will be kinder to it than the critics.” (John Bloom. ‘Republican Pod People, Circa 1982’, in Dallas Times Herald, Dallas, Texas, June 25,1982)
When Ridley Scott finally managed to get his cast and crew together in May 1982 for the first full screening of what is now known as the ‘Domestic Cut’ of the Blade Runner film, it was met by a less than optimistic reaction, as Paul Sammon’s highly detailed and personal book Future Noir describes. It wasn’t that the audience were wholly negative about it. It was more that the majority of them simply did not know what to make of it (Sammon, 1996:312). After the film’s June 25th release it became clear that both critics and audiences were suffering the same ambiguous reaction as the cast and crew had. Sammon notes that “for some reason, unfavourable Blade Runner reviews were particularly vitriolic, as if many of the nation’s critics had somehow been personally offended by the subtlety and care that had gone into this picture” (Sammon, 1996:313).
Sammon asks if “maybe Blade Runner’s lacklustre box office could simply be laid at the feet of audiences unwilling to embrace a downbeat, morally ambiguous film featuring a dour performance from a leading action hero”. The answer he finds more likely, however, “can be summed up in two letters: E.T.” (1996:316). E.T. was not only in direct box-office competition with Blade Runner, but was also, as Sammon puts it, “the sentimental antithesis of Runner’s gritty pessimism” (1996:316). And as if the presence of E.T. wasn’t bad enough, Blade Runner was also forced to compete in a market glutted by big-budget science fiction/fantasy films such as Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Conan The Barbarian, and John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing, all of which were invading multiplexes in the same summer of 1982. It was lucky, then, that the studios had a back up plan. And it was this plan which would ultimately rescue the film from its cinematic death-bed.
Blade Runner was released during a massive expansion of cable television and home video markets. As Sammon phrases it, “[a]lthough videotapes and cable TV were still in their relative infancy in 1982, like all infants, they were hungry” (1996:322). After Blade Runner’s box office flop, Warner Brothers initiated a new distribution strategy to maximise profits, involving pulling the flop from theatres and re-releasing them through the Warner-Amex Satellite Entertainment Network. The film was now available to a whole new audience who normally wouldn’t watch science fiction films at the cinema. Encouragingly, ratings revealed that this new audience apparently liked what it saw (Sammon, 1996:322).
At the same time Embassy Entertainment released Blade Runner on video and laser disc in 1983, where it proved ever more popular with rental and purchasing. Audiences, who might have been confused by the film in the cinema, were now able to re-watch it as many times as they liked. According to Sammon’s research, “all of these factors eventually coalesced to make Blade Runner one of the most rented tapes on the home video market, to which numerous trade journals continue to attest” (1996:323).
Whatever the reason for its box office failure, the fact was that from its first showing the film had captured an audience, and that audience refused to allow the film to fall into limbo. The two questions are, who is this audience? And what do they see in this film in particular? I will explore two answers. The first concerns the appeal of the film to niche audiences. The second is the appeal of the mythology created around the film’s complicated, messy and somewhat mysterious production history. I shall turn to niche audiences first.
The Blade Runner Cult: Niche Audiences and Dystopias in Science Fiction
“Which films touch upon a deeper structure of reality? Why do some films become evanescent whilst others endure? For whom? How? Which films become emblematic of a given culture?” (Cohen, 2003:149)
“All individual works are potentially myths, but it is their collective adoption that realises, if necessary, their mythical status.” (Le’vi-Strauss, 1971:560)
In his attempt to analyse cult audiences, Henry Jenkins claims that fandom communities share “a common mode of reception, a common set of critical categories and practices, a tradition of aesthetic production, a set of social norms and expectations” (Jenkins, 1992:86). Jenkins’ work, however, can be criticised as being too historically specific, focusing on the readings of a certain audience at a certain time and place. Jamie Sexton warns against overly focusing on textual elements of cult films and treating them in a trans-historical way. He emphasises the significance of historical contexts in influencing audience’s appropriation procedures, and how these contexts can shift, thereby altering the “dominant aesthetic features associated with cult films” (2006:211). In the realm of the science fiction film, historical contexts are especially fundamental.
Charles Elkins asserts that the primary question for sociologists of sci-fi should be “how is social order communicated in SF and how does this symbolic act relate to the structure and function of social action? Who are the heroes, villains and fools of the social order, and in the name of what principles do they act?” (Elkins, 1997:228-9). Both thematically and visually, the science fiction film betrays deep-seated concerns with the trajectory of contemporary society, and therefore they appeal to those audience members who share these concerns. This social criticism is part of Telotte’s definition of ‘transgression’ (1991:7). In Blade Runner, four of the most important transgressive themes explored are corporate business, dehumanisation, race and slavery.
Thomas Byers, in his comparison of Alien (1979), Blade Runner and Star Trek II: Wrath of Kahn, notes that their releases coincided with an explosion of interest in computers, high-tech industry, and genetic engineering, and that the latter two were in production during the elevation of Ronald Regan and a new breed of young urban professionals who ushered in a new age of corporate culture and consumerism (Byers, 1987/1990:39). He identifies thematic links between the three films, all of which explore the relationship between high-tech corporate capitalism and individual styles of personal behaviour. Byers concludes that the strongest common element in Alien and Blade Runner is their “insistence on the dehumanisation necessary for human survival in a world dominated by mega-corporations” (1987/1990:45). Thus, when a Blade Runner is asked to execute a replicant, it is not called execution, it is called ‘retirement’.
In Blade Runner the theme of dehumanisation and oppression specifically applies to race and slavery. Science fiction has a history of confronting issues of race and discrimination, and even has a subgenre of its own. Afrofuturism, explored by writers like Kodwo Eshun and Umberto Eco, is concerned with the ‘unreality principle’. Using The Matrix trilogy (Andy and Larry Wachowski) as examples, Mark Derry asserts that Afrofuturist films explore the African American sense that they are “in a very real sense, the descendents of alien abductees”, and that they “inhabit a sci-fi nightmare in which unseen but no less impassable force fields of intolerance frustrate their movements” (Derry 1994:180. Also Eshun 1998:4).
Jamie Sexton identifies Blade Runner as an example of a film which, though it does not on the face of it seem particularly Afrocentirc, still contains Afrofuturist themes in its exploration of racial difference and slavery within a science fiction context (Sexton, 2006:204). To David Desser, this is a theme hinted at in the racial mixture on the streets of Los Angeles, but explicitly personified in the replicants and their exclusion from human society on pain of ‘retirement’ (Desser, 1999:93).
However, it is not simply an appeal to a niche audience which influences whether or not a film becomes cult. As discussed above regarding the films of Edward D. Wood Jr, one element of transgression in cult film is that of technical incompetence and production nightmares.
The Cult of the Tarnished, the Incomplete, and the Incomprehensible Around Blade Runner
“Blade Runner seemed to encourage a diversity of opinions between its cast and crew, not a solidarity…Perplexity, in fact, seemed the one common denominator running through the jumble of reactions, even among those who’d genuinely liked the film.” (Sammon, 1996:312)
“You are no longer simply a fan of Blade Runner: you are part of the world of Blade Runner or even a blade runner yourself.” (Brooker, 1999:60)
The release in 2007 of the ‘Blade Runner-The Final Cut five-disk ultimate collectors’ edition’ signalled the ultimate resolution of the story of the making of Blade Runner, which had begun over twenty five years ago, and provided audiences, at last, with a final, finished product. Over its long and troubled history, Blade Runner has existed in six different versions. Sammon provides an in depth description of the various differences between these versions which I need not go into here, but needless to say the variety of versions is proof of the extent to which the film has been tampered with over the course of its life (see Sammon, 1996:Appendix B:394-408). With the 2007 release, seven versions of the film now exist, a ridiculous state of affairs, certainly, however it is a state of affairs which has done nothing to harm Blade Runner’s popularity.
For that small cult audience who originally latched onto Blade Runner, the quest now became the researching of the film’s history in order to better understand the film in its many forms. According to Will Brooker, “[i]t is perhaps unsurprising, then, that the project of Blade Runner Internet fandom involves a search for answers, an obsessive return to the ‘original’ text(s) in this wealth of false leads, in order to pick over the clues and build threads of logic which explain some of the film’s unsolved mysteries” (1999:60). Brooker notes that even after twenty five years of cult activity, some mistakes and some mysteries have never been successfully solved, like the numerous internal contradictions over the exact number of escaped replicants (1999:58).
The first Blade Runner Fanzine was published – with amazing speed – in December of 1982. Sarah Campbell’s Cityspeak provided the first forum for cult fan discussions of the film. Later, establishing the film as acceptable in serious academic study, came the first book dedicated to the academic analysis and criticism of Blade Runner. Retrofitting Blade Runner: Issues in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, was published by Bowling Green State University Popular Press in 1991, edited by Judith B. Kerman.
Blade Runner had entered the academy. And its acceptability by academics was, in part, due to its increasing mass appeal and its broadening audience. Its academic debut signalled that it had now become a fully paid up member of the mainstream. But what was the reason for this conversion from a cult audience to a mass audience? From a resurrected flop to a popular smash hit? And what would this popularity mean for the cult?
From Cult to Popular: Generic Hybridity, Mass Appeal and Retaining the Badge of Honour
“Yet perhaps the greatest confirmation of the fact that Blade Runner had risen phoenix-like and triumphant from the ashes of its failure was expressed by Hollywood’s most sincere form of flattery: it imitated the hell out of it.” (Sammon, 1996:324)
In order to qualify the above statement, Sammon cites, for starters, just a few from the extensive list of various media products influenced by Blade Runner, for example the Akira comics, Graham Gilliam’s Brazil (1985), the Max Headroom TV show (1987), Danny cannon’s Judge Dredd (1995), Robert Longo’s Johnny Mnemonic (1995), not to mention the entire Cyberpunk literary movement, which uses the Blade Runner film specifically as its touchstone. But what is it about Blade Runner which has allowed it to rocket from cult obscurity into the mainstream?
Tenuous arguments have been made concerning the generic hybridity of the film as being the root of the mainstream appeal for Blade Runner. However, this analysis simply fails to stand up to more rigorous research. Timothy Corrigan and J.P. Telotte both claim that a generic mish-mash is part of the transgressive element of cult film (Corrigan, 1991; Telotte, 1991). However, Barry Grant points out that plenty of mainstream films are generically ‘collage–like assemblage of interchangeable parts’ (Grant 1991:125). There is also the small matter of why this variety of generic appeal failed to grab the mainstream when the film was first released.
Generic variety may certainly be an element in the conversion of a cult film to a mainstream film, but the process requires more. Another element which assists the process is the cult itself. The existence of a strong cult behind a film can also give it a mainstream appeal. Audiences begin to question what it might be about a particular film that the cult finds so attractive. Cult films become a type of badge of honour for those within the cult, making it more and more attractive to mainstream audiences who want in on the action. Who want to know the secret. In this way then, cult films contain within them the seeds of their own destruction (resulting in their mainstream resurrection).
At the end of the day, Telotte asserts, cult films, despite their separation from the mainstream, still participate in the “ongoing ideological project of the mass media”, and still contribute to the cultural cinematic imaginary, whether “by building upon the pantheon of gods and mythic actions already established in Hollywood legend, or by contributing new images for commercialisation and exploitation” (1991:14). Blade Runner’s generic variety and strong cult backing meant that, inevitably, it was doomed to become a mainstream success.
(all referencing in adherence to Harvard system)
Berman, Pat. (1982) State and Columbia Record. Columbia: South Carolina. July 2
Bloom, John. (1982) ‘Republican Pod People, Circa 1982’, in Dallas Times Herald. Dallas: Texas. June 25
Brooker, Will (1999) ‘Internet Fandom and the Continuing Narratives of Star Wars, Blade Runner and Alien’, in Kuhn, Annette (ed.) Alien Zone II: The Spaces of Science Fiction Cinema. London: Verso. Pp.50-72
Byers, Thomas B. (1987) ‘Commodity Futures’, in Annette Kuhn (1990) (ed.) Alien Zone: Cultural Theory and Contemporary science Fiction Cinema. London: Verso. Pp. 39-50
Campbell, Sarah. (1982) Cityspeak. Self-publication. Madsen: Wisconsin
Cohen, Alain J. (2003) ‘12 Monkeys, Vertigo and La Jetée. Postmodern Mythologies and Cult Films’. New Review of Film and Television Studies, vol.1, no.1. Pp.149 – 164
Corrigan, Timothy (1991) ‘Film and the culture of cult’, in J. P. Telotte (ed) The Cult Film Experience: Beyond All Reason. University of Texas Press, Austin. Pp. 26–37.
Derry, Mark (1994) ‘Black to the future: interviews with Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate and Tricia Rose’, in Derry, Mark (ed.) Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture. Duke University Press: Durham, NC and London. Pp.179–222.
Desser, David (1999) ‘Race, Space and Class: The Politics of Cityscapes in Science-Fiction Films’, in Kuhn, Annette (ed) Alien Zone II: The Spaces of Science Fiction Cinema. London: Verso. Pp.80-96
Eco, Umberto (1986) ‘Cult movies and intertextual collage’, in Umberto Eco, Travels in Hyperreality. London: Picador. Pp.197–211.
Elkins, Charles (1977) ‘An Approach to the Social Functions of American SF’, in Science Fiction Studies, vol.4, pp.228-243
Eshun, Kodwo (1998) More Brilliant than the Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction.
Grant, Barry Keith (1991) ‘Science fiction double feature: ideology in the cult film’, in J. P. Telotte (ed) The Cult Film Experience: Beyond All Reason. Austin: University of Texas Press. Pp.122–137
(1999) ‘Sensuous Elaboration: Reason and the Visible in the Science Fiction Film’, in Kuhn, Annette (ed) Alien Zone II: The Spaces of Science Fiction Cinema. London: Verso. Pp.16-30
Hoberman, Jonathan, and Rosenbaum, Jonathan (1983) Midnight Movies. (Second edition, 1992). New York: DA Capo Press.
Jancovich, Mark. (2003) ‘Introduction’, in Mark Jancovich, Antonio La´zaro Reboll, Julian Stringer and Andrew Willis (eds) Defining Cult Movies; The Cultural Politics of Oppositional Taste. Manchester: Manchester University Press. Pp.1–13.
Jenkins, Henry (1992) Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. New York: Routledge, Chapman and Hall
Jerslev, Anne (1992) ‘Semiotics by Instinct: ‘‘Cult Film’’ as a Signifying Practice Between Film and Audience’, in Michael Skovmond & Kim Schrøder (eds) Media Cultures: Reappraising Transnational Media. London: Routledge. Pp.181–198.
Judith B, Kerman (editor) (1991) Retrofitting Blade Runner: Issues in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. Bowling Green State University Popular Press
Sammon, Paul M. (1996) Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner. London: Orion.
Sexton, Jamie (2006) ‘A Cult Film By Proxy: Space is the Place and the Sun Ra mythos’. New Review of Film and Television Studies, vol.4, no.3. Pp.197 – 215
Le´vi-Strauss, Claude (1971) Myth and Meaning: Cracking the Code of Culture. London: Routledge Classics (2001 reprint).
Telotte, J.P. (1991) ‘Beyond All Reason: The Nature of the Cult’, in J.P.Telotte (ed.) The Cult Film Experience: Beyond All Reason. Austin: University of Texas Press. Pp.5-17.
Blade runner (1982) Ridley Scott
Casablanca (1942) Michael Curtiz
Rocky Horror (1975) Jim Sharman
The Sound of Music (1965) Robert Wise
E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial (1982) Steven Spielberg
Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan (1982) Nicholas Meyer
Conan the Barbarian (1982) John Milius
The Thing (1982) John Carpenter
Alien (1979) Ridley Scott
The Matrix Trilogy (1999/2003/2003) Andy and Larry Wachowski
Akira (1988) Katsuhiro Otomo
Brazil (1985) Terry Gilliam
Max headroom (1985) Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton
Judge Dredd (1995) Danny Cannon
Johnny Mnemonic (1995) Robert Longo