Directors: Ridley Scott, John Carpenter
Words: Oliver Innocent.
1982 was a milestone year for American popular cinema, with a slew of future classics dominating the box office.
Steven Spielberg was the undisputed king with his family-friendly E.T. the Extra Terrestrial achieving the highest grossing film of the year. He also had big success with Poltergeist, the haunted house horror hit he produced also earning a place within the top ten grossing US films.
Established franchises Star Trek and Rocky also took the box office by storm with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and Rocky III proving exceedingly popular with audiences.
Two of the standout films of the year, both released on the same day – June 25th, 1982 – were initially commercial and critical failures. On paper, Ridley Scott’s sci-fi noir Blade Runner, and John Carpenter’s sci-fi horror The Thing should have both been huge successes.
Scott’s 1979 science-fiction film, Alien was a massive hit, and an instant classic of the genre. Likewise, Carpenter’s 1978 horror Halloween was one of the most successful independent films ever, birthing the slasher subgenre and spawning countless imitators.
Unlike Alien and Halloween, Blade Runner and The Thing are both adaptations. Blade Runner is based on Philip K Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and The Thing on the 1938 John W Campbell Jr. novella Who Goes There? with the first film adaptation of the story being the 1951 cold war B-Movie The Thing from Another World. But despite links to established properties, neither film gelled with the cinema-going audiences of the summer of 1982.
Appearing amidst the popcorn-friendly likes of E.T. and Rocky III, it’s easy to see why Blade Runner didn’t initially connect with audiences. Ambiguous, slow-moving, and melancholic, it sits in stark contrast to the mainstream feel-good thrills audiences had been made accustomed to.
Predominantly visual rather than story-driven, it’s a film that wholly envelops you in its world without explaining its world to you. Scott simply drops you off in 2019 Los Angeles with Harrison Ford’s Deckard on the hunt for bio-engineered killer replicants, and lets the story unfold from there with staggering visuals and amazing production design.
Indeed, the world of Blade Runner is expertly crafted, melding the melodramatic, stylistic trappings of film noir (perpetual darkness and rain) with the futuristic visuals of science-fiction (flying cars, holograms). This is all simultaneously kept grounded and believable with an overarching lived-in, grungy aesthetic (crumbling dilapidated buildings, nothing looking new and shiny despite being set in the future), courtesy of vfx master Douglas Trumbull (who previously worked on Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind) alongside designer and concept artist Syd Mead. Perfectly accompanying this visual aesthetic is Greek musician, Vangelis’s ground-breaking electronic score, at once ambient and aloof, and emotional and driving.
It is not, however, just a case of style over substance. Blade Runner deals with such lofty themes as life and death, moral ambiguity, existentialism, and what it really means to be human. These themes are best exemplified by the aptly named Roy Batty, a replicant with such a desire for more life (replicants are only designed to have short lifespans) that he will do anything, including murder, to attain it. Batty is a show-stealing turn from cult Dutch actor Rutger Hauer, delivering a manic, almost Shakespearean performance with one of the most iconic, emotionally impactful monologues in cinema (tears in rain).
Arguably more accessible and narrative driven, The Thing instead proved a difficult sell due to its gory special effects, doom-laden atmosphere, and nerve-shredding, paranoic horror. Ironically, all the elements that initially turned audiences off are what make the film such an effectively disturbing viewing experience.
Remaking one of his own favourite films, it would have been easy for Carpenter to make a rehashed, modernised love letter to The Thing from Another World. Instead, Carpenter looked to the source novella for inspiration. A more faithful adaptation of the original story, Carpenter’s The Thing centres on a research team in Antarctica trapped with a shape-shifting alien able to perfectly imitate other organisms. This shifts the focus from the monster-on-the-loose format of the original film to a paranoia-fuelled, psychological horror where the monster could be anyone.
Bolstered by twitchy, unpredictable performances from the excellent ensemble cast, including Kurt Russell in one of his best roles, the audience, like the characters themselves, never knows who to trust.
Adding another level of audience discomfort are special makeup effects artist, Rob Bottin’s truly grotesque practical effects. Still more than holding up 40 years later, Bottin’s expertly crafted effects are the real star of the show. The slimy, twisted, surrealistic, monstrous creatures repel and fascinate in equal measure, at once otherworldly and entirely convincing.
Since their initial underwhelming critical and commercial performances, both Blade Runner and The Thing have gone on to become cult favourites, finding a new lease of life on home video. Testament to their ever-increasing popularity is the sheer number of releases both films have garnered. Multiple incarnations on VHS, Laserdisc, DVD, Blu-ray, and now Ultra HD Blu-ray have been rabidly collected by new and old fans alike. They have also both proved highly influential with some of today’s biggest filmmakers; Guillermo del Toro and Quentin Tarantino citing them as personal favourites.
While The Thing led the way for effects-heavy body horror like David Cronenberg’s The Fly (itself a remake of a 1950s sci-fi horror B-movie), Blade Runner influenced the cyberpunk aesthetic (blending of low and high tech) of Japanese animes such as Akira and Ghost in the Shell.
Their influence has also spread to music. The 1980s-obsessed electronic music subgenre, Synthwave takes heavy inspiration from Vangelis’s Blade Runner soundscapes, not to mention the film’s visuals. John Carpenter’s scores are also cited as direct inspirations by many of the scene’s artists.
Both films also scored belated second entries. While The Thing got a mostly forgettable prequel, Blade Runner was gifted a more worthy successor, the excellent Blade Runner 2049, itself a new standard for stunning sci-fi visuals.
The 25th of June 1982 was then, in retrospect, an important day in the history of cinema, even if most critics and audiences didn’t realise it. Two science-fiction films released on the same day to a frosty reception proved this wasn’t necessarily a death knell in the long run, having over time become recognised as two of the most ground-breaking and influential films in the history of the genre.