From Alphaville (1965) to Akira (1988), here are 15 great sci-movies like Blade Runner.
Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) is based on Philip K Dick’s 1968 dystopian science-fiction novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? While the film didn’t do well at the box office, it set the visual palette for the cyberpunk movie subgenre of sci-fi. A complex plot and bleak, mysterious setting was why Blade Runner didn’t enjoy commercial success. It was also the era of space-opera franchise movies like Star Wars and Star Trek.
Blade Runner is set in a rain-soaked, polluted, and neon-lit megalopolis of the 21st century. It revolves around a grizzled ex-cop and bounty hunter Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), who tries to hunt down human-like bioengineered beings called ‘Replicants’. His labyrinthine journey through Los Angeles of the future is central to the narrative. Director Ridley Scott did a marvellous job in bringing together the science-fiction and noir aesthetics. Though Godard has tried to bring together sci-fi and film noir genre in Alphaville (1965), the inimitable world-building in Blade Runner set the benchmark for dystopian sci-fi narratives. Apart from the production design, brilliant ensemble casting, and cinematography, the most memorable aspect of Blade Runner is the majestic music score of Vangelis.
Though Blade Runner has a very basic story, it withholds deep layers of philosophical subtext that question the nature of humanity. Through the moral crisis of Deckard, the narrative explores what exactly makes us human. Four decades later, Ridley Scott’s sci-fi masterpiece hardly seems to have aged. In fact, its themes and visuals remain timeless. Very quickly then, here are 15 movies like Blade Runner you’ll love:
1. Alphaville (1965)
Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner might have defined the tropes of tech-noir – a mixture of sci-fi and film-noir elements. But nearly two decades before, Jean-Luc Godard made a futuristic detective story titled Alphaville. The film follows a secret agent named Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine), who must travel to a dystopian metropolis, situated in the farthest reaches of the galaxy. He must go there to kill a fascist dictator and to take down Alpha 60, a dangerous sentient computer that controls the minds of the metropolis’ residents.
Lemmy Caution was a character created by British pulp novelist Peter Cheyney. Eddie Constantine has played Lemmy in seven films prior to Alphaville. Godard took the film-noir style of Lemmy films and radically changed the setting into a dystopian future. Unlike Ridley Scott, Godard didn’t opt for elaborate sets and special effects to create a futuristic city. He simply used contemporary Paris’ modernist architecture, and furthermore relied on his own poetic composition to bestow rich aesthetic pleasure.
2. World on a Wire (1973)
The prolific German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s three-and-a-half-hour World on a Wire premiered as a two-part mini-series in 1973. It wasn’t widely known to audiences until the year 2000. Film Critic Andrew O’Hehir calls it “the missing link that connects 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner and The Matrix.” The film is set in a distant future, where a man named Henry Vollmer develops a new generation of computer called Simulacron. The computer can generate a simulated world with tens of thousands of identity units. These units can live their lives without knowing that they are part of a simulation.
The script was based on Daniel Galouye’s 1964 novel Simulacron-3. However, Fassbinder might have been influenced by Philip K. Dick since World on a Wire shares a lot of themes with Blade Runner. The most interesting is the films’ examination of the notion of reality and the meaning of existence. Similar to Alphaville, World on a Wire also employed modernist European architecture to create the futuristic setting.
3. Brazil (1985)
Terry Gilliam’s Brazil is more inspired by George Orwell and Kafka than Philip K. Dick. Yet like Blade Runner, it is set in a bleak futuristic metropolis, where technological efficiency leads to more government or corporate interference. The narrative follows Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), a lowly employee in a labyrinthine governmental organisation. Depressed by the gloomy world of paperwork and bureaucracy, Sam dreams of an escape. Fortunately or unfortunately, Sam’s yearning becomes a reality.
Both Gilliam and Ridley Scott, in their own respective ways incorporate an unique signature in order to visualise the cold, sterile, and stoic nature of the institutional atmosphere. Brazil also features some of the shadowy noir aesthetic that’s omnipresent in Blade Runner. Gilliam said that he conceived the film’s narrative conflict while reading about a practice in Middle Ages, where the prisoners are charged for the costs of their own imprisonment and torture.
Brazil had been a great influence on many cinematic works including Delicatessen (1991), Dark City (1998), and the recent Loki (2021) web series.
4. Akira (1988)
Blade Runner inspired a generation of anime filmmakers. Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira is set in Neo-Tokyo in the year 2019 – the same year Blade Runner’s story is set. The idea of visualising an incredibly futuristic megacity has been there in cinema from Fritz Lang’s 1927 magnum opus Metropolis (1927). But the dystopian future version of Tokyo and Los Angeles in Akira and Blade Runner respectively, perfectly detailed the sprawling, neon-lit ugliness as well as beauty of the mega cities. The imagery was appropriated into pop-culture so much that it determined the aesthetics of the cyberpunk subgenre.
Apart from the shared aesthetics, Akira is a different movie from Blade Runner, narrative and theme wise. Otomo’s anime reflected the socio-political climate of the 80s Japan, as it explored the themes of disaffected youth, dangers of nuclear energy, political corruption, and gradual breakdown of society.
Akira is an adaptation of Otomo’s own manga series, who published the first chapter in December 1982.
5. Total Recall (1990)
Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven made three stylistic and witty sci-fi action flicks in Hollywood. Robocop (1987), Total Recall (1990), and Starship Troopers (1997). My favourite among the three was Arnold and Sharon Stone-starrer Total Recall, which is based on Philip K. Dick’s 1966 short story, We Can Remember It for You Wholesale. The narrative revolves around Arnold’s Doug Quaid, a construction worker, who is haunted by dreams about planet Mars. He opts for a memory implant service called ‘Rekal’, which would allow him to take memory vacations instead of a real one. But something goes wrong during the procedure.
Ridley Scott or Denis Villeneuve’s vision of Philip Dick’s dystopian world was beautiful to look at. But Verhoeven presents the harsh futuristic society in a more banal and dirty manner. However, both Blade Runner and Total Recall retain the pulpy quality in Dick’s story, while also finding the right moments to convey the author’s philosophical questions.
6. Strange Days (1995)
Kathryn Bigelow’s neo-noir sci-fi is set in the rain-soaked, neon-lit streets of futuristic L.A. like Blade Runner. Both the films feature protagonists who are the perfect noir anti-heroes. They are world-weary sleuths, who hang onto their principles despite the violent and alienated atmosphere. They’re also caught in a case that poses several questions including their beliefs and reality.
At the same time, Strange Days is deeply rooted in the social climate of the era. The film deals with themes of social injustice and racial violence. Its protagonist Lenny (Ralph Fiennes) is an ex-cop, who illegally deals with an electronic device that records memories and lived-in experiences. The device is directly plugged to the cerebral cortex. Playing back the recordings, one day Lenny stumbles upon a recording of the murder. The investigation naturally leads Lenny to discover a larger conspiracy.
Strange Days is replete with inventive staging techniques and offers a thought-provoking cultural commentary.
7. Ghost in the Shell (1995)
Blade Runner’s influence can be deeply felt in the works of renowned anime filmmaker Mamoru Oshii. He stated in an interview, “When you create a film dealing with humans and cyborgs, you have no choice but to refer back to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.” Oshii’s Angel’s Egg (1985), Patlabor: the Movie 1 & 2 (1989, ’93), and Avalon (2001) carry some visual influence from Blade Runner. But Oshii greatly built upon the visual touchstone set by Ridley Scott in his profound anime Ghost in the Shell (1995). The anime and its sequels pay several homages to Blade Runner, the most memorable being the ‘photo enhancing’ scene.
Ghost in the Shell revolves around cyborg cop Motoko Kusunagi as she attempts to capture a master criminal and hacker known as The Puppet Master. The film’s central theme deals with the rising self-awareness and self-development of artificial intelligence. Similar to Blade Runner, Oshii’s anime also profoundly contemplates on the notions of human identity and soul.
8. 12 Monkeys (1995)
Terry Gilliam’s post-apocalyptic sci-fi was co-written by David Webb Peoples, the scriptwriter who also co-wrote Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Though not as strong as Gilliam’s Brazil, Twelve Monkeys was an intriguing and complex film. The narrative is set in the year 2035, where human society lives underground due to a disease that has wiped out most of the humans.
Bruce Willis plays James Cole, a man who travels back in time to find and stop the terrorists’ plot to release the deadly virus. However, the futuristic scientists haven’t got their time travel experiment right. Hence Cole is first sent to a different time frame and gets incarcerated in a mental asylum. The world of Twelve Monkeys, similar to Blade Runner, is ambiguous where characters navigate their way to truth through a complex journey.
Since it’s a narrative based on time-travel, it also deals with paradoxes created by travelling back and forth in time. However, Gilliam conveys the paradox in an easily understandable and entertaining manner.
9. Gattaca (1997)
Philip K Dick’s stories and Blade Runner were interested in exploring the human condition in light of the rapidly changing technologies. On the surface, Andrew Niccol’s sci-fi cult classic Gattaca seems to be inspired by author Alduous Huxley stories. Like Huxley’s tales, it examines how technology facilitates and strengthens an authoritarian government. At the same time, both Gattaca and Blade Runner eventually question the perils of humans leaving behind their humanity.
Gattaca is set in a distant future where an individuals’ social class is determined by the quality of their genetic code. Eugenics is no more a scientifically erroneous theory. In such a world, the artificially enhanced ‘valids’ have an edge over the naturally conceived children and become the dominant force. The narrative revolves around Vincent (Ethan Hawke), a man who is deemed genetically inferior, but goes to great lengths to become an astronaut.
Niccol’s vision of a world relying on genetic purity also looks Kafkaesque, where emotions and personal identity are rendered invalid.
10. Dark City (1998)
Alex Proyas’ Dark City is set in a vast, futuristic noir metropolis that’s shrouded in darkness like Gotham. Proyas brilliantly combines sci-fi with film-noir. His influences extend to early German films like Metropolis (1927) and M (1931). The film’s plot was somewhat overwrought as in Blade Runner. But it all begins with a man named John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell). He awakens in a bathtub and seems to have lost his memory. Murdoch then gets a call from a man who warns him to flee to evade some people who’re trying to get him.
Murdoch navigates his way through the city, while desperately trying to figure out what’s going on. Dark City clearly unfolds in the speculative fiction space of Philip K Dick’s stories. Its central narrative explores how our existence is deeply connected with our memories. And wonders what if those memories are falsely implanted and perceptions changed?
Its complex, thought-provoking plot will keep you guessing until the very end.
11. The Matrix (1999)
The Wachowskis’ have repeatedly stated Philip K Dick and William Gibson’s influence behind their idea for The Matrix. Gibson’s canonical cyberpunk 1984 novel Neuromancer particularly feels closer to the world of Matrix and the narrative’s back-story resembles the one in The Terminator (1984). But Wachowskis’ movie also explores man’s relationship to machines like in Dick’s novels and Blade Runner. In fact, The Matrix could be called a generic hybrid. It’s also influenced by Hong Kong action movies, film noir, postmodernism, and computer games.
One of the key themes in Blade Runner is the blurring between the real and the artificial. It shows a future where it’s hard to differentiate humans and the ‘replicants’. In The Matrix, the world is overrun by machines and the artificial plugged-in world becomes a prison for the humans. Neo’s journey is all about liberating himself and realising his potential as a human being.
12. Minority Report (2002)
Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report was based on Philip K Dick’s 1956 novella of the same name. Naturally, it shares some of its themes and narrative strands with Dick’s 1968 source novel of Blade Runner. Both Spielberg and Ridley Scott’s movies are set in a dystopian future which is dominated and ruled by huge corporations. Both feature protagonists who play the role of cop and come across a case that pushes them to re-examine their beliefs. Both the films deal with oppression and dehumanisation of individuals whom the society deems as inhuman; ‘Replicants’ in the case of Blade Runner, and ‘Precogs’ in Minority Report.
From an aesthetic standpoint, Spielberg doesn’t go for a completely bleak vision of the future like Scott. In fact, Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001) had more in common – in terms of imagery – with Blade Runner than Minority Report. Eventually, both the films remain as gripping cautionary tales of the implications of ‘playing God’ with the aid of supreme technology.
13. Equilibrium (2002)
Kurt Wimmer’s $20 million flop borrows a lot of its look from Blade Runner and other earlier dystopian films like 1984, Alphaville. This Christian Bale-starrer was initially promoted as a movie similar to The Matrix. Though it wasn’t path-breaking like the Wachowskis’ movie, it was still a highly entertaining action sci-fi. Nevertheless, the weight of the expectations caused Equilibrium’s commercial and critical disaster.
The film is set in a dystopian future where all emotions are outlawed. Feelings are repressed by the daily dosage of drugs. Christian Bale plays a ‘Feeling Officer’ named John Preston. He is part of an elite task force that serves the authoritarian establishment. When John himself misses a drug dose, he experiences confusing emotions that set him off into a darker, complex path. John’s journey after discovering emotions reminds us of both Matrix and Blade Runner. The film’s world-building is pretty good, though the gun fu action sequences look a bit dated.
14. Cypher (2002)
Cypher, directed by Cube-fame Vincenzo Natali, freely borrows from Philip K Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and from its movie adaptation, Blade Runner. It’s set in an unspecified future, where two tech giants fight for world dominance. Morgan Sullivan (Jeremy Northam) is enlisted by Digicorp to act as an industrial spy. He’s given a new identity: Jack Thursby. Soon, he joins Digicorp’s competitor Sunways. But strange things begin to happen to Morgan, as he is gradually caught in the machinations of high-tech espionage.
Cypher is an austere and quiet sci-fi. It doesn’t flaunt flashy set-pieces. Similar to Blade Runner, it employs the framework of film noir to comprehend the multi-layered truth behind the back-stabbings and manipulations. Natali also pays homage to A Clockwork Orange (1971) and Brazil (1985). Interestingly, despite the twists and tricks, Cypher doesn’t get overly convoluted. Natali’s perfectly symmetrical compositions and effective staging techniques also add to the exciting movie experience.
15. Code 46 (2003)
Film noir, in general, is a carefully exaggerated showcase of the anxieties and fears in a society. Hence, the amalgamation of dystopian future setting and film noir offers more compelling and resonant tales. From Alphaville, Strange Days to Mute (2018) and Reminiscence (2021), tech-noir or sci-fi noirs always find their audience. Michael Winterbottom’s Code 46 is one such flawed yet imaginative sci-fi, whose story and characterizations reminds us of Blade Runner and the quintessential noir, Double Indemnity (1944).
The film is set in a deeply divided futuristic society, where only the wealthy live in the cities, and the others are banished to shanty-towns. Passing from one space to the other requires papers, akin to the passport. Tim Robbins plays protagonist William Geld, an insurance detective sent to Shanghai to investigate a case of forged transit papers. He easily finds the culprit, although things complicate from then on. Director Winterbottom does an economic world-building by visualising Shanghai as a futuristic, culturally heterogeneous city.
The question of what constitutes the identity of a human being was once again fascinatingly explored in the sequel by Denis Villeneuve, Blade Runner 2049. In February 2022, it was announced that a Blade Runner television series was in development, titled Blade Runner 2099. Blade Runner’s futuristic, bleak settings continue to inspire sci-fi films, anime, and video games. In 1993, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry. If you have seen the above movies and are still looking to dig deeper into the dystopian Blade Runner world, check out The Running Man (1987), Johnny Mnemonic (1995), Elysium (2013), Automata (2014), and Upgrade (2018),
Which other movies like Blade Runner did we miss? Let’s talk in the comments below.
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An ardent cinephile, who truly believes in the transformative power and shared-dream experience of cinema. He blogs at ‘Passion for Movies.’