A look back at Blade Runner: The Final Cut (1982/2007)
With the imminent release of Denis Villeneuve’s long-awaited sequel Blade Runner 2049 on the 5th of October, it’s time to have a look back at Ridley Scott’s original.
“More human than human”
In the future, the Tyrell Corporation creates a breed of synthetic humans called Replicants, who are used as labour on the off-world colonies. The latest models, dubbed Nexus 6, are stronger and more intelligent than humans themselves, but have an in-built limitation: a 4-year lifespan put in place to prevent them from developing emotional responses.
Harrison Ford plays Rick Deckard, a former Blade Runner: a variety of police detective who specialises in hunting down and “retiring” (killing) any Replicants who go AWOL. When one of his former colleagues, Holden, is shot and severely injured by Leon Kowalski (Brion James) during a “Voight-Kampff” Replicant detection test, Rick’s old boss Briant (M. Emmet Walsh) coerces him to come back.
His task is to hunt down Leon and his three friends Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), Pris (Daryl Hannah) and Zhora (Joanna Cassidy). They are the remaining members of a group of Replicants who have escaped from a colony, hijacked a shuttle, killed the passengers and crew and reached Earth. They are trying to meet with Tyrell (Joe Turkel) to persuade him to extend their short lifespans.
Tyrell, meanwhile, is experimenting with a Replicant named Rachel (Sean Young) whom he introduces to Deckard. He considers her the next step in fulfilling the company motto of “More human than human”. The difference between her and previous models is that she believes she is human because she has been given implanted memories of childhood (in this case, taken from Tyrell’s own niece). However, she begins to doubt her own perceived humanity and follows Deckard home to find out the truth.
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Time… enough… to become hailed as a classic
A rather loose adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, Blade Runner was a $28 million co-production between Alan Ladd Jr.’s The Ladd Company, Tandem Productions and Hong Kong movie mogul Sir Run Run Shaw. While now regarded as one of the finest science fiction films ever made, its production and initial theatrical release were rather problematic.
Harrison Ford clashed with both co-star Sean Young and director Ridley Scott. Scott, meanwhile, also clashed with the American crew as they became annoyed with his fussy perfectionism, while he got frustrated with the fact that their working practices were rather different from those in the British film industry.
Worst of all, when the production went over-budget both Scott and producer Michael Deeley were fired by Tandem Productions, who took over artistic control. After disastrous audience test previews in Dallas and Denver, Tandem tampered with the director’s preferred cut by snipping several moments to make the pacing faster and reduce the scenes of extreme violence. They imposed a less ambiguous, visually and thematically-brighter ending by inserting some unused aerial footage from the opening shot of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. They also brought Ford back during post-production to record an explanatory voiceover against the wishes of both the star and the director.
Los Angeles of the future
The location shoots took place around various real-life Los Angeles locations which have become familiar through various film and TV productions, including the Ennis House with its distinctive Mayan temple-style architecture, and the Bradbury Building with its distinctive iron-wrought staircases. Despite the film going over its sizeable budget, many of the spectacular effects shots of the futuristic L.A. were actually quite cheaply-assembled out of leftovers from other productions - including, famously, the Millennium Falcon from Star Wars, which was of course the film which first brought actor Harrison Ford to major attention.
Five different versions
The initial theatrical version was released in U.S. cinemas on 25th of June 1982, nearly four months after Philip K. Dick passed away. It was a flop, raking in just over $27 million - slightly less than its production budget - at the box office. While contemporary reviews were mixed, the main factor in its relative failure was the unusually large number of science fiction films released at the time which were jostling for moviegoers’ cash - the most critical one being Steven Spielberg’s box office record-breaking E.T.
At least five different versions of the film have done the rounds. All are available on the five-disc Ultimate Collectors’ Edition DVD set. They are as follows:
- The U.S. theatrical cut.
- The original workprint cut shown at the early Dallas and Denver test screenings has occasionally done the round at film festivals.
- The original European theatrical cut included more the graphic versions of the violent scenes which were altered for the U.S. release.
- In 1992 Ridley Scott’s Director’s Cut removed the voiceover along with reinstating the more ambiguous ending and restoring a few scenes which were initially snipped - the most memorable being the “unicorn dream”. Popular belief suggests that this was stock footage from Scott’s next film Legend (which also featured a unicorn in a woodland setting), but apparently, it was genuinely shot for Blade Runner.
- In 2007, the Final Cut was released. This version contains a number of subtle embellishments to the Director’s Cut - including brief shots of new footage, the digital alteration of a few technical gaffes (e.g. the removal of wires holding up the flying cars and crew silhouettes) a new piece of Vangelis music playing over the end credits and the restoration of the more brutal scenes of violence. Another odd change in this version is that Batty’s line of dialogue to Tyrell “I want more life, fucker” has been changed to an alternative redub meant for TV versions: “I want more life, father”.
A film which has aged well
Blade Runner’s lasting legacy on the cinematic landscape is so great that calling it a “cult” movie hardly seems appropriate since its present-day popularity is far too widespread to be described as such. On the other hand, it is, in many ways, it is the absolute epitome of what being a so-called cult movie is about: it took several bold steps outside the norm, audience appreciation was not immediate and grew over time, and it is filled with endlessly quotable dialogue and infinite food for thematic debate.
Even discounting the fact that it has benefitted from tweaked versions over the years, the film has aged exceptionally well. The neo-noir cyberpunk futuristic world depicted still seems credible today. The technology (flying cars, airships covered with giant video screens, synthetic humans and animals) is realised in a manner where everything looks functional rather than stylised. Moreover, there’s a sense of a living, breathing world - the streets clogged with people of many cultures wending their way through traffic and past market stalls, drenched in darkness, rain and the multicoloured glow of hundreds of neon signs. The miniature work in the sequences with the aforementioned flying cars is technically exhilarating and demonstrates how practical effects, when done properly, exude what today’s CGI work lacks: a sense of physical reality and humanity that computers can’t replicate.
This brings me neatly to the other main facet of Blade Runner that stands the test of time so well. The main theme - that humanity can’t be taken from the human (synthetic or not) - is one that has become more and more relevant in an age where computers are increasingly automating our lives. The Replicants that Deckard pursues may behave in an extremely violent manner, but they don’t do so simply because they are one-note cliched movie monsters. With their pitifully short 4-year lifespan confined to nothing more than de facto slave labour, they have been deprived of the thing that makes being human so worthwhile - the ability to experience a life beyond these sheer confines. At the same time, what little they do experience is so precious due to these imposed limitations. They see with different eyes to real humans, both figuratively and literally (in several shots their eyes take on a faint red glow).
The eyes have it
The eye motif is encapsulated in a pivotal scene: one non-synthetic human character is killed by having their eyes gouged out by a Replicant. It’s a process of convergence by which the Replicant removes the non-Replicant’s two main differentials: his eyes and his ability to live on. Lines between who is human and who isn’t are blurred increasingly throughout the film; it’s insinuated that Deckard himself may be a replicant when a faint red glow is seen in his eyes during one marvelously subtle moment when he’s standing behind Rachel. Mere seconds after this visual clue, she quizzes him with the following line: “That Voight-Kampf test of yours. Have you ever tried to take that test yourself?” Tellingly, he doesn’t ever answer her. This very ambiguity is one of the main reasons why the film attracts such continuing discussion and dissection.
An interesting note: while Ridley Scott has maintained that Rick Deckard is, indeed, a Replicant, other people involved in the production (including Harrison Ford) have disagreed with him. If it’s a bone of contention even amongst those who were involved in the making of the film, it’s unsurprising that remains a major one amongst the film’s legion of fans.
Rutger Hauer gives the best performance in his career here: there’s an icy, composed menace in his interactions with non-Replicants that could spill over into violence at any moment. On the other side of the coin, there is an underlying grief at his predicament that turns to tears as his friends are killed off one-by-one by Deckard. While Harrison Ford is overshadowed by Hauer he is still very good in his scenes; when out performing his detective work he effortlessly switches from toughness to charm to vulnerability in the manner of Indiana Jones, but back in his apartment he exudes a world-weary haggardness that he can only share with Rachel. I have my own mixed feelings about Sean Young as Rachel. She seems somewhat robotic - which may have been a deliberate creative decision, but seems out-of-place when she’s supposed to be the most “human” of the Replicants by virtue of her implanted memories. It’s all-too-obvious that she didn’t get on with Ford on set since the pair have no real chemistry together.
That distinct Vangelis-infused style and mood
The other “star” of the film is Vangelis, who wrote the ambient electronic soundtrack. It adds immeasurably to the atmosphere of each scene - the uplifting opening theme makes the futuristic city shots seem all the more awe-inspiring, and the jangling and deep “miaow” noises generate a real edge in the lead-up to the climactic confrontation.
Ridley Scott is often a director accused of putting surface gloss above substance, but here the material comes together so well that his visual obsessions never feel gratuitous, and result in some genuinely brilliant setpieces. The scene where Deckard pursues Zhora through a crowded street becomes a frantic live-action version of Where’s Wally as he tries to pick her out from hundreds of people, his vision obscured by the semi-darkness and sea of bodies surrounding him. It culminates dramatically in a bloody slo-mo tumble though neon-lit shop windows. The finale is just as impressive: a scene of cat-and-mouse in a cluttered apartment that’s lit in the same manner as the “antique shop” sequence in Mario Bava’s Blood And Black Lace.
Finally, after all of the brutality that transpires, there’s that memorable speech:
“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 moments will be lost in time... like tears in rain... Time to die.”
Humanity has been restored.
Runtime: 117 mins
Dir: Ridley Scott
Script: Hampton Fancher, David Webb Peoples, from a novel by Philip K. Dick
Starring: Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young, Daryl Hannah, Edward James Olmos, Brion James, Joanna Cassidy, William Sanderson, M. Emmet Walsh, Joe Turkel, James Hong