Blade Runner (1982)


When I review movies I tend to stick with the theatrical versions.  Sometimes extended, director's or re-edited cuts may be a bit better, but often it is the theatrical version that most are familiar with.  There is also the problem with over-indulgence, particularly on the revamped versions of the original trilogy of Star Wars movies and the extended version of The Exorcist.  While the latter may have been closer to what William Peter Blatty wanted it to be, the original theatrical release was the one that satisfied director William Friedkin, thus muddying the question of which is the "real" version.

With Blade Runner there is no question.  Ridley Scott has declared that his favorite version, and the one that best represents what he was trying to do, is the "Final Cut" version released in 2007.  Inconsistencies were cleared up, the backgrounds were clearer and some work was done to digitally replace the original matte paintings or at least make them blend with physical environments better.  Some scenes were refilmed due to Scott's dissatisfaction with how it turned out in the original, namely the death of the Replicant Zhora.  Largely Blade Runner: The Final Cut is a touched-up version of the director's cut, which was discovered in 1989 and has been the preferred version available on video and DVD since the early 1990s.  

The original theatrical cut, rather than being Ridley Scott's vision, was a hackneyed attempt by a couple of the executive producers to try to arrange the film in a way that they thought made sense.  This meant calling Harrison Ford back in to record lines of voiceover which attempted to explain everything that happened, removing most of the interaction with Edward James Olmos's character Gaff and also removing anything that may have alluded to Deckard being a Replicant himself.  Anyone familiar with the book it was based on, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, or any of Philip K. Dick's work know that the questions about reality and identity are key to much of his work, and removing what little of that there was in the film was a travesty - as was tacking on a different ending than what Scott had in mind. 

While the original version of Blade Runner had enough visual and dramatic elements to make it a cult classic, its deliberate pace and attempt to meld classic film noir with a strange futuristic world turned audiences off who thought they were getting another sci-fi adventure starring the guy who played Han Solo.  It didn't help that, as good as any version of this movie is, Ridley Scott often demonstrated his tendency to let visual beauty overcome storytelling, which is a frequent problem that has cropped up as his film career has soldiered on. 

Rick Deckard (Ford) is a Blade Runner - a specific division of the police meant to detect and "retire" Replicants that return to the Earth.  Replicants themselves are nearly-human androids used as slave labor and military in Earth's off-world colonies.  Four of them, Roy Blatty (Rutger Hauer), Pris (Daryl Hannah), Zhora (Joanna Cassidy) and Leon Kowalski (Brion James) have returned to Earth as they are reaching their expiration date of four years.  All Replicants are products of the Tyrell Corporation, headed by Dr. Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel), who has recently created a new model with implanted memories.  The one example is Rachael (Sean Young), who does not discover she is a Replicant until meeting Deckard.  While Roy begins to work his way up Tyrell's corporate ladder to find out if there is any way to stop the final process that leads to their pre-programmed death Deckard begins to fall in love with Rachael and realize that the job he does may not be that far removed from simple murder. 

Philip K. Dick's novel didn't have any reference to "blade runners" or such, but did include a special division for retiring Replicants who returned to what was an underpopulated and devastated Earth where almost all life had gone extinct.  Like Blade Runner it was set in a futuristic Los Angeles (1992 in the book, which was changed to 2019 in the movie), but its references to an alternate Los Angeles Police Force and the fact that things are to the point where no one knows if they are real or not (or what reality, in fact, is) are all absent from this film.  The only reference is in the later cuts, which add in hints that Deckard may be a Replicant, but don't outright say it.  

Visually the movie is stunning, and although I am still a bit confused if the underpopulation of the planet carried over into the film or if we are looking at an overpopulated Los Angeles.  Largely the only parts we see are the larger corporations, which are pyramids towering over the city, Chinatown and the crumbling outskirts where Tyrell's lead robotics expert, J.F. Sebastian (William Sanderson), lives.  Whether seeing the director's cut where the original matte paintings are still intact, or the "Final Cut" where they are replaced digitally, they are so unique that one almost forgets that they are now anachronistic, as the world (and Los Angeles) never went in this direction.  Also, many of the companies advertised have long vanished as well. 

While the key components of Dick's novel still exist - what is life, what is reality, how do we tell and how do we judge - the one place that I feel Blade Runner stumbles in all three versions is with its characters.  Deckard is hard-boiled cop, but he seems surprisingly bad at his job.  His romance with Rachael, though a key component to him looking at Replicants as something other than machines to be switched off, never seems to have the poignancy it should.  Rutger Hauer gets many of the best lines (a few that he made up himself), especially in his monologue toward the end, but it would have been nice to see more of the human element in him than just the killer.  While his last lines are the most memorable in the film next to Gaff's, they come out of nowhere.  They have the right effect - Rutger Hauer was a much underappreciated actor - but they suddenly seem too good for everything that came before it.  

As for the complaint of casual viewers - that it doesn't make sense, and that it's too slow - the argument is valid when watching the original theatrical version.  Despite the voiceover the truth is that trying to streamline the movie made it make less sense than just letting it play out the way Scott wanted.  Watching the two later cuts brings the film into focus, and the pacing is what it needs to be.  I don't want to rush through this version of L.A., but rather look at it in all its ugly glory and wonder what circumstances brought it to where it is.  While the script doesn't reveal enough of the motivations of the characters for me to invest in them fully, the world it presents is full of dark mystery that makes up for it.  Where I want to know a bit more to where I can fully empathize with Deckard and Blatty, I also want the time to explore their future with them.  

Blade Runner, no matter what form it takes, will always remain flawed.  There is so much that it got right, and that its many imitators get wrong, that those flaws can be ignored when considering the bigger picture.  It is another vision of a future that never arrived, at least not within the time given, but it is still one that always seems just around the corner. 

Blade Runner (1982)
Time: 117 minutes
Starring: Harrison Ford, Sean Young, Rutger Hauer, Daryl Hannah, Joanna Cassidy, Brion James
Director: Ridley Scott

 

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