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Good and Bad Replications

By (February 1, 2008) One Comment

Blade Runner: The Final Cut

Directed by Ridley Scott
Warner Home Video, 2007

The year 1982 was a banner year for genre films, a year that included such landmarks as Conan the Barbarian, Creepshow, First Blood, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn, and The Dark Crystal, and John Carpenter’s chillingly good remake of The Thing. Unfortunately, no one saw any of these. They were all busy standing in line for E.T.

Still, 1982 managed to produce even one more classic and no, I am not referring to The Beastmaster, but instead to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, a film that was released to minimal acclaim and empty theatres. The 1970s were over, and audiences wanted to sit through something with a more sunny disposition after having suffered the likes of Taxi Driver, The French Connection, Godfather’s I & II. Gritty realism was out. The Star Wars saga was proving to be a monumental success. Escapism was the ticket, and E.T. provided it. Blade Runner was just more gritty realism, except transported to the relatively near future. It was released at the wrong time, and in the wrong cut. Finally, however, Blade Runner has received the DVD treatment it deserves.

The film, as I initially viewed it (around 1985 on PBS at around 3 in the morning) was an absolute mess, although I didn’t realize it at the time. My young eyes were captivated by the many sights I had never seen before, a future that looked all too plausible. Grizzled cops chasing androids (or replicants, as the film calls them) through an acid-rain-soaked, neon nightmare that was to become Los Angeles in the year 2019. A city with cars that fly through the air as they exhaust steam out of their undersides. We are introduced to this world through an incredible scene, immediately following the opening crawl which informs us of the Nexus phase of robot evolution, a phase where replicants are now as strong and as intelligent as their maker. We learn that a Nexus 6 combat team have mutinied in an off-world colony and made their way to earth. Replicants were then “declared illegal on earth—under penalty of death. Special police squads—Blade Runner units—had orders to shoot to kill, upon detection, any trespassing replicants. This was not called execution. It was called retirement.”

Suddenly, we are presented with the title LOS ANGELES 2019 and shown a vast cityscape bathed in blackness and distant lights stretching to the horizon. Enormous towers silhouetted against the skyline emit noxious fireballs as the camera moves towards a building, a building we learn to be the Tyrell Corporation. This opening shot is absolutely pivotal because it establishes the world as something we believe in, something tangible. The camera quickly cuts to a shot of the city (fireballs and all) reflected in an eye, then back to the exterior of the Tyrell building. Back again to the eye, and so on.

Inside the building, within an office, stands Holden, a blade runner, looking out upon Los Angeles, preparing to administer the Voight-Kampff test to new Tyrell employees. The Voight-Kampff test measures empathy responses to questions, usually involving treatment of animals. It’s the Blade Runner’s chief tool, his way to weed out replicant from human. His next subject is Leon Kowalski (Brion James). The questions range from finding a tortoise in a desert—

Leon: What’s a tortoise?
Holden: You know what a turtle is?
Leon: Yeah.
Holden: Same thing.

—to Leon’s mother (“Let me tell you about my mother”). Leon is a Nexus 6 model, and poor Holden doesn’t know what hit him (“He can breathe okay if you don’t unplug him”). It’s a terrific opening scene in that it establishes the world outside the window (especially when captured in an eye), while detailing the world inside.

The meat of the story focuses on Rick Deckard (played with a dry noir-ish wit by Harrison Ford) as another Blade Runner assigned to track down the remaining replicants. Deckard’s adversaries are Zhora (Joanna Cassidy), Pris (Darryl Hannah), and the soulful Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer). Along the way he is aided, and spied on, by co-Blade Runner, and origami artist Gaff (Edward James Olmos). Deckard is the kind of guy that prefers to remain grounded amongst the swarms of city folk (most clearly too poor to have fled to one of many off-world colonies) on street level. We travel with Deckard from his apartment, to his favorite sushi bar, to Taffy Lewis’ club, to the police station, the Tyrell building, and finally to the famed Bradbury building where Deckard and Batty engage in a memorable game of cat and mouse, with Deckard playing the role of the rodent.

Do androids dream of stock footage unicorns from the movie Legend? Blade Runner is based on the classic of paranoid science fiction called Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep written in 1968 by Philip K. Dick, who was likely paranoid and high on amphetamines at the time. It was adapted for the screen by Hampton Fancher (The Minus Man) and David Webb Peoples (Unforgiven). Ridley Scott stepped away from Dune to direct and Blade Runner might just be the pinnacle of his career. The original version of the film, the one released in 1982, is an unparalleled visual masterpiece with major problems involving character and story.

Much has been made of the voice over included on the theatrical cut. Harrison Ford, under contract with Warner Brothers, was called in and forced to record a voice over written by an unknown studio hack. Ford hated the idea and intentionally read it poorly thinking there was no way the studio would use it. The worst offending line is the following clunker where, as Batty succumbs to his “termination date,” Deckard tells the audience:

I don’t know why he saved my life. Maybe in those last moments he loved life more than he ever had before. Not just his life. Anybody’s life. My life. Where am I going? How long have I got? All I could do was sit there and watch him die.

It’s an appalling choice that takes us out of a beautiful moment to tell us what we’ve already figured out.

In addition, the theatrical version features some studio imposed lines that change certain characters from, what must have been, Scott’s intended vision. For instance, we learn that Deckard is divorced and has had a “bellyfull of killing.” The character of Gaff, a minor character of immense importance, goes from being an incompetent “brown nosing for a promotion” in the theatrical version, to a figure of mystery, a man who seems to be one step ahead of Deckard. These characters were given back their manhood in both subsequent releases (“director’s cut and “final” cut). Again, these two characters, in particular, were all stripped of their edge, their vitality, by a studio that didn’t know what the picture was about. Warner Brother’s executives wanted a sci-fi picture simply about cops chasing androids in a future Los Angeles. They wanted violence, sex, and the requisite special effects. Scott hoped for something more, something deeper. Something the summer crowd wouldn’t just forget about a few minutes after exiting the theatre.

Of course there are a great number of little details that serve to make the theatrical version vastly inferior to any version that has followed it. We’ll just focus on the last detail, an even greater abomination of story and insight than the voice over. That would be the tacked on “happy” ending. As Deckard and Rachel leave his apartment for the last time Deckard stops to pick up something. It’s a little origami unicorn, left by Gaff. He has been there and, presumably, is going to let Rachel live. The next shot is of Deckard and Rachel driving across some picturesque mountains (stock footage from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is incorporated into this scene). Deckard looks at Rachel and tells us “Tyrell had told me Rachel was special. No termination date. I didn’t know how long we’d have together. Who does?” Of course, Tyrell never had the opportunity to tell Deckard any such thing. This ending rings completely false and serves only to ruin the preceeding story.

Approximately one decade after the original theatrical release, Ridley Scott went back and made some changes. He removed both the voice over happy ending. Considered, at the time, to be his director’s cut, Scott has since refuted that claim. There were still some remaining issues with continuity. For example, when Deckard is first brought into Captain Bryant’s office he is told that six replicants originally escaped the off-world colony. One was fried trying to break into the Tyrell corporation. Therefore, five remain. Of course, this fifth replicant is never dealt with in the story. There remain some other glaring inconsistencies, including one relating to Zhora’s “retirement” scene where an obvious stunt double was used. Thankfully, Scott was still not happy.

Fifteen years after the “director’s cut” was released, we can finally say that the wait is over. Scott’s ultimate vison, his long awaited “final” cut has come to fruition. This is the definitive version of Blade Runner. No voice over. No false ending. Continuity errors have been rectified. We now learn that 2 of the replicants were “fried” breaking into Tyrell. That leaves four. Joanna Cassidy was brought back to re-shoot her retirement scene and, amazingly, still looks like Zhora. Some audio errors were fixed. Images were cleaned up. A scene with topless dancers wearing hockey masks has even been inserted (Amen!)

Having said all that, how is the film as it currently stands? I’ve mentioned that it’s definitive, but is it the science fiction masterpiece multitudes of critics, many of whom dismissed it upon its release, maintain that it is? Yes. The art direction, for instance, is superior to anything that has come before or since. What Ridley Scott and his crew were able to accomplish on the Warner backlots is simply astounding, from the pillars in Tyrell’s office to the Neon signs at ground level. If you look closely, you’ll even see the Millennium Falcon integrated into a building. Everything looks impeccable, and this can largely be attributed to the Scott. The look of Blade Runner, best described as a sort of retro-future, has influenced countless films, such as The Matrix, Dark City, The Fifth Element, Gattaca, and Brazil. The special effects are terrific as well and involve life sized “spinners” (those floating cars) suspended from wires, large lite-brite blimps, and miles upon miles of ad space. The images on screen are simply pristine. The world is dark (in fact, every scene takes place at night) and rainy, brilliantly conceived. Unlike most current science fiction films, where worlds are created on a computer, it actually looks lived in.

Another major character I have neglected to mention until this point, is the brilliant moody score by Vangelis. From the opening chimes to the bluesy title theme, this is clearly the work of a composer at the peak of his talents. His work here is superior to the Oscar winning score for Chariots of Fire.

If there’s a valid criticism of the film, it’s that the visuals often overwhelm the story. I agree, this is probably true on the first viewing. My recommendation would be to watch the film more than once. I’ve seen the various cuts upwards of ten times now and—the theatrical cut excluded—never get tired of them. After the first viewing, one is able to follow, understand, and yes, actually be moved by the story, especially the plight of Roy Batty. Upon meeting his maker, Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel), Batty says “I want more life, father”. In earlier versions, his character was more menacing and grimaced “I want more life, fucker.” Normally, I’m completely against removing profanity, but in this case it works. Batty’s character is much more human here, possibly the most human character in the story. To be unmoved by his words during his death scene is to be, well, inhuman: “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I’ve 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.” It’s one of the most chill-inducing scenes in the sci-fi genre, up there with Spock’s death in Wrath of Kahn.

Rachel, played by Sean Young, is an interesting character. She’s a new kind of replicant, one with implanted memories. According to Tyrell, these memories help them to control their evolving emotions, something the Nexus 6 fugitives have trouble with. In their initial meeting, Deckard “puts the machine on her,” but it takes over one hundred questions to discover that she’s not human. Under normal circumstances, it takes under thirty. She comes to aid Deckard in his travails and, in almost no time, they fall in love. The love story is one thing that doesn’t really work, as it wasn’t properly developed. He’s alone. She’s even more alone. They have sex. It was a plot device, although it does bring to mind a prevalent theme. Can one truly love a robot? Can a robot truly love back? The theme gets echoed in Stephen Spielberg’s AI (2001).

There is one small addition to both the original “director’s cut” and the “final cut” that, depending on your interpretation, changes Deckard’s character. Of course, that would be the unicorn dream sequence. On the surface, it’s a little thing, a moment we simply pass over and think, “what the…?” Of course, having seen the film before, we know what this is foreshadowing (The origami unicorn Deckard finds outside of his apartment, right before he and Rachel flee). I suppose it’s clear what this means: that Gaff must know Deckard’s dreams, his memories. Is Deckard a replicant? I still don’t know, but I like to think he’s not. Tyrell’s motto is “more human than human,” and I think that is reflected in the humanity which exists within his synthetic creations. Leon clinging to photos of a family he could never have known, Zhora’s terror as she flees from Deckard and his hand cannon, Pris’ school girl innocence. Rachel’s passion, her eyes, her tears. Roy Batty’s soul reflected in his recollections, his remorse over that which he will never see. Harrison Ford’s Deckard doesn’t really match up with any of them. He’s a cipher, and a bore. See? he’s completely human.

This is a terrific DVD set. I’d recommend the 4 disc version (Blu-Ray, if you’ve technologically advanced that far). It includes four versions of the film (including the theatrical cut, the international cut, the directors cut, and the final cut). Also included is the amazing three-and-a-half-hour-long documentary called “Dangerous Days” that details everything from pre-production to the preparation of the final cut. Watch for new and extended scenes within, including alternate takes on existing scenes. The fourth disc includes several featurettes including a look at Philip K. Dick, the novel vs. the film, a look at the wardrobe, and several screen tests, etc. I can’t recommend this volume highly enough. It is, by far, the top DVD release of 2007.

Brian Kirker is a film critic living in Boston. He hosts the film blog Moving Picture Trash.