****/**** Image A Sound A Extras A+
starring Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young, Edward James Olmos
screenplay by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples, based on the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
directed by Ridley Scott
by Walter Chaw The prototype for the modern science-fiction film, Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, through its seemingly endless iterations, through its growing cult of personality and a production history that's become as familiar as a Herzog shooting mythology, retains its ability to astonish as--along with John Carpenter's contemporaneous The Thing--the last hurrah for the non-CGI, in-camera effects piece. Tron, The Last Starfighter, and Firefox were destined to be the rule of the day at the expense of matte painters and model-makers, here working out puzzles like how to make a futuristic, mechanized advertising blimp appear to be shooting strobes through the glassed ceiling of the Bradbury. Indeed, it's almost impossible to watch Blade Runner now without taking its technical brilliance for granted. It looks like it was made in 2007 (particularly in its newest, digitized incarnation); with its lack of the bluescreen artifacts that plague many of its contemporaries, it's easy to think of a mainframe as the movie's author.
More than that, its themes of alienation and existential angst resonate more strongly now in our post-9/11 hinterland than they did at the dawn of Reagan's morning in America. For a picture to remain pristinely undated in terms of technological achievement a full twenty-five years after the fact is singular, but astonishing, too, is Blade Runner's continued thematic relevance. The essence of being human in the midst of a world entropic, spinning into obfuscating layers of manipulated reality, wouldn't become a central concern of cinema until the '90s--suggesting that Blade Runner has consistently been among the most interesting, most topical films in all two-and-a-half decades of its existence.
The 2007 edition--"The Final Cut," as it were--exists because the "Director's Cut" happened largely without Scott's participation, since he was busy with 1492. It was the "Director's Cut" I first saw in a restored 70mm print that, by the time it reached Denver, had seen better days, and yet experiencing it in a theatre packed with fellow travelers was something like religion. Gone were the voiceovers and the shots culled from The Shining outtakes to give the picture its unnatural ending in a verdant wilderness that the rest of the film belies (demonstrating Spielberg's essential failure as an author of anything other than pop resonance 9 times out of 10, his Minority Report learned nothing from Blade Runner's compromise). In their place, the fabled unicorn daydream--proof positive in the minds of many that Deckard is, in fact, an android. As original screenwriter Hampton Fancher says indelicately in one of the voluminous DVD supplements devoted to the film, however, it's intensely interesting to ask the question--and intensely moronic to answer it.
In an essential way, Fancher is right that questioning the nature of any individual's humanity is a noble, ancient pursuit and that answering whether this character in this film is mechanical is masturbatory and anticlimactic to boot. A more interesting query to me, after twenty-some viewings of the film in its various forms, has to do with what the purpose of android Rachael (Sean Young) is to the company that developed her. You go there and stretch out into the thinking that any pursuit of unnatural creation is corrupt and that this constant retooling of Blade Runner is, in itself, a kind of viral abomination.
The picture has been submitted for reappraisal tweaked and massaged beyond recognition into something unnaturally bright to my eye, and damned if somewhere along the line I hadn't made peace with the voiceover besides. Before entering into my critical life, sometime around puberty, it was Harrison Ford's robotic, often idiotic narration that explained to me Roy Batty's death scene and last acts of philanthropy--that taught me to see Bryant (M. Emmett Walsh) as a figure of ridicule and hate instead of authority. It hadn't occurred to me before watching this last (?) version of the film that the very obviousness of my first exposure to Blade Runner greased my cocksure intellectual's arrogance in assessing subsequent versions of it. I confess, too, that I always took as the key to appreciating Blade Runner the solution to the riddle of whether Deckard was the same as what he hunted without considering that, philosophically speaking, this should be the question all hunters ask themselves in relation to sentient quarry. The film isn't about the morality of creating robots that are human but rather the morality of creation and destruction. Blade Runner is religion.
So I don't like the latest version of Blade Runner very much from an aesthetic (and an aesthete's) viewpoint; I don't like that I can see a good fifty percent more detail in Scott's obsessively intricate set design--evidence of his tyrannical vision in every square centimetre of every single frame. I don't like that it feels like showing off now in a way that every previous, dark-as-pitch version felt like modesty true. But it's a masterpiece, still, impossible for me to separate in my mind from one giant omnibus evolving in leaps and bounds with each technological advancement and revealing with each ironic scrub, addition, and subtraction a piece forever growing in terms of intra- and extra-textual complexity.
There's the suggestion made in Charles de Lauzirika's three-and-a-half-hour (!) documentary Dangerous Days, attendant to every DVD release of Blade Runner: The Final Cut, that the film might have begun its cult on VHS, where Deckard's picture-analysis machine became the gizmo through which we could actually watch a movie at home...on television, of all things. And we could rewind it, fuck with it, and if our VCR had four heads, freeze it pretty clearly. With DVD and Blu-ray, we can even zoom in. Blade Runner, then, is no longer possible for me as just a movie--it's only possible as every version of itself set against the circumstances of its viewing; and, like Deckard and his prey, tracking down Blade Runner is a process of understanding how I know the picture, have known it in the past, and anticipate knowing it into the future through new eyes, not always my own. Look long into Blade Runner and Blade Runner looks into you. Such is the way of seminal science-fiction in its ability to etch Ballard's pillars of time, space, and identity on the consciousness of every viewer open to the best speculative fiction's ability to dissect the fundamental aspects of what it is to exist in time, space, and identity.
This Blade Runner to me is the work of an aging director seeking to validate what never really needed validating--a chest-pound aimed at the already-contrite that all of his decisions, all his glorious excesses and attention to exhausting detail, have borne out to be good and true in time's crucible. It's as ignoble a thing as Roger Ebert's reluctant about-face on the film. Miraculously, none of this diminishes the impact of the film; manipulation--moreover, moral corruption and hatred of deformity and fear of decrepitude--is actually logical for Blade Runner. It's pithy that the Replicants are stronger and at least as smart as their creators and physically flawless, too. The homemaker robot is the one left on the cutting-room floor (and in one of this version's narrative salves, she ends up fried on an electrical fence along with "#5"), leaving two beautiful women and two powerful men. It makes so much sense that this is the film that gets retooled periodically to better reflect newness of thought--its own Voight-Kampf test measuring the empathy of its audience and its growing line of creators. It makes sense in light of its own retinue of perfect creations that the filmmakers have turned the picture itself into a project of endless refinement. Blade Runner is religion, and the implication of "The Final Cut"'s existence is that religion receives a fresh coat of paint whenever its believers need to buy novel indulgences. It's genuinely fascinating to view this picture through the prism of 2007 and realize that the year's overriding ideas of looking backwards into the lie of Eden has roots in its empty promise of new lives off-world and this empty belief that bringing the film into a digital domain to lighten it, branch it, extend it, re-score it, re-speak it is the means by which one might somehow better appreciate it when the film at its core is so strong that such corruption only serves to strengthen the things about it that made it a classic.
In brief, and for the still-uninitiated, Deckard (Ford) is a special cop, a "blade runner," whose job it is to terminate rogue androids ("replicants" in the film's vernacular), the existence of whom is illegal on Earth. Set in 2019 Los Angeles, it's a dystopic vision that is almost an adjective in and of itself when one refers to a specific kind of look. As Scott did for spaceships in a future rendered antiseptic by decades of science-fiction he does for sunny California: he makes it dirty, lived-in, and disastrously used. Global warming? It's evoked by the picture's constant rain and gloom. Overpopulation? Certainly. Some sort of pandemic? Possibly. It's a society living in fear, something the dialogue refers to more than once--a society running out of time in much the same way that the Replicants, with their built-in life span of four years, are and in much the same way that engineer Sebastian (William Sanderson) is saddled with Methuselah's syndrome. Throughout, find images and suggestions of a world in freefall, the few moments of happiness afforded to anyone the only things offered up against decay inexorable. (And then only to distract from it.) Lead replicant Roy (Rutger Hauer) is intent on confronting its creators--communing with God in a literal way when addressing the founder of the Tyrell Corporation (Joe Turkel)--while Deckard is introduced to Tyrell's "niece" Rachael (Sean Young), a replicant implanted with human memories so as to distract it during its life-cycle from obsessing about its own limited existence.
Blade Runner: The Final Cut comes home in various editions, all of them sporting a 2.43:1, 16x9-enhanced transfer of the film sourced from a 4K master. In terms of revisions to content, Joanna Cassidy's face is mapped onto that of her stunt double when Zhora meets her end, a throwaway insert shows hockey-masked strippers dancing in a giant cylinder outside a club--minor things, ultimately, in terms of narrative reconstruction, but fairly major ones of course in terms of the visual. I'm amazed by it and amazed more by how much I hate it. Also included in our set, the "Four-Disc Collector's Edition," are loving remasters of the Director's Cut and the U.S. and international theatrical cuts (the fabled workprint is exclusive to the five-disc packages), condensed onto the third platter via seamless branching. In going through them in a cursory way, I was stricken, hard, by how much I liked the 1982 U.S. Theatrical Cut--it's the only version other than the "Final" one that I screened from beginning to end, and the flood of real emotion I felt brought me to the realization that this might actually be my Blade Runner of preference. It lacks polish, it's dark, and the voiceover is genuinely horrible (offensive, patronizing, you name it). I can only offer a T.S. Eliot quote from his "Four Quartets" as further defense:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Whatever my misgivings with regards to variations in Blade Runner: The Final Cut's colour timing and the like, its A/V quality is stunning; indeed, all four films have been scrubbed and remastered to a significant degree, though prior Blade Runners retain some of that dirt and murkiness I found myself missing while watching the FC. The audio is remixed in DD 5.1 to good effect across the board, but "The Final Cut" sounds especially dynamic. Obviously it received the most attention and possibly contains rerecorded effects. I can only imagine what this baby's like on Blu-Ray. (Spectacular; and for what it's worth, the standalone--i.e., non-briefcase--BD is $3 cheaper than this DVD and it comes with the workprint!-Ed.)
The menus for the "Final Cut" presentation are super-cool, minimalistic but tied to the film through Deckard's photo-imaging system. Three commentary tracks append "The Final Cut," the one featuring director Ridley Scott packed with the type of detailed information you'd expect from the notorious perfectionist. There's always the fear of overlap, yet despite a full-length documentary covering the whole of the second disc, Scott provides glimpses into the inner workings of his process that would've found no home there. If a brief filmmaker's introduction does little more than offer that this is Scott's favourite and approved version of Blade Runner (with the caveat that he's now 25 years removed from the person who made the movie), the commentary is frank and analytical. He speaks of the concessions he made to accommodate Ford's much-publicized desire to be more of a gumshoe and dispels the notion that the infamous voiceover was imposed on him, confessing that he agreed to it out of concern that he was losing his audience. The commentary is so dense and scene-specific that it seems scripted--though amazingly, I do believe Scott's talking off the top of his head.
The second yakker groups Fancher, Peoples, producer Michael Deeley, and production executive Katherine Haber. It regurgitates, unfortunately, portions of the documentary, but the pairing of Fancher with Peoples is something like genius. The two snipe at one another with, if such a thing is possible, generosity and arrive at a consensus more than a time or two on their positive--and negative--contributions to the screenplay. I'm taken by this pair, not the least of which because Peoples is responsible for three of my favourite screenplays of all-time (this one, Twelve Monkeys, and Unforgiven), and their interplay is fabulous. The subject of Peoples's "teaser" scene (never shot) remains a bone of contention and Peoples's escape hatch from actually rehashing it all is priceless. Sequestered from the writers, Deeley and Haber are amiable, if less evocative. The final yakker is a technical affair featuring legends Douglas Trumbull, Syd Mead, production designer Lawrence G. Paull, art director David L. Snyder, and special photographic effects gurus Richard Yuricich and David Dryer that's brimming with information about the various and sundry trials and tribulations endured by the film's intrepid, innovative crew.
Disc Two houses the aforementioned Dangerous Days, an exhaustive retrospective that scored something of a coup in convincing the usually-recalcitrant Ford to participate. Meanwhile, filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro chimes in with his support of the original theatrical cut as well as its enduring influence on his work and virtually every aspect of the production is covered in some detail. The last word remains Paul Sammon's landmark Future Noir, but for a quick reference, you could do no better. Scott has recorded introductions to each of the three cuts archived on Disc Three ("Although this is not my preferred version, I know it has its fans," and so on). It's invaluable to have these editions so readily available; I was surprised by how much their inclusion mattered to me. That said, if not for the Sammon commentary that decorates it, I probably wouldn't covet the workprint at all.
The final platter of the four-disc CE contains an "Enhancement Archive". Should you select the "Access" button from the main menu, it allows you to play all two hours and thirteen minutes' worth of featurettes consecutively, beginning with a remembrance of Philip K. Dick that offers a brief biography along with a contextualization of this work amid his others. An archival interview with Dick is interspersed with modern talking-heads from his daughter, Dick authority Jonathan Lethem (a personal hero of mine), and sci-fi luminary Brian Aldiss. Sammon resurfaces in the next segment, "Sacrificial Sheep: The Novel Vs. The Film" (15 mins.), comparing the novel to the film and detailing the various ways in which the movie is entirely different. The usual suspects likewise return to support the idea that the only way to frame a successful adaptation is to capture the feeling of the piece and not the blow-by-blow (see: Harry Potter 3 vs. Harry Potter 4). Graphic Design and costumes are essayed next, then it's on to screen tests for Rachael and Pris introduced by losing actresses Nina Axelrod and Stacey Nelkin, respectively. These are followed fast by tests, sans audio, for winners Hannah and Young.
A 20-minute tribute to DP Jordan Cronenweth is more hagiography than analysis, I'm afraid, but I did enjoy the subsequent segment profiling the evolution of the promotional art that resulted in the film's boffo poster. Nearing the finish line, experts weigh in on the Deckard-as-Replicant debate, with Fancher's remarks the most entertainingly profane and Scott's the most matter-of-fact. A "Fans and Filmmakers" section resurrects Del Toro's admiration, Dennis Muren's appreciation, and soundbites from Mark Romanek and others. The crown jewel is a 48-minute compilation of deleted and alternate scenes that plays like an incredibly stylish short film. Deckard inherits more backstory; a ton of bad voiceover work is resurrected; Gaff is fleshed-out in an unwelcome way; and Holden's iron lung sequence is restored complete with ADR from the principals. Holy shit, right? The latter elision happens to be overwrought and overwritten, sad to report, but then I've waited an awfully long time to see it and expectations ran high. Sean Young's breasts make a then-welcome appearance while two alternate endings demonstrate why the "Director's Cut"/"Final Cut" ending is superior. Similarly cool is an extensive trailer gallery that illustrates not only how the film was initially fumbled, but how reception of it evolved as understanding of it evolved as well. (That first teaser's beautiful and chilling, though.-Ed.) All four discs fasten to a gatefold that slides, snug, into an embossed cardboard slipcover. Originally published: May 19, 2008.