Blade Runner: US Theatrical Release (1982)/The Final Cut (2007, Ridley Scott)
“It’s too bad she won’t live. But then again, who does?”
With the very existence of the Denis Villeneuve sequel seeming to have ruffled feathers in both films’ community intelligentsia and nerdom, it’s one of those rare new releases (such as each new Woody Allen release, with the Wood-man having re-established his footing over the last decade and mostly recovered from his dreck years) that’s actually intrigued me enough that I’m gonna brave the rabid consumer multiplex and check it out. I’m even considering some IMAX-a-mania, even despite the fact that the film’s DP himself, Roger Deakins, stated on-line that he prefers the standard widescreen version.
Before that, however, I figured now was as worthy a time as any to go back and check out the beloved original futuristic urban neo-noir set in a decaying dystopian Los Angeles (with a lot of Asians working the overcrowded streets and little people roaming about under the endless rain) as a primer to the new one.
I’ve never thought it a good idea to saddle a futuristic film with an exact date. The fact that both Blade Runner cuts set it in 2019 might have seemed awfully far off when it originally came out in 1982, and yet that time is almost upon is and you can be sure when the desperate modern hipsters see it, they’ll find a golden opportunity to laugh derisively, having little awareness how they’re unwittingly exposing a preference at ego-building and a sad inability to experience the awe of creative wonder at someone imagining a future and conceiving of a world right before their eyes. However, in the case of the new effort, choosing to attach 2049 to its title (as with the first one, being 30 plus years in advance of its release, which isn’t all that long a ways), with all that we understand of the rapidly rising sea levels, warming global temperatures and increasingly severe natural disasters associated with climate change, its ominous vision might actually line up pretty well with its chosen year.
I’m far from an expert (barely even a layman, really) on the various versions. A rudimentary search indicates something like seven different cuts of Blade Runner, but I figured I’d look at the original cut that I saw on its release (“US Theatrical Version”) and the final, director-approved version (“The Final Cut”), not really to uncover the fine minutiae of, for instance, tallying up the different head and tail counts of shots in each varying cut of the film (which I’m sure has been done a thousand times over already), but more to get a sense of the perspective-shifts, minor and major, of these two bookending (okay, the ‘work print’ came earlier, but the theatrical is the way most of us saw it the first time, so I’ll start there) looks at the impressively suffocating world of the weary ex-bladerunner Deckard, the escaped rogue replicants (who number five or six, depending upon the cut) he’s forced out of retirement to ‘retire’ and the gorgeous Rachel, the poor vulnerable beauty who learns she is, in fact, a replicant herself.
No matter which way you slice it (or version you watch), Blade Runner is a masterful visual feast. I’ve always leaned slightly more towards 1940’s and 50’s Hollywood noir then its contemporary, often more indie-style update neo-noir mostly because of how much I appreciate the rigidly formalistic style — the deliberately expressionistic lighting, the severe gender dress codes and attitudes and the radical production design – and how this seemingly artificial cinematic approach was used to reinforce an oppressive dark world view (as well as the sense of the characters being entrapped in webs of deceit by powers they can’t possibly hope to defeat) over the later, more naturalistic, approach of the neo-noir that followed. While I can’t really call Ridley Scott an auteur filmmaker (as brilliant a visualist as he is, he appears to have nary a clue between choosing a good script over a bad one… but when he stumbles upon the lucky good one, watch out!), Blade Runner, with its futuristic (not speculative – it’s by no means ‘hard’ sci-fi) dystopian setting, provided the director a wonderful opportunity to relish in and bring alive old school dark and moody noir filmmaking, creating an environment both seemingly advanced (with massive electronic billboards on slow-moving massive blimp-like floating machines selling the hope of off world living – likely to the uber-wealthy only — ominously blotting out the dark skies) and yet deliberately anachronistic (including 1960’s looking cars in the traffic amongst the flying police hovercrafts, a 1940’s style police headquarters and the presence of the magnificent Sean Young playing Rachel, with the padded shoulders and pronounced hair style speaking directly to – I’m quite sure deliberately – the classic Hollywood look of a Joan Crawford, only more jaw-droppingly stunning and less physically threatening).
The high contrast lighting, the oppressive production design, the doom-laden characters in a world too obtuse to navigate with the only hope to not be destroyed like an ant (I mean, head corporate honcho Tyrell may get his head crushed into mush, but does anyone really think that’s gonna make way for a better world?) and the sense of inevitable urban death make it all feel like, more than a neo-noir, a profoundly evocative and genuine old school noir (with some other beautifully realized visual flourishes thrown in, such as how the Sebastian home, with its European stylings, odd female mannequin-like robots and the beautiful white haired replicant Pris standing still in a wedding shawl feel almost like it’s been transported out of one of those profoundly gorgeous 60’s surreal Polish avante-garde films).
Harrison Ford plays Deckard as weary and tough, yet his odd mannered expressions and awkward attempts at humor add an endearing goofiness to his character… a character who, in fitting noir style, finds himself getting the shit kicked out of him… a lot. Rachel, as his romantic femme (kinda) fatale, is there (and the scene of Deckard roughly forcing sex on the resistant beauty to bring out the ‘human’ side he just knows is there – cuz you know she really wants it! — while I can’t say 100% — I’m quite sure there isn’t any corresponding ‘no not meaning no’ scene in the new film).
Above all, there is an almost painful soulful quality to the film (significantly helped along by the brilliantly dark and melodic mostly synth score composed by Vangelis), as much expressed through the rogue and violent replicants, as it is through the Deckard character. Initially marked as the ‘villains’, as the replicants fight and lash out in a desperate attempt to extend their rapidly approaching natural termination dates (four years), they grow more sympathetic to us, battling against a world that’s there to enslave, dismiss and terminate them. The lead replicant Roy Batty is played by the always striking Rutger Hauer and, with his ever-unique line deliveries and those alternating glints in his eyes, equal parts sociopathic robotic mischievousness and yet something more human and almost kind, he’s fantastic. His final, deeply poignantly delivered speech near the end of the film, as the replicant comes to grips with mortality and the sad inevitability of death (as we all eventually will get around to dealing with — as the opening quote from the film I put above attests to) has to be the crowning moment in an already pretty impressive (genre) career.
I’ve heard a number of film folks complain that Blade Runner isn’t a true science fiction film. While I’d agree it’s certainly more ‘soft’ sci-fi than ‘hard’, in that it’s much more interested in character and philosophical conceits than speculating on technological advancements and how they would merge with humanity, at the same time, the film’s main theme questioning the striving to understand the relationship between man and his possibly – and unsettlingly – flawed maker (it’s right there in the glasses that Tyrell wears and the iris defect in every replicant) align directly with the similar explorations of what are unarguably considered as sci-fi masterpieces, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Tarkovsky’s Solaris (my personal favorite). That the violently powerful replicants grow more ‘human’ then those in the actual human world around them (especially if you go with the implications the film places – more firmly in “The Final Cut” — that Deckard himself is also a replicant) directly links it with the emotional (dis)placement in 2001 with that film deliberately creating more compassion for the single eyed HAL 9000 computer desperately begging ( ‘Just what do you think you’re doing, Dave? Stop, Dave. Will you stop, Dave. I’m afraid.’) for his ‘life’ and continued consciousness against the cold, unemotional astronaut Dave who methodically cuts his circuits, one by one.
Regarding the two cuts, I find both versions have their charms. Where certainly the ending of the 2007 (and Scott’s preferred version) “The Final Cut” has an admirably bleaker (and more mature) ending, in which it’s implied – though never specifically stated – that Sean Young’s Rachel, who Deckard is running off with, doesn’t have much time before reaching her expiration date, the ending of the theatrical isn’t without some power as well. As the tranquil countryside (apparently outtakes of the opening of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining) the two plan to live out their final years passes by beneath them and Deckard’s voiceover tells us that Raquel actually has no set expiration date other than that of simple mortality, he leaves us with dialogue ‘I didn’t know how long we had together. Who does?’, ironically shadowing the shady cop Gaff’s original line, while also poignantly reminding us of the essential sadness and brief gift of life with mortality, even when you don’t know the set death dates.
I know its common for fans to dismiss Deckard’s voicever, especially as it was studio-enforced on Scott and that Ford hated doing it. Knowing all that, and admitting that some of it may not be necessary (plenty of “The Final Cut” works just fine without it) and… yet… as I said, I love noir films and find the use of such a signature element deeply satisfying. And as unremarkable and perhaps too familiar as much of the exact dialogue is, the profoundly moving ending monologue delivered by Ford so elevates the moment of the replicant Roy Batty’s death (after Hauer himself has just delivered an unforgettable monologue) that, as far as I’m concerned, it renders the entire Deckard voiceover device essential to the movie… if just to have this dialogue moment. I prefer the slightly longer lingering-on-gory-bits that the “The Final Cut” brings and, interestingly, don’t really find that these moments come across as crassly sensational (as they almost always do – and doesn’t diminish my usual love for them!), but somehow add to the overall created sense of the ‘suffering of life’. While adding back in Deckard’s unicorn dream in “The Final Cut” certainly weighs the narrative more heavily towards Deckard actually being a replicant (and also adds far more weight to the cop Gaff leaving behind that origami specifically in the shape of a unicorn), I prefer the more ambiguous take in the “Theatrical Version”. I even like the apparent voiceover mistake of the original cut in which the number of rogue replicants was mis-numbered by one too many (corrected in “The Final Cut”), leaving a vague metaphorical clue with the idea of Deckard being the ‘missing replicant’ (I mean, not literally, of course, as that would make no narrative sense whatsoever, as I frustratingly tried to explain to a very literal-minded friend I watched the films with).
So, if I had to choose one, I have to sheepishly admit, I’d stick with the original “Theatrical Cut” rather than Scott’s later corrected version (geez, with this and my recent preference of the studio cut of Exorcist III over that of the film’s director William Peter Blatty, I’m suddenly starting to feel uncomfortably close to a corporate shill).