By Stephen Mayne
That Blade Runner has appeared in multiple forms since its release in 1982 is no secret. In fact, it’s become part of the legend. Picking apart the differences and discerning new meanings has kept people occupied for years and spawned a misleading debate that obsesses over the wrong things.
In particular, the perennial Rick Deckard question tends to dominate. Is Harrison Ford’s replicant-hunting police officer – a Blade Runner as they are more commonly known – one of the very creations he dedicates his life to destroying? It’s certainly an intriguing idea and, thanks to the ambiguity clouding so much of Blade Runner, one that has sparked furious argument for decades. It’s also a little beside the point.
The Final Cut, first released in 2007 to mark the film’s 25th anniversary, further answers the question, building on the director’s cut from 1992. It all comes down to unicorns, adding in the full-length dream for the first time, which was though it is included to a lesser degree in the 1992 version. That alone removes much of the murkiness and restores focus to the bigger issue. Fun as it is, whether Deckard himself is a replicant matters little in isolation. It tends to distract from a broader examination of what it really means to be human.
It’s this theme that runs through every sinew of Ridley Scott’s 1982 masterpiece. In theory, flesh and blood humans hunt down dangerous artificial creations gone rogue. In practice, the creatures exhibiting the greater humanity tend to be those built in a lab with extremely limited lifespans haunting them. The humans are capable of acts of great cruelty, coolly dispatching replicants after hunting them down with ruthless efficiency. The moment of peak emotion in the film comes via Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty. Leader of a the group of escaped replicants, Deckard is dispatched to track across futuristic Los Angeles, he uses his dying seconds to deliver the devastating “tears in rain” speech. It’s more human than anything else in the film, and leaves a battered and bruised Deckard perplexed. It couldn’t have come from any of the humans.
So now we have the final cut that has further cleared up the Deckard mystery. Whether this is the last version of Blade Runner is another question, but with a sequel finally emerging later in the year, it’s an apt time to return to the most complete version yet released, shorn of the dreadful voiceover imposed by the studio for the theatrical release, and with the seemingly happy ending cast under new and ominous shadows. It will be interesting to note what director Denis Villeneuve and lead actor Ryan Gosling can conjure up for Blade Runner 2049.
That’s not only because Blade Runner comes with such an intriguing narrative: it’s the most realized film from one of contemporary cinema’s great stylists. Ridley Scott is a hit-and-miss director, capable of moments of wonder and plenty of damp squibs. His hits column contains enough undeniable classics to allow him to ride over the flops, and while he’s produced monumental films – none more so than Alien – nothing else he’s done merges his cold and clinical visuals so deeply into the story.
Alien shot in a different way would be a lesser film held together by its narrative. Blade Runner simply wouldn’t. It’s a willfully uncommercial enterprise, happy to drift into rain-sodden neon visuals and that creeping Vangelis score that seems to start a mile away before suddenly hitting you. Police vehicles swoop up to giant corporate offices and chases take place in anonymous streets. The final showdown destroys an antique hotel, a reminder of a world that no longer exists. Each shot is as interested in soaking up this stark future as it is in advancing plot. There is no way to separate the two.
Which of course leaves Villeneuve at something of an impasse because that’s exactly what he has to do if he’s to put his own spin on it. Not that Scott got it easy, given it’s taken the better part of three decades to finally get out a print he’s happy with. The confusion his initial cut must have provoked amongst risk-immune producers would have been something to witness. Even today it’s not necessarily a film to approach cold, rooted as much in a vision as it is in any desire to tell a story. In that way it’s about as close to the perfect Philip K. Dick adaptation as possible. While he wrote thrillingly imaginative science fiction, there was always something more to his best novels – a feeling that following the plot alone didn’t reveal all the information hidden in the pages. Ideas were Dick’s game, his desire to provoke an eerie sense of future worlds underscoring much of his work.
That’s where Blade Runner succeeds so brilliantly, because it’s exactly what it does. There’s no tight narrative leading viewers through a series of sculpted twists and turns. It dumps us into sensory overload, soaking viewers in a disconcertingly chilly world at once distant and familiar. By adding back in additional footage, and offering more on the question that came to hang over the film, the Final Cut is the most complete version of one of the most complete cinematic experiences available.