[*SPOILER ALERT* This review covers the plot resolution of this film in detail. If you haven’t seen it … well, geez, get busy already, it’s been 25 years.]
The initial theatrical release of the iconic sci-fi film Blade Runner crept into theaters 25 years ago, captured the imaginations of rebellious geeks everywhere, then slunk away into the night as a commercial failure. Featuring striking, creative visual effects and a dark vision of 21st-century urban dystopia, Blade Runner earned a long second life as a cult classic, loved for its beautiful cinematography and its brooding fusion of genres, something along the lines of Casablanca by way of A Clockwork Orange. With a limited theatrical run in November and December and a December 18 DVD release, Blade Runner: The Final Cut now supplants the 1992 “Director’s Cut” as director Ridley Scott’s true original vision, restoring several key sequences and sprucing up the visual effects with a remastered cut.
Blade Runner, based loosely on the Philip K. Dick novella Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, is at once a rousing film noir and a deep meditation on the essence of humanity. Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), an L.A. cop in the year 2019, roams a rainy urbocalypse seizing in its death throes as its populace flees darkened, polluted Earth for space colonization. Deckard works as a blade runner, hunting down escaped “replicants,” bio-engineered humanoids developed by the monolithic Tyrell Corporation for off-world slavery. Scientific mastermind Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel) continuously improves the replicants to be stronger, faster, and tougher than their human masters, then sends them into space as soldiers, laborers and prostitutes.
Ah, yes; what could possibly go wrong with this plan? As the superhuman replicants become more sophisticated, they develop emotions and begin to rebel against their human masters. Police Captain Bryant (M. Emmet Walsh) assigns Deckard to hunt a gang of escaped replicants, a new model so advanced that Tyrell implanted false memories to stabilize their emotions, as well as a four-year lifespan in case they radically destabilize. After learning of their imminent termination dates, the replicants return to Earth to unmake their doom, led by combat prototype Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer, in a career-defining performance).
Complicating Deckard’s arduous task is his awakening conscience, spurred by his emotional relationship with Tyrell’s assistant Rachael (Sean Young). Deckard first meets Rachael to research the escapees, but they are both surprised to learn that she is also a replicant, Tyrell’s closest approximation yet of a human. Thematically, Blade Runner turns on the axis of Deckard’s transformation as he falls in love with Rachael and comes face to face with the superhuman fury of Batty and his replicant lover, Pris (Daryl Hannah).
The history behind this 2007 release is somewhat tortured. The widely reviled 1982 theatrical release departed sharply from Scott’s desired structure with a tacked-on, upbeat ending and a Ford voiceover narration removing most of the subtlety and nuance of the film — imagine Bogart intoning at the end of Casablanca, “I had to let her go because we weren’t meant to be together.” Ugh. Scott adamantly opposed both alterations, but Warner executives imposed them after the film was already in the can. Ford has famously claimed that he intentionally botched the line readings because he agreed with Scott. Unfortunately, since no studio exec can resist a ham-fisted punch in the audience’s face, the narration stayed in.
Although Blade Runner did not perform well at the box office, the film maintained a steady underground popularity over the next decade. In 1992, Warner released a “Director’s Cut” deleting Ford’s narration and featuring the ambiguous ending favored by Scott; funny how studio whores get religion when there’s an untapped marketing opportunity. As the story goes, Scott was unable to oversee the 1992 edits while directing Thelma & Louise. Instead, a film restorationist re-cut the film based on Scott’s notes and storyboards.
The result was a solemn, murky masterpiece housing both a smart action flick and a grim meditation on compassion and self-knowledge. Blade Runner’s evolution is intriguing because the quality of the story has improved over the decades. It may be heresy to say so, but even the deeply flawed 1982 theatrical release surpassed Dick’s 1968 novella, which comes off as a brilliant conceptual foundation supporting a pretty average pulp detective structure. The 1992 revision accelerated the film’s ascension as a classic, and long-time fans as well as newcomers are likely to enjoy Blade Runner: The Final Cut for its subtle but important improvements.
Still far superior to the 1982 film, Scott’s Final Cut judiciously extends scenes here and there to build context and enrich characters without significantly lengthening the film. Some changes allow a better understanding of the plot, as with the extended opening scene in which Deckard’s predecessor falls prey to a replicant while investigating the escape. Other minor alterations add context, like extra details provided during Deckard’s dossier review of the escaped replicants. Scott also used newly available technology to sharpen the effects and resolve the continuity errors that plagued the film, such as Bryant’s erroneous miscount of the escapees during Deckard’s initial briefing.
The truly critical changes, however, relate to Deckard and his relationship with Rachael. The most crucial is the famed “unicorn” interlude, omitted from the 1982 version and sharply truncated in the 1992 cut, in which Deckard experiences what may be an implanted memory of a galloping unicorn. In 1992, Deckard experienced the vision as a dream; in 2007, as an eyes-open memory. When another cop later indicates an awareness of this vision, it indicates that Deckard might be a replicant, fueling the ambiguity and mythology of the film. Scott also lengthened several interactions between Deckard and Rachael, enhancing a relationship critical to the film’s central themes of compassion and empathy.
To Scott’s great credit, each version of the film presents an enjoyably complex matrix of allusion and metaphor. True to its brethren such as THX 1138 and Alien, Blade Runner echoes their paranoia and dystopic vision, examining societies in which corporate autocrats control the government, privacy and individuality are curtailed, and mankind hurtles toward dangers largely of its own selfish creation. The deeper beauty of Blade Runner, however, lies in the shifting juxtaposition of the moral roles of Deckard and Batty, a break with convention defying even non-traditional films such as Alien.
Deckard exists well outside the usual protagonist rubric, a cop willing to kill thinking, breathing organisms without due process or moral reflection. Ford and Scott sharply delineate Deckard from his adversaries by making him very ordinary, a rumpled, disheveled detective who doesn’t even want his job, caught between fear of his superiors and fear of the replicants. Deckard’s vulnerability defines him as he repeatedly loses his gun during physical encounters with the replicants and invariably gets the living crap kicked out of him. Ford’s great accomplishment in this role, rarely acknowledged, is his stolid, everyman unremarkableness. This is not a world for Indiana Jones; not once does Ford slip into the easy, smirking swagger of Han Solo.
In contrast, Batty and his gang are charismatic, physically perfect killers whose steely drive to live has overcome the artifice of conscience. Only in the final act does Batty’s true character show through in an extended metaphor casting Batty as a Christ-like figure, with Batty becoming the true locus of power in the film. After confronting his creator, Tyrell, in despair over his own betrayal and looming death, Batty meets his mortal enemy, Deckard, and holds complete power to destroy him. Batty has seen the lifeless body of his replicant lover, Pris, and learned of the deaths of his other comrades, all at the hands of Deckard. But the experience of true human loss blossoms as compassion and forgiveness in Batty as he realizes the precious nature of life.
In his final act before his pre-ordained death, Batty saves Deckard’s life, while Batty’s death saves Deckard’s soul. Blade Runner presents one of the ultimate “twist” endings in cinema: While protagonist Deckard survives, the moral center of the film shifts to Batty, who transforms from artificial creation, to fully realized human being, to messiah. (At one point, Batty even drives a nail through his own hand.) Extending the allegory, Rachael presages Deckard’s deliverance as a sort of Virgin Mary, an innocent figure whose love changes Deckard so that he can experience redemption and realize the sanctity of life.
Beyond the biblical allusion, Batty is also conceived as an avatar for mankind in challenging his own maker — a rebuke to the creator for an existence filled with needless loss, painful labors, and unavoidable death. Perceiving the beauty of the universe, Batty cannot passively accept the imminent extinguishing of his spirit. Ironically, while the blade runners use empathy response tests to flush out the emotionally immature replicants, Batty’s altruistic reactions to his fellow fugitives’ plight and his own appreciation of life indicate the replicants have advanced beyond the cold, anonymous world in which Deckard lives.
Hauer nails the part with understated control and menace, while also injecting nobility, pathos, and even whimsy into a difficult role. A gifted villain throughout his career in films such as Nighthawks and The Hitcher, Hauer chills throughout the film but saves his best for the penultimate scene, wolf-howling and taunting the physically inferior Deckard while stalking him through a deserted, rain-sodden building. Knowing how it ends never assuages my dread when I see Batty romping across the rainy rooftops, holding Deckard’s fate in his own doomed hands.
Regrets? Well, I’ve had a few. Despite its overall excellence and recent improvements, Blade Runner still suffers from some innate problems that can’t be cured with extended scenes or touch-ups, though the flaws are generally minor. The film’s primary weakness may be the actors selected for the crucial female roles. Sean Young does competent work as Rachael, imbuing the role with doe-eyed innocence, but she lacks the presence required to believably reshape Deckard’s moral center. Her part is quite scaled down from Dick’s novella, and while Young’s luminous dark eyes and pale, delicate features are physically right for the role, she just can’t own it. Likewise, two of the replicants are played by Daryl Hannah and Joanna Cassidy, leading one to wonder, weren’t Charlene Tilton and Jaclyn Smith available? As with Young, Hannah’s turn as Pris feels underwritten in comparison to the source material, and one wonders how the role might have turned out had Debbie Harry played Pris as originally envisioned.
The production values suffer from some ill-conceived selections as well. Instead of a simple, timeless look for costumes, Scott opted for a few choices that may have seemed imaginative in 1982 but come off as laughable now. For example, while Young’s clothes generally suggest a 1940s look — a reasonable choice for sci-fi noir — she appears in a series of high-collared overcoats evoking Ming the Merciless in drag, not to mention a hairstyle suggesting a Dagwood comic strip. In designing Deckard’s work clothes, the costumers drastically undershot 2019 and ended up in a 1987 Chess King bargain bin, all maroony/purplish shirts and ties in mismatched patterns. And while the score by Vangelis generally embraces a classical 2001: A Space Odyssey sound, there are unfortunate lapses, like the cheesy Kenny G-esque sax music during a love scene between Deckard and Rachael.
Truth will out, however, and Blade Runner’s champion bloodline prevails, recalling a royal lineage of smoky-cool sci-fi running through Alien, The Terminator, Brazil, and myriad lesser efforts such as Outland. This ancestry begat the most beloved sci-fi of the 90s and aughts, such as The Matrix, Gattaca, and Serenity; all of these have more in common with the misty darkness of Blade Runner than with the pulp Western rubric of Star Wars. While George Lucas’s original classics are firmly enshrined in our film Valhalla, Blade Runner: The Final Cut should secure the place of another, darker warrior.
Blade Runner: The Final Cut is currently playing a limited release at arthouse theaters. Blade Runner: The Collector’s Edition releases on December 18, 2007 with a monster set of five discs, four different versions of the film, and various tchotchkes, all in a silver replica Deckard briefcase. Until further notice, Ted Boynton is under his bed hiding from Roy Batty.
Blade Runner: The Final Cut / Ted Boynton
Film Reviews | December 6, 2007 | Comments ()