Blade Runner: The Final Cut (U.S., 1982/2007) * * * *
D: Ridley Scott
Ridley Scott's seminal sci-fi noir Blade Runner is back in theaters, albeit as a limited engagement in only a certain number of cities; it's in anticipation of the long-in-the-works deluxe special edition DVD (and HD, and BluRay) box set due out next month from Warner Bros. It's a film that's been released in a number of different formats, and I've been lucky enough to see almost all of them on the big screen (the theatrical version, the 1992 director's cut, the "workprint"); Blade Runner does work best in theaters, particularly an ornate, Gothic theater such as the Music Box's main auditorium in Chicago, where I caught the latest version, "The Final Cut," yesterday afternoon.
The reason Scott would want to revisit Blade Runner yet again may not seem obvious if you're not familiar with the film's history. When the film was in test screenings, he felt pressured to add a "happy ending" epilogue to the picture, as well as intrusive and redundant narration by Harrison Ford. Scott also removed a brief, potentially confusing sequence featuring a unicorn, streamlining the film's themes but also making it a less complex, nuanced work. More on that unicorn later. The film, as it was released in 1982, was a disappointment among critics and audiences, perhaps because they were expecting their science fiction served up like an escapist fantasia (Star Wars) or a kid's adventure (E.T.)--not as a profound exploration of memory and what it means to be human (i.e., the sorts of themes science fiction is best suited to handle). Blade Runner did, however, develop a cult following on home video, and as the film approached its tenth anniversary, Warner Bros. released in select theaters an early rough-cut, "workprint" version of the film (with a temporary soundtrack, an alternate opening credits sequence, no narration, and some brief alternate footage); encouraged by the enthusiastic response this revival received, they planned on releasing it wide. Ridley Scott objected, offering a better suggestion: that they give him a little bit of time to assemble his own director's cut of the film. He's stated that his primary goals for this 1992 cut were to remove the narration and restore the unicorn sequence. Without the time to pore over archives, a new unicorn scene was shot, and the film went out in a form much closer to his original intentions. This time the critical reappraisal was generous, and soon the theatrical cut became the rarity, and the 1992 director's cut became the rental-store fixture; as one of the first releases in the fledgling DVD format, it was also one of the primary reasons many people bought a DVD player. For years fans clamored for a special edition treatment of the film on DVD, and Scott promised that one was in the works; only in recent years, when a rights dispute was finally settled, has Scott been able to begin work on a real director's cut. He took his time on this one, so that he could properly call it the "Final Cut." In short, it is not radically different from the '92 cut. The narration is again removed, as is the "happy ending." The original unicorn scene has been restored, and is integrated differently into the film: rather than being depicted as a dream, as it was in '92, it's now clear that it's an inexplicable memory which Rick Deckard does not understand. "Flubs" in the special FX have now been digitally and seamlessly corrected: cables lifting the flying "spinner" cars have been erased, actress Joanna Cassidy's face has been grafted onto the stunt double who hurtles through the plate glass windows in slow-motion, and when Roy Batty's dove flies from the rooftop, the sky is not clear and daylit but overcast and rainy, as it should be. There are no major special effects revisions or additions, as George Lucas might have had done. There are no major additional scenes, either, apart from a brief shot of the masked go-go dancers outside the Snake Pit (previously only seen in the workprint) and a few seconds of intense violence borrowed from the '82 international cut of the film. Fans who embraced the '92 cut will have no reason to love this version any less.
But as I continue to revisit this film in its different iterations (all of which will be included in the upcoming box set), I'm struck at how it gains greater emotional resonance with each viewing. The film was virtually called a cold fish when it first was released; when watching the Final Cut, I was almost moved to tears here and there. The theme which resonates the most with me now is the loss of innocence which its characters are facing: Rachel learns she is a replicant, and that her memories belong to Tyrell's niece--she knows how to play the piano, but can't even be certain that she's ever had lessons. This, now, is the most moving storyline for me. But it is also echoed in Batty's quest for revelation and deliverance when he meets his maker--the genetic engineer Tyrell, who can't give him what he wants the most: "more life." It's in the minor journey taken by J.F. Sebastian, who takes in a wayward prostitute--actually a killer replicant, Pris--and suddenly, joyfully finds that he has two new friends, one whom will finally end his life. And the subtextual plot, which will not emerge until a second viewing (spoilers ahead, folks), is that Rick Deckard must soon face his own loss of innocence, because he, too, is a replicant like Rachel. "How can it not know what it is?" he asks Tyrell after running his Voigt-Kampff test on Rachel; but when your memories are false, how can you know that everything leading up the last couple of minutes isn't someone else's life story? This is the level at which Philip K. Dick's best novels operate, including Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which inspired Blade Runner. In the book, Deckard is not a replicant, but the idea of his self-deception is found in almost all of Dick's novels, and most memorably in his classic short story "The Electric Ant." In that story, the protagonist learns that he's a robot when he finds a panel in his chest and a tape spooling beneath it. What would happen, he wonders, if he punches holes in the tape--or cuts it altogether? The answer: reality itself changes, because what is the difference between subjective and objective reality? Sometimes there is no useful difference. When Deckard leaves with Rachel at the end of Blade Runner, after scrutinizing the origami unicorn left by officer Gaff, he has quickly accepted that there's no useful difference between human and replicant, and it's best to make the most of what time you have.
There are details you notice when you see the film on the big screen. You can see that one of the spinners uses its turn signal when it passes Deckard's car, even though they have the entire sky as their road. You can make out every company logo which mars this hellish urban landscape (outside Deckard's apartment is a sign for RCA, for example). I don't recall seeing the unicorn toy in J.F. Sebastian's apartment; this raises the possibility that it was Sebastian who implanted the unicorn memory in Deckard, as his own personal signature. ("There's a little of me in you," he proudly tells Roy.) The unicorn is just one of the film's through-line motifs. The major one is the human eye: it appears in extreme close-up, the Los Angeles skyline reflected in its pupil, as one of the first opening shots. It's what the Blade Runners gaze at through their Voigt-Kampff machine, looking for "involuntary dilation" which might prove whether or not their subject possesses empathy (i.e., is human). It's what Hannibal Chu makes in his frigid little genetics shop--the evil Leon balances one on his shoulder; and Roy hides behind a pair of them when toying with Sebastian. Leon tries to gouge out Deckard's eyes before Rachel saves him, but Roy succeeds in gouging Tyrell's after crushing his skull. It's almost as though the replicants are resentful that humans possess these "real" eyes, these eyes which won't betray them before the Voigt-Kampff. And it's impossible not to remember that the eyes are the window to the soul. A less heavily emphasized theme, though just as important, is the stack of photographs carried to remember one's past. Rachel carries them, conspicuously, because they've been handed to her to reinforce her false memories. It's no coincidence that Deckard's piano is littered with photographs, going back to his ancestors. As my wife said, "He's overcompensating."
Some fans take exception to the idea that Deckard is a replicant, and resent the two director's cuts because of this. Let's set aside the obvious fact that this was the way the story was meant to unfold, and that the '82 version, which they prefer, swayed from the creator's intentions. The point of contention seems to be that Deckard can't be a replicant, because he's an ex-Blade Runner with a long, distinguished history, and therefore apparently doesn't have the limited lifespan of the Nexus 6. And how do they know he's had a long, distinguished career? Maybe they've been shown photographs? Nothing in the film, so far as I can see, contradicts the idea that Deckard could be a replicant. In fact, wouldn't it make the most sense if the police force contracted Tyrell to produce replicants that could hunt down other replicants? Naturally these Blade Runners couldn't be told what they really were. When Roy tells Deckard, "Now you know what it's like to be a slave," it's actually as though Roy is educating Deckard as to his true nature. Does Roy ever intend to kill Deckard, or does he want, instead, to liberate his consciousness?
Catch this one in theaters while you can. The DVD of the Final Cut--as well as all other versions--streets on December 18.