An Appreciation – Blade Runner: The Final Cut
My admiration for Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) did not come immediately. It came about slowly, in bits and pieces, over a long stretch of time. When I first saw it, I knew that it was important, but also felt there was something holding me back from fully embracing it. When you talk about science fiction pictures, this is always one of the first ones mentioned as a staple of the genre. And yet, I was reluctant to see it for what it was (and is). Was it the characters, or the story, or the way it unfolded all of its questions and mysteries? Opinions and tastes change as we grow, and with each revisit I see the threads connecting a little bit tighter, a little more cohesively. While the film still remains flawed in my eyes, there is little doubt of the impact it has made to cinema.
The fact that we have to clarify that Blade Runner: The Final Cut is the version we are examining is a sign of its troubled production and reception. It is well reported that Ridley Scott, coming off of Alien (1979) did not have the best time working with an American crew on Blade Runner. There was tension on set, which included star Harrison Ford. Scott went long and over budget, resulting in an initial cut that lasted nearly four hours. Dismayed by the gargantuan length and incomprehensibility of the material, producers took the film out of Scott’s hands, re-edited it, and included the now infamous narration by Ford to help audiences better understand what was going on.
The “Theatrical Cut,” and all of the iterations that would follow have become part of the film’s reputation. These include the International Cut, the Work Print version, the first Director’s Cut, and the Final Cut, which is supposedly Scott’s definitive version. If it is as “perfect” as many have claimed, why does its central creator feel the need to come back repeatedly to fix it? Was Scott not able to get what he wanted when he made the Director’s Cut? What would stop him from returning to it years later to once again tinker and change it? In a strange way, the history of Blade Runner parallels many of the themes it covers, notably when it comes to what one considers the “true” version to be.
But despite the various forms it takes, no debate can be made at how influential it is to the cultural landscape. This is one of the great visions ever put on screen, a massive and formative illustration of world building. Scott and his team created a look and feel that has become synonymous to sci-fi; only rivaled, perhaps, by Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927). Even to this day, sci-fi films are often described as having “the Blade Runner look.” The future dystopia we see is a commentary itself, with its overpopulation, pollution, and industrial cityscapes. Everything looks old, even though it incorporates advanced technology. We see a retro-fitted world that has run out of room and has built upwards, creating a social hierarchy where the rich live high above in splendor and the poor have to contend with the dirty conditions of the streets. By taking in this universe, we see the visual seeds that would eventually give birth to the likes of Dark City (1998), The Matrix (1999), Minority Report (2002), and Children of Men (2006).
It’s interesting to note that this is one of the last analog productions in terms of special effects. All of the buildings, flying cars, and expansive environments were made in camera, often using spare bits and parts. The crew would integrate anything they could find to create a sense of size and scope. During one interview included on the DVD, a crew member confesses that they even used a kitchen sink to substitute as a skyscraper. To make everything look more convincing, Scott shot mostly during the night, and made heavy use of smoke and rain to help camouflage much of the backgrounds. In effect, he helped establish a style now known as “sci-fi noir”. Noir, with its heavy shadows, is mixed with neon lights and a noticeably Asian flair, resulting in a texture that is entirely its own. Along with the atmospheric score by Vangelis, Blade Runner has an identity that is easily recognizable.
But what does the aesthetics lead up to? For as great as the technical achievements are, what makes this stand the test of time is the investigation of its central theme: What does it mean to be human? Hampton Fancher and David Peoples adapted Philip K. Dick’s novel (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) and successfully translated this question. What is the element that defines humanity? The plot involves a cop – or “Blade Runner” – named Deckard (Harrison Ford) coming out of retirement to help track down and kill rogue androids – or “Replicants.” First used to help colonize off-world planets, Replicants have become self aware, and a few of them managed to escape and return to Earth, hiding amongst the rest of civilization. Although programmed with a lifespan of only four years, the Replicants are deemed a threat and thus Deckard’s skills are called to task.
It’s here where we encounter one of the issues with the story’s premise. If the Replicants are such a danger to the human population, why make them humanlike? Wouldn’t it have been easier to simply create them with one eye in the middle of their foreheads, or why not make them more like R2-D2 or C-3PO? Deckard uncovers Replicants by using a complex machine that measures a subject’s empathy level. This approach wouldn’t have been needed if said subject looked like a robot instead of a human. The narrative works around this problem with theme rather than logic. By creating the Replicants to resemble humans, we get a better juxtaposition between the two. That way, we can question what it is that separates them from the other characters, or if they are truly that different at all. At times, the Replicants express emotion far more effectively than the human characters do. Where the humans operate out of malaise, the Replicants function out of fear and survival. Imagine being aware of when you would die, and not only that, but that the time given to you was controlled by a stranger. That is the circumstance the Replicants find themselves in. Looking at it in a different light, it can be argued that the Replicants are not all that villainous to begin with.