BLADE RUNNER (1982)
Director: Ridley Scott
Cast: Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young, Edward James Olmos, M. Emmet Walsh, Daryl Hannah, Joanna Cassidy, Brion James
Screenplay: Hampton Fancher and David Peoples; from Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Harrison Ford, Blade Runner
Ridley Scott’s dystopian 1982 sci-fi drama Blade Runner is one of those Hollywood productions whose initially mixed reviews were actually closer to the mark than the decades of hagiography that followed. That’s not to say that Blade Runner is a bad film; it’s only a much-ballyhooed mediocrity chiefly due to its sluggish screenplay.
Adapted by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples from the equally so-so novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick — a writer whose ideas for stories always outstripped his ability to render them into good prose — Blade Runner pales in comparison to Paul Verhoeven’s later Dick adaptation, Total Recall (1990), as well as to Scott’s prior sci-fi classic Alien (1979).
Nearly twenty years ago, when I saw on VHS the Blade Runner cut as presented in its original theatrical release — the first of seven or so different versions — there was little that stuck with me about the film, save that it was at its worst a pretentious bore and at its best a moderately interesting effort. This review will chiefly discuss Scott’s 2007 DVD edition, "The Final Cut," which follows along the same lines of the 1992 "Director’s Cut" (ironically, not done by Scott) while altering quite a few elements found in the original.
I should add that after having watched the DVD version, I did go back to my old videotape and rewatched the original, which is two or three minutes shorter than the final version’s 117 minutes. Therefore, I can state that while "The Final Cut" improves a few elements (similar to the way George Lucas tweaked THX 1138 and Francis Ford Coppola added things to Apocalypse Now) it takes away more from the original than it adds — again proving that directors can make mistakes.
In fact, the original Blade Runner was released not long after Michael Cimino’s disastrous Heaven’s Gate, as well as Coppola’s monumentally expensive Apocalypse Now, a time when studios started reigning in the directorial excesses of the 1970s that had often led to self-indulgent films. In watching the better, sleeker (although still nowhere near great) original version and seeing Scott’s later tweaks, there’s little doubt that Scott’s penchant for artistic self-indulgence (on screen and in the DVD’s audio commentary) needed to be checked by the studio suits.
The basic problem in all versions is that Scott does nothing to make the characters in Blade Runner seem either realistic or empathetic, for they are all emotionally castrated archetypes, lacking believable human interactions. Given the suffusion of technical detail on screen, ostensibly to add "realism" to the futuristic tale set in 2019, there can be no falling back upon the excuse that those are intentionally metaphoric characters whose portrayals was intentionally marionette-like, such as Michelangelo Antonioni’s characters in L’Eclisse or Alain Resnais’ in Last Year at Marienbad.
Here is the nub of the problem not only with Blade Runner, but with its currently positive critical assessments: like what’s found in most modern MFA fiction writing, Scott believes that depth of story and characterization comes not from the "moments" on screen or by the way an actor makes a banal scene work, but by flooding the screen with excessive detail and description even if those are not particularly noteworthy. A well-written film like It’s a Wonderful Life will reveal little details in the background or moments between characters in "minor scenes" that in rewatch illuminate something to come. There is nothing of the sort in Blade Runner. Instead, the film offers little trinkets tossed on screen that are simply meant to set technogeeks aflutter.
Having watched Blade Runner five times on a single day — "The Final Cut," alone and with its three commentaries, and the VHS original version — I reiterate: there are no such moments or scenes in Blade Runner. As mentioned, one might spot an interesting neon sign or a silly-looking character, but nothing that adds to the film’s core. In fact, Scott’s removal of the initial version’s voice-over by Harrison Ford is a big blow to "The Final Cut" (which I’ll delve into later) because its loss removes narrative elements, including the humanization and complexity of Ford’s character, that simply do not exist elsewhere.
In fact, the voice-over helps to clarify and condense the often inexplicable things Ford’s character does, as well as elements not readily known due to the dark murk that infests the film’s major scenes. Additionally, in a playful manner the voice-over ties Blade Runner back to 1940s film noir, whereas the voice-overless final version makes it more grim, somber, and murky, while turning Ford’s character into a far less appealing figure — especially considering that Ford doesn’t act with his face or body.