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.
But let me step back, so I can provide a concise précis of the film (note: spoilers ahead), with the original elements noted when differing from “The Final Cut”:
In 2019, androids called Replicants have rebelled at an outer-space colony, and laws back on Earth have made it legal for cops called Blade Runners to execute them on sight. A few are known to have made it to Los Angeles, which resembles a futuristic Tokyo, where an ex-Blade Runner named Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is forced back into service after a fellow Blade Runner is killed by one of the rogue Replicants.
The killer Replicant seems intent on infiltrating the headquarters of the corporation that made them, possibly to force their creator, the company's titular founder and CEO (Joe Turkel), to extend their lives, which are pre-programmed to end after four years. The rebel Replicants know what they are – what amounts to slave labor – despite the company's implanting of false memories to make them believe they are real humans.
The Replicants that Deckard needs to kill are the leader, Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), plus Leon Kowalski (Brion James), Pris (Daryl Hannah), and an Amazon sex dancer named Zhora (Joanna Cassidy). Deckard's police partner is an oddball named Gaff (Edward James Olmos), whose main contribution to the film seems to be to add “color” by speaking an Esperanto-inspired slang, and leaving little origami figures wherever he goes. Gaff, in fact, is a perfect example of all that's wrong with the Blade Runner screenplay, for despite his quirks he is essentially a cipher. Again, pointless detail is just superfluousness, not depth.
Deckard goes to see Tyrell, and meets his latest version of a Replicant, Rachael (Sean Young), who does not realize she is a Replicant. (They are supposedly outlawed, but let's go with the film's inconsistencies.) Meanwhile, Batty and Leon strongarm their way to get information on how to confront Tyrell. Batty, however, can sense his life is nearing its end.
After some encounters that leave lots of humans and Replicants dead, Deckard and Batty face off in a rooftop melee over L.A. But instead of a final battle, Deckard watches as Batty's life fades away. Before his last breath, Batty utters a cringe-worthy soliloquy:
I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. … Time to die.
Here is where the original film works far better. In the final version, this soliloquy is left hanging, invoking not empathy but chuckles for the android who believes himself profound in its grasp of its plight. In the original version, however, we immediately get Deckard's voice-over after Batty's words, which, in its faux 1940s hardboiled style, leavens the soliloquy's unintended humor with its own almost self-knowing silliness. Thus, the original version helps the viewer to more readily accept Batty's spew without guffawing.
Blade Runner ends with Gaff finding Deckard and Batty, as Gaff refers to Rachael (who has improbably fallen in love with Deckard): “It's too bad she won't live; but then again, who does?” Deckard returns to his apartment, and finds Rachael sleeping. As they leave, with him fearing she might be targeted for retirement next, he sees an origami unicorn left by Gaff. He's been there, but let Rachael live.
Here is also where the final and original versions diverge. Gaff's last words clearly show that he knows about Rachael, but won't kill her, so the scene with the unicorn is superfluous. The film (all versions) would have best ended there. It sums up that Gaff knows Deckard's love should be killed, but he will allow Deckard a chance with her.
The final version ends with Deckard holding the unicorn and entering an elevator with Rachael. Now, the unicorn refers to an earlier scene where Deckard dreams of a unicorn. Fans claim this proves Deckard is a Replicant, lest how would Gaff (who seems to know more than any other character) know of his dream's import, unless he had knowledge the unicorn was implanted into the Replicant Deckard? Of course, this makes little sense, and in the original version of the film there is no unicorn dream sequence, so that the origami unicorn is simply another self-important marker that Gaff was there and spared Rachael – not that he knows anything of depth regarding Deckard's identity.
In the original version, Deckard's voice-over speaks of Gaff as he sees the unicorn. That is followed by scenes showing Deckard and Rachael driving in a pastoral countryside (reportedly outtakes from Stanley Kubrick's opening shots for The Shining). Deckard then explains that Tyrell had told him that Rachael had no fail-safe four-year limit built into her, so she can live a “normal” life span (whatever that is for her kind). He echoes a version of what Gaff said, stating that he does not know how long they will have together, but who does? It's ironic that, while neither version is near a great film, the original voice-over version is clearly superior, even though both Scott and Ford objected to it.
Now, fans of the film (and many of them border on fetishism) insist the “Final Cut” is better because it implies Deckard is a Replicant. Film critic James Berardinelli concurs:
While the director's cut removes the unfortunate voice-over from the original and eliminates the sappy happy ending, it also raises a question that has divided fans: Is Deckard a replicant? The answer appears to be yes, and Scott has subsequently confirmed this. The evidence is brief but seemingly conclusive. Deckard dreams of a unicorn. Later, he finds an origami image of the animal created by Gaff. This is viewed as proof that someone knows about Deckard's dreams and memories, meaning they are implanted, not real. Only special replicants have implanted memories. It makes sense, but there are those who don't buy it, including Harrison Ford. Ultimately, the determination of who and what Deckard is must be left to the individual viewer.
This is a wan interpretation, as it is unsupported by what is found even in the final version. Yet, it has been uncritically accepted in many cribbings of the film and expounded as fact. Never mind that the unicorn sequence is rather superfluous – and it is just a dream. The fact that Gaff knows about it can be explained as something he recalled from conversations with Deckard that the latter simply forgot, as the film implies this is an important recurring symbol to the man and it is something he may likely have expounded upon to others – a very “human” thing to do, especially since he is not a particularly reticent guy when in the company of his peers, with whom he seems to be quite collegial.
In the original, the origami unicorn has no extra significance because it is merely one of a number of bizarre figures Gaff leaves as calling cards. Aside from that, how and why a dream of a unicorn – and Gaff's knowledge of it – still does not explain why a unicorn dream would in any way imply Deckard's synthetic reality. Are unicorns somehow a symbol of artificial life that the film lets us not know?
Also, even if the original version makes it rather clear he is not a Replicant, who really cares? Deckard is listless to the point that whether or not he is an android or just a malaise-ridden human seems of no great import. The more important question about Blade Runner is, Why is it so dull despite such a rich and complex potential to mine?
I should add that besides the unicorn dream, numerous minor moments in Blade Runner are taken to be symbolically significant despite the lack of any evidence. In the DVD edition of “The Final Cut,” on his own commentary track, Ridley Scott himself ridicules all the nonsense that has been read into the film, including the idea put forth by some critics that Blade Runner was somehow commenting on South African apartheid. While it's true that any work of science-fiction will draw parallels to contemporary issues, this alone does not mean that everything in a sci-fi story is symbolic.
For instance, the very notion that Blade Runner is some sort of profound meditation on existence, on what it means to be human, and on human and non-human bondage is simply not supported by what is on screen. That may have been the filmmakers' intent, but not the result; instead, that notion is a critical mix up that has plagued film criticism for far too long.
Additionally, rebel leader Roy Batty is taken to be a full-fledged antihero, but in any version of the film he is clearly a psychopathic killer despite his subjugation and pains. In a sense, he is a cyber John Brown or, more accurately, a cyber Nat Turner – and Turner was still a murderous psychopath despite having been brutalized in antebellum bondage.
When Blade Runner tries to probe into the “depths” of Batty's soul by way of his dying soliloquy, all we get are vapidity and pseudopoetry. Neither Batty nor Deckard (even if one accepts the exceedingly thin case for his non-humanity) penetrate deeper issues. Contrast Batty's “striving for depth and empathy” soliloquy with a similar moment in a far superior – and far simpler – film, Robert Bresson's Au hasard Balthazar, which follows the peregrinations of a rural donkey over a decade or so of its life till death.
Midway through that film there is a silent scene of sublime transcendence that says infinitely more about the human condition vis-à-vis the suffering it imparts to its subjugated non-human laborers (the stated reason for the Replicant rebellion). In Bresson's film, the donkey has been bought by a traveling circus and is led into a stable with a host of other animals. The camera then intercuts shots of the eyes of the donkey with a handful of the circus' other beasts – a tiger, a monkey, and an elephant, among them; the result is a wordless, non-human conversation through which the other animals tell the donkey that they've seen worse than it has.