As is the case with many movies that have been passed down to us in multiple versions, the gestation of Blade Runner was a contentious affair. The archetypes familiar from the stories behind Touch of Evil and Close Encounters of the Third Kind are all present — pragmatic financiers, stubborn artists, fickle audiences. (Of course, in keeping with the messiness of reality, those adjectives aren’t entirely fair.) But the cracked mirror of Blade Runner has yielded as many faces as both those earlier films combined. No fewer than seven distinct versions of the film have screened publicly during the last thirty-five years. Something called the “director’s cut” wasn’t even the last of them. To the casual observer, it can all sound rather ponderous and indulgent. But, briefly, this is the story of the three “official” domestic release versions.
Months before its debut in 1982, several million dollars over budget and faced with a befuddled test audience, Blade Runner received some important alterations. The main character, Deckard (Harrison Ford), was given voiceover narration to clarify details about the science-fiction premise and help the audience relate to him. This decision has never sat well with either the filmmakers or critics. In 1990, a 70mm print of the film was given to a film festival in Los Angeles, but apparently no one involved knew that it was an earlier workprint until the film was shown. This copy, sans narration, was a hit this time. So the distributor, Warner Bros., authorized archivist Michael Arick to oversee a “director’s cut.” The actual director, Ridley Scott, consulted on the project but didn’t have time to take charge of it. Fifteen years later, he was finally able to put the finishing touches on a totally uncompromised and digitally glossed version. This “Final Cut” played in New York and Los Angeles in the fall of 2007.
Choosing to focus solely on two competing versions of Blade Runner necessarily omits some important parts of the overall story (again, much like with Touch of Evil and Close Encounters). The Final Cut contains an accumulation of details that were introduced in previous versions. Those touches that are unique to this last version of the film are mostly cosmetic — digital fixes to some nitpicky problems with the original film, the shortening of Deckard’s first scene by a few seconds. The unicorn reverie is presented a little differently in the Final Cut than the “director’s cut,” with close-ups of Deckard to cue the audience that the film is about to enter the character’s head. When the Replicant rebel leader Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) meets his designer, he says, “I want more life, Father,” whereas in all previous versions he uses a different word that starts with “f” and ends with “e-r.” These and all other changes have some aesthetic and thematic importance, but they do little or nothing to affect the pacing of the film. In fact, the Final Cut is just twenty seconds longer than the original version. Most of the film’s sequences are untouched, at least as far as shot selection and editing go.
The main distinction between the original domestic cut and all later versions of the film has to do with that infamous voiceover. Even going into it with an open mind, I found myself incapable of defending the narration, in practice if not in conception. Deckard is clearly a hard-boiled detective in line with the film’s neo-noir ethos, but the attempt at world-weary commentary just comes across as dully explanatory, as Scott and others have noted. As an example, the first words of narration, “They don’t advertise for killers in a newspaper,” sound like something a writer would find impressive, but not something that a real person would think. The statement does create some interesting tension with the opening text crawl’s “retirement” euphemism. Deckard understands that, in dispatching Replicants, he wasn’t simply shutting down defective products. They were all living things whom it was his job to kill. But the whole tapestry of the film touches on the ideas of dehumanization and prejudice. Cheap philosophizing, here and just after the film’s climax (“Where do I come from? Where am I going? How long have I got?”), is absolutely superfluous. Still, the right delivery might have helped. Ford’s vocal performance bears no resemblance to the menacing, angry tint of his flesh-and-blood work. It’s flat as a pancake.
In my opinion, the other important detail from the original release that subsequent versions have shunned is much less flawed. Often described as a “happy ending,” it’s a bucolic coda in which Deckard and his Replicant inamorata Rachael (Sean Young) escape the dingy confines of 2019 Los Angeles for an unspecified rural existence. When this short scene — primarily made up, as it happens, of unused helicopter shots from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining — gets lopped off, the movie loses nothing significant, but I don’t find it to be such a radical tonal shift as others have claimed. The curter ending of the “director’s cut” and Final Cut, with Deckard rushing into the elevator with Rachael, is pretty optimistic already. The characters have evaded reprisals and seem to be free to do as they wish. Regardless, there’s a bit of dramatic clumsiness to the ending no matter how it’s presented. When Deckard, holding his gun in his one good hand, lowers it down to the sleeping Rachael, it’s a wonderfully ambiguous moment on a visual level. But the character’s decision is never really in doubt, particularly since he’s just received an act of mercy from the late Batty. The shorter ending is still definitely better, especially since, again, it doesn’t have any voiceover explaining the muted happiness and relief that are better expressed without words.
Blade Runner is the rare case of a film with which I was familiar for well over a decade without ever seeing it as it was originally presented. Years of secondhand information have attempted to stack the deck against the 1982 version of the film. Having now finally seen it, I can recognize it as inferior, but more interesting to me is just how slight the alterations are in relation to the overall running time. The voiceover, while regrettable, is used only a handful of times. (Several crucial scenes take place without Deckard being present at all.) The protagonist is really a passive, functional character, so much so that the ongoing debate about whether or not he’s secretly a Replicant himself still doesn’t vex me all that much. We could all be synthetic creatures, our memories faked by a trickster deity. What difference would that make? The real issues in Blade Runner transcend such puzzles. In the film’s dystopian future, much of humanity has fled the earth, and those who remain live in damp squalor, harassed by probing searchlights from bulbous advertising airships. All storytelling tweaks aside, it’s still the visual design of Blade Runner — by Syd Mead, David L. Snyder and Lawrence G. Paull — that speaks most eloquently.