(Sight & Sound, BFI)
Philip K Dick died three months before the US release of Blade Runner, the film based on his 1968 science-fiction novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. But what he had seen impressed him. He described the footage he was shown by director Ridley Scott as, “The greatest 20 minutes I ever experienced… a tremendously information-rich experience… like being transported to the ultimate city of the future.”
Fans of Blade Runner love the film for any number of reasons, from Vangelis’ gleaming score, to the visual mishmash of neo-noir, Asian-American and future-past, to Rutger Hauer’s joyous lunacy as the Replicant leader Batty, the film’s true hero, lost in rain. For those who’ve forgotten the story, the Replicants are short-lived synthetic people, exploited and feared by the ‘real’ things; as with the HAL computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), they’re far more human than the humans. But Dick’s reaction, the way he felt transported to a megacity conceived as a hybrid of New York and Hong Kong, where geisha loom from huge signboards and the mise en scene of chokingly congested street crowds can suddenly give way to giant empty interiors of rippling light, helps explain the release of the new version.
This apparently ‘Final Cut’ of Blade Runner seems to be about maintaining its world’s wraparound seductiveness, honouring the film-makers’ extraordinary efforts to render tiny details exotically alien, even while using the broad brushstrokes of film noir. From the opening shot of the fire-belching “Hades” landscape, this is a reality one doesn’t want punctured, which it tends to be when the Replicants die. There’s an incongruous blue sky when a dove flies up to heaven during the film’s climax, and an obvious stunt-double when the Replicant snake-dancer Zhora perishes, swathed in neon-drenched plastic and shattered glass. Both shots are revised for this Final Cut, keeping the illusion’s integrity better intact for old and new generations.
This “Final” cut was instigated when Warner Home Video suggested in 2000 that Scott supervise a “definitive” version of Blade Runner. The lag was apparently due to negotiations with the film’s owners, Bud Yorkin and Jerry Perenchio, but it meant the eventual revision could benefit from advancing techniques. One can only wonder what Dick would have thought had he been in the screening room with Zhora actress Joanna Cassidy, watching her character being digitally decapitated and her “real” head attached for a stunt she never performed.
Still stranger is the revision of an out-of-synch scene when Harrison Ford, playing the Replicant-hunting gumshoe Deckard, menaces an Egyptian artificial snake dealer. After failing to find a suitable ADR track, the restoration team employed the services of Ford’s son Benjamin, who provided not just lip-synch but his actual lips, transposed over his father’s face.
But for all the fussy corrections (some well-known errors are left in) and remastered sound and picture, Blade Runner’s story and characters are unchanged. For instance, several DVD commentators, including Scott himself, are uncomfortable with a key scene when Ford’s character Deckard forces himself roughly on the fragile Replicant Rachael (Sean Young), who’s still devastated from learning her entire ‘human’ identity is a fake. Paul M Sammon, author of the book Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner, describes the encounter as “almost a rape.”
Watching the film again, though, I thought the scene served to counterpoint the clumsy, charming intimacy between Batty and fellow Replicant Pris (Daryl Hannah) that follows almost immediately. But none of the Final Cut’s revisions make a human difference to the film. They’re about making the dream of 2019 Los Angeles more complete, mainly for those who’ve long bought into it anyway.
Actually, the best alternate take on Blade Runner’s characters is not in the DVD’s deleted scenes section (very disappointing, consisting largely of versions of Ford’s maligned voiceover in the original 1982 release), but in a tantalising screen test with Nina Axelrod as a warmer-blooded Rachael and Morgan Paul filling in for Ford as Deckard. The test uses an earlier script draft with more dialogue, awkward as it is in this form, of the kind Scott thinks was missing in the final film. (Axelrod’s Rachael asks if Deckard cried when his father died; when he says yes, she remarks sadly, “It’s another thing I can’t do.”) Paul played Holden in Blade Runner, the character who conducts a Replicant-detecting test on a suspect in the opening scene, which happens to be Blade Runners’ most playful, humorous and ‘human’ two-hander.
The smaller DVD set has an epic 214-minute Making Of and three commentaries, which should be enough to sate many fans. The larger, five-disc edition is absurdly completist, including four other full versions of Blade Runner to accommodate all rogue permutations. If there’s a big omission, it’s the chance to evaluate some of the draft scripts written by Hampton Fancher and reworked by David Peoples, and tussled over by them in their shared commentary. An early treatment, worked up by Scott and Fancher, wouldn’t have begun in the city at all, but at a remote cabin in the country, soup boiling in a pot as Deckard waits to “retire” a replicant. Philip K Dick might have liked it, but one doubts it would have been the greatest cinema experience of his life.