Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Blade Runner: The Original v. The Director's Cut

For centuries, humans have debated the ethics of playing god. In his 1982 film, Blade Runner, British director Ridley Scott dramatically illustrates the concept. Set in a futuristic urban Dante’s Inferno, Scott’s film stylistically juxtaposes film noir and science fiction with a ladle of cyberpunk, and a pinch of philosophy: a world where ceiling fans and cigarette smoke are at home with flying cars, impossibly tall skyscrapers, and poetry-spouting androids. Punks and Hare Krishnas rub shoulders on perpetually wet streets; ads for Coca-Cola and commercials in Japanese take up entire building-sides; a hovering blimp incessantly drones the excitement of off-world pioneering.

William Gibson, acknowledged creator of the essential shared vision of cyberpunk, with its jacked-in, downbeat, texturally dense future, confessed that seeing Blade Runner nearly caused him to give up writing his seminal cyberpunk text, the novel Neuromancer (not published until 1984), because the film was so much like the vision he had inside his own head. It is a rare, perhaps the only case of cinematic science-fiction predating a trend in publishing. (Chapman)

One can indisputably christen Blade Runner cyberpunk’s Adam. Based on the 1968 Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Scott’s film relates the story of Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), hard-boiled retired cop and ‘Blade Runner’: a member of a law enforcement team charged with hunting down renegade androids. The legend at onset tells viewers:

Early in the 21st Century, THE TYRELL CORPORATION advanced robot evolution into the NEXUS phase - a being virtually identical to a human - known as a Replicant. […] Replicants were superior in strength and agility, and at least equal in intelligence, to the genetic engineers who created them. Replicants were used Off-World as slave labor, in the hazardous exploration and colonization of other planets. After a bloody mutiny by a NEXUS 6 combat team […], Replicants were declared illegal on earth - under penalty of death. Special police squads - BLADE RUNNER UNITS - had orders to shoot to kill, upon detection, any trespassing Replicant. This was not called execution. It was called retirement... (Blade Runner)

Six Replicants escape the off-world colonies intent on extending their short (four year) lives. They slaughter twenty-three people before hijacking a shuttle later found drifting, crewless, off the Los Angeles coastline. Two get “fried” breaking into the Tyrell Corporation. Police honcho Bryant (M. Emmet Walsh) summons Deckard via fellow Blade Runner Gaff (Edward James Olmos), to locate the remaining four “skin-jobs”. Through investigation Deckard finds and retires Replicant Zhora (Joanna Cassidy) and is subsequently rescued from another, Leon (Brion James) [killed by Rachael (Sean Young), a Replicant for which Deckard develops an attraction]. He slays a third, Pris (Daryl Hannah), and goes on to battle the powerful, intelligent group leader in a climactic ending wherein the expiring Replicant, Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), compassionately saves Deckard’s life as his final act. Freed of his charge, Deckard promptly grabs the girl, and flees the city. So ends the story. Or does it?

Test screenings for the upcoming Blade Runner release yielded unsatisfactory results:

In 1982, preview audiences for the movie were overawed by its wealth of visual detail, and they expressed confusion with the storyline. So Warner Bros., and a reluctant Scott, inserted narration and an uplifting ending. (Howe)

Originally filmed without a monotone, explanatory voice-over […], a noirish, somber, flat-voiced narration and a tacked-on, positive, upbeat ending were added to the 1982 release - they were demanded by the studio after disastrous preview test screenings. (Dirks)

Why was the original cut poorly received, and therefore altered? Perhaps the masses found themselves ill-equipped for a film that so vividly painted a bleak (and altogether human) future a’la Orwell’s 1984. Unlike Disney’s successful TRON and Lucas’ Star Wars phenomenon, both set in fantastic environs with clearly drawn battle lines, the Earth-bound, morally blurredBlade Runner may have struck a little too close to home. Of the original 1982 theatrical release, critics and audiences seemed to agree:

A box-office disappointment lost on audiences appalled by the British visualist's glowering, smoggy portrait of the future. Critics reviled it for the drone of Ford's voice-over narration and the upbeat Hollywood ending […, a] tacked-on coda comprised of leftover footage from Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. (Kempley)

Burdened by an inane happy ending and a frankly embarrassing voice-over from Harrison Ford, (Cramp) the future of Scott’s film (ultimately a poor box office performer) looked as ominous as his portrait of 21st-century Los Angeles.

The 1992 release of Blade Runner: The Director’s Cut departed significantly from the initial issue. With small, but crucial addition and removal of footage, and the deletion of Deckard’s banal voice-over, the new edit transformed the film. Whether for better or worse remains the subject of heated debate. Of spending more time developing Deckard and Rachael’s romance, and splicing the “unicorn reverie” clip into a solitary Ford scene, director Scott claims:

This is […] the version [I] would have released in 1982 if [I] could have. (Ebert)

Near the film’s close, as hero and femme-fatale flee the City of Angels, Rachael kicks over an origami figurine, the hallmark of Blade Runner Gaff: a small silver-foil sheet meticulously folded into a unicorn. The ambiguity of film’s original cut leaves the viewer unsure of this symbol’s significance:

The unicorn is the last of a series of origami figures that Gaff uses to taunt Deckard. In Bryant's office when Deckard insists he's retired, Gaff folds a chicken: You're afraid to do it. Later he makes a man with an erection: You're attracted to her. And finally, the unicorn: You're dreaming, you can run away with her, but she won't live […] One interpretation is that the unicorn was simply a message to Deckard to say I know you've got Rachael, but I'll let her live. Another interpretation (based on the script) is that the unicorn is Gaff's gauntlet and he will hunt them both down. (Chapman)

The unicorn dream-sequence supplies the audience firm evidence of a stunning new plot twist: Is Deckard a Replicant? The original had but hinted at the possibility:

Rachael:               You know that [Replicant-screening] test of yours? Did you ever take that test yourself?
Roy Batty:            Kinship!!
Gaff:                     You've done a man's job, sir. (Blade Runner)

The unicorn vision's addition confirms our suspicions: Were Deckard human, how could Gaff have known about the dream?

Small amounts of footage from the original release did not make The Director’s Cut, but this did nothing to damage the plot. The shortening of Pris’ violent, thrashing death scene and Roy’s explicit eye-gouging of corporate father-god Tyrell (Joe Turkel) were left on the editing room floor. In a film that runs rampant with eye-images and symbolism, one wonders at Scott’s motivation in casting away this significant blinding of Creator by Creation.

In the Mythological fable of Polymnestor, the gouging of eyes was a revenge killing. […] Polymnestor's eyes were gouged out as revenge for the death of others at his hands. [By killing] Tyrell, [Roy] was symbolically avenging the deaths of the Replicants. So also was he able to ensure that no more Replicants could be made to share his fate. (Lachniel)

Blade Runner opens with a macro of an eye overseeing a hellish world; the machine that exposes Replicants detects involuntary eye movements; Replicants and synthetic animals have glowing cat’s eyes; Leon tries to put his fingers in Deckard’s eyes; the omniscient Tyrell, high in his pyramid, wears huge glasses and owns a wide-eyed owl (a symbol of wisdom). Clearly, the film draws on the eye as a potent symbol, and, in a small way, something is lost through the editing of this scene, though the net result (Tyrell’s death) remains the same.

By far the most critically lauded alteration to the film, the deletion of Deckard’s monotone voiceover incited much rejoicing in the film community:

Freed of these distractions, Blade Runner becomes a purer pleasure. (Kempley)
Ford's voice-over is mercifully deleted. (Cramp)

In addition to dismissing old grievances, some critics raised wholly new points:

The lack of narration […] enhance[s] several scenes, especially the special effects scenes involving flight over the city. Excising the narration has left only the majestic score by Vangelis, which lends these scenes a mysterious, meditative quality reminiscent of Kubrick. The pace of the film is thus changed -- the new Blade Runner feels more thoughtful, giving the viewer more time to consider the implications of [the events]. The special effects take on a ballet-like quality without [the intrusion of] Ford's voice. (Jackson)

Truly, Vangelis’ haunting, saxophonic synthesizer lends to the film’s future noir tone, while subtly recalling the dark opening of Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. The more audible score nevertheless comes at a high price. The Director’s Cut, while a brilliant version of the film, loses its Sam Spade sensibility with Deckard’s voiceover omitted:

I knew the lingo, every good cop did. (Blade Runner)
At times, the externalized “lingo” provides viewers with an enhanced understanding of Deckard’s world:
[Bryant]’s the kind of cop ‘used to call black men niggers. (Blade Runner)
 The loss hinders insight into Deckard‘s thoughts and emotions:
The report would be ‘routine retiring of a Replicant’, which didn’t make me feel any better about shooting a woman in the back. (Blade Runner)

Thus, The Director’s Cut deals not a crippling blow, but certainly a flesh wound to the original release: A motion picture so drenched in film noirwould doubtless exhibit the genre’s key elements.

What would characterize the ideal version of this landmark piece of cinema history? Admittedly, all thirty-five lines of voiceover do not lend themselves to the work flawlessly, but several help develop the characters, mood, or story in at least some small way. While Pris’ shorter, cleaner death feels less gratuitously disturbing, removing the intense and highly symbolic blinding of Tyrell leaves a hole in the abstract fabric of this richly reflective film. Reports say that Scott is considering a re-edit for an upcoming multi-DVD Special Edition. Perhaps there will be a little something for everyone.

(Four years after this writing, Scott released The Final Cut)

Works Cited

Blade Runner. Dir. Ridley Scott. Perf. Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young, Edward James Olmos, and Daryl Hannah. Warner Brothers, 1982.
Blade Runner: The Director’s Cut. Dir. Ridley Scott. Perf. Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young, Edward James Olmos and Daryl Hannah. Warner Brothers, 1992.
Cramp, Nick. “Film Reviews” Rev. of Blade Runner. British Broadcasting Corporation 2002-2003. 7  Feb. 2001. 30 April 2003.
Chapman, Murray. Blade Runner FAQ.1992-1998. 30 April 2003.
Darren. Blade Runner The Site. Analysis of Blade Runner by Mark Lachniel. 3 March 2003.
30 April 2003.
Dirks, Tim. Greatest Films. Rev. of Blade Runner. 1996-2002. 30 April 2003 www://
Ebert, Roger. “Blade Runner: Director’s Cut.” Rev. of Blade Runner: Director’s Cut, dir. Ridley Scott. Chicago Sun Times 11 Sept. 1992.
Howe, Desson. “Blade Runner.” Rev. of Blade Runner, dir. Ridley Scott. Washington Post 11 Sept. 1992.
Jackson, Bill. “Blade Runner.” Rev. of Blade Runner, dir. Ridley Scott. The Tech 18 Sept. 1992: vol.112.
Kempley, Rita. “Blade Runner.” Rev. of Blade Runner, dir. Ridley Scott. Washington Post 11 Sept. 1992.

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