A film review by Craig J. Koban
BLADE RUNNER: THE FINAL CUT
2007, R, 117 mins.
2007, R, 117 mins.
Rick Deckard: Harrison Ford / Roy Batty: Rutger Hauer / Rachael: Sean Young
Directed by Ridley Scott / Written by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples, based on the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
BLADE RUNNER remains one of the grand film viewing experiences and Ridley Scottís new "FINAL CUT" is a cause for celebration. The 1982 neo-noir sci-fi classic has seen many cinematic permutations in the past: There was the original 1982 theatrical cut, the 1982 European cut, the controversial 1992 Directorís Cut (which celebrated the filmís 10th anniversary), and a rare work print that was used to test screen the film to audiences that subsequently leaked at various fan conventions years ago. Finally, we have what Scott has personally labeled as his definitive version of the film.
In my mind, itís about time.
The film was a colossal box office flop when initially released, which was not assisted by a disastrous test screening and studio insistence that alterations to the film were to be made to make it more viewer friendly (the largest change was the addition - at Scottís and star Harrison Fordís reservations - of a Sam Spade detective-style voice over narration and a sloppily conceived happy ending). Critics were polarized over the film; most lauded it as a landmark visual masterpiece, but chastised it as an empty and hollow dramatic story.
Yet, over the years, the cult of the film grew and it became more widely regarded as an important and highly influential genre film that spawned countless imitators. BLADE RUNNERís appeal grew exponentially and eventually prompted a hasty re-edit of the film for a 1992 Directorís Cut, which has been revealed as a work that was seriously rushed to the theatres and without much input from the director himself. That pesky and far-too-obvious voiceover was dropped, a strange and ethereal vision of a unicorn was inserted, and the ending was more satisfying in its bleakness. However successful the new fangled Directorís Cut was, BLADE RUNNER continued to be increasingly respected as one of the greatest films of the 1980's and a benchmark for other films that portrayed a post apocalyptic future. This year Empire Magazine voted the film "The Best Science Fiction Film Ever", one spot ahead of STAR WARS: EPISODE V - THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. High praise, indeed.
So what, if anything, has changed here for its 25th Anniversary "FINAL CUT"? Contrary to popular Internet speculation, Scottís final version of the film is anything but a drastic alteration of the original work. This is not so much a Special Extended Edition of the film which impetuously drops in unnecessary deleted scenes, nor is it - thank the movie gods - a massive overhaul of the filmís analogue, in-camera visual effects (like, say, what George Lucas did to varying degrees of success with his re-release of the STAR WARS trilogy in the late 90's).
No, BLADE RUNNER: THE FINAL CUT is more akin to a work that has had only superficial and subtle changes made to the material. Itís a film that is neither like the original 1982 version, nor completely like the 1992 Directorís Cut. Instead, Scottís FINAL CUT is a mishmash of both of the those films. He keeps the voiceover narration out (which never really quite worked), keeps the Directorís Cutís ending, makes small enhancements to the unicorn dream sequence, adds a tiny number of new shots, re-edits a few scenes here and there, re-establishes some of the originalís graphic violence, and - most crucially - he has completely cleaned up the filmís negative and has corrected all of the filmís inconsistencies and flubs.
One thing should be abundantly clear to all of you: Nothing in THE FINAL CUT will come across as revelatory, nor will the film feel any different than before. But, the film sure looks different, thanks to the flawless remastering of the picture and sound: The Blu-ray edition of the movie arguably looks better than any theatrical presentation that I have seen. Whatís crucial here is that Scott wisely chose not to make any serious changes to the filmís already miraculous visual effects; instead, he cleans up and restores them. Things like print imperfections, editing gaffes, and wires on miniatures have been digitally removed and - in one case - an original cast member, Joanna Cassidy, filmed new footage against a green screen and was re-inserted into a famous moment in the film where a fairly obvious stunt double was used originally in her place.
If anything, THE FINAL CUT is the real authoritative version of the film. In the new five disc Blu-Ray version (which contains a fascinating and exhaustive three and a half hour making-of documentary) of the film, Scott gives fans exactly what they want and provides them with every version of the film thatís available so viewers can make up there own minds as to what to watch. However, under very quick scrutiny and after watching a few minutes of the new version, there is very little doubt that THE FINAL CUT is the absolute ultimate edition of this film.
You quickly gain a sense that Scott has finally been able to tweak and fix everything about the previous versions that have annoyed and troubled him and, oddly enough, this time with complete studio support. Again, nothing in this new version makes it dramatically different from pervious ones, but the experience of viewing it remains so fresh and invigorating: itís like re-discovering an old film for the first time. After watching this new cut after seemingly endless viewings of previous versions, I now more than ever consider BLADE RUNNER to be an essential masterstroke work of the movies.
Ever-so-loosely based on a Philip K. Dick novel, DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP?, the film story takes place in the future, November of 2019 to be precise, where Los Angeles is a immeasurably large and sprawling metropolis of mile high skyscrapers, dense environmental pollution, chronic acid rain, and tragic overpopulation. Humans have now been able to travel to the stars to off-world colonies (considered paradises to the fragile ecological conditions of the tarnished Earth). Yet, to ensure the safety of these other worlds for human visitation and living, genetically engineered beings called "replicants" are utilized as slave labor to perform all of the hazardous work that humans could not perform. After a bloody and savage replicant uprising off-world, the beings are declared illegal on Earth. Any that show there face on the planet will be "retired" (killed) by special police squad units called "blade runners."
Nevertheless, four replicants have decided to make a dangerous trip back to earth in order to find the head of the Tyrell Corporation, the business that manufactures them, in hopes of getting their lives extended (a fail safe mechanism put in place is a four year life span, which could inhibit the replicants developing human emotions). There is the leader, Roy Batty (played memorably by Rutger Hauer), Leon Kowalkski (Brion James), Pris (Darryl Hanna, in an early performance), and Zhora (Joanna Cassidy). Whatís so dangerous about these new improved replicants is that they are almost indistinguishable from humans. Only a thorough machine test can tell a difference.
Word of their arrival has the police concerned, which brings one police official (M. Emmett Walsh) to re-activate a retired blade runner named Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford, in one of his best, underplayed performances). At first, Deckard wants nothing to do with a new hunt, but he is convinced by his boss and soon he is on the prowl. His first stop is at the Tyrell Corporation itself where he meets a representative named Rachel (Sean Young, very effective). Rachel, Deckard soon discovers, is a replicant, but she is a new breed that is so real and life-like that she could pass for a human even under serious tests.
Even more compelling is that memories have been inserted into her brain, which makes her unaware of that she is, in fact, an artificial being. When Deckard tries to tell her sheís a fake human, she denies it. She also starts developing human emotions linked to her false memories, which makes her stand by her self-affirming belief that she is human ever more. Nevertheless, she becomes an ally to Deckard, but as he gets closer to finding and retiring the four rogue replicants - and gets emotionally attached to Rachel - his boss has put out a hit for Rachel, which complicates matters considerably.
BLADE RUNNER, if anything, is one of the greatest visual experiences of the cinema and as an out-of-body film of pure escapism, the film is a watershed work. The futuristic LA, in any version of the film, remains one of the most atmospheric and tangible movie environments, made all the more real by the remarkable visual effects work by Douglas Trumbell (who previously helmed the effects work on 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND). Some of the filmís shots are some of the cinemaís most indelible: The introduction of the vast and polluted cityscapes; the flying "spinner" cars that fly by gigantic billboards of geishaís drinking beverages; the imposing stature of the Tyrell Corporation offices. Whatís astounding is how little these effects have dated: they easily hold up to the CGI visuals that dominate films today. All of them are punctuated by the hauntingly beautiful musical score by Vangelis, whose classic notes mixed in with synthesizers reinforce he future world on screen. With this great one-two punch of images and music, BLADE RUNNER is an unparalleled audio-visual nirvana.
If anything, BLADE RUNNER has been called the last "in-camera" visual effects film. To watch it now with 21st Century eyes is to be amazed - the effects work here holds up as well as Kubrickís did for 2001. The filmís look has often been cited as revolutionary. Certainly, BLADE RUNNER also had its share of influences (from Fritz Langís METROPOLIS, to the artwork of Moebius, to the comic Magazine HEAVY METAL), but the cinematography, art direction (lead by futurist Syd Mead), and the vision of the futuristic LA as a retrofitted city has spawned countless other films.
BLADE RUNNERíS unique hybrid of film noir stylistic influences - which include shadowy and textured shots, a morally conflicted hero, a femme fatal, and a ethically bleak world - all permeate the film. Its future, with considerable Asian influences, certainly helped spawn the cyber-punk movement and, in turn, helped foster the aesthetic look of films as far ranging as THE MATRIX TRILOGY, DARK CITY, SEVEN, and more recently, BATMAN BEGINS. If you look at the dense, dark, rain soaked streets of Gotham City in Christopher Nolanís film then itís hard not to see BLADE RUNNER in there. Certainly, many modern films owe BLADE RUNNER an invaluable debt.
As much as the film has been cherished as a visual odyssey, BLADE RUNNER never gets any deserved accolades as a searing and thought-provoking drama. The film is anything but thematically inert. Even more so today than ever before, BLADE RUNNER looks at the ethics of genetic engineering and cloning and what constitutes a human with a soul. The future of BLADE RUNNER lacks genuine life forms (all animals, apparently, are extinct and only artificial animals exist) and the film tantalizes with the denigration of morality in humanity. The replicants, despite being a violent force, search for human emotions denied to them by their makers, whereas the blade runners that hunt them subvert emotions in an effort to ruthlessly kill them all. That dynamic of the film has always intrigued because the filmís social outlook is bleak: humans have become more robotic than the humanoids that they create.
The filmís most intriguing concept is the machine that is used to test a replicantís empathy level, which is to reveal any human emotions. The replicants are juxtaposed against human figures, like Deckard, who genuinely lack empathy in their moral outlook. The replicants seem to care and love one another and greatly fear death, whereas the millions of humans that walk the city streets lack compassion and are coldly impersonal to one another. And, yes, there is the controversy of whether Deckard is, himself, a replicant (the evidence in the FINAL CUT seems fairly incontrovertible), but this adds yet another layer to the fabric of the filmís strong messages. Deckard, if human, has to reevaluate what it means to be human in his hunt of the replicants, but if heís a replicant himself, he has to reevaluate the irony inherent in his whole existence.
The performances in the film also have received little credit over the years, but they are uniformly strong and evocative. Ford is certainly a far cry from his Han Solo and Indiana Jones facade here, which may or may not have been a reason for audience members not responding favourably to the film in 1982. He is a reluctant hero here and one that has stunted his emotions for the sake of the effectiveness of doing his job. Robert Mitchum has been called an influence for the Deckard character and Ford does a thankless job of playing a futuristic gumshoe with low key bravado and charisma. The other characters are compelling and act as fois to Deckard. Sean Young gives a touching, somewhat tragic, and poignant performance as the replicant that develops feelings, but must come to gripe with her artificiality, and the great Rutger Hauer has never been more mesmerizing as Roy Batty.
His villain is arguably the most human character in the film and his emotional arc is alluring. At first, heís a cold and malevolent killing machine, but as the film progresses he is a strangely sympathetic figure in the sense that he wants what all of us desire: to live as long as possible. When the head of Tyrell sternly tells him that he canít do anything to prolong Battyís life, thereís something touching and sad about the plight of the replicants. And look at the conclusion of the film with Batty confronting Deckard, which ends on a note that most action sci-fi opuses would never aspire to. Most other films would end in fisticuffs or a shootout, but here the film takes a more sly and introverted look into the two combatants. Their confrontation ends on a rain soaked rooftop not with violence, but with both of them sitting, looking each other in the eyes, and with Batty trying to establish why humans lack compassion. This final moment in the film only helps to establish the filmís preoccupation with diving into issues of the soul and how people that are engineered should have a right to one.
All of this, of course, boils down to one notion: Ridley Scottís long-overdue FINAL CUT of BLADE RUNNER is the only version that one needs to watch. From its troubled production roots, the film has risen from the ashes of critical and audience disrespect and has fully materialized as a stunning, provocative, and challenging sci-fi film noir. From its first seconds showing a smog-filled LA sky line of the future, the film grabs you and never lets go. Its visual splendor has aged gracefully, its look has undoubtedly been a prevailing influence on a new generation of sci fi films, but perhaps its least discussed legacy is that itís less an action blockbuster and more a film with a dramatic heartbeat. BLADE RUNNER: THE FINAL CUT is a sensational testament to the growing legacy of a film that is now getting the type of appreciation that evaded it during its theatrical release 25 years ago. Viewing it now is a like finding a long-lost treasure that youíve been waiting a lifetime for and now have the luxury of seeing. If anything, we can chalk up another thumbs up to the DVD format, which has allowed Ridley Scottís supreme vision to see final artistic fruition and has allowed a generation of fans of the film to get a glimpse of what surely can now be seen as a seminal motion picture that deserves a place among the all-time greats.