Sunday 16 December 2012

Blade Runner

Errors In Replication

Blade Runner
1982 USA/China
Directed by Ridley Scott
Warner Brothers Blu Ray A/B/C

Warning: I doubt if anyone reading this has not seen this masterpiece... but I’m putting this here spoiler warning on, just in case. Also... fair warning, if you’re unfamiliar with the film you may be a bit left out in this article. I’m not going to provide a synopsis... this article is going to be long enough as it is. See one of the cuts of the movie first, then please revisit and read this article again if you have the time.

“They don’t advertise for killers in a newspaper...”

I remember hearing those words for the first time in a cinema in Enfield back in 1982.

Watching the original cut of Blade Runner now, 30 years on, those words still bring a special thrill to me and maybe it’s why the movie in the majority of its subsequent recuts and remixes doesn’t really fill me with the same enthusiasm as this initial version did.. although I’m not at all sure, to be honest, the US theatrical release was the one I actually saw in the cinema that day... my memory tells a slightly different story. But I’ll get to that soon.

I guess it’s hard for people to understand the effect that Blade Runner had on the general population of the movie going planet when it first came out that year, if they weren’t around to see it for themselves... especially now that the movie has become enshrined and recognised as the major artistic work it always was. Some people seemed stunned when you tell them just how badly it was received... or to be more precise... just how indifferently.

Here’s what happened back in 1982...

I was at school (school is something you should never subject children to, for the record) and I used to buy, whenever I could find them, two magazines which kept me fairly up to date with what was my version of the news... the British magazine called Starburst, which I’d been buying on and off (mostly off, as I never had any money) since its first issue, and the classier and slightly bulkier American equivalent of this magazine which had been going for a lot longer, known as Starlog. Now Starlog always used to get the inside dope on movies long before they ever arrived in Great Britain, and sometimes you were left in the cold waiting forever for a film to come out that you read about in Starlog but which, it turned out years later, never got any kind of general release in this country at all (and such was the fate, and why I’ve never seen, a movie I was looking forward to at the time called Heartbeeps... but that’s another story). So for months I was waiting for Blade Runner... but another kid got enthused when his Cinefex magazine arrived and covered the movie, so at least I had someone to talk to about it... although I don’t believe he actually got to see it on its initial release in the end. It didn’t actually stay at the cinema for very long, as far as I can remember.

So anyway, the movie gets quickly released and I go and see it with my parents after school one evening and I really enjoy it. It doesn’t stay for long, as I said, and that’s pretty much the last I hear of it until it comes out on the early VHS sell-through market, a few years later. That’s when I rediscover it again and it really hits me, the second time, just how special it was and why I’d loved it so much the first time around... although one of the things I notice about the VHS version is that it isn’t as violent as when I saw it at the cinema. The scene where Roy Batty squashes Dr. Eldon Tyrell’s eyes back into their sockets seems to cut away (quite poetically, I might add) to an owl looking away from the scene... and another sequence where Deckard “retires” Pris seems to be much less “in your face” too... I remembered a lot more thrashing around and shooting than on that early VHS release and, a few years later, when I get an NTSC US cassette edition of the Criterion edition of the movie, with reinstated violence (this movie had a lot of trouble with the US censors at the time, along with Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan), I realised that this version, known as the international cut, is the one I saw back at the cinema when it first came out. Now I don’t know how that happened because, I’m guessing, the UK would have supposed to have been showing the US theatrical cut... but I’m pretty sure my cinema was somehow showing this slightly longer version... I don’t know how that could have been, it’s just what I remember (it wouldn’t have been the first time my local cinema at the time had been sent the wrong print of a film though, to be sure).

So anyway, from about 1986 onwards, there was a time when me and one of my best mates went a bit Blade Runner crazy. I’d watched and rewatched the old PAL VHS version to death and knew the film and dialogue by heart by that point... but what you have to remember is that in those days, a commercial release of a movie in it’s correct theatrical aspect ratio was the exception rather than the rule... and the initial releases of Blade Runner on tape were, well, no exception. I finally figured out I needed to be seeing the thing in its full 2.35:1 aspect ratio again and I noticed one day in my local paper, that a cinema in Barnet was showing a midnight screening of the film. So me and my friend went and we got hooked all over again. I started scouring the local papers for one-off showings, when they really were one-off showings, and lots more screenings followed. Many of them didn’t finish until 2am in the morning but that was okay, we were pretty dedicated to this movie.

After a while, we realised that a small following of people, many of the same ones, were turning up to these screenings and that it was becoming quite popular as a film in a way in which it never was on it’s actual theatrical release all those years ago (this, of course, contradicts the use of the term cult when used in conjunction with film... popularity rules that clichéd notion right out). I even went to a screening at Hampstead where it screened as the second half of a double bill with Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point, with Rutger Haur in attendance (he was nice enough to sign my storyboard illustrated screenplay for me, which was good of him).

And then something happened in the USA which put Blade Runner back on the map for the bigwigs in the studio marketing departments who can make a difference... and things changed. The midnight movie and repertory screenings of Blade Runner, which had been quite popular for a few years in the UK, had started to happen in the USA and, quite by accident, an LA theatre accidentally showed Ridley Scott’s original workprint, which he’d used to test screen the movies on audiences prior to recutting and releasing the movie in 1982. It was a big hit... it’s a very “different” Blade Runner experience with vast differences to the original release prints and, in some ways, almost like watching a different movie. My understanding is that, when it caught on that this was a different version of the movie playing, all the fans came out of the woodwork for it and it played to packed theatres for weeks, if not months. The film that was a huge flop on its initial release suddenly seemed to have grown some potent, biomechanically engineered legs for the audience of that particular theatre.

Warner Brothers saw dollar signs and got Ridley Scott to put a directors cut out but, sensing the timing was a “now” thing, the deadline was very tight. All Ridley really had time to do, in my understanding of events, is take off the voice over, add a dopey memory flashback of a unicorn (culled from outtakes of his later film Legend, most likely) and remove the entire original ending coda (half assembled from outtakes of the opening of Stanley Kubrik’s opening sequence for The Shining, as it turns out) and that was that. None of the extra footage and shot alterations etc from the workprint edition made it into this new 1991 “director’s cut”, which Warners managed to turn into a win anyway because, as it happens, the film was really well loved by people after all. A lot of fans of the original cut, myself included, were left a little disappointed, though. Here are the five main reasons why:

1. We liked the voice over... which we do understand was added post-preview, much against Harrison  Ford’s wishes but, whatever you think of it, it does give the original cut a certain hard-boiled film noir quality which really helps it along.

2. It’s been widely reported that the revelation that the Rachel replicant has no built-in four year life span in the end sequence was contradictory to everything we’ve known about the replicants up to that point... not true, actually. This flimsy connection only works if you interpret Harrison Ford’s reluctance to tell Rachel about her files as the knowledge that she will only live for four years... but that’s really not acknowledged. What we do know, from the rest of the dialogue in the film regarding Rachel’s origins, is that she’s a special version, possibly pre-Nexus Six or at least an early version, and quite possibly the first to have false memory implants. The main replicants in the film cannot be fixed because the four year life span engineered into them by the Tyrell Corporation is already in place... to quote Tyrell himself, it “cannot be altered in any way”... nobody says anything about not being able to make them last longer from scratch if they wanted to. In fact, the very necessity of them actually having to be rebuilt with a four year life span implies that they already have done so and then seen the need to add that feature in to iron out certain problems. And so on... I could go on all day (and will if you let me).

3. The awful, awful, badly dubbed and completely out of synch sequence where Deckard interrogates the artifical snake manufacturer wasn’t cleaned up in the slightest.

4. We all love the scene where Deckard shoots Zhora in the back a few times and she smashes through all those windows to her death. Especially when the voice-overs are present. It makes you realise just how human (yeah, human, I said it) Deckard is and helps give you a moral viewpoint of the character in much the same way that the “man with a sack” sequence in Fellini’s Nights Of Cabiria gives the character of Cabiria a massive insight into herself. But the thing is, even in this version, that darned stuntwoman who looks nothing like actress Joanne Cassidy, appears to be totally ridiculous and mismatched... especially in that dodgy wig! A hard thing to fix (back then) and we certainly wouldn’t have expected him to be able to fix that one post-release... but then again, who does?

5. Reason number five is the dumb unicorn...

A lot of people who compare the movie to Philip K. Dick’s original source novel, Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? say that the movie is nothing like the book. Well... yes and no. Although the “mission brief” is virtually identical, as is at least one scene, the movie goes its own way and lots of stuff is changed. Deckard is no longer living with his wife, and his motivation for hunting down the andies (short for androids) in the book is because he needs the money to be able to afford to replace his electric sheep with a real, live sheep. Animals are scarce in the future and expensive. It’s a social embarrassment not to be owning a real one though... that would be bad. But most people can’t afford to own a real animal so there’s a thriving trade in fake electric animals which look like the real thing. This is what Deckard desires and it is this kinda stuff which drives humanity. That and their bizarre “religious coupling” with a shared vision of a figure called Mercer, who is about to be debunked on the Buster Friendly vid show any day now. This is the background milieu of the novel... and it’s very potent (if a little hard to grasp, first read around, when it comes to the concept of Mercer) and you can’t fail to be moved by the novel... like a lot of Dick’s writing. The bit where Deckard has finally earned enough money to buy/save a sheep only to have it thrown off the rooftop of his building by one of the androids is absolutely soul crushing and brilliant.

For the movie, Scott loses all the references to Mercerism (which are pretty important in the book) and most of the stuff about the animals. What he retains, however, is the empathy and moral values of the novel... and the importance of the animals The animals are all over the film in the form of references to artificial animals... and I’ve had so many people ask me why all these animal references are in the film. There’s no context to this stuff if you’re an audience unfamiliar with the original novel, you see. You have no way of knowing just how important these things are to the main characters... and so it kinda gets lost in translation... but it’s still there, etched into the celluloid in a way that would be very difficult to eradicate, even if one chose to do so.

The book also has a sequence where Deckard is forced to confront the issue of whether he is an android or not. This is a plot by the androids themselves and, it turns out, Deckard definitely isn’t... as he wasn’t in the original cut of the movie. I believe that the idea that Deckard is a replicant in the movie was never supposed to have been in the final version of the film (contrary to what Scott says about it now) and here’s why:

a. If Deckard was a much earlier model of replicant, he wouldn’t have fake memories and, although he wouldn’t be a match for a Nexus 6, he certainly would be a stronger character against the other humans (none of whom are in any way as human as the artificial replicants in the movie... who are pretty much morally superior when compared against all the “real” people in this movie). And you wouldn’t send out an inferior model of replicant to hunt down Nexus 6 models anyway, would you? Logically.

b. Getting back to the “Rachel is an experimental version” notion, the origami unicorn that gaff leaves at the end of the movie makes perfect sense. He’s basically telling Deckard that he should enjoy his time together with Rachel, because she’s a mythical creature, a soulless machine with the overt appearance of a warm-blooded human. If Deckard believes he can have a life with her, then he’s living a fairy tale... and so he’s welcome to it. That’s Gaff’s take on it anyway and hence, the origami symbolism of the unicorn. A mythical, fairytale creature.

When Ridley Scott adds the “memory” of an actual unicorn to Deckard’s dreams in the later cuts, then this kinda makes those elements I’ve mentioned above look ridiculous, flawed and, basically, as poorly thought out as anything in Scott’s Prometheus. Don’t get me wrong, I love Ridley Scott’s artistic sensibilities and Blade Runner is my favourite movie, but I think the notion that this frail, human being who even, in my favourite moment, drops his apartment key card because Rachel accidentally frightened him in the elevator, is actually a replicant is... more flawed in concept than a poor, genetically hobbled Nexus 6 model’s lifespan. If this is Scott’s choice now, well, all I can say is... Morphology? Longevity? Incept Dates? He don’t know such stuff!*

And then, for the movies 25th year anniversary, five years ago, we have the big box set in variant versions with five cuts in it, including a new, 2007 Final Cut, which is (or was, apparently) his last word on it.

There’s some extra footage in it but, to be honest, not a heck of a lot. The good things about the new cut are that he’s finally fixed the interrogation dialogue with the snake manufacturer and he’s also got Joanne Cassidy back for reshoots which he somehow manages to blend in seamlessly to replace the dodgy wigged stunt girl of all the previous versions. However, as far as the bad stuff goes, all the other complaints I had about the 1991 directors cut asides from these two fixes, still stands. This may be Ridley’s latest Blade Runner... but it’s not mine.

So onto the film itself then... if you really have never seen it and you’ve made it this far into this review, well you need to see it quick. It’s astonishing. The world Scott and his crew of artists and effects teams create is absolutely beautiful. It’s a real, lived in city of the future which, although harkening back to the Fritz Lang classic Metropolis, along with the comic-book art of Meobius, is itself a dazzling achievement and there’s no way that films like The Fifth Element and a whole plethora of science fiction movies right up to the present day would have happened in quite the same way without the influence of this amazing film.

The lighting and design of the shots and the placement of both people and elements within those shots are amazing. The vulnerability of Deckard, the very man sent to take out these super-human beings called replicants, is absolutely an untypical, of the time, character and did a lot, I believe, to relax Hollywood ideas about how emotionally and physically imperfect the main protagonist of your movie is allowed to be.

Vangelis’ score, shamefully unreleased in a proper version (and there have been numerous attempts, believe me), is absolutely sublime and weaves in and out of your mind like an earworm 20 plus years before the term was even invented. The grime and sleaze of the streets and the dregs of humanity who are still living on earth and not in one of the “off world colonies” are all given a poetic and somewhat epic feel by the mise-en-scene in general and it’s lifted to a point where it often feels like you are watching a moving version of a precious painting which should be hung in an art gallery. The poetry of the images matched note by note by the beauty of the scoring and sound design. It’s the film where the term “designer grime” originated.

There are things you’ll notice, too, if you are a fan of movie history. The “Environ Purge” screen that Ridley included in the destruction of “Mother” in Alien is recycled here, as is the Sydney Greenstreet character of The Fat Man from The Maltese Falcon, in the toys in the character, J. F. Sebastian’s apartment (Ridley loves recycling stuff... he even recycles future moments of dialogue from later on in the movie and puts it in as a sound sample in Deckard and Rachel’s Voight-Kampff scene). Loads of little details, some intentional, some not expecting to be caught years later by obsessive watchers of the movie... all of it forms a potent cocktail that will have you reaching to the back of your mouth to rid yourself of the little maggot that was lurking at the bottom of the grimy, cinematic bottle. There aren't many movies since this one which have had all their elements, perfect and imperfect, come together to create such a brilliant and awe inspiring artistic blend as this one.

The new Blu Ray edition has a replica spinner which is a lot different from the version which was released with the American briefcase edition from 5 years ago, but the digital content of the Blu Ray seems to me to be exactly the same. You have the five most important cuts: the Final Cut, the Original Theatrical Cut (which is the one which was regularly shown on its UK midnight movie revival), The International Cut (which is the old Criterion version and the one I believe I actually saw at the cinema in 1982), the Director’s Cut from 1991 (now rendered redundant for so many reasons, as far as I’m concerned) and the original preview Work Print, which is the one that caused all the fuss when it was shown by accident and which is, to say the least, a very valuable edition, featuring longer and alternate versions of some of the scenes and some of the original musical temp tracks, most of which seem to come from Jerry Goldsmith scores such as Planet Of The Apes and Alien. You also have some quite exhaustive documentaries, still galleries, trailers and deleted scenes (which one day make the cut in a “beyond final cut” I would guess). All this stuff is valuable to fans of the film and, even though it’s just a duplicate set, by and large, to what we had five years ago, it’s still something which should be applauded and rewarded with high sales. At least when Ridley Scott revises his films, some may say for the worse, he makes available all his previous stabs so you can experience the version of the film that you want to be seeing at any given time... something that a certain Mr. George Lucas might learn from, is my opinion on that one.

There’s so much stuff I could say about this movie that I could literally go on forever. How about I break the film down into 5 minute sections and write a chapter or two on each? This review is already way too long though so if there’s anything you want to know further to what I’ve written here, please leave a comment/question and I’ll try to get back to you.

One thing I will say, though, is that if you’ve never experienced this movie at a cinema, or even a massive screen, and especially if you’ve never experienced it at all... then I urge you to do so. It’s one of the greatest artistic achievements of 20th Century film art. That comes with the caveat, of course, that you try and see one of the original 1982 cuts first... my understanding of people who have just seen the "director’s cut" blind without having seen the original version are that their experience is far less rewarding without those “dreaded” (to some) voice-over narratives. Whatever you do though... go see it. Every sequence is a learning experience on the art of film.

*With thanks to Chew, as played by James Hong in the movie.


  1. This film well deserves the attention you give it! What I like about your reviews, among many things, is the emphasis you bring to the viewing experience, both at first and subsequent viewings. This film grows with each viewing for me. When I first saw it it was like many other sci-fi flicks. But repeated views into its universe have allowed me to linger in the delicious details.

  2. Yeah. It's definitely a classic, especially in its original form.

    Thanks for reading and taking the time out to comment.

    All the best.