Sunday, October 3, 2010

Blade Runner: Five film versions

Blade Runner is one of my favorite SF films, but it has taken multiple viewings to get me to the point where I begin to understand why. The story is a classic SF/Police procedural mix with a film noir atmosphere. Only recently have I been able to spend time away from the central action and concentrate on the background. It is this, the imaginative and painstaking attention to the setting, that makes Blade Runner the outstanding film that it is: the various people on the streets, the clothing, the introduction of animals in an urban environment, the stores, the various small and unique businesses (snakes and owls and llamas? made to order), and the dark and brooding atmosphere so reminiscent of films of the 40s and 50s.

Of course, when I heard of the Director's Cut, I had to see what Riddley Scott, the director, now thought should be in the film, and then when the Final Cut came out, I decided to run my own Blade Runner film festival. I started by renting them or getting them from the public library, which had the theatrical version. I then learned there was a collector's edition out and decided that this was something I should have in my own private collection of DVDs, of which I now have six. I investigated and found the 5 Disc Collectors' Edition at a reasonable price.

What really sold me on it was that it claimed to have five versions of Blade Runner. Now this I had to see. It arrived with five DVDs: three with the various versions of the film, but also two DVDs with extras-- Dangerous Days: Making Blade Runner and The Enhancement Archive. This was in addition to the Special and Bonus Features found with the various film versions. To be honest, I haven't watched the two DVDs yet. I keep getting distracted by the films, but one of these days . . .

I will not be writing about Philip K. Dick's novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which was published in 1958. The changes are so significant that it would take a book to adequately discuss them.

I shall discuss significant events and the endings of the film versions.

The Five Faces of Blade Runner

THE WORKPRINT: this version has never been released for viewing in the theaters. It is, as the label suggests, a working version of the film, made prior to the release of the theatrical versions. Aside from a few minor technical problems with color and the sound track, it is a version that is very acceptable. When I saw it, I thought that if I had seen this in a theatre, I would have guessed that it was an older version that had become a bit tired over the three decades since its release.

THE THEATRICAL RELEASE: US Version, 1982. This is the first release of the film, and frankly, it is still my favorite. It bombed when it came out. Film-goers weren't ready for it; I wonder if there's an audience for it today, some three decades later.

THE THEATRICAL RELEASE: International Version, 1982. This version was for theaters outside of the US. The only differences I can see are minimal: in the International version, some of the fight scenes are a few seconds longer and the violence more explicit, and some brief nudity in the dressing room of Zhora, the snake dancer. These differences are included in the Director's Cut and the Final Cut.

THE DIRECTOR'S CUT: 1992. This appeared a decade after the theatrical release. Generally a re-release such as this would include some scenes that weren't in the first release and possibly the editing or even the outright deletion of scenes that the director now felt didn't work. The major differences, that I can see, are the loss of the voice-overs (a serious error by Riddley Scott, as far as I'm concerned), the bewildering introduction of the unicorn scene, and the truncated ending. My opinion is that Scott's changes weakened the film.

THE FINAL CUT: 2007. This version came out some fifteen years after the Director's Cut. The changes in this version had to do with several technical flaws and didn't introduce anything new to or take anything out of the Director's Cut.

1. In the scene when Deckard talks to the creator of the snake for Zhora, the sound track didn't match up exactly with the visual scene. Since Ford was busy, they got his son to come in and reshoot the scene. They filmed Ford's son as he lipsync'd (is there such a word?) to the audio track and then inserted that into the film.

2. The second reshooting took place in the scene where Deckard shoots Zhora as she goes crashing through the plate glass in the store. Apparently, Scott? felt that the face of the double for Zhora was too noticeable. To solve this problem, Joanna Cassidy came in and they filmed her face as she twisted and turned to match the positions of the double's face in the film. This was then inserted into the film, so that it is now Joanna Cassidy's face one sees crashing through all that plate glass.

3. At the end of the film, at the point when Roy dies, he releases the white bird which then flies up into the sky. As the camera follows it up into the clear blue sky, I wondered what had happened to the rain. Had it suddenly stopped? Well, that doesn't happen in the Final Cut. That bird now flies upward into the rain falling from a dark sky (it was a dark and stormy night--sorry, couldn't resist that).

The white bird: Scott said that it originally was just a sign that Roy had died and had let go of the bird, but everybody else took the bird as symbolic of the freedom that Roy finally achieved. For many viewers, the white bird is Roy's soul ascending to heaven. He had developed a soul and was now human.

This has been just a brief overview of the five films. Following is a discussion of some of the major differences that appear among the five versions, or at least I see them as major. There may be other differences equally important, but they've escaped me so far. Perhaps I'll finally see them in subsequent viewings.

The Voice-overs: these appear only in the initial theatrical releases. They are not found in the Workprint (with one interesting exception which I will bring up later), and were removed from the Director's Cut and were not restored in the Final Cut. This is a major error in judgment on Scott's part, for, in my opinion, it weakens the film. One of the film's strengths is its dark, gloomy atmosphere, for many scenes take place at night and in the rain. Harrison Ford's first scene is outside on the street on a drizzly night. Take a close look at Rachel's clothing, hairstyle, and makeup, and then look at photos of women taken during the 1940's and 1950's. Rachel's appearance puts her much closer to that period then to the 1980's or the early 21st century when the story takes place. The voice-over is a powerful reminder of the noir films that appeared after WWII, many of which were crime films in which one man was depicted on the trail of criminals or on a mission of revenge. Blade Runner clearly fits in with these films.

Reaction: removing the voice-over was a mistake. I think it weakens the film It is the single most important reason why I rate the theatrical version higher than the Director's Cut and the Final Cut.

The Unicorn: the unicorn appears only in the Director's Cut and the Final Cut. Rachel has just left Deckard's apartment (her first visit in which she argues that she isn't a replicant). After she leaves, Deckard is shown sitting at the piano, picking out a few notes when he suddenly and inexplicably thinks of a unicorn running through the woods. He then gets up and begins to use his computer to work on one of Leon's photos.

In one of the bonus features, I learned that the brief appearance was actually shot especially for the film and wasn't borrowed from another film. I also learned that it supposedly supports Scott's idea that Deckard is a replicant. It's intended to tie in with the unicorn origami (I think that's what it is) that Gaff leaves by Deckard's apartment at the end of the film. How else would Gaff know about Deckard's unicorn daydream if a unicorn hadn't been placed in Deckard's memory? Huh!

I gather that this was an afterthought on Scott's part because people weren't getting Scott's idea that Deckard is human. Frankly, I don't get it either. There are too many other ways for a unicorn to appear in Deckard's memory without the need for a memory implant. A unicorn traditionally is a symbol of virginity, for only a virgin could capture one. Rachel certainly comes across as innocent and naive and perhaps virginal? OK, it's a stretch, but no more so than the "official" interpretation.

Reaction: I see no reason for this scene. It doesn't convince me that Deckard is a replicant, which is why it was inserted in the last two releases. It doesn't work. To be honest, when a friend mentioned the unicorn in the film, I didn't remember it, even though I had just seen the film a few weeks earlier. I either wasn't watching the film those few seconds it was on or I considered it irrelevant and simply forgot about it.

Roy's Death: the scene of Roy's death is the same for the four releases. It differs only in the workprint version. It is also the only example of a voice-over other than in the initial theatrical releases. In the workprint, Roy doesn't die when he says "Time to die," ironically using the same words Leon used when he was about to kill Deckard, and when the white bird flies upward, but he struggles against death for several hours afterwards. Deckard in the voice-over comments that Roy's death took hours. He also thinks about why Roy saved his life. Perhaps Roy, his own death so imminent, realizes how important life is, even a blade runner's life.

The Escape at the End: The theatrical versions are the only ones that have the final scene out in the countryside. The others end with the closing of the elevator doors. I guess that the prejudice against a possibly happy ending is responsible here. If so, then somebody has forgotten a short but significant conversation between Deckard and Rachel. They are back in his apartment, now for the second time. Deckard is cleaning up when Rachel mentions leaving the city and heading north. She asks him if he would come after her, would hunt her down. Deckard replies that he wouldn't for he owes her one. . . but that somebody would.

Have they really escaped? I doubt it, for all they have done by leaving the city is to delay being tracked down. If Deckard also is a replicant, then surely the authorities would go after them, especially since Rachel, an experimental model, has no termination date. She could live for decades. They are too dangerous to allow to live free. Other blade runners will soon be on their trail, if they weren't already on their way.

Is Deckard a replicant? This is probably the point that is most controversial. I've seen numerous commentaries that argue both sides. I've come to the conclusion that there is no concrete evidence clearly and unambiguously supporting either position. Riddley Scott, the director, says that Deckard is a replicant. While he says Deckard is a replicant, his film suggest something quite other than that.

If Deckard is a replicant, then he must be the most incompetent replicant in existence. He can't be a Nexus, the same type as Roy and his friends are, for there is no comparison between them. He is slower than them, clearly weaker than them, and is always caught by surprise by them.

Zhora: in the dressing room, she catches him by surprise, even though he knows she's a replicant, and is about to kill him when others walk into the dressing room. She flees, and Deckard then shoots her in the back as she flees through the store. He fires and misses several times before he finally hits her.

Leon: Deckard has just killed Zhora and is leaving the scene when Leon catches him offguard. Deckard pulls his gun, but Leon merely flicks it away, says "Time to Die," and is just about to kill him when Rachel appears, picks up Deckard's gun and shoots Leon in the head from a distance of twenty or thirty yards, hitting him with one shot. Of course, she's a Nexus model and functions competently in this situation. It's Rachel who kills Leon, not Deckard, who is the best blade runner in the city, according to Bryan, his boss.

Pris: Deckard is wandering around Stevenson's apartment looking for replicants, his gun still in its holster. He gets suspicious of one of the large dolls and goes over there without pulling his gun. Pris jumps him and is about to kill him when she decides to have some fun. This gives Deckard a chance to finally get his gun out and kill her as she tries to stomp him to death.

Roy: Deckard has the gun and Roy has no weapon. Deckard becomes the prey, even if he is armed, and at the end, Roy has to save Deckard's life. Roy dies because he has reached his termination date and not because Deckard kills him.

All four Nexus replicants are superior to Deckard. All four could have killed him, but three were prevented by chance, and the fourth chooses to save Deckard's life instead. What kind of replicant is Deckard? Surely not a Nexus.

Deckard is told that the Tyrell Corporation is determined to build replicants that become more and more human. Perhaps Deckard is a Nexus 7, next year's model that is so human that it is as incompetent as the average human.

Riddley Scott says Deckard is a replicant; his film says no, Deckard is human.

Overall Reaction: the theatrical versions get a 5 on a five point scale; the others a 4.


  1. Dear Fred,

    Can't agree about the loss of the voice-overs. For me they were one of the major turn-offs of the original film (which I still loved; however, when I got the VHS version, I had to turn down the sound on the initial voice-overs--the scripting was so ludicrously bad). I should be more specific--not ALL of the voiceovers--just those at the very beginning of the film. Otherwise, I tend to agree with you on their effect and purpose.

    But this sounds interesting. Thanks for the review.



  2. Steven,

    I'm not surprised that you disagree about the voice-overs. I find that I'm in a very small minority about them. Most don't like them.

    Oh well, it does my soul good to be a voice crying out in the wilderness now and then. [g]

  3. Fred,

    Well I'm out in the wilderness with you, LOL. I always liked the voiceovers for the same reasons you gave. It adds to that film noir quality. Blade Runner is unique because it was the first ( that I know of) blend of SF and film noir in a movie.

    As for the "is he or isn't he a replicant?" question, I'd say it's something that the director probably changed in his Direrctor's Cut version AFTER it had been debated by fans. I'd imagine that there'd been discussions saying "How cool would it be if Deckard is really a replicant himself?". How many more DVDs could he sell if he gave the fanboys what they want? Maybe I'm being too cynical here, but that's the way I see it. It is, after all, the movie BUSINESS.

  4. Cheryl,

    Glad to have you join me. That's one nice characteristic of the wilderness--there's always room for one more.

    As for Scott's motivation, I don't know, but I did hear one commentator say that one of the strengths of the film was the ambiguity of Deckard's true nature.

    Which are remembered and talked about longer: those films or stories in which all the questions are answered or those that leave some questions unanswered or have some ambiguity or contain some contradictory aspects?

  5. I love Bladerunner and it's one of my top ten movies of all time. I was so excited when a Director's Cut came out and eagerly began watching. Like you, the loss of voice-overs was tragic to me. Didn't bother watching that version a second time.

  6. madamevauquer,

    Always glad to find another who appreciates the voice-overs. I had hoped that they would be put back in when I heard about the Final Cut, but that wasn't to be.