DVD Review Of Blade
Runner (The Final Cut)
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 3/11/09
Director Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci fi dystopian film Blade Runner is one of those Hollywood films whose initial mixed reviews, like those for Casablanca, were actually closer to the mark than the subsequent decades of hagiography that followed. That’s not to say that Blade Runner is a bad film, only a much ballyhooed mediocrity rather than a great, or even classic film; due mostly to its poor and sluggish screenplay. Adapted from a mediocre novel, called Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, by Philip K. Dick- a writer whose initial ideas for stories always outstripped his creative ability to narratively render them into good prose, the film pales in comparison to Paul Verhoeven’s later filmic Dick adaptation, 1990’s Total Recall, as well as to Scott’s prior sci fi classic, Alien. While I saw the original theatrical release on VHS tape nearly twenty years ago, there was little that stuck with me about the film, save that it was a slow moving, and often pretentious bore, at its worst, and an occasionally interesting film, at its best. This review will chiefly concern Scott’s 2007 DVD edition, called The Final Cut, which follows along the same lines with the 1992 Director’s Cut, which was not actually done by Scott, and changes quite a few elements from the original version. After having watched the DVD version, I did go back to my old videotape to watch the original version (which was the first of a claimed seven different released versions of the film), and can state that while The Final Cut improves a few elements, similar to the technical ways George Lucas tweaked THX 1138 and Francis Ford Coppola added things to Apocalypse Now, it takes away more from the original version than it adds; again proving that directors- while they know what’s best for a film more often than not- can make errors, and occasionally the studio suits do make the correct decisions, both artistically and business-wise. In fact, this was the era- post Michael Cimino’s disastrous Heaven’s Gate (as well as Coppola’s Apocalypse Now)- where studios started reigning in the directorial excesses of the 1970s, which often led to self-indulgent masturbatory films. In watching the better, sleeker (although still nowhere near great) original version, and seeing Scott’s later tweaks, there’s little doubt that Scott’s penchant for artistic masturbation (onscreen and in the DVD’s audio film commentary) needed to be checked by the studio suits.
The basic problem, in all versions of the film, is that Scott does nothing to make the characters in the film ‘real,’ empathetic, nor relatable to most viewers. They are all emotionally castrated archetypes, they have no real human interactions with each other, and given the suffusion of technical detail on the screen, ostensibly to add ‘realism’ to the futuristic tale set in 2019, there can be no falling back upon the excuse that they were intentionally symbolic or metaphoric characters, whose bland and dull portrayals via acting was intentionally marionette-like, the way, say, Michelangelo Antonioni’s characters in L’Eclisse, or Alain Resnais’s characters in Last Year In Marienbad, are. And, here is the nub of the problem, not only with the film, but with its overly positive critical reception after its initial box office and critical flops: like most modern MFA fiction writing, Scott believes that depth of story and characterization comes not from the ‘moments’ onscreen, nor the way an actor can make a banal scene work, but by flooding the screen with excessive detail and description, even if that detail is not particularly noteworthy. Good detail, such as in a well written film like It’s A Wonderful Life, will reveal little details in the background, or moments between characters in ‘minor scenes’, that in rewatch make sense, or illuminate something to come, emotionally or narratively- if not both. There is nothing of the sort in this film. There are little trinkets tossed onscreen meant to set technogeeks aflutter, but that’s far different from what I just mentioned. Having watched the film five times in a single day- The Final Cut, alone and with tits three DVD commentaries, and the VHS original version, I reiterate: there are no such moments nor scenes that exist in Blade Runner (any version). Yes, as mentioned, one might spot an interesting neon sign or a silly looking character, but nothing that adds to the film’s core. In fact, Scott’s removal of the initial version’s voiceover by star Harrison Ford, is a big blow to the film, which I’ll delve into later, in more detail, because its loss removes narrative elements from the film that simply do not exist onscreen without it, as well as humanizing and deepening Ford’s character more than his emotionally retarded onscreen acting allows; especially by allowing a bit of humor to enter the film, especially in its final moments, which differ radically in the original and final versions.
But, let me step back, for those people approaching this film with no preconceptions, and give a concise précis of the film- with the original elements noted when differing from The Final Cut. In 2019, androids called Replicants have rebelled at an outer space colony, and laws back on earth have made it legal for cops called Blade Runners to execute them on sight. A few are known to have made it to Los Angeles, which resembles a more futuristic Tokyo. An ex-Blade Runner named Rick Deckard (Ford) is forced back into service after a fellow Blade Runner was killed by one of the rogue Replicants, who seem to try to be infiltrating the headquarters of the corporation that made them, possibly to force their creator, the company’s titular founder and CEO, a man named Tyrell (Joe Turkel), to extend their lives, which are pre-programmed to end after four years, so that the Replicants will not suffer emotional and psychological traumas due to their natures as de facto slave labor. However, the rebel Replicants know what they are and seek an extension, despite the company’s implanting of false memories to make them believe they are real humans. The Replicants that Deckard needs to kill, or ‘retire,’ are the leader, Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), Leon Kowalski (Brion James), an Amazon sex dancer named Zhora (Joanna Cassidy), and Pris (Darryl Hannah). Deckard’s police partner is an oddball named Gaff (Edward James Olmos), whose main contribution to the film seems to be to add ‘color’- by speaking an Esperanto inspired slang, and leaving little origami figures wherever he goes. His is a perfect example of all that’s wrong with the film’s screenplay, for, despite his quirks, Gaff is essentially a cipher in the film. Again, detail (if pointless), is just superfluousness, not depth. A related point should be that the final version of the film removes Ford’s voiceover, which helps to clarify and condense the often inexplicable things Deckard does (as well as things not readily known due to the dark murk that infests the film’s major scenes). The film’s voiceover also directly ties the film back to 1940s film noir, in a playful way, whereas the voiceless final version makes the film more grim, somber, murky, and makes Deckard far less appealing, since Ford does no ‘exterior’ acting with his face nor body. The voiceovers serve a valuable purpose that is lost and makes the final version far less difficult for fresh eyes to follow.
Deckard goes to see Tyrell, and meets his latest version of a Replicant (again, they are supposedly outlawed, but let’s go with the film’s internal inconsistencies), Racael (Sean Young), who does not realize she is a Replicant. Meanwhile, Batty and Leon strongarm their way to get information on how to confront Tyrell, to demand that he help them by extending their lives. Batty, however, can sense his life is nearing its end. After some encounters which leave Tyrell, and all the rogue Replicants but Batty, dead, Deckard and Batty face off in a rooftop melee over L.A. Roy seems to have Deckard beaten, as Deckard hangs from a beam, but Deckard refuses to beg for help, and spits up at Batty, who rescues him, just as he is about to fall to his doom. Instead of a final battle, Deckard watches as Batty’s life fades away. However, before he does, he utters a purple prose tinged soliloquy that is a bit cringe-worthy:
seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder
of Orion. I watched sea-beams [or C-beams?- DAN] glitter in the dark near
the Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in
rain....Time to die.
Here is where the original film works far better. In the final version, this soliloquy is left hanging, and it invokes not empathy for Batty, but chuckles for the android thinking it was somehow so deep and profound in its grasp of its plight. In the original version, however, we immediately get Deckard’s voiceover after Batty’s words, which, in its faux 1940s hardboiled style, leavens the soliloquy’s unintended humor with its own almost self-knowing silliness. The original version is thus much better, at this moment, not because the voiceover is good, but that it makes the viewer more readily accept Batty’s spew without guffawing. The film then ends with Gaff finding Deckard and Batty, and Gaff refers to Rachael (whom earlier scenes showed improbably falling in mutual love with Deckard), stating: ‘It’s too bad she won’t live; but then again, who does?’ Deckard returns to his apartment, and finds Rachael sleeping. As they leave, with him fearing she might be targeted for retirement next, he sees an origami unicorn left by Gaff. He’s been there, but let Rachael live. Here is also where the final and original versions diverge. Gaff’s last words clearly show that he knows about Rachael, but won’t kill her, so the scene with the unicorn is superfluous. The film (all versions) would have best ended there. It sums up that Gaff knows Deckard’s love should be killed, but clearly he won’t harm her, and will allow Deckard a chance with her. The final version ends with Deckard holding the unicorn and entering an elevator with Rachael. Now, the unicorn refers to an earlier scene in the final version, where Deckard dreams of a unicorn. Fans claim this proves Deckard is a Replicant, lest how would Gaff (who seems to know more about more than any other character) know of his dream’s import, unless he had knowledge the unicorn was implanted into the Replicant Deckard? Of course, this makes little sense, and in the original version of the film, there is no unicorn sequence, so the origami unicorn is simply another self-important marker that Gaff was there, and spared Rachael; not that he knows anything of depth regarding Deckard’s reality. The original version also has a voiceover of Deckard speaking of Gaff as he sees the unicorn, and then we see scenes of Deckard and Rachael driving in a pastoral countryside (outtakes, reputedly, from Stanley Kubrick’s opening shots for The Shining). Deckard’s voiceover then explains that Tyrell had told him that Rachael had no failsafe four year limit built in to her, so can live a ‘normal’ lifespan (whatever that is for her kind), and he echoes a version of what Gaff said, stating that he does not know how long they will have together, but who does? It’s ironic that, while neither version is near a great film, the original voiceover version is clearly superior, even though both the film’s director, Scott, and its lead actor, Ford, objected to them.
Now, fans (and indeed, many of them border on being fetishists) of the film insist the final version is better, because it implies Deckard is a Replicant. Film critic James Berardinelli concurs, and writes:
While the director’s cut removes the unfortunate voiceover from the original and eliminates the sappy happy ending, it also raises a question that has divided fans: Is Deckard a replicant? The answer appears to be yes, and Scott has subsequently confirmed this. The evidence is brief but seemingly conclusive. Deckard dreams of a unicorn. Later, he finds an origami image of the animal created by Gaff. This is viewed as proof that someone knows about Deckard’s dreams and memories, meaning they are implanted, not real. Only special replicants have implanted memories. It makes sense, but there are those who don’t buy it, including Harrison Ford. Ultimately, the determination of who and what Deckard is must be left to the individual viewer.
But, this claim, by the fans and Berardinelli, simply is not so. Like many films, this is a wan interpretation, unsupported by the diegetic facts within even the final version, that has been accepted uncritically in many critical cribbings of the film, and expounded as fact. But, even the final version has no real evidence for this. The unicorn sequence is rather superfluous, and is just a dream. The fact that Gaff knows about it can be explained as something he recalled from conversations with Deckard that Deckard simply forgot, as the film implies this is an important recurring symbol to the man, and something he may likely have expounded upon to others- a very ‘human’ thing to do, especially since he is not a particularly reticent guy when in the company of his peers, whom he seems to be quite collegial with. However, in the original (and better) version (which is also two or three minutes shorter than the final version’s 117 minutes), the origami unicorn has no extra significance, because it is merely one of a number of bizarre figures Gaff leaves as calling cards. But, aside from that, how and why a dream of a unicorn, and how Gaff knows of it, still does not explain why a unicorn dream would in any way imply Deckard’s synthetic reality. Are unicorns somehow a symbol of artificial life that the film lets us not know? And, even if the original version makes it rather clear he is not a Replicant, who really cares of the query, since the bulk of the film is so listless, not to mention its lead character- to the point that whether or not he is an android or just a malaise ridden human seems of no great import? Also, numerous minor moments are taken to be symbolically significant in this film, but they simply are not. In the DVD edition of The Final Cut, on his own commentary track, director Ridley Scott even ridicules all the nonsense that has been read into the film, such as declaring the idea, put forth by some critics, that the film, made in 1982, was somehow commenting on South African apartheid, to be ridiculous. While it’s true that any work of science fiction will draw parallels to contemporary issues, this alone does not mean that rampant imbuement is justified, nor that everything is symbolic.
As example, the very notion that Blade Runner is some profound meditation on existence and what it means to be human, and on human or inhuman bondage, is simply not supported by the film. That may have been the intent, but not the result, and this is a critical mixup that has plagued criticism for film (and other arts) for far too long. Roy Batty, as the rebel leader, is taken to be a convincing antihero, but in any version of the film, he is clearly a psychopathic killer, despite his subjugation and pains. In a sense, he is a cyber John Brown, or more accurately, a cyber Nat Turner. But Turner was still a mass murdering psychopath, despite having been brutalized in Antebellum bondage. And when the film tries to probe into the ‘depths’ of Batty’s soul, in his dying soliloquy, all we get are vapidity and bad pseudopoetry. Neither Batty nor Deckard (even if one accepts the exceedingly thin case for his non-humanity) really penetrate deeper issues. Contrast Batty’s striving for depth and empathy last soliloquy with a similar moment in a far superior, and far simpler and deeper, film, Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar, which follows the peregrinations of a rural donkey over a decade or so of its life till death. Midway through that film there is a scene of sublime transcendence, that is wordless, yet which says infinitely more about the human condition vis-à-vis the suffering it imparts to its subjugated non-human laborers (the stated reason for the Replicant rebellion). The donkey has been bought by a traveling circus, and is lead into a stable with a host of other animals. The camera then intercuts shots of the eyes of the donkey, and a handful of the circus’s other beasts- a tiger, monkey, and elephant, among them, and the result is a wordless inhuman conversation that essentially is the other animals telling the donkey, that they’ve seen worse than it has. There is simply no scene in Blade Runner that approaches this moment in Bresson’s film, and furthermore, no moment that even seriously attempts it, for Blade Runner is one of those films whose reputation rests almost entirely upon the ‘criticism of intent,’ a noxious reiteration of the intentional fallacy. Fans and supporters of the film simply toss around ideas of what they ‘like’ about the film, supported or not, then cross-reference each others’ speculations, as well as speculations about the film, while conveniently ignoring counter-evidence, or missing evidence, that is actually onscreen, or not. These things then get supplemented by things like the director’s version of what the film is about, from the DVD supplements, and a handful of documentaries and interviews, such as in 2002, when Scott told a British newspaper, The Observer, that he liked the idea of pain, and exploring it in this film, due to a sibling’s prolonged death via cancer. However, despite Roy Batty’s occasional winces, there is nothing in the film (any version) that suggests this is a major theme. Period. Maybe Scott intended it, maybe it’s a quarter century of wanting to do something in the film, and claiming it’s there, but the net fact is that the film is not an exploration of pain. Period.
Another bandied about claim is that the film is somehow ‘visionary;’ yet this fails for several reasons. The claim is based upon the suffusion of details that fill the screen- all the techno stuff. Yet, this is rather standard fare in sci fi films from Metropolis through 2001: A Space Odyssey (that film’s special effects director, Douglas Trumbll worked on Blade Runner), Star Wars, Logan’s Run (a goofier film, with similar themes, made a few years earlier, but much more enjoyable to watch than this film), and Scott’s own Alien. Only Metropolis and 2001, of those films, could be considered visionary, but for their tales, not their technical wizardry. Even Blade Runner’s most ardent supporters admit how much the film stylistically leeches off of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis- especially in regards to its vision of a future Los Angeles, and Alien certainly laid the visual template of a dark mechanistic future that Blade Runner exploited, and which led to what became known as cyber-punk. In short, Blade Runner is not visionary in any sense of the word, but most obviously highly derivative, the very antithesis of visionary! Similarly, Scott is by no means a visionary director. Years ago he would have been called a studio director because there is never a moment or passage in a film where one immediately knows this is a Ridley Scott film. Great, good, or bad, all of Scott’s films are technically fine, but leave no indelible imprint, ala Stanley Kubrick, Akira Kurosawa, Robert Bresson, or Michelangelo Antonioni. And, to return just momentarily to the pros and cons over whether or not Deckard is a Replicant or not (due to the conflicting versions, which, as noted, leave little evidence pro the claim), I would state that, given the fact that the Deckard character is so poorly limned in all versions, and is so seemingly emotionally hamstrung, there is no real desire to care one way or the other. The viewer simply does not care about Deckard (much les the other characters) because he does not display any interior depth with which to empathize with. It becomes a question based upon a very trivial point that has no essential bearing on the plot nor the denouement; especially in the superior original version. The more important question about the film is why is it so dull, despite having such rich and complex potential to mine?
As for the DVD version of The Final Cut? It comes on two disks. The second disk only has an over three hour long documentary on the film called Dangerous Days: Making Blade Runner. While it has some interesting information, its length is offputting, especially considering the rather wan film it explores so deeply. The first disk contains the film, and it is certainly a visual stunner- the cinematography by Jordan Cronenweth is very good, although, again, there is no ‘signature’ visual moment that raises this film above dozens of other sci fi scenes, although the score by Vangelis is, like all his film scores, overwrought and pretentious. There are some minor bonus features and a trailer, but the meat of this disk is its three audio commentaries. None are particularly stellar. The best is probably Ridley Scott’s. Yet, too often he is self-congratulatory, and roams off the mark. There is some useful background information, but Scott seems to be stuck too deeply in backpatting to be of any real service- a case of being more self-centered than film-centered. Another commentary is by the visual effects guys, and this is simply dull, filled with technospeak and minor recollections- the only bright spot being the claim that the explosions shown from towers, in the films opening scenes, were leftover shots from Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Red Desert (made over a decade earlier) that sat around in a vault, and were superimposed on the model set of the city used by Scott. The third commentary, features the film’s producer, Michael Deeley, its screenwriters, Hampton Fancher and David Peoples, among others. Fancher and Peoples spend much of the commentary trying to be smart asses, and mouthing a poor man’s Abbott and Costello routine about who wrote what, and, the first time it occurs, it’s mildly amusing. By the fifth of several dozen times, it’s a bore, as well as boorish and pointless. Producer Deeley, however, makes the most insightful comment on all three of the commentaries, when he basically admits he feels the original version, with voiceover, is the best version. He says that he often argues with the film’s diehard fans over this point, and they point to later versions, without the voiceover, as proof that the voiceover was superfluous. Deeley says that he counters by stating that the non-voiceover versions work only because the fans originally saw the film with voiceover, and have carried over information gotten that way into subsequent versions. To the first time viewer, though, the later versions leave too many plot holes, and are too slow moving to make the viewer ‘go with the flow’ and gloss over the logical inconsistencies that the voiceover aids with. He’s correct, of course, but, other than that point, he has little of substance to contribute. All the commentaries, however, suffer from a penchant for dealing less with the actual film onscreen and more with what they each intended the film to be, a flaw recapitulated from the intervening years of critical miscriticism.
All in all, Blade Runner is a passable film, a 65-70 out of 100 (mainly on the strength of its technical achievement), but nowhere is it near great, much less the masterpiece its fans claim. Like its source novel, it has a few good ideas, more bad ones, a thin plot, trite and leaden dialogue, and poor characterizations, made all the worse by mediocre to bad acting, from the always overrated Ford, to the abysmal Young, to the over the top Hauer (aptly demonstrated by his silly soliloquy) to the lifeless Hannah (both of whose portrayals do nothing to engender sympathy for the Replicants), to the quirk-infested Olmos. Add in the chemistry lacking love story between Ford and Young, and the far too long sequences designed to simply show off the visuals and inner workings of Tyrell’s corporation, the muddled plot (especially in the later non-voiceover versions), and the film is a classic triumph of ‘style over substance.’ Even that cliché grates, despite its aptness. Granted, it would not surprise me if claimants of the Deckard as Relicant posit point to the chemistry lacking love story as proof that both characters are inhuman, but Occam’s Razor points to the simpler interpretation that it’s just bad acting and writing.
Similarly, the overall film ultimately falls far short of its claimed greatness because it simply is never sure of what it wants to be- another strike against its ‘visionary’ claims. It has too many feet on too many boats that diverge- is it sci fi, is it existential, is it film noir, is it a character study? In truth, it has elements of all these and more, but not enough of any of them to make it work as one, much less all of these. In fact, the chief failing, on all scores, for this film, is that Ridley Scott really had no vision for the project, grafting elements from Alien and many of the other films mentioned in this essay, trying to take what worked from each, and ending up with a film that, in many ways, is a mess, and a dull one, at that. Yes, it has plenty of visions, but no single vision; and in its own myopia, Blade Runner’s dystopia founders. And I doubt any further cuts or recuts can retire that ill.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Alternative Film Guide's website.]
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