Back in the early eighties, giddy on “Star Wars”, I’d picked up my visual scanning for any other movies which starred my favourite heroes. “Hanover Street” cruelly tricked me – I mean, it had “Han” in the title and starred Harrison Ford so it must be great right? Not for this 8-year-old “Star Wars” fan. I was too young to be aware of films like “Apocalypse Now” but “Blade Runner” made itself known to me by being adapted by Marvel and appearing, serialised, in the backs pages of the weekly “Return Of The Jedi” comic.
I eventually got to watch it – quite a few times – when it was released for rental on VHS, back in the day when it was basically one of the only three sci-fi movies available for rental (the other two being “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” and “Star Wars”). Back then I kind of liked it, I think, but I definitely didn’t understand it. I probably liked the flying cars and the brief action bits but the rest of it would have whooshed right over my head. I might have watched it a few times as a teenager, but it always felt like a film I should like rather than one I did like. Fast forward a quarter of a century and I haven’t watched it for years, and of course I’d never watched any of the alternative cuts but with “Blade Runner 2049” coming out, I figured it was time for The Craggus to finally watch “Blade Runner”.
Blade Runner: The Theatrical Cut
So, first of all, obviously its visually amazing. Much like its early VHS rental stablemate “Star Trek: The Motion Picture”, “Blade Runner” loves its beauty passes. Astonishing vistas of the dark and foreboding Los Angeles of the future – the then unthinkably distant 2019 – and the grimy, dirty, neon-scarred streets it’s such a distinctive look that “Blade Runner” now is almost more well known for its influences on films which came after it than for its own story.
It may be because the story isn’t that great, certainly not in this version. Its noir detective ambitions are somewhat thwarted by the fact its main character does very little actual detecting unless you count opening a few drawers and then saying ‘enhance’ twenty times in a row. The constant voiceover, delivered by a clearly reluctant and disinterested Ford mixes toxically with his restrained performance to slow the already leisurely pace down to a somnambulistic crawl.
When the film isn’t focussed on Deckard, it’s much better and much more interesting. The replicants’ stories are more vital, real and alive than those of any of the humans presented to us and Rutger Hauer is easily the best thing in it.
My main other takeaway from the original theatrical cut is that it might be better called “The Foley Cut”. I rarely comment on the technical aspects of films I watch at home because I have zero confidence that I’ve optimised my set-up but as I watched both versions on the same TV, I’m going to just say it: the sound mix on the theatrical Blade Runner is appalling. The foley artist did good work, I’m not faulting that, but all of the sound effects are so disproportionately loud that they intrude into every scene, the most egregious example being when Deckard guns down Zhora as she runs.
Ambitious and striking, with some sensational moments, “Blade Runner” as it initially ran in cinemas may have been hugely influential but it’s not all that great in and of itself.
Blade Runner: The Final Cut
I was wary about watching this directly after sitting through the film once, in case familiarity bred contempt. I needn’t have worried: “The Final Cut” is like a different film. If anyone ever needs to be convinced of the power and importance of editing to a film, “Blade Runner” is the go-to example.
Fresh, visually spectacular and somehow more expressive in the absence of leadenly inappropriate exposition, seeing the “Final Cut” for the first time really opened my eyes to the scope of the film.
Scott’s preoccupation with the themes of the relationship between creator and creation and the ultimate meaning of existence – which would dominate “Prometheus” and “Alien: Covenant” – have their roots here in his definitive version of the movie he considers his most personal and complete. He’s much more successful in exploring them, though, in this grimly dystopian urban nightmare than on the existentially gore-drenched surface of alien planets. Deckard feels more interesting now that his inner monologue is internalised and wordless, allowing Harrison Ford’s deceptively subdued performance to shine through. The replicants are still the more interesting characters, but there’s a better balance to the storytelling and the story flows better in this revised edit.
There’s not really much else to say about “Blade Runner” that hasn’t been said a hundred times in a hundred different ways by people far more steeped and invested in the film than I am. I still don’t love “Blade Runner”, but I do respect and admire it a great deal, not just for its influences and impact on the sci-fi genre but for its thought-provoking storytelling and visual splendour. It’s not perfect, but then perfection would be a thematic betrayal of the film itself and leave nothing to the imagination.