Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner premiered in June 1982. It was Harrison Ford’s first picture since Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Scott’s first since Alien. Reviews, however, were overwhelmingly negative (“A film that has neither strong characters nor a strong story,” wrote Janet Maslin in the New York Times;”It forces passivity on you,” Pauline Kael tsked in The New Yorker), and audiences were baffled, sometimes even hostile. Moreover, a lovable bit of merchandise had landed in theaters only two weeks earlier. Scott’s brackish rain had no chance against Spielberg’s amber goo-glow; and as E.T. began its ascent into universal consciousness, Blade Runner sank with barely a ripple.
When I first saw Scott’s strange brew, a mix of sci-fi, noir, and metaphysics, in 1982, it failed to clear the lowest hurdle for anything that aspires to seriousness: The audience laughed. (For a movie without a single joke, this is no small problem.) But Blade Runner’s reputation has seen a complete rehab job since then: It is the 97th best film of all time, according to the American Film Institute, and the Guardian has called it the best science-fiction film ever made. Straighten your face, here comes the king: Blade Runner now enters the room with all the pomp due a full-blown cinematic masterpiece. “Together in One Visionary 4-Disc Box Set” one can now own not only Scott’s “Final Cut,” but “Three Complete Archival Versions.” Need more? Then buy the “Five-Disc Ultimate Collector’s Edition” in collectible “Deckard Briefcase” packaging.
For those whose memory has lapsed, Blade Runner tells two parallel stories. In the first, a small band of bio-engineered humanoids, called “replicants,” escape their “off-world” bondage and return to Earth in search of their designers, in an attempt to lengthen their lifespans, which have been set at four years. In the second, a cop named Rick Deckard (played by Ford) tries to hunt them down and kill them. (At the beginning of the movie, Deckard has recently quit the force, where he was a “blade runner,” a bounty hunter authorized to “retire” replicants, but he is strong-armed out of retirement.)
The humanoids are godly; beautiful, amoral, utterly without pity. The humans, meanwhile, are portraits of sallow, creepy-crawly compromise: emotionally stunted, cynical, two-faced. “More human than human,” crowed the corporation that designed the replicants. The film pushes the unintended irony of the slogan to its maximum conclusion. Replicants love and die with auroral intensity; we humans are the walking dead.
The prevailing meme—that over time, scales fell from prejudicial eyes, and Blade Runner’s true value as an extraordinary act of filmmaking bravado was recognized—is appealing, but also incomplete. It may not have flattered the times, but in one sense Blade Runner benefited, and benefited enormously, from them. Blade Runner is among the first movies—if not the first—whose fortunes revived in the new channels of “ancillary distribution.” This is no accident. The movie’s unalloyed virtue, admired even at the time of its release, is an assaultive and wildly original production design, a mix of that rain, nuzzling gouts of smoke, and an eternally shifting kaleidoscope of artificial lights—all of it suggestive of a richly dystopic society and a wretchedly fatigued planet Earth. If nothing else, Blade Runner is mesmerizing when caught in pieces; it murmurs beautifully in the background. Unloved on the big screen, Blade Runner found its perfect medium in VCRs and cable TV—in the fragmented, ambient multiplatform afterlife that has become, over the past 20 or so years, the common stuff of movies.
Blade Runner’s rehabilitation has been helped along by a second unusual twist. A folklore quickly grew up around the various versions of the film, few or none of which was said to be true to Ridley Scott’s original vision. The single worst offender was the original U.S. theatrical release, with a tacked-on happy ending and an infamously hammy voice-over, added at the 11th hour after audiences exited the previews totally bewildered. Its intention was clear enough—to deepen our connection to Deckard, and to handhold us through an intentionally disorienting narrative—but the execution was disastrous. Scott has since ridiculed its “Irving the Explainer” quality, and legend has it that Ford, so uninspired by the new lines, gave them an especially stupefying reading. True or not, the voice-over pushed the film from stylish neo noir into kitsch, and provided the audience I saw it with in the summer of 1982 with trigger after trigger for their derisive guffaws.
Over the years, the idea of a Blade Runner wholly unfucked up by the suits has become a kind of holy mythopoeia that accompanies the film everywhere, as cherished as the idea of a childhood wholly unfucked up by parents. The current four-disc set comes with a “Workprint,” a “U.S. Theatrical Cut,” an “International Theatrical Cut,” a 1992 rerelease “Director’s Cut”—and this is to only scratch the surface! As the Internet will tell you, there is the “U.S. Denver-Dallas Sneak Preview Workprint”; the “U.S. San Diego Sneak Preview Workprint”; several competing cuts on Laserdisc; and, never forget, an additional line of dialogue given to Deckard’s boss makes its original airing on cable TV yet another variant. Perversely, the comical proliferation of Blade Runners has helped along its canonization. At any point in its history, the shortcomings of an actual print of Blade Runner could be excused by citing a supposedly Platonic print of Blade Runner. This Platonic print would lose Irving the Explainer and the La-La ending, and add the Holy Grail of all Ridley-ana—the famed “unicorn sequence,” which signals to the audience that, yes, Deckard too, in a final turn of the screw, is himself a replicant.
Now the Platonic Blade Runner has finally arrived, as the maestro himself testifies. “This is my preferred version of the film,” says Ridley Scott in a brief intro to “The Final Cut,” looking straight into the camera. “Out of all the versions of Blade Runner, this is my favorite. I hope you agree.” But for all of its supposed transmutations along the way to this, “The Final Cut,” it is still vulnerable to the same criticisms originally applied to it. The movie is a transfixing multisensory turn-on from beginning to end. But because its story is underplotted and its characters almost totally opaque, the weight of the film falls to its sumptuous visual palette—its abiding strength—and to its quasi-Nietzschean theology—its abiding weakness. A movie that is about what it’s like to be mortal should not include the line “What is it like to be mortal?” but Blade Runner comes perilously close. “It is not an easy thing to meet your maker!” says the lead replicant when he meets his genetic designer. “It’s too bad she won’t live,” says a smarmy colleague of Deckard’s about his love interest, who is a replicant. “But then again, who does?” (Why is it that an attitude easily mocked as turgid and self-serious when the speakers are French and the subject of adultery suddenly becomes acceptable when the speakers are American and wearing space suits?)
Pontifical dialogue aside, Blade Runner remains what is always was, an extraordinary and enduring work of Pop Art, one that calls forth the language of greatness in that poignant way many beautiful but flawed works do. The mystery of Blade Runner is not that early audiences were so put off by it, but that a quasi-sacred halo has come to surround it, a force field so powerful as to apparently render nuanced critical judgment impossible. For after all these years, and all these iterations, this is still in many respects the film panned by Maslin and Kael. My wife had never seen Blade Runner, and it held her rapt until the penultimate scene. Here, the most godly of replicants, played by über-Nord Rutger Hauer, bays primitively at the moon before subjecting Harrison Ford to a poetic oration about mortality. “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe,” says Hauer, clutching a white dove to his naked breast. “Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.” At which point, Hauer releases the bird, and it flies in slow motion toward the sky. At which point, my wife laughed uncontrollably.
What to turn to now? With no newer, truer Blade Runner to come, the publicists have made an admirable helping of chicken salad. Under the heading “factoids,” we are told: “Holding a dove, and letting it fly away, in the last scene was never in the script, but rather Rutger Hauer’s idea when filming the scene.”