WARNING: This review contains spoilers. It's funny how much life--and a little editing--can change your perception of a movie. Twenty-five years ago, when my cousin Sean and I managed to scam our way in to see Blade Runner, it seemed like one of the coolest movies of all time. We were 13 years-old at the time, and Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), the futuristic cop hunting androids, seemed like one of the coolest screen heroes since the previous summer's Snake Plissken escaped from New York. But a lot can happen to you over the course of a quarter century, you experience many things, your view of the way things are changes considerably, and what you saw in a film as a child can become something completely different when you are a grown man.
With the exception of perhaps Oliver Stone's films, few movies have gone through as many alterations, and have been viewed in as many different versions as Blade Runner. Between the original theatrical release, various special cuts, anniversary editions, and versions edited for television, there have been at least five different versions of Blade Runner. Now, with the film's 25th anniversary, director Ridley Scott's adaptation of Philip K. Dick's novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is being re-released in another version, aptly called Blade Runner: The Final Cut.
For those who have never seen any versions of Blade Runner, you probably shouldn't be reading this review. But in case some of you have forgotten a few of the details, here's an overview. In the not-too-distant future, android-like manufactured life-forms are a reality. Referred to as replicants, and used as slave labor, there is almost no way to distinguish them from real people. Capable of independent thought, an given enough time, replicants can develop emotions, which is why the Tyrell Corporation had them built with a fail-safe mechanism that shuts them down before they can fully grow emotionally, essential killing them. After a violent uprising, replicants were banned from Earth, and any found violating the law were terminated, or "retired," by special police units known as blade runners. When a gang of renegade replicants led by Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) returns to Earth to find out how long they have to live, and hopefully shut off the mechanism that will kill them, Rick Deckard, a former blade runner, is forced back to work. Hunting the replicants, Deckard begins to suffer from the moral dilemma of killing something that is almost human. Complicating his emotions are the feelings he has developed for Rachel (Sean Young), a replicant so advanced that she does not know she is an android.
One of the most important things to know is that I have always loved Blade Runner. I loved it when my cousin and I saw it opening night in 1982, and I loved it even more when the "director's cut" came out ten years later. The director's cut worked better because, first and foremost, it did away with the annoying voice-over narration that never really worked. Harrison Ford's reading of the Chandler-esque narration never "sounded" right--it was always lifeless, and even at the age of 13 it seemed to me that it was there simply to explain things that didn't need to be explained. Though I could not articulate it at the time, the voice-over was condescending--it assumed I was too stupid to know what was going on in the film, when at the very least I was smart enough to get into an R-rated movie (at a single-screen theater, no less).
The tenth anniversary director's cut of Blade Runner was not only significant in its removal of Deckard's narration; it also contained an additional twelve seconds of new footage that totally changed the tone of the movie by revealing that the blade runner himself was actually a replicant. For years rumors had been circulating that Deckard was an android, and battle-lines were drawn among fans of the film, dividing those who believed he was an android, and those who did not. By restoring a brief sequence in which Deckard daydreams about a unicorn, the director's cut lays the groundwork for the revelation that he is a replicant (even though Harrison Ford has held fast that it wasn't true). After his final confrontation with Batty, Deckard is confronted by fellow blade runner Gaff (Edward James Olmos), who says to him, "You've done a man's job, sir." The full meaning of that statement is made clear when Deckard finds an origami unicorn left by Gaff in his apartment, the implication being that the other cop knows what Deckard has been dreaming, because it was programmed.
Even with the inclusion of the unicorn sequence, as well as a brilliantly subtle moment where Deckard's eyes reflect light the same way a replicant's eyes do, people refused to accept the truth about Blade Runner's hero. I was never one of those people, because I have always preferred my heroes to be tragically flawed; and there are few things more tragic than a machine acting like a man that does not realize it is a machine. At least that's what I thought for many years. But watching Blade Runner: The Final Cut, two things became very clear, the first being that Rick Deckard is not so much tragic as he is pathetic. The other realization was that if there are tragic characters in Blade Runner it is the rouge replicants, especially Roy Batty, who over the course of 25 years has revealed himself to be more the film's hero than Deckard.
From the very onset of Blade Runner, Deckard is the reluctant protagonist. When he is pulled off the streets by Gaff and brought in to see Bryant, he is adamant in his refusal to hunt down the renegade replicants. After the thinly-veiled threats of Bryant, Deckard agrees to take the assignment, and from that moment on we are watching a man without the strength to stand up to his convictions. Years of "retiring" androids has taken its toll on Deckard, turning him into a hard-drinking cynic who is emotionally distant. We can only assume he has become this way because replicants are so much like real people that terminating them is almost like killing a real person, and it has eaten away at Deckard's "soul." What is profound about Blade Runner is that we begin to realize the reason Deckard was so efficient at his job was because he himself was most likely an emotionless automaton. Unaware that he was a replicant, and through years of experience, he started to develop emotions and morals, which began to plague him as he continued to execute renegade robots.
The fact that Deckard is a replicant who does not realize it, and that he has been killing his own kind certainly qualifies him as being a "tragic" character. But what makes him pathetic is that while Deckard is unaware that he is a replicant, he is completely aware of what "retiring" them has done to his psyche, and yet he still returns to the job that has slowly been destroying him--willingly participating in a slow form of emotional and moral suicide. Whether he is a man or a replicant is irrelevant, as Deckard proves himself to be someone who has given in to his circumstances; living a life of gradual death and quiet desperation. And that is pathetic.
By contrast, Roy Batty wants nothing more than to live, so much so that he will kill anyone who can't give him what he wants. If Blade Runner is a futuristic noir thriller, with Rick Deckard cast as a 21st century pseudo Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade, then Batty can only be seen as Frank Bigelow, Edmond O'Brien's doomed character in 1950's D.O.A. , who spends the entire film trying to solve his own murder. What makes Blade Runner a subversive film is that its "villain" is a machine that wants to stay alive, while its "hero" is a machine that has given up on life. Batty knows what he is, and reacts to his situation with more humanity than Deckard, who believes himself to be an actual person. The truth is that Deckard's belief in his own humanity allows him to compromise his convictions, making him all the more human. Deckard is as flawed as anyone can be--the sort of person no one should ever try to be. Batty's desire to be more, to experience more, and live more--his appreciation for the life he has been given--is actually how all people should live their lives. In the end, the question is not so much if Deckard is an android or not, but exactly what it is that makes someone human.
Blade Runner: The Final Cut is much closer in content and tone to the 1992 director's cut than it is the original 1982 theatrical release. Purists who liked the narration will be disappointed to know that all of it is gone, even the bit near the end that was found in some later versions of the film. Also missing are some of the film's more sloppy special effects moments, now cleaned up and enhanced courtesy of digital effects. Gone are all the wires that were visible in earlier versions, as well as the obvious stunt double substituting for Joanna Cassidy during Zhora's death scene (Cassidy's head was digitally superimposed over stunt double Lee Pulford).
The digital effects done to the film are relatively minor, especially when compared to the changes George Lucas has made to the early Star Wars films and THX 1138, and the end result is merely cosmetic. Visually, this most recent version of Blade Runner is a gorgeous masterpiece. Fans who long to hear Ford's lackluster voice-over, or refuse to accept Deckard as a replicant will be disappointed by Blade Runner: The Final Cut, but everyone else will be pleased.