There has been so much written about Blade Runner that the act of writing something about it myself seems futile, and it’s something I’ve always put off because I worried that I wouldn’t know how to encapsulate everything I feel about it. I still don’t think I have with what follows, but given that October 2019 was the last month before Blade Runner no longer remains a film set in the future, I thought I’d better get my act together. Like the film itself, the narrative of this piece is somewhat lopsided and possibly frustrating to some. However, unlike the film, this piece will remain the one and only cut in existence.
Also, this piece does not acknowledge the existence of Blade Runner 2049 – not because I don’t like it (I think it’s great) – but I want to look at the original Blade Runner on its own terms, and there was such a long gap between these films that I think the original has lived on its own long enough to be considered a separate entity, unlike say The Godfather and The Godfather, Part II.
Blade Runner is the most extraordinary film ever made. There, I said it. I’ve just watched it on the big screen again and it has, once more, utterly blown my mind. I love it so, so much. It moves me like no other film.
Whenever I’m asked to put together a top five or top ten films list, everything from #2 downwards can vary in content and positioning, but #1 has been the same for around twenty years now. I love Blade Runner on a deeply personal level, I adore it technically, I am knocked out by it philosophically, I am left breathless by it visually, I am in awe of it musically. There’s not many things in this world that I can confidently say I believe to be a true work of art, or a work of genius, because I’m wary of throwing those terms around loosely, or glibly, or without authority, but Blade Runner is art, and it is genius. If it isn’t either of those, then I don’t know what is.
For a film that was often regarded by critics back in 1982 as cold and inhuman, it is one of the most moving, profoundly emotional films I have ever experienced. I honestly believe that no film before or since has looked as good as Blade Runner. This was the time before digital effects – these were all practical effects, and created with such incredible detail that when you see it, on a small screen or a big screen, the impact is overwhelming. Of course, Ridley Scott is the name most associated with Blade Runner‘s success, but this is a team effort, and then some. The cast. The crew. The writers. The composer. The sheer ambition and effort put into this film, which becomes all the more apparent when you watch the film’s exhaustive Dangerous Days documentary, is jaw-dropping.
I was merely a single year old when Blade Runner opened in cinemas, and it was totally out of my radar for over a decade after that. When I first watched it, it was when ITV premiered the film’s so-called director’s cut (so-called because director Ridley Scott was ultimately still not satisfied with this edit – it wouldn’t be until 2007’s Final Cut that he would publicly state a preferred version), which removed the two main elements which had displeased fans, critics and much of the cast and crew also – its tacked-on narration and the even-more tacked-on happy ending. Therefore, the first time I saw the film, I saw it not as, as Time Out would put it, ‘a flawed masterpiece’, but simply as, as Time Out would also say in the same review, ‘a masterpiece’.
Ever since it opened to a mostly negative critical reaction as well as mediocre commercial success back in 1982, Blade Runner slowly (thanks to a small but impassioned fan base) grew in stature, its influence spreading out into literature, music, fashion and of course, film itself. A decade later, it had grown from a cult movie into something approaching a cultural phenomenon, and the release of the director’s cut seemed to be the final word on the matter. But it wasn’t. In 2007, Scott’s Final Cut and a superb, exhaustive DVD/Blu-ray release of the film upped the reputation of the film even more.
I have lost count of how many times I’ve seen Blade Runner. I’ve seen other films more times for sure, but no film has felt so monumental every time I watch it as Blade Runner has. I can’t just plonk it on in the background like I can with the Prozac-equivalent, utterly comforting likes of The Lost Boys or Midnight Run, for example. With Blade Runner I become totally, utterly immersed. For me, there is nothing else like it. It’s effects on me are as puzzling, exhilarating and terrifying as the most intense emotions. Certain lines of dialogue, certain character mannerisms, certain hooks in the music or visuals caught by the camera will just blindside me and leave me in total awe. On a big screen, which is where I’ve now seen it three times, the effect is overwhelming.
The plot, if one were to quickly summarise, is deceptively simple. The odds are, if you’re reading this, then you’ve watched the film, but if that’s not the case, then please, please, PLEASE – stop reading and watch the film. For the sake of narrative coherency in this article, I will detail the plot as quickly as I can.
In Los Angeles in the year 2019, retired police officer or ‘Blade Runner’, Rick Deckard is persuaded back into his old lifestyle and must pursue and kill (or ‘retire’, as the euphemism goes) a group of extremely sophisticated synthetic human beings who have escaped from their off-world life of slavery and returned to Earth to seek their creator Eldon Tyrell, via lonesome Tyrell employee and genetic designer JF Sebastian, in the (it turns out, futile) hope of prolonging their short lifespans. During his hunt, Deckard becomes emotionally involved with Rachael, a Tyrell Corporation employee who is also a replicant, albeit one who, until now, had no idea she actually was one. One-by-one the fugitive replicants – Leon, Zhora and Pris – are retired until Deckard faces Roy Batty, the last surviving (and rapidly dying) leader of the runaways. Roy proves to be such an unstoppable foe that Deckard’s fate is almost sealed until Roy, in his last few moments, saves Deckard’s life. Aware that Rachael’s life is in danger because of her replicant status, Deckard flees the city with her, towards an uncertain future.
The Novel and the Film
Blade Runner was adapted by screenwriter Hampton Fancher (with later drafts written by David Peoples) from the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick. A fascinating, beguiling work, it resembles Blade Runner in that it focuses not only on Deckard and his mission to retire the replicants, but also spends time with the replicants themselves. Coming to the book after watching the film (or vice versa) you will notice overlapping lines of dialogue, themes, subplots and technology. However, what is more apparent are the major differences – instead of an overpopulated Los Angeles of 2019, we have an underpopulated San Francisco of 1992. In both film and novel there has clearly been a major downturn in the state of society, but in the film doesn’t really explain why – even the acid rain that pours down on Los Angeles isn’t referred to as such in the film’s content (it’s been referred to elsewhere, such as in at-the-time promotional features), but in the novel there was an actual event – World War Terminus – that has left the world the way it is. There is a whole subplot involving a new popular religion – Mercerism – which involves people hooking themselves up to electronic empathy boxes which puts them in the mind of the Christ-like John Mercer, whose Sisyphean ascent on a mountain and his painful pelting with rocks is willingly, collectively experienced by those who are so alone socially and spiritually that they feel the need to endure something as painful (they feel the pain, and even emerge from the experience with cuts and bruises) as this ritual suffering. The empathy boxes themselves are also exclusive to the Dick’s book, an addictive device that allows you dial up emotions which you will immediately feel. There’s so much fascinating content and ideas in the novel, and yet maybe it was wise to excise these examples from the film – you practically have a whole separate film’s worth of ideas in these concepts, and paying mere lip-service to them might have proved frustratingly throwaway.
One of the major technological elements of the novel does make it into the film, of course, and that’s the kit that’s used to tell who and who isn’t a replicant. Thanks to the newest ‘Nexus-6’ level of Replicant that makes it impossible for the average person on the street to tell them apart from a human (barring stuff like super-strength and advanced intelligence), the Voight-Kampff test (named after its creators – this is only made clear in the novel) is a device that is used to measure its subjects physical reactions to emotionally-led questions, to see if they have the empathy of a human. This is what’s used in the opening sequence where Blade Runner Dave Holden underestimates replicant Leon and is shot for his naivety. It’s what used to test Rachael (who takes a lot longer to identify as a replicant because she doesn’t realise she is one) in the Tyrell Corporation.
However, the film introduces its own technology too – the Esper is a remarkable device that can take a photograph and literally go inside it, turning the two-dimensional three-dimensional and finding evidence and clues that are not visible to the naked eye. How it literally does this isn’t really explained, and it treads closely to those films where a photo is zoomed into an mili-fraction of itself, creating pixels where there were none before, to illogical effect. Still, the Esper scene, where Deckard identifies Zhora hidden in a photograph he found, is a spellbinding sequence.
The characters are also very different. In the film Deckard is estranged from a wife we never see, in the book he is married to a disillusioned woman named Iran. Deckard in the novel is a put-upon bureaucrat who wants nothing more than to own the ultimate status symbol – a real animal. In the film he is morose, callous, cold and even outright unlikeable, and any references to owning non-synthetic animals are kept to a minimum. The character of Rachael in the film is a tragic, manipulated and heartbreaking creation. In the novel she is cold, calculating and vengeful. There’s a definite sense of us versus them in the novel, whereas the lines are far blurrier in the film.
In the novel the replicants were simply referred to the at-the-time still in-vogue name of androids, or ‘andys’, but Scott felt that the term was so outdated and overused that he felt a totally new word was required. Thanks to either co-writer David Peoples or his daughter (who both credit each other), the term ‘replicant’ was born. It’s still a magnificently state-of-the-art word, it still sounds futuristic. As for these replicants, in the film they are far more sympathetic, tragic and relatable than their colder, more inhuman counterparts. This issue was a bone of contention for Dick, as he believed that the androids were supposed to be repellent – their total lack of empathy (which is really emphasised in the novel) is what makes them ultimately inferior to humans. In the novel, the androids torture animals, manipulate humans and seem to have no warmth to them at all. it’s quite a jolt if you’ve only seen the film beforehand. The replicants learn nothing and they don’t grow in character, which I guess was Dick’s point. In the film, the replicants are admittedly still relatively lacking in empathy and are also prone to sadism, but they are also far more complex emotionally and even philosophically than Dick appeared to be willing to allow.
It’s stuff like this that make both novel and film so fascinating in relation to each other. True, a more faithful adaptation of Dick’s work would have made for an intriguing film, but ultimately that’s not what happened. The bonus of that however is that we have two individual works that are related and yet are both unique – they are their own individual works of art and neither one nulls the impact of the other. Of course, I prefer the film, which is why I’m focusing on that and not the novel, but Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a brilliant thing indeed, the work of a master in his field.
Blade Runner as Experience
Recently I wrote a piece about Richard Donner’s tremendous 1976 blockbuster The Omen, a tremendous, tightly-scripted horror that I regarded to be so lean in execution that removing a single scene would dramatically compromise the plot. Blade Runner on the other hand, is a substantially different kind of work. There are moments that, you could argue, and if you were feeling very ruthless, could be snipped out or trimmed down. But why on Earth would you want to do that? There are many moments in Blade Runner that simply luxuriate in the sheer vividness of this world. And this differentiates from something like The Omen. The latter, for all its supernatural wildness, nevertheless takes place in a present-day world that is very much our own, whereas Blade Runner is set in a future that, for all its familiarity in terms of plot mechanics, characterisation and even brand awareness (there are lots of recognisable company logos in this film), is nevertheless strikingly different and fascinatingly strange.
This isn’t a world you can just have as a mere backdrop to the story. It is an essential part of the story. Like Fritz Lang’s still-astonishing Metropolis (a major, major Blade Runner influence) before it, you can’t just take the script and plonk it in the present day, or somewhere else. When people think about Blade Runner, the odds are the first thing they think of is Los Angeles in the year 2019, that opening shot of the polluted cityscape, smoke stacks erupting flames, hover cars (named ‘Spinners’) flying from the distance to the foreground. They think of the leaking roofs of the Bradbury building, the glittering pyramids of the Tyrell Corporation (and the cavernous, shimmering, golden beauty of their interiors), the gloomy claustrophobia of Deckard’s apartment, the hustle and bustle of Animoid Row, the candle-lit sophistication of Taffey Lewis’ bar, that sort of thing.
That’s why there are so many incredible shots in Blade Runner that you could argue are essentially glorious travelogues for this new world. Blade Runner is about story, but it is also about atmosphere. It is about transporting the viewer into a new direction towards a new world, and a vision this bold, brilliant and beautiful can’t just be relegated to a few back-projection shots – we need to feel as though we’re living here, and this is a world that does feel like it’s been lived in. This is not a glittering, gleaming future (Tyrell’s HQ excepted), but a grimy, busy, worn-down environment. The retro-film noir ambience also adds to this feeling of a world that’s as old as it is new. The film’s key action sequence, where Deckard pursues Zhora through an incredibly crowded and cacophonous city, is remarkable in that it all feels like a totally real place, not the Warner Brothers backlot. Thanks to visual futurist Syd Mead, production designer Lawrence G. Paull, special effects head Douglas Trumbull, director of photography Jordan Cronenweth, editor Terry Rawlings and countless other major talents, I have never been convinced so much by a film’s world as I have with Blade Runner‘s.
The clues for this approach were all there in Scott’s previous film Alien, which in its first few minutes took its beautiful time to explore the interiors of the Nostromo ship before eventually finding its cast of characters sleeping in stasis. There are few films as effective as Blade Runner in creating an extraordinarily immersive environment. Take the bit when Leon meets Roy at the phone booth – they walk off towards Chew’s Eyeworld and the camera takes the time to drift off to the left and allow a group of cyclists pass by a homeless person and then us, scored by one of the few pieces of music in the film not composed by Vangelis (Gail Laughton’s beautiful ‘Harps of the Ancient Temples’) – there is no need for this moment in a narrative sense, but it’s mesmerising regardless. These are the kind of instances that come back to you in your hazy memories of the film, that come back to you in your dreams.
You can scoff at Scott’s demands on his crew for a level of detail that was frankly, imperceptible to even the most dedicated viewer (we’re talking props, text and peripheries that you’d need one of Deckard’s Esper machines to get a proper look at), but that, combined with the incredible model and effects work, the stunning lighting and photography, as well as Vangelis’ stunning soundtrack, all add up to a film that’s about as three-dimensional as you can get without literally being so. There are moments of sheer, suspended beauty that will take your breath away. You can see things in the film on a tenth or twentieth viewing that you never saw before. I don’t know how the people involved in this film achieved all of this. Even after watching the documentary about the film, I’m still baffled. There was something magical at work here.
Take the glorious shot from inside Tyrell’s office as the enormous window looking out into the city is gently draped in a shaded film so as to make the room darker – you can just feel the film breathing during this moment. Or the cutaways from below of the enormous commercial blimp that hovers over the city. The ascents into the skies or the descents into the murky city. Blade Runner is likely to bore viewers who won’t have the patience for its languid pacing (one critic at the time amusingly suggested the film should have been called Blade Crawler), but it doesn’t outstay its welcome with its visual splendour. You see so much, but, as it should be, it feels like it’s never enough. The film is so ingeniously crafted so that you feel that its universe exists way beyond the parameters of its shots. This puts it way above other films where you really feel as though all you’re watching is a set, with the crew and equipment just inches away from what we can see on screen. To be honest, most of the time I’m content with films like that – I don’t try to spot goofs or take myself out of the narrative. I always want to lose myself in a film, and most films do that for me just fine. It’s just that Blade Runner goes way beyond the kind of expectations one has when it comes to depictions of another time or a possible future.
So yes, this is indeed a film to get lost in. If you have depression, or are feeling the dull ache of loneliness, then something like Blade Runner can envelop you like a warm blanket, and this is where I must say that for all of the film’s success at depicting a future that is most certainly dystopic, it is a world that is utterly beguiling, inviting, beautiful, atmospheric and astonishing. When covert interactive film event maestros Secret Cinema focused on Blade Runner a few years back, its attendees were hardly going to be walking around the depiction of Los Angeles, 2019 thinking ‘I hate it here’ – they would have loved it, because it is, for all its horrors, a spectacular vision to be part of. You wouldn’t want to live here in real life I suppose, but in a cinematic sense, it is a world that’s impossible to resist. And of course, it’s not all doom and gloom – there is the amazing architecture of the Tyrell building, be it the meeting room where Deckard tests Rachael (complete with incredible views of the city) or Tyrell’s own bedroom. Or there’s the fairytale beauty of JF Sebastian’s home, a dreamlike sanctuary filled with mechanical dolls and scored with a lovely, twinkling music-box score by Vangelis. For me, no other film has created a world as immersive as Blade Runner’s. It remains the benchmark for what is possible in cinema, at least in regards to practical effects, although nothing in the CGI-era has impressed me as much since.
Certain words pop into my head whenever I think of Blade Runner. Melancholy. Loneliness. Darkness. Neon. Death. Life. Violence. Dreams. That sort of thing. It is odd that one of the criticisms hurled at Blade Runner was coldness. For me the film is deeply emotional. Throughout this bit I’m going to take a few scenes from the film and explore them in detail.
To start off, there are few scenes that break my heart as much as when Rachael finds out she is not human. Rachael, according to Tyrell, has begun to suspect her artificiality, and with the latter refusing to see her following the discomforting experience of the Voight-Kampff test that she has recently failed, she seems to have nowhere else to go except Deckard’s apartment in the hope of finding some answers.
Almost immediately we see a side to Deckard we haven’t seen so far. Edgy, uncomfortable, defensive, guarded. We also see that he likes a drink. Rachael cuts to the point, refusing the offer a drink, and pressuring Deckard into admitting whether or not he thinks she’s a replicant. She has brought a photograph of herself as a child with her mother; proof surely, of her real past. This is when Deckard, nastily, runs off a list of things that happened to Rachael that no one else would or could have known. Immediately, she knows that he’s telling the truth, and her worst fears have been confirmed. Her identity, her past, her self – it’s all an illusion. The relationship she had with her mother, a sham. She is nothing.
It’s a remarkably tragic moment – with Vangelis’ beautiful, deeply sad ‘Memories of Green’ softly drifting in the background, the effect is doubly devastating. Deckard, realising how badly he’s fucked up (and pathetically attempting to reassure her that everything he just said was a joke), sees Rachael’s tears and offers her a drink, but it’s not enough. It’s interesting that the only tears in this film are shed by replicants. Rachael leaves the now meaningless photograph behind in Deckard’s apartment and departs. It’s a deeply existential moment in the film – I know I have a past because I can remember it, but what if I found out that actually I was artificial, that, like the replicants, I only had four actual years of past behind me, that I never knew my mother, that she never knew me, never loved me, never cared for me? That the child in the photograph wasn’t me but someone else? Walls would come crashing down. I would be shattered. This is one of the saddest scenes I’ve ever watched in a film. In a remarkable moment that I can’t believe I missed for years, you can see the shadows in the photograph actually move, as though the memory in the photo has come alive – this is cinematic poetry. It defies logic and reason – now that I see it, it kills me every time.
If anything, Blade Runner isn’t cold but is about emotional coldness. Deckard is a fascinatingly flawed creation – thanks to Harrison Ford’s magnetic presence he remains a seductive character, but this is a long, long way away from the dashing likes of Han Solo or Indiana Jones. His behaviour is downright ugly at times. Tyrell, cooped up on the top floor of his pyramid, the fatherly, god-like overseer of Los Angeles, seems to have no emotional connection to anyone, bar an ongoing chess game with Sebastian. His sense of remove from his creations is most bluntly portrayed when he cruelly refers to Rachael as ‘an experiment, and nothing more’. JF Sebastian’s only friends are artificial ones, be it the toys he creates to keep him company, or his short-lived relationship with Pris before Roy arrives on the scene.
There are also major blurrings of the lines between good and bad in Blade Runner. The so-called villain, despite his occasional homicidal tendencies, is actually quite charismatic, appealing and sympathetic, as are his friends. The so-called hero is a bully, a contract-killer, and in the scene I’m about to explore, disturbingly violent.
The pivotal ‘love’ scene between Deckard and Rachael, about two-thirds into the film, is a tough scene to come to terms with. Given the utter, aching beauty of Vangelis’ music that’s used here, (plus the fact that it’s called a ‘love theme’) you’d think that the eventual consummation between Deckard and Rachael would be a deeply romantic moment, but it’s far, far from that. The build-up is certainly crackling with tension – not exactly traditional boy-meets-girl tension, but something’s brewing. Given that their relationship so far has been far from delightful – a Voight-Kampff test here, a shattering of one’s sense of identity there and a rebuffal over the VidPhone to cap it all – we were hardly expecting things to continue smoothly, but what follows is one of the most unsettling scenes in a major-studio movie.
In the theatrical cut we get more of an explicit idea of Deckard’s feelings towards Rachael via his voice-over – we are told of a growing empathy towards her after she leaves his apartment, and later an admittance of something approximating feelings for her after he’s retired Zhora. In the other versions without the voiceover, it’s a lot more vague – we only have Ford’s on-screen performance to go with, and he’s a tricky character to work out at the best of times. After Rachael saves Deckard’s life by killing Leon, the two go to Deckard’s apartment, where they share some home truths – Deckard admits he wouldn’t pursue Rachael if she were to leave town, Rachael confronts Deckard over his humanity by asking him if he’s ever taken the Voight-Kampff test himself.
An exhausted, possibly intoxicated Deckard lies on his bed and Rachael begins to play on his piano. She also lets her hair down from its striking style to its natural curly length. This could be read as a letting of one’s guard down. Rachael looks more naturally ‘human’ here than she has before. Like Deckard, Rachael is a tricky character to read, so her reasons for doing what she does here are unclear. Maybe she’s finding herself more relaxed in Deckard’s company, although this feeling won’t last long. Stumbling from the bed, possibly due to his ‘shakes’ that he suffers as ‘part of the business’ or maybe to do with drink, he joins Rachael at the seat of the piano, compliments her on her playing and kisses her neck. He then tries to kiss her on the mouth but she recoils – she doesn’t want to return the kiss.
Rachael attempts to leave the apartment; Deckard reaches out for her but misses and it’s clear he’s become impatient. He stops her from leaving, slamming the front door violently with his fist and then angrily shoving Rachael up against the blinds of the window. That look on his face when he approaches her – it’s desperate, inhuman, frightening. He then pressures a clearly upset Rachael to repeat lines like ‘I want you’ and ‘kiss me’. Then Rachael says, without any verbal prompting from Deckard, ‘put your hands on me’, after which they kiss and embrace passionately.
So, what to make of this scene? If you listen closely, Rachael says something along the lines of ‘I can’t rely on -‘ before she is interrupted, and it’s this line that makes me curious. Is it possible that Rachael does want Deckard, and that she’s ultimately too frightened to admit it? This doesn’t make Deckard’s behaviour any less objectionable, of course. Is the thing she can’t rely on her desire, or what she presumes to be her pre-programmed emotions? Can she trust her emotions? Can she trust anything about herself? Is her confusion the reason she originally wanted to leave? By essentially forcing the two of them to kiss and have sex, is Deckard basically being cruel to be kind, the equivalent of letting go of a child’s bicycle so that she or he can ride off on their own, and as such ‘freeing’ her from her pre-programmed replicant self? Or is he simply exploiting a scared, vulnerable facsimile of a woman and using her as his sex doll?
If we go with the final theory, then we have a case of Deckard clearly not respecting Rachael or her rights as a living being, and his frustration over her unwillingness to kiss him is akin to someone kicking a printer when there’s a paper jam. It’s almost like he’s thinking ‘how dare this person, who isn’t even human, walk out on me?’ This is fucking ugly stuff, and I’ll admit these are totally personal readings I’m applying. For better or worse, Blade Runner is a film that asks a hell of a lot by giving away very little. That’s what makes it so fascinating and, in this scene, very uncomfortable. Some have considered this scene to be an example of how Blade Runner‘s sexual politics have dated. I can’t imagine this ever played out or was intended as a traditional love scene even back then, but there has been a many a film from this time that has been the subject of retrospective criticism for the kind of content that would struggle to be accepted in today’s climate. Did the majority of viewers back think there was nothing wrong with Deckard’s behaviour? Or did they wince back then too? The use of the ‘Love Theme’ certainly muddies the waters, making the scene play out like a kind of masochistic (or sado-masochistic, depending on whose point-of-view you’re adopting) rape fantasy, complete with dreamy music.
Interestingly, this scene went on a bit longer originally – you can see the extended take during the Dangerous Days documentary. Here Deckard and Rachael’s coupling becomes more passionate, with Rachael undressing and wrapping her legs around Deckard. In a way this makes the scene more overtly erotic, but it doesn’t lessen the disturbing build-up. In fact, it kind of disturbs even more in the way that it seems like all Rachael needed was a not-so-friendly shove and for someone to ignore her pleadings in order for her to ‘loosen up’. I can see why people have real problems with this scene. Some have defended it too. It’s a scene worth talking about. However, it is a shame that Rachael is pretty much removed from the story after this scene until the very end. I think we could have done with seeing the aftermath of this moment, to see how Rachael felt after what had happened, but she’s kinda forgotten about. Hey, Blade Runner isn’t a perfect example of narrative. Its off-kilter structure, which works in its favour for the most part, and makes it a spellbinding, free-form experience, can make it frustrating at other times.
Another major, major emotional scene is the end of Roy and Deckard’s showdown. After Deckard pressures Rachael to submit to him, we then focus on Roy, and his desire to track down Tyrell so that he can be hopefully granted more life, a hope that is denied when Tyrell admits that all attempts to prolong the existence of a replicant met with failure. After murdering Tyrell (and JF Sebastian, off-screen), Roy returns to the Bradbury building to find that Deckard has already arrived, retired Pris and has been waiting for him. So begins a duel where Deckard is hopelessly outmatched and outclassed by a dying (his lifespan is almost up) but still phenomenally powerful Roy. This battle culminates on the rooftop of the Bradbury, where Deckard clings for his life high above the streets of Los Angeles and looks set to fall to his death before Roy unexpectedly saves his life. On the rooftop, Roy regales Deckard with a brief summation of his life experiences, moments which, in his words, will ‘be lost in time, like tears in rain’. Roy dies, and like that, everything he has experienced, dies. It’s all the more tragic in that he is the last of his group – maybe he saved Deckard so that he has someone to acknowledge his existence in the future. If Deckard had died, then Roy too would have died moments later, on the rooftop, all alone.
Death is a common theme throughout Blade Runner. It drives the replicants’ mission (their fear of it), and it drives Deckard’s (his dispensing of it) – and it also becomes a major part of Rachael’s development as a character – the death of her identity. JF Sebastian suffers from Methuselah syndrome, which has caused his glands to age rapidly. Maybe this is one of the reasons he relates to the replicants’ plight, despite his fear of them.
Death, when delivered in Blade Runner, is ugly and painful. Both of Deckard’s kills (or retirings) are unpleasant, disturbing affairs – he shoots Zhora in the back, her death scored by her own dying heartbeat and the deeply melancholy ‘Blade Runner Blues’, while Pris’ death plays out like a nightmare, her death throes a vivid, horrifying, terrified tantrum. There is no glamour to the life of a Blade Runner. Leon suffers an ignominious death, shot through the back of the head. Tyrell’s death is absolutely horrific, his head crushed by a vengeful Roy. Even those who survive to the end have the spectre of death chasing them, in more ways than one – it’s never clear whether Gaff has permanently spared Rachael’s life or that he’s merely given her a head start. Also, Rachael won’t have long to live anyway thanks to her short lifespan, and if we go with the unicorn theory (more of which later), neither does Deckard.
Roy’s final speech, when fear, anger and desperation has given way to resignation of the inevitable, has been oft-quoted, oft-used in clip shows, YouTube, etc. but its impact is unlikely to fade. It’s a remarkably beautiful moment, one of the most heartbreaking reflections on life and death ever written and yet its most powerful moment wasn’t even part of the script. That astonishing metaphor of ‘tears in rain’ was an ad-lib by Rutger Hauer, and just like his character’s last-minute rescuing of Deckard, it takes the film into even more astonishing territory than before. It says so much in so little time – how life can be swept away, with all of our experiences and memories and moments lost like, well…tears in rain. I’m not going to try and top that description. For Roy, all of those things he’s seen and experienced, will disappear, and they sound like truly astonishing things, whatever a C-beam or the Tannhauser Gate was. It’s best we never see them – our imagination can work wonders with what we’ve been given.
Lately, when watching this moment, I think of my wife Carole, who died this year, and I think of her experiences, her viewpoints, her thoughts, her feelings, and how they’re all gone. True, some of those moments were shared experiences, and they continue to live on in the lives of those she’s left behind, but when we go, they will go too. It breaks my heart. So sad, so unavoidable, and so much a part of life is death. It comes to us all, and for many of us, it comes too soon. I guess that’s why we cling to things like memoirs, photographs, diaries and home videos – they keep the dead alive.
Despite its superficially accessible angle, (future cop hunts down rogue androids), Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? must have been a tricky work to adapt. Yet the results are inspired. The script is a miracle of incisive, quotable, profound dialogue – I’ve never read any of the screenplay drafts, so I’m not sure which lines or instances should be attributed to Hampton Fancher or to David Peoples, but together (although they never worked on the script at the same time) they delivered something truly special.
I mean, these are just a handful of lines I absolutely adore:
“Wake up! Time to die!”
“Have a better one.”
“I’m not in the business. I am the business.”
“The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long, and you have burned so very, very brightly, Roy.”
“If only you could see what I’ve seen with your eyes.”
“Nothing the God of Biomechanics wouldn’t let you in Heaven for?”
Also, Harrison Ford gives the best delivery of the line ‘Tell him I’m eating!’ in cinema history. Likewise, Rutger Hauer totally nails (after, funnily enough, putting one through his dying hand) the delivery of ‘THAT’S THE SPIRIT!!!”
Then there are the fascinating empathy questions that form part of the Voigt-Kampff test. The magnificent back-and-forths between Deckard and Rachael, or Roy and Tyrell, or Leon and Holden. And of course Roy’s final speech. For a film loved so much for its visuals, so many of its pleasures lie in the script too.
There are holes in the logic occasionally, some of which can be argued against. You may wonder why Deckard knows next to nothing about replicants, as evidenced in the ‘Blue Room’ scene, such as fake memories or four-year life-spans? Well, these could be things new to the Nexus-6 level of replicant, of which Deckard has never dealt with before.
There’s also odd things like Roy knowing Deckard’s name during their final confrontation. Some question the logic behind how easy it is for a renegade replicant such as Roy to gain access to Tyrell’s inner sanctum, or why, for a film that seems to only take place over a few days, does Roy’s lifespan come an end seemingly a few months too early (he should have died in January 2020, not November 2019). The thing is, I’m not bothered by any of these things. In the end, I don’t care. These things don’t spoil the movie for me. Even a non-script issue like the obvious use of a stunt double during Zhora’s retirement never really distracted me or took me out of the scene. Saying that, when the Final Cut seamlessly rectified this I was quietly impressed with the correction. I guess what I want to say is that even a film so astonishingly accomplished as Blade Runner is going to fall prey to mistakes, and I can live with them.
The plot structure is also unusual. For the first hour the film seems to tread a familiar route, in that we are with the protagonist (Deckard) with only a few detours to see what the replicants are up to (Batty and Leon at eye-designer Chew’s Eyeworld, Pris meeting JF Sebastian at The Bradbury). But around two-thirds into the movie, Blade Runner spends around fifteen or so spellbinding minutes entirely in the company of the replicants, and for a while, they become the main characters, and all of a sudden our identification and comfort in being mostly in the company of our ‘hero’, which has already just been derailed by his ugly behaviour towards Rachael, is turned completely upside down. Now we have the charismatic, fascinating Batty, who may ostensibly be the film’s villain but is really a far more attractive, vivacious and mesmerising character than Deckard, and we’re on edge. I love it when films up their stakes or their ante in their second half, and Blade Runner really goes off into thrilling, uncharted territory in its last 45 minutes. The effect is quite disorienting, especially when our new lead character does something as shocking and wild as killing his own creatorm his God, if you will. The scene is now set for a surreal, haunting, spectacular final confrontation, which again belies expectations by having our villain save our hero’s life.
Do Androids Dream of Unicorns?
Okay, I can’t avoid it any more, I’m going to talk about the electric elephant in the room.
Is Deckard a replicant?
This was the big question that arose when Scott inserted a brief daydream of Deckard’s into the movie for the Director’s Cut in 1992. In itself, you could say that the dream represents Deckard’s desire for something more beautiful, maybe – the forest setting is unlike anything else in the film (especially in this version, where the bucolic happy ending has been deleted), but the dream takes on enormous significance when you consider the final scene.
Obviously I’m going over well-worn stuff here, but what the hell – throughout the film, the character of Gaff (Edward James Olmos), the up-and-coming blade runner who has enjoyed giving Deckard a hard time by interrupting him before he’s had a chance to tuck into his noodles or down a bottle of Tsingtao, has also been making a wry commentary on his rival’s character in the form of origami. This happens three times in the film – the first in Bryant’s office, when he makes an origami chicken as a comment on Deckard’s reluctance to get back into the blade running game, the second in Leon’s apartment when he makes a matchstick figure of a man with an erection (commenting on Deckard’s ‘hard-on’ attitude to the job) and the final outside Deckard’s apartment, when Deckard sees an origami figure in the shape of a unicorn. Deckard nods in some kind of recognition/acceptance of the origami and then leaves with Rachael. In the theatrical cut, this unicorn could simply be read as evidence that Gaff, who had previously made a chilling reference to Rachael not living, had decided, after visiting the apartment, not to retire her (despite the demands of his job) and given her a chance to escape with Deckard. The unicorn could simply represent freedom, a chance at a happy, magical ending.
However, the director’s cut (and Final Cut), with its inclusion of the unicorn dream, now adds a twist. Earlier on in the film, Deckard reveals to Rachael that he had been given access to her implanted memories, one of which, that she told no one about, involved a spider she saw slowly build a nest over a summer who gave birth to a hundred babies which proceeded to eat her. The significance of the unicorn origami could therefore be that Gaff had been given access to Deckard’s thoughts, and that by leaving this item for Deckard to find, he is telling him that his most personal daydreams are implants, and that Deckard is a replicant. His nod of recognition could mean that Deckard now knows who he is, which makes the urgency of their escape even more urgent, for now there are two replicants on the run.
So what’s going on? Is Deckard a replicant or not? All versions with the unicorn heavily suggest that he is, the theatrical cut not so much, but still obliquely, because there is more to this theory than just the dream. Throughout the film there is the occasional clue that Deckard may not be human. The most telling is the glowing-eye giveaway that lets us, the viewer, recognise a replicant. The replicants display this at various points in the film, and so does Deckard, when he’s talking to Rachael in his apartment (when he admits that, while he wouldn’t pursue her if she left town, somebody else would) – the thing is, Harrison Ford (who objects to the Deckard-as-replicant theory) says that in order for an actor on set to have that glowing eye effect, they had to stand on a particular spot on set for the camera operator to capture the illusion. Ford was given no such instructions, and he thinks that Deckard’s glowing eyes was an accident that Scott later worked into his replicant theory.
There’s also, in the same scene, Rachael’s accusatory question of whether Deckard has taken the Voight-Kampff test himself, which was the most obvious alarm bell for anyone watching the film for the first time. However, this question could be read as not being literal – it could just be an angry response to Deckard being so stubborn and lacking in empathy for her plight. Elsewhere, Deckard’s coldness and inhumanity in comparison to the artificial replicants is a strong argument for his not being human. The replicants experience far more emotions than Deckard. There are also some cryptic lines throughout that refer to Deckard not being a human – Gaff’s ‘you’ve done a man’s job, sir’ and Roy’s ‘show me what you’re made of’ (his ‘aren’t you supposed to be the good man?’ also makes explicit the film’s muddying of good/evil character types this film revels in). Originally, Gaff’s question was followed up with ‘but are you sure you’re a man?’, which would have been much too much obviousness.
However, some theories have been rebuffed. One that baffled fans for ages was the reference to the number of replicants on the run, one of which could have been Deckard. In the film there are five clearly referenced escaped replicants – Roy, Pris, Zhora and Leon, plus an unnamed one who was ‘fried’ when trying to break into the Tyrell Corporation. Yet Bryant clearly refers to six replicants having escaped from the Off-World colonies, which leaves a mystery remaining replicant not accounted for. Some fans figured that Deckard was the sixth replicant, although we would be getting into major guess-work territory for that to work, especially since Deckard is in the same goddamn room when he’s being told about all of this. The explanation is amusingly mundane. There was a sixth replicant that was going to be included in the film named Mary (to be played by Halloween III‘s Stacey Nelkin, who also auditioned for the part of Pris), but due to budget constraints, her character had to be written out. However, the line about six escaped replicants was never reduced to five, or the line about one replicant being ‘fried’ was never upped to two, presumably because of the hurried filming schedule and a lack of continuity awareness. So, it’s a goof, pure and simple.
Some hate the Deckard-as-replicant theory because it supposedly invalidates Deckard’s growth as a character. By the film’s end, he has learned the value of life, learned to empathise with replicants and you know, maybe he’s not so much a total dickhead anymore. By revealing at the end of the film that he’s not even human, this has somehow made his growth fraudulent. I disagree. This film has shown us that to be a human at their best, one doesn’t even need to be human. I like the idea of Deckard being a replicant, because it showcases the film’s existential dilemmas at their most brain-melting.
So what does it mean to be a human in Blade Runner? Empathy seems to be the keyword, in both novel and film. One could argue that Roy’s last-second awakening at the end of his confrontation with Deckard, when he spares his life and discovers the power of mercy and empathy, is the moment when he becomes as close to human as possible, the moment when he becomes complete, although that depends on whether or not you regard being human as the benchmark of existence. If the film’s actual humans in Blade Runner are anything to go by, they’re hardly classic examples of humanity. Anyway, Roy’s journey is just as, maybe even more vital and profound, than Deckard’s. While his ‘tears in rain’ speech is the film’s most famous and beautiful moment, Deckard’s equivalent moment of self-realisation, his ‘I don’t know why he saved my life’ voice-over, suffers from bad writing, banalities and was deemed poor enough to dispense with when it came to the director’s cut.
Dick had little sympathy or respect for his androids, and didn’t agree with the film’s approach, that they were, according to Scott, ‘supermen who couldn’t fly’. The androids in Electric Sheep are bastardisations, crimes against nature, whereas the replicants in Blade Runner are, as stated ‘more human than human’ – they are smarter, stronger and by the end, wiser than any human being. There’s a sense that the replicants are the inevitable next step in existence on Earth, and as such are not to be dismissed as less than human, but something to be in awe of. Maybe, ultimately, they will replace us. But not yet. This particular generation of replicant, the Nexus-6, with their four-year lifespans and artificial memories, is clearly not the final word on the subject. They were, in the words of their creator, made as well as the Tyrell Corporation could make them, but, as Roy responds, not to last. Still, even with Tyrell dead before the film’s close, maybe the next level of replicant will be the one that nails it.
Blade Runner benefits from a perfect cast. Some bemoaned Harrison Ford’s performance as glum and withdrawn, but you might as well knock the character of Deckard itself if you’re going down that route. Ford’s turn here is beautifully insular and subtle – it was a striking departure for the actor at the time, and given the darkness of this character’s soul, quite a bold move too. The only thing I didn’t really like about his performance – the voiceover – was disposed of eventually anyway, so I have nothing but praise for it now. Plus, Ford remains, more than any other leading man, the best actor to take an on-screen beating in the name of art. When you think about it, he got roughed up and tortured a hell of a lot in his biggest films. He also has an astonishingly iconic, anguished scream (heard here when he snaps his broken finger back into place) that fans of The Empire Strikes Back and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom will know by heart.
Rutger Hauer is the tonal opposite of Ford – his performance is truly hypnotic. Hauer had that indefinable magic about him during his heyday that left Hollywood utterly in awe. His presence in Blade Runner is like a bolt of lightning as shocking as his white hair – I can’t take my eyes off him, and given we’re talking about this film in particular, he’s got a lot of competition, from both actors and scenery. Hauer, who sadly passed away this year, gave one of my favourite ever performances as Roy, and I really love that he loved this film, and his character. He manages to make Roy chilling, frightening, funny, vulnerable, tragic, seductive and totally unpredictable.
Sean Young is utterly, heartbreakingly beautiful and wounded as Rachael. Like all the actors playing the parts of replicants, it’s arguable that Young has never topped this performance. She inhabits the character of Rachael entirely, and like the other actors here, I forget I’m watching an actor. I’m watching a character. She looks incredible too, like an oil painting of emotion – it’s telling that cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth’s favourite shot in the film was one of Rachael smoking a cigarette during the Voight-Kampff test. Yep, smoking is bad, bad, bad, but in films it looks good, good, good, and it never looked as good as it did here.
Elsewhere, we have a wonderful cast of supporting actors – Daryl Hannah is magnetic as Pris; she gives a brilliantly physical, mesmeric performance. Edward James Olmos works wonders with such a small, but memorable role as Gaff. M. Emmet Walsh was one of those actors who just added so much character to the films he was in, and I love him as the grizzled Bryant. Brion James and Joanna Cassidy as Leon and Zhora are simultaneously formidable yet tragic – they are fearsome presences (they both give Deckard a serious pummeling) but they are not cut-out second-tier antagonists – both actors imbue much subtlety and brilliance to their roles. William Sanderson is beautifully sad as JF Sebastian – what a great, great character, a great reactive performance. His observations as Roy talks to and then kills Tyrell are magnificent. And Joe Turkel as Tyrell, cast after Scott saw his turn as Lloyd the bartender in The Shining, has the kind of understated authoritative presence that makes me wonder why he wasn’t cast in more well-known films. And then there’s James Hong, who only gets one scene, but plays it superbly, as Chew, the eye-designer who gets a cold reception from the unwelcome replicants. Oh, and special mention to for Hy Pike’s amusingly sleazy Taffey Lewis and Morgan Paull’s superbly irritable/overconfident turn as the doomed Holden. The latter originally had more scenes that were filmed as Deckard visits Holden in hospital, but these were cut out eventually.
What I also love about all these performers is how visually suited they are to the film – they’re just as important to the visual impact of the movie as everything else. Superb costumes, amazing make-up and the actors’ own incredibly expressive performances – the effect is incredible.
Vangelis’ score is beyond compare. Already a composer of serious worth, having delivered many solo works, soundtrack compositions (including the Oscar-winning Chariots of Fire) and commercially successful collaborations, for Blade Runner he created something so astonishing it frankly towers over everything else he’d made, before or since. It is a phenomenal achievement. Rarely has vision been so complemented by sound. The first thing you experience in Blade Runner, after the studio logo, is that unmistakable, thunderous crash before the credits begin. It sets the scene immediately. You know this is going to be an experience. After the plaintive, melancholic and yet ominous score that accompanies the rest of the credits and the opening text, that initial sensation is quadrupled when an even bigger rumble and crash accompanies the ‘Los Angeles, November 2019’ credit, after which we fade up to that incredible opening shot. Every time. It gets me every single time.
The wonderful thing about this score is how varied it is – at times it is nothing more than an electronic ambience, at others it is a panoramic spectacle. Then it is becomes heartbreakingly melancholic. Or voluptuously seductive. Or delicately serene. Or thrillingly exotic. Or deeply eerie. Or downright apocalyptic. Personally, I think it’s the most impressive, moving, kaleidoscopic score of all time, and yet it’s not an ugly mish-mash of styles, which could have been the case given how far its reach spans. It all blends together incredibly well.
There are many pieces of music in Blade Runner that I deeply, unreservedly adore, but the ‘Love Theme’ is arguably the one I love the most. Put simply, I think it’s the most beautiful piece of music created for any film, ever. It’s weird, because in the context of the film it scores a scene which is disturbing. ‘Love Theme’, by being totally, impossibly erotic and gorgeous, makes this ugly scene emotionally and thematically complex. The saxophone is an instrument that has been mocked (two words – jazz club) and misused (countless cheesy ballads) for so long, but of course at its best, that damn thing sounds like the most beautiful sound on Earth, and Dick Morrissey’s playing on ‘Love Theme’ is my all-time favourite example.
I think if I had to come up with a Desert Island Discs type-list, then ‘Love Theme’ would be in there. It is a masterpiece of production – Vangelis at his very best can make music sound like it wasn’t created by mere mortals but like it was taken from the skies, from the elements. It sounds like a pure dream – listening to it is complete transportation to somewhere else. It is sensual, erotic, sad, enveloping, mysterious and so full of yearning.
Elsewhere, the extended ‘Blade Runner Blues’ is an utterly mesmeric, free-floating fog of sadness. There’s a video on YouTube which loops this piece to the length of an hour, and I’ve listened to it many times. I can’t get enough of it, it’s just so damned gorgeous. ‘Memories of Green’ is extremely sad also, as befitting the scene it accompanies, yet there’s some kind of tender light at the end of its tunnel, those memories of green providing some solace in the midst of the grey, grey present. Both pieces that score the build-up to and meeting between Roy and Tyrell crackle with epic, rumbling, terrifying foreboding. ‘Tears in Rain’ matches the elegiac finality of Roy’s speech with some of the most gorgeous music I have ever heard. The early pieces that accompany the aerial shots of Los Angeles are truly majestic, magnificent panoramas of sound that never fail to take my breath away. And those are just some of the major pieces – throughout, Vangelis enhances the narrative and the visuals with an enormous variety of tones. It is quite simply, the best score ever composed for a film.
And then, after all of that, we get the absolutely mighty final theme tune. It’s almost too much to take in, this soundtrack. So much good stuff. In a lesser film, a piece like ‘End Titles’ would have been overused throughout the movie, to show it off, because it’s just so good, but no, here it’s at the end, where it properly belongs.
Of course, one major element of discussion around Blade Runner is the amount of different versions that are available. Unlike, say Star Wars, where subsequent reworkings and re-edits have all but entirely replaced previous versions and become the one and only edition made available to the public, the complicated history of Blade Runner has thankfully been preserved and fans can acquire, quite easily, all the existing versions of the movie. The Final Cut is the version that Ridley Scott prefers and the one that you’re most likely to find in your local or online shop, but the easily affordable deluxe editions of the film offer the original theatrical version in both its domestic and international cuts (the difference being an extra fifteen or so seconds of violence in the latter), the 1992 ‘director’s cut’ and, most excitingly for fans, the pre-release workprint that was previewed to audiences in 1981 and that was controversial enough for the producers and Scott to add the narration and happy ending that many feel spoiled the theatrical cut. This might prove overwhelming for casual fans, but personally I think the Final Cut is almost entirely the most satisfying version of the movie, and the one I can easily recommend to newbies, which is convenient as its the most easily available. From there on I would suggest either the domestic or international theatrical cuts (depending on your tolerance for violence) so that you can make up their minds in regards to the narration and tacked-on ending, and if you’re really into Blade Runner by that stage, then the Workprint. The Director’s Cut’s differences to the Final Cut are really only cosmetic and I can’t see me going to back to it ever again, but I’m very glad it’s been included regardless.
The Workprint, which was made available on the Ultimate 5-disc set in 2007, is as warned by Scott in the introduction, a rough cut. It’s still incredibly well put together, but if you’ve already seen any of the finished versions, it will obviously feel somehow not quite right. The most obvious instance of this is the temp music used for the final confrontation – at the stage of assembling the workprint, Vangelis hadn’t finished the score, so existing cues by Jerry Goldsmith and James Horner were used instead. The effect is most disconcerting for those familiar with the proper score. As effective and dramatic as these cues are (and Goldsmith and Horner are two of my favourite composers), they make you realise just how otherworldly and unique Vangelis’ contributions were. There’s also a different piece of music in Taffey Lewis’ bar, which would have been interesting for the film’s legacy had it remained. The piece in question is David Byrne and Brian Eno’s ‘Qu’ran’, which became a pretty controversial song when the Islamic Council of Great Britain objected to its use of recorded samples of Qu’ranic recital, leading it to be removed from later pressings of the album My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. I wonder if the film would have experienced similar controversy if the song had ended up in the theatrical version.
Otherwise there are lots of alternate takes, missing or extra dialogue and, prior to The Final Cut, exclusive shots that were the stuff of legend amongst Blade Runner fans. This version was also the only one before the Final Cut that had the correct number of killed replicants referred to during Bryant’s conversation with Deckard, as well as the alternate reading of ‘I want more life…Father’, (as opposed to ‘fucker’) spoken by Batty to Tyrell, a line originally filmed for use in television screenings. I’m with Blade Runner expert Paul Sammon in that, while the ‘father’ version is loaded with extra meaning, there’s something about the vicious bite of the ‘fucker’ reading that takes one aback and shows how, underneath the charisma and cool, Batty is not to be messed with. Or should I say ‘fucked with’.
Famously, Blade Runner‘s preview screenings met with a very mixed reaction from its test audiences. The chief criticisms were that it was too hard to follow and that it was too dark. The decision to add a helpful narration from Deckard, which was something that had been toyed with right from the Fancher days (and indeed there was a single use of it in the previewed workprint, spoken by Deckard after Batty dies, although this was different to the narration that was included in the theatrical cut), was finally given the green light and so began the recording of what has been one of the film’s most divisive elements. Speaking as someone who first saw Blade Runner in its director’s cut, the narration has never sat well with me and I’ve never felt like it belonged, but then again I hadn’t lived with the film for ten years to think otherwise. However, many did feel that the removal of the narration for the director’s cut improved the film immeasurably, and while the qualities of that narration are debatable, and I’m willing to admire it on an aesthetic level (chiefly its callback to film noir tradition), the other major post-production decision, that of the ‘ride into the sunset’ ending, is for me a total compromise and does not work. At all. To throw in some rubbish about Rachael not being inflicted with the four-year lifespan is just so much last-minute, deus ex machina rubbish. Tyrell had told Deckard that Rachael had more than four years? And he never mentioned it until now? Twaddle. That it’s also well documented that much of the aerial footage during this epilogue consisted of outtakes from The Shining only enforces the feeling that this is a cut-and-paste job.
The theatrical version is of course the only one that was available for ten years (disregarding TV versions that cut out violence, nudity and profanity), and yet the overwhelming love for the director’s cut and the Final Cut have now left this onetime one-and-only edition of Blade Runner a curiosity, only available as part of a bigger box set. Casual or first-time viewers of Blade Runner these days might not even know that a version with a narration and a happy ending ever existed. Of course, that’s not to say that history has been rewritten and it’s been erased from existence, but simply put, the first official version of Blade Runner, the one that was released at cinemas everywhere in 1982, is not the default version anymore. I mean, it hasn’t been for decades now, but the odds of the theatrical cut being screened on, say UK television is slim to none, whereas I do remember ITV showing it a good few years after it had already screened the director’s cut in the 1990s.
So, how does that theatrical cut play out now? Well, like it or not, it is an essential part of the Blade Runner experience. I will occasionally return to it for curiosity’s sake, but it will never be my go-to version. That would be the Final Cut. I can see why some don’t like it, because of the sheer wealth of changes made. If the differences between the theatrical and director’s cuts were more narratively and thematically striking, the Final Cut’s alterations are far more subtle and consistent. Lots of colour re-timing, additional shots, goof-corrections and so on – to some it might feel like robbing the original version of its purity. Maybe if those versions were no longer made available to us, then I’d have an issue with the Final Cut. But the fact is that they are, and of all the versions, the Final Cut for me is the richest of all Blade Runner experiences.
Because of the wealth of deleted scenes and behind-the-scenes footage, plus the various different versions that exist, Blade Runner, more than any of other film, feels like this malleable, vivid, yet dreamlike moving thing, like a stream, constantly in flow, always changing – it never feels like a set text, it feels like this pure feeling, this pure essence. Maybe this would feel different if the changes made to the film weren’t great, but they are. Even the deleted scenes on the deluxe DVD/Blu-ray set are presented as one short film that kind of plays out as an entirely alternate version of the movie, albeit with lots of missing scenes (it only runs 45 or so minutes). I wish there was a longer version of Blade Runner that incorporated those deleted scenes, those longer takes, those alternate visuals. In fact, some fans have done this, and these versions are out there, but of course, they are totally unofficial. Yet this is the kind of dedicated fan work that Blade Runner inspires in its viewers. The same goes for the fan-made soundtracks that make the official releases look decidedly paltry. Bootleg releases like the ‘Unicorn Cut’ of the film or the ‘EMS Recombination’ edition of the soundtrack expand Blade Runner‘s official presence into much larger territory.
Then there’s the music. In addition to Blade Runner being my favourite film of all time, Vangelis’ score remains my favourite soundtrack ever. An extraordinary kaleidoscope of emotions, tones, moods and atmospherics, it is as ambitious, all-encompassing and remarkable as the film itself. Obviously, it is at one with the film, so to separate them may seem odd. One is unimaginable without the other, but whereas Blade Runner‘s impact would be considerably lessened if the score was to be removed (check the climax of the workprint for evidence of this), Vangelis’ score is quite amazing on its own. If only accessing it was so simple.
For twelve years, the only official release of the Blade Runner score was a bizarre, predominantly orchestral rendition of some of the film’s most famous cues. Orchestral? Really? Given that Blade Runner‘s score is one of the quintessential electronic soundtracks of all time, to throw out the synths and laden on the strings was a fucking bizarre decision to say the least, and unless you were prepared to go underground for the bootleg releases, this was all you were going to get. And it’s anaemic crap too, worth a single listen for curiosity and hilarity’s sake, but nothing more.
Vangelis fans would have to get used to this sort of thing, as the missing-in-action scores for, er…Missing and The Bounty proved. In 1989, the brilliant compilation Themes was released, which, among other highlights, gave you one piece from Missing, two from The Bounty and, wonderfully, ‘Love Theme’, ‘Memories of Green’ and the ‘End Titles’ from Blade Runner.
1994 finally saw an official Blade Runner soundtrack release, but it was a bittersweet result. It was a heavily truncated selection of the film’s score, with many major pieces missing, and yet Vangelis included three pieces that weren’t even in the original film! Thankfully, all three were great, and in the case of ‘Blush Response’ and ‘Rachael’s Song’, these were actually intended for the movie (‘Wait for Me’ was an entirely new piece). There was also the artistic decision to overlay dialogue from the film over some of the pieces, which was understandably frustrating for fans waiting for these pieces to arrive intact. Still, when all’s said and done, as an album, the 1994 Blade Runner soundtrack remains a marvellous listening experience. The dialogue samples really add an extra atmosphere, and it’s great that some of the pieces mix into one another, which really adds to the flow. I used to also have an issue with the inclusion of ‘One More Kiss, Dear’, the old-time torch song that plays on the radio after Deckard has retired Zhora. A fine song, but I always felt it disrupted the flow of the record. Now I’m used to it.
Shortly after the release of The Final Cut, the curiously marketed Blade Runner Trilogy was released on CD – featuring three CDs, the first a remastered version of the 1994 album, the second an odds-and-sods of hitherto (officially) unreleased music and third an all-new album of Vangelis-composed music inspired by Blade Runner, it still wasn’t as complete a release of the score as fans wanted (and that third disc found few fans), but it’s definitely worth checking out. The second disc in particular is really great, especially for pieces like ‘Desolation Path’ (as heard in the Workprint instead of ‘Love Theme’) and the brief but utterly brilliant ‘Longing’, which can’t be heard in any version of the film but is so good that I wish it had been. It was also the first time legally-binding listeners got the chance to hear cues like ‘Tyrell’s Death’ (aka ‘The Prodigal Son Brings Death’), which was so obviously a highlight of the score that’s ridiculous that it had taken so long for it to get an official release.
To put it bluntly, there has been no wholly satisfying legal release of the Blade Runner soundtrack. But there are massively superior alternatives out there. Just saying.
Okay, I’m going to wrap this up now, because I was hoping to get this published before Blade Runner stopped being a film set in the future, but I missed the deadline. At the very least I want to get this out there whilst it’s at least a film of the present, before December when it will become a film set in the past. Not literally of course. Blade Runner will always be a futuristic film, and that date of 2019 is ultimately just a date. The future depicted in Blade Runner may very well still come to pass, and in some cases, it already has. I only hope that Scott doesn’t release a Final-Final Cut that gets rid of the year in its opening titles in an attempt to make the film still appear ahead of its time. That would be one change too many. Anyway, I hope you’ve enjoyed this piece, which I think I’m going to refer to as Blade Rambler before anyone else gets in there first.
PS: The most essential resource for me whilst writing this piece has been Paul S. Sammon’s amazing, indispensable book Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner. Simply put, if you love Blade Runner, you need this book. It has everything. Also, of course – there’s the Internet Movie Database and its handy trivia and FAQ sections, as well as Charles de Lauzirika’s marvellous documentary Dangerous Days, which was released in 2007 as part of Blade Runner’s staggering deluxe set to mark the debut home viewing release of The Final Cut.