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Blade Runner (1982)


Blade Runner is both far-reaching and elusive. It is one of recent history’s most influential films, as seen indirectly by any number of casual moviewatchers via the decaying, futuristic cityscapes, and eerily human robots of its many science-fiction knockoffs and followers — yet the 1982 film itself is remote and forbidding, a slow trudge away from narrative convention.

In fact, Blade Runner has gotten less user-friendly as it has aged, thanks to a series of attempts to undo the studio compromises of 1982. A happier ending and clunky narration were ditched at the 10-year mark with Blade Runner: The Director’s Cut; but despite the name, Ridley Scott’s participation in that rejiggering was tangential, and now Blade Runner: The Final Cut brings further tweaks by the man himself.

If the director’s cut is a leap forward for the film, the final cut is merely a few more steps after hitting the ground. It’s a bit more violent, and Scott’s beloved, reinstated unicorn dream sequence is further expanded by a matter of seconds. (I eagerly await the all-unicorn cut in 2032.) But for the most part, this is just a handsome remastering of the ’92 reissue.

For now, Harrison Ford rather than a unicorn plays Rick Deckard, a sort of cop-hitman hybrid called a blade runner — it’s his job to track and kill replicants, lifelike cyborgs whose emerging humanity has caused them to go rogue in 2019 dystopic Los Angeles. The film (based, like so much sci-fi, on the work of Philip K. Dick) is not strictly from Deckard’s point of view; we also follow a couple the replicants (Daryl Hannah and Rutger Hauer) as they plot for survival.

The ideas at the heart of Blade Runner, about the nature of humanity, where society is headed, man’s inhumanity to robot and vice versa, are fascinating. They emerge in the very first scene as a suspected replicant (Brion James) sits for an elliptical but menacing line of questioning before making a run for it. The scene is so methodical as to be unnerving, with its creeping sense of dread; Scott sinks you into this world slowly, without blasts of the film’s stunning visuals.

But that languorous pace, over the course of an entire movie, can become deadening; Blade Runner is one of the most fascinating, brilliant conceived boring films ever made. I’m convinced the blame, such as it is, lies with Scott; occasional lapses into tedium — often physicalized onscreen with needless slow-motion shots — have become a director’s trademark for him. A rooftop tussle between Ford and Hauer is rough and despairing, but somehow a sequence that consists of a few thrown punches and some light chasing feels about half an hour long. Scott allows for plenty of time to ruminate on his film’s shortcomings.

No amount of re-editing, for example, has improved the musical score’s slide from ambient noise into cheesy synths, nor does the increased screentime for Deckard’s relationship with a particularly humanoid replicant (Sean Young) infuse that relationship with actual human dimension. Maybe that’s the point, but there are other films more efficient and poignant in depicting the clanking sadness of robotic life (real or metaphorical).

Still, Blade Runner — apart from including some of the most distinct, arresting, and vivid production design and special effects in film history — has enough powerhouse scenes to sustain its slightly inflated reputation. This is one of Harrison Ford’s best performances, a dark and noirish twist on his heroic-everyman reactions as Han Solo and Indiana Jones.

Of course, recent debate over Blade Runner has focused on whether Ford’s Deckard is himself a replicant. It may sound like I’m revealing a major plot twist, but Scott, to his credit, resists this instinct (imagine a modern Hollywood take on this material, which would give Deckard a dramatic realization scene festooned by echo-y flashbacks to ‘clues’ from earlier in the film). Even in the more overt post-theatrical cuts, the issue of Deckard’s humanity is more nagging question than a central gimmick. It’s this attention to detail, the unwillingness to surrender to convention, that makes the frustrating stuff worthwhile. Scott’s film may keep us at arm’s length, but it holds us, too.

The final cut is available in various incarnations, two-, four-, and five-disc versions. The two-disc version offers the film with three commentary tracks (including one from Scott, which reveals, among other things, that some of his choices were driven by the potential for a Blade Runner sequel), plus a second disc with a feature-length making-of documentary. The four-disc version adds all three prior versions of the film on a third disc, plus another disc with a variety of featurettes on the film’s visual effects and its digital restoration. Finally, the five-disc Ultimate Edition adds a workprint of the original film (quite interesting for superfans), all packaged in a tiny metal briefcase.

What’s a tortoise?