Review: ‘Blade Runner: The Final Cut’
Sci-fi Classic Screens at MoPA’s POP Thursday
Wednesday, April 21, 2010
"Blade Runner: The Final Cut" screens on April 22 as part of the Museum of Photographic Arts' POP Thursdays. Here's my review from when Ridley's "The Final Cut" ran theatrically.
Ridley Scott’s "Blade Runner" has been a hugely influential film even though it was something of a financial flop when initially released in theaters in 1982. Scott’s dark, dank, claustrophobic vision of the future has informed much of the cinematic science fiction that followed and has colored Japanese anime from "Akira" and "Ghost in the Shell" on. But "Blade Runner" took a while to develop its devout cult following. Now director Scott serves up "Blade Runner: The Final Cut," which, depending on how you count, is the fifth and he claims the last version of his seminal sci-fi film. "The Final Cut" is also now available in a special edition DVD and BluRay.
At the 2007 San Diego Comic-Con there was a fantastic panel on "Blade Runner" with everyone from Ridley Scott and futurist Syd Mead to stars Sean Young and Joanna Cassidy. The panel was there to discuss this latest version of "Blade Runner," the one being touted as "The Final Cut." During questions from the audience, one attendee came to the microphone and asked Scott if he was going to pull a George Lucas with the new version of Blade Runner—you know, have Greedo shoot first and redo all the visual effects? Scott succinct answer was: “I can’t afford what George Lucas did.” But the real answer may be that Scott didn’t want to change that much.
Attentive viewers will notice that the effects and general image quality have been polished up, the famous unicorn dream has been fully restored, and the scene where Joanna Cassidy’s character is killed has been re-shot (to remove the obvious stunt double). But overall, the changes are minor rather that drastic. The one major change—the removal of the Raymond Chandler-like voiceover narration by Harrison Ford—had already been made back in 1992 when “The Director’s Cut” was released. The chief pleasure of this latest “Final Cut” is not so much the tweaks but rather the chance to see it on the big screen again.
In case anyone’s forgotten the story, here’s a quick rundown. Based on Philip K. Dick’s "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?," the film’s set in the not too distant future of 2019 Los Angeles. A group of replicants—genetically engineered beings created from organic substance that look and act like humans but supposedly without human emotions and with a fixed expiration date—have gone AWOL from the Off World. Replicants were designed for jobs that humans didn’t want: the military, labor, prostitution. The latest model from the Tyrell Corporation, the Nexus 6, is stronger and possibly smarter than man. In fact they are almost indistinguishable from humans—right down to the emotions they seem to be developing. This particular group of renegade replicants, led by Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) is now suspected of being on earth and being exceedingly dangerous. That’s where Deckard (Harrison Ford) comes in. He’s a former police detective or “blade runner” who’s specialty is tracking down and killing “skin jobs.” Deckard quit the force but now they want him back to track down Batty and his cohorts. Deckard reluctantly takes the job and ends up falling in love with Rachel (Sean Young looking stunning in 40s clothes and hairstyle), an even more refined replicant who doesn’t even know that she is one.
Of course the question raised in "The Final Cut"—a question hinted at earlier—is whether Ford’s Deckard is also a replicant. The reason this question is more forcefully posed in this latest version is that Deckard’s daydream of a unicorn running through the forest has been fully restored to the film. This is important because at the end of the film, the character of Gaff (played by Edward James Olmos), another cop, leaves a tiny origami unicorn at Deckard’s apartment. Since we are told that replicants have no real memories and that any memories or dreams are just implants, Gaff’s unicorn implies that he’s read Deckard’s files, knows he’s a replicant, and knows what his dreams are. Now Ridley Scott is on record as saying Deckard is a replicant, and Harrison Ford is on record saying he’s not. In Dick’s book, Deckard is definitely not a replicant. So there you have it!
I have to confess that I’m torn on this issue. It’s more comforting if Deckard is human. In fact the film as a whole had a more human feel when Deckard’s voiceover narration guided us through. Without the voiceover, the film is colder, bleaker, and less human. (Although I love the film noir style of the voiceover I have to admit that I think the film is artistically better without the voiceover.) So all this signals that Deckard is indeed a replicant.
The factors that make the case for Deckard being a replicant are valid: Deckard says of Rachel, “How could she not know what she is?” And Rachel asks if he ever took the replicant test – both good foreshadowing of him being a replicant. Plus, all the replicants have eyes that glow at some point in the film and Deckard’s do seem to glow at one point. But if he is a replicant—and some suggest he is a higher Nexus 7 because he seems more human—why is he so weak and is so easily beaten by the other replicants? And if Tyrell were going to make police replicants why wouldn’t they be stronger than the replicants or people they would be chasing? And why would a cop replicant be so cynical and anti-establishment, that would seem to be bad product design. And if he were a replicant, why would he be put to better use for his limited life span?
Thematically the Deckard as replicant also has pluses and minuses. If he is a replicant, then it just goes to prove that what makes us human is hard to define. But if he is a replicant than the contrast between a human character and a replicant one is lost. The best science fiction shows how humanity deals with and reacts to technology, so if Deckard is not human we loose that human touchstone. In a sense, the film is fundamentally about what it is that makes us human, so maybe the debate over Deckard is exactly what the film should provoke, with no clear answer provided.
In the original version of the film, Deckard has a voiceover at the end in which he says of Batty: “I don't know why he saved my life. Maybe in those last moments he loved life more than he ever had before. Not just his life, anybody's life, my life. All he'd wanted were the same answers the rest of us want. Where did I come from? Where am I going? How long have I got? All I could do was sit there and watch him die.” And even without the voiceover, those are the questions that the film asks and leaves us with.
The benefit of removing Deckard’s voiceover is that it makes him less of a main character and allows Batty and the other replicants to occupy a larger part of the film. So when Batty, who’s been searching for answers to who he is and when he will die, approaches his “expiration date,” we feel that it is his story and it’s a tragic one. Batty’s final lines still have a heartbreakingly poignant impact: “I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. 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.” That is one of the most beautiful and sad moments in any film.
As with Scott’s other films—"The Duellists" and "Alien" before and "Gladiator" after—"Blade Runner" displays a striking visual style. Scott worked with an inspired team that included futurist Syd Mead, production designer Lawrence G. Paull, cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth, and effect wizard Douglas Trumball to create the LA of the future we see in the film. The rundown cityscape is intricately detailed. Seeing the effects, which include matte paintings and miniatures, you might be surprised at how precise and stunning they are. They hold up to any state of the art work being done today. And maybe it’s nostalgia for a different style of effects work, but there also seems to be a different quality to the effects that digital computer effects can’t quite capture in the same way.
The city is also cluttered with massive, omnipresent video billboards with Coke ads and geisha girls popping pills. LA actually looks more like Hong Kong with its crowded streets, noodle stands, and Asian ads. But there are also cars that travel above the street and massive factory smoke stacks that light up the dark, thick night. It’s a future that’s extremely multicultural.
Enhancing the exquisite visual mood is Vangelis’ music. The score mixes futuristic electronic and with noir style jazz/blues. Scott gives the film an ingenious slant by playing up the noir elements. The lighting—with neon signs flashing and heavy shadows—calls to mind the classic noir films of the 40s. Rachel with her sleek, padded-shouldered suits is like a seductive anachronism in this futuristic city. As with the 40s film noir, "Blade Runner" serves up a world where there are no heroes and no clear lines between good and bad. It’s also difficult to know whom to trust.
"Blade Runner" (rated R for violence and brief nudity) has only gotten better with time. Do yourself a favor and pass over anything new in theaters and go for this old classic—it still has the power to dazzle and amaze.
Companion viewing: "Akira," "Ghost in the Shell," "Alien," "The Matrix"
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