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On ‘Blade Runner’ and the Prospects of a Worthy Sequel

Things are getting exciting. I’ve followed the production of the forever-in-the-coming sequel to Blade Runner since it was announced a few years ago, and with bated breath as well as some tempered expectations—and as little cynicism as possible—I’m primed for the upcoming October 6 release of Blade Runner 2049.

I’m somewhat disappointed Ridley Scott is not directing, but am encouraged he had a hand in crafting the story and is executive producing. I’m a big fan of director Denis Villeneuve—both Sicario and Arrival are exceptionally well crafted and finely acted. Cinematographer Roger Deakins is a certifiable legend. Harrison Ford is back. And judging from his evocative scores for those two previous Villeneuve films, composer Jóhann Jóhannsson will answer Vangelis’ 1982 themes with new music that is contemporary and unique but also, hopefully, similar in mood to the first film. I’ll be keeping an eye on how well the picture balances traditional practical visual effects with inevitable CGI, and I trust the new story in Blade Runner 2049 will enhance and not contradict or undermine my memory of and love for the original.

Anyone who’s ever talked movies with me at length knows that Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner is up there on my list of favorite and most influential films. But unlike other personal favorite and influential movies such as Raiders of the Lost Ark or The Godfather or Star Wars or Superman or Willy Wonka—beloved and absolutely perfect movies that stand the test of time and are utterly impervious to criticism—I don’t get my knickers in a twist when somebody tells me they watched Blade Runner but didn’t really like it for this reason or that reason.

If somebody were ever to voice to me a gripe about the films of Indiana Jones, or Darth Vader, I’d probably go cross-eyed as they tried to explain their ludicrous reason why, I’ll maybe hear them out for the sake of being polite, but that person will instantly seem substantially less cool to me no matter their silly rationale.

But it’s totally cool if you don’t like Blade Runner because there’s still a lot to talk about. I’ll listen to any intelligent criticism of Blade Runner because it’s the sort of picture that rewards closer scrutiny, presents contradictions and ambiguities, and ultimately invites discourse. It’s the sort of love/hate film that separates casual movie-goers from passionate film lovers. It’s one of those penetrating films that demands a more sophisticated viewer compared to one of those countless silly movies intended purely and solely as escapism.

In other words, there’s lots of “there” there in Blade Runner—I challenge any viewer who possibly dislikes sci-fi, or who maybe finds the movie’s pace to be lagging, or who perhaps finds the future world depicted to be just too darned oppressive, to not at least find something within the film to admire and study. In fact, love it or hate it, it’s neigh impossible to not be affected by at least one of the film’s plentiful signature elements.

To fully appreciate the vast and enduring influence of Blade Runner, one has only to consider the dozens of subsequent films, commercials, and music videos made in its wake that emulate its visual style—be it via homage to its mood and aesthetic or simply by pilfering its costumes, architecture, lighting techniques, and camera angles. Furthermore, Blade Runner’s overcrowded, corporate-logoed, and neon-splashed vision of a hellish 2019 Los Angeles has pretty much served as the template for all future dystopias, from The Fifth Element and Minority Report to Dark City and The Matrix and beyond.

Like most viewers in 1982, my initial dance with Blade Runner was not immediately gratifying, but my liaison with the film lingered stubbornly in my mind, haunted my daydreams, and infiltrated my sleep. Slowly, thanks to VHS and HBO and the Criterion Collection, the movie seeped into my blood, bore itself into my mind, and, like with all those significant and sacred films we each take personal ownership of, eventually become what it is now: a personal filmic totem that encapsulates my passion for cinema.

Yet I can appreciate why Blade Runner will leave some folks cold. It’s certainly science fiction—some movie-goers don’t particularly like sci-fi, go figure—but it’s also more of a grimy film noir detective mystery than a slick action thriller, the pacing is deliberate, its bleak vision of the future does not allow for much in the way of humor, and its contemplative themes of memory, death, artificiality, and man versus maker are heavier than your typical summer movie fare.

As for Harrison Ford, the man we all came to see because we loved him as Han Solo and as Indiana Jones, it’s unfortunate that his character Rick Deckard never gets any true audience-pleasing moments. Remember Indy’s can’t-be-bothered gun pull on the uppity swordsman in Raiders? Or Han Solo’s damn-the-torpedoes flight through an asteroid field, or his “I know” retort to Leia in The Empire Strikes Back? You won’t find any of that crowd-rousing stuff in Blade Runner. It’s admittedly a tougher nut to crack, but once penetrated the film’s rewards are myriad.

Like any decent cult classic, the film was poorly received by audiences and overlooked (or misunderstood) by critics. Blade Runner’s eternal post-cinema afterlife—from the early days of VHS, laserdisc, and cable TV, all the up to way to DVDs, Blu-rays, web streaming, and a forthcoming HD4K release—is one of the earliest textbook examples of how home video can lend renewed life to a challenging and hard-to-categorize movie that didn’t connect with audiences at the time of its initial theatrical release. Who knows how differently moviegoers would have reacted to the exact same film had it been made a year before Raiders of the Lost Ark or filmed sometime after Harrison Ford had done something else serious and Oscar-friendly like Witness or The Mosquito Coast. In any other universe without home video, our memories of Blade Runner would likely have dissolved long ago like tears in rain.

Thanks to the fan base born of the film’s popularity on home video, Sir Ridley Scott has had an opportunity to rejigger and reissue the film on two separate occasions. A 1992 “Director’s Cut” version excises the extra gore seen in the home video and International edition, drops the happy getaway ending, inserts an enigmatic unicorn dream sequence, and, most crucially, removes Ford’s leaden voiceover narration.

The 2007 “Final Cut” is essentially the same as the 1992 version with the extra bits of gore restored, but also with a gorgeously remastered soundtrack and picture. Notably, the visual effects in the 2007 edition have been subtly augmented with some effective but surprisingly restrained CGI (suspension wires have finally been removed; the iris of the giant eye in the opening sequence now reacts to the light of the erupting refinery; the horizon of the cityscape is farther away and more detailed; a few nagging lip-synching issues are tidied up; and, most crucially, Zhora’s iconic death scene has been digitally fixed so that now it’s actress Joanna Cassidy’s face we see crashing through the plates of glass instead of some butch stuntwoman wearing a terrible wig.

Through the magic of DVD/Blu-Ray, the mega-geek-out collectible edition of Blade Runner offers no fewer than five versions of the film: the spiffy 2007 “Final Cut” edition; the two 1982 theatrical releases (both with narration, one with the extra gore); the 1992 “Director’s Cut” edition (no narration, no gore); and a rare “workprint” version of the film with different main titles, alternate editing, and a temporary music track. And no gore. That five-version package also includes a terrific feature-length making-of documentary, and its assortment of extras and commentaries makes it an essential film-school-in-a-box for lovers of the movie who want to know about every aspect of its production.

I have revisited Blade Runner dozens of times and am so utterly awestruck by Ridley Scott’s immersive vision that the film never grows tiresome. Thirty-five years later, I remain dazzled by the film’s glorious and decrepit production design, its fashionable costumes, its mesmerizing cinematography, its wonderful practical effects, and its trippy dances of light. I am still easily entranced by its seething sonic textures and especially Vangelis’ ethereal score—a richly textured soundscape that, like the film’s populace, is a mélange of the synthetic and the organic.

The story’s ideas still hold my imagination. The supporting cast is a who’s-who of some of the most impressionable faces in the movies, distinctive character actors we all recognize and who lend an immediate gravitas to every film in which they appear. And then there’s Harrison Ford in his gleaming prime, starring in his first post-Lucas leading role—the first of many “serious” parts that demanded more from him as an actor than merely wiseacre swagger and a strong jawline. He acquits himself handsomely, despite his character’s relative lack of physical heroics.

For the record, my favorite version of Blade Runner is the 1982 International version, with the notorious voiceover narration intact, with the extra graphic violence, and with the sunny happy getaway ending cobbled together from Stanley Kubrick’s Shining outtakes. Though it’s not the version I saw on the big screen at the Budco Regency in Philadelphia—and heard at such full-blast volume that my father complained to the theater manager—it’s the version I grew up with on VHS, the version I played again and again, the version I slowly fell in love with it, the version I memorized from end to end.

Maybe it’s nostalgia, but I have come to love the original 1982 version’s clunky narration, and I have a soft spot for the scrappiness of its dated imperfections (those visible cables in model shots; that obvious stunt double standing in for Joanna Cassidy; the voiceover flub revealing a missing sixth Replicant who was cut from the film; and so on). I admire the 1992 “Director’s Cut” iteration because that version doesn’t clobber me over the head with the studio-mandated voiceover exposition and, without that narration, the film’s intoxicating soundscape plays out undisturbed.

The 2007 “Final Cut” version is a nice treat for the same reasons but more so for its digital corrections and because it offers the best possible visual and sonic experience.

Yet, despite the general dislike for the voiceover, whenever I view the 1992 or 2007 edition, I cannot help but hear that droning narration track playing in the back of my head.

 

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