Not unlike replicants who treasure photos as tokens of their past, seeing Blade Runner: The Final Cut (2007) this weekend provoked a flood of memories related to my own history. I recall avidly reading about the film’s production as an 11-year-old special effects buff (despite the fact that I’m not a collector, I still have the original Cinefex issue devoted to the film), repeatedly watching it on video as a teenager in love with its cinematography, and more recently, enjoying its complex themes and critical reappraisal as an adult cinephile. Surely Boomer critics who grew up watching Ford, Hawks, and Hitchcock experience the same ghosts of previous selves each time they revisit those films?
Yet I’ve always considered Blade Runner (1982) a masterpiece. I recall being mystified by the dismissals it received in the early ’80s, enjoying my father’s response when he claimed it was the best SF movie he’d ever seen (we rarely agreed on anything), and my satisfaction at the first critical reversals, including none other than Harlan Ellison (not exactly renowned for his humility), who wrote in 1986: “[The film] has come to look to me, after repeated re-viewings, as a significant achievement, deeper in human values than I’d supposed, far more than a glitzy melodrama of sci-fi machinery and thespic posturing. Over time, my respect and admiration for Scott’s vision has grown substantially.”
The film’s visual ambition is so startling that it often takes a few viewings to appreciate its thematic ambition–Frankensteinian themes of creation and responsibility, what it means to be human, to be a moral agent, and the desperate response of the beautiful freaks who can’t conform. Ellison also claimed that Ridley Scott said to him (in discussions previous to Blade Runner), “The time is ripe for a John Ford of science fiction films. I’m going to be that director.” Maybe Blade Runner‘s ambition was due to such pangs of auteurism from Scott–whose critical and commercial comeback the last few years includes films I find problematic at best–but I suspect it has something more to do with the kind of convergence of emotional, developmental, and personal forces that often spark creative brilliance; Scott told writer Paul M. Sammon (Future Noir) that he dropped one film in development and signed on to Blade Runner largely because of the fact that his older brother had suddenly died, and he was “freaked out” by it: “I needed immediate activity, needed to get my mind off my brother’s death. . . . it was kind of an exorcism, in a way.”
I wouldn’t want to telegraph biographical information too forcefully, but it doesn’t surprise me that Blade Runner is the result of someone in the throes of reflection regarding life and death; Scott’s later films simply lack its gravity. (No doubt additional credit goes to screenwriter-producer Hampton Fancher and Philip K. Dick’s original novel.) The film’s noisy sound mix and congested pictorialism–as if it had been directed by a crazed, postmodern Von Sternberg–is a direct corollary to its moral ambiguity and sense of climactic human expiration (technological and social): Scott has spoken of the film’s inspiration in the overdevelopment of New York and Hong Kong, and the fear that everything will “grind to a halt” at any moment. Underneath its Heavy Metal design gloss lies a sensibility that questions human “progress” and thirsts for reasons to live; quite an accomplishment for an era (and a Hollywood) defined by consumer optimism and Spielberg-Lucas sentimentality and triumphalism.
For those unfamiliar with the Final Cut, it’s safe to say that it’s as close to the director’s original intent as today’s technology could possibly bring it. Gone is a dialogue gaff or two, minor continuity errors, unsightly prop wires, studio-enforced changes; added are a more fully restored dream sequence (the 1991 “Director’s Cut” was a rush job), a sweetened–but by no means dramatically redone–soundtrack, a few minor shots restored, and subtle digital fixes. It is not a re-imagining or an “extended cut” or a what-Scott-would-have-done-if-he-had-made-the-film-today makeover at all. It’s really what this version’s award-winning producer, Charles de Lauzirika (who has offered friendly and intelligent comments on the project for years in various online fora), has described as “one last polish to a film that never really had one.”
I saw the Final Cut digitally projected, and speaking as one who has only seen the film on ’80s VHS and TV, scratched revival prints, and a below-average DVD, the new print looks and sounds absolutely stunning. It’s unfortunate that Warner Brothers is only distributing the film in Los Angeles and New York (at this point), because it’s truly a film made to be seen on the big screen: a massive, sprawling vision that remains centered around crucial human questions, making it an endless source of fascination.