The long-awaited Blade Runner — The Final Cut, which was released last autumn in a new transfer in digital format, is in many ways a model example of how to restore and update a classic film. It contains none of the ill-advised anachronisms seen in such projects as the remastered Star Wars movies, and neither has the director tampered insensitively with his assertive yet delicate masterpiece the way Francis Ford Coppola did with Apocalypse Now: Redux. The tweaks to the edit mostly enhance rather than impair the movie, while the corrections of continuity gaffes and shots deemed inadequate have been carried out with care and do not disrupt the experience of the film.
Unfortunately, however, the director and restorers have been unable to resist the temptation of adjusting the picture to fit what one presumes is their 21st-century notion of what an edgy SF film should look like. The vivid colour of the original, that glorious early 80s pastel and neon-sheen overseen by the late, great director of photography Jordan Cronenweth, has been bled from of the Final Cut to leave us with the bleak, desaturated ‘blue steel’ look pioneered by James Cameron in the 90s and now ubiquitous in contemporary Hollywood action films, including those of Blade Runner director Ridley Scott.
Pity, because most of everything else in the Final Cut is done well. And by all means, let us start with the positive: most of my initial apprehensions before seeing it for myself have been brought to shame: the digital manipulation of the scenes showing the death of Zhora to eliminate what was an obvious stunt double, and of Deckard’s interrogation of Omar ben Hassan to make his lip movements fit the dialogue, is impeccably done, the correction of the serial number seen in the electron microscope on the snake scale Deckard totes around to fit the one the fish seller reads aloud, and the digital removal of the cables moving the spinners through the air, are no-brainers, and while I am going to miss the strange non-sequitur shot of previous versions, which showed the dove flying towards a blue sky next to a smokestack utterly incongruous to the look of the rest of the movie, the newly constructed, properly Blade Runnerish image is much less jarring. The loss of the ‘mystery’ of that obvious patch-up insert is made up for by the new one’s consistency with the look of the film.
Many sequences are edited slightly differently in the Final Cut, and in most cases for the better, though some nice touches in earlier versions have been omitted. I will, for example, miss the shot in the scene introducing Deckard in the previous version, the 1992 Director’s Cut, showing us his face in medium close-up as we hear that the Off World announcement blaring from the speakers of the hovering airship was brought to us ‘by the Shimata-Dominguez Corporation.’ It gave us a sense of the corporate dominion of the Blade Runner future by introducing an evocative company name otherwise irrelevant to the plot. On the other hand, however, there is no doubt that the scene now moves at tighter clip.
And the addition of the extra violence in the scene of Roy Batty’s showdown with Tyrell as well as Deckard’s fight with Pris, previously seen in the international and home video releases of the original 1982 version of the film, lends to those sequences extra visceral quality. In the Tyrell scene, especially, it accentuates the horror of Batty’s patricide, which is even further emphasised by the addition of a shot where, having let Tyrell’s body drop, he walks towards the terrified J. F. Sebastian, apologising to him but at the same calling him with palpable elation. The film’s major moment of high pathos rendered even more powerful.
Otherwise there is very little additional footage. Most importantly, the (in)famous unicorn sequence has been edited differently to include a shot not seen in the previous editions, of Deckard’s wide-awake face, which is intercut with a slightly extended version of the well-known shot, seen in the Director’s Cut, of the unicorn running towards the camera. This not only heightens the intensity of the scene, but emphasises its lucidity. Deckard is seeing this, wide awake.
A street sequence showing Deckard making his way to The Snake Pit has been added; it is the one with the much-publicised go-go dancers in hockey masks. While by no means contributing vitally to the film, it does give us a little more sense of the environment Deckard moves around in, and a sense, literally, of the footwork his investigation requires. The two, famously cut ‘iron lung’-scenes, where Deckard visits his fellow Blade Runner, Holden, in the hospital have not — thank God — been inserted. As can be seen in the extra material on the home video release, they suffer from uncharacteristically stilted dialogue and unconvincing performances from both actors.
The other major set of changes to the Final Cut is the correction of some of the many continuity errors in previous versions. Police Commissioner Bryant now mentions the correct number of active replicants in his briefing to Deckard at the beginning of the movie, eliminating the mystery in previous versions of what happened to the “sixth replicant.” The bruise that suddenly appears on Deckard’s cheek as he walks up to talk to Bryant and Gaff after having shot Zhora in the previous versions, only to subsequently disappear, has been digitally removed, making up for the problems caused by a change in the original shooting script that placed that scene after his ultimately subsequent fight with Leon, in which we all see him getting bruised thoroughly.
Also, incongruous shots from the Voight-Kampff scene at Tyrell’s and the scene introducing Roy Batty in the phone booth have been manipulated to hide the fact that they are inserts — in the first case from an over-Deckard’s-shoulder shot of Tyrell that does not make sense in terms of the continuity of the scene, and in the second from scenes that occur later in the movie. While perfectly understandable, I personally find these corrections a little sad, especially with respect to the Batty scene. In previous versions, these introductory shots of Roy — the first of him clenching his hand, the second showing him turning his head towards someone (Tyrell) whose thumb is visible on his shoulder — provided foreshadowing of things that happen later in the story. This was congruent with the wholly intentional foreshadowing made in the sound edit of the Voight-Kampff scene where Deckard’s later line to Rachael about her false memory of a spider living in the bush outside her childhood window is elegantly layered into the interrogation dialogue.
Despite the fact that the now corrected shots were originally last resorts, not intentional subliminals, they worked as such and this quite wonderful aspect of the storytelling has now been diminished. Furthermore, considering these changes it is strange that another famous elision of continuity has not been touched. The Final Cut retains the difference between Leon’s wording ‘Let me tell you about my mother’, before he shoots Holden in the opening scene, and in the subsequent recording of same that Deckard listens to in his car, in which it runs ‘I’ll tell you about my mother.’ I do not know whether this was originally done intentionally or not, but I have always found it eminently appropriate in a film that deals with the unreliability of memory. I am happy that it remains in the Final Cut, but cannot help but find it a little inconsistent with the changes made to the above-mentioned disjunctions.
However, all of this is, as Tyrell so memorably puts it, academic when compared to the changes made to the picture mentioned in the introduction. There is no question that the film has benefited from the restoration made for the new transfer — the picture is as clear and expansive as it probably was upon the film’s initial release, and I, for one, immensely enjoyed re-exploring the rich imagery for new details obscured in the worn or lower-quality versions hitherto available. But along with this digital ‘cleaning’ of the film upon its transfer to binary form, the restorers have desaturated the colour of the images, leaving the picture dark and with less colouristic definition, dissolving the strongly defined demarcations between individual elements in the shots so fundamental to the film’s aesthetic, and undermining the brilliant juxtaposition in the original of the grit of urban decay and the carnivalesque decadence of human life in it.
Compare, for instance, these shots. The first from outside Chew’s Eyeworks, the second from Taffey Lewis’ nightclub The Snake Pit.
Outside Chew’s, what was originally a spectacularly detailed scene in which industrial green and bright red stood out on a background the grey-brown kipple on the street, while warmth was provided by the parchment yellow of the sign in the upper right corner. In the Final Cut everything has been dulled and therefore merges into a dark murk. As for The Snake Pit, the vivid pastels of the original bleed together in the Final Cut, diminishing its sensory profligacy, as a darkish brown tone is chosen instead of the original’s lighter, more airy one.
These are isolated, but by no means solitary examples of the changes wrought to the images of the Final Cut. This is clearly an aesthetic choice on the part of the director and other people responsible, and it has been applied consistently. The result is a film that has been dislodged from its point of origin and given a makeover to look more ‘contemporary’ in what appears to be an attempt to match today’s tastes. This is a film of the early 80s, not the early naughts, and anachronistic pretension otherwise only renders it serious disservice. By thus diminishing Blade Runner‘s visual richness, the makers of the Final Cut have detracted from what more than anything has made it such a seminal work.
Ultimately, of course, the long, tortured history of Blade Runner is an illustration of the futility of hoping for perfection, but at the same time, it underscores the importance of striving for it. That is what Scott and his team were doing when they made the film, it is what the film’s substantial and intensely loyal audience have been demanding, and it is what Scott and his collaborators have since been trying to achieve. Few films are given as many shots at it as has been accorded to Blade Runner, but it is both poignant and inevitable that it will always remain the imperfect masterpiece that it is.
Blade Runner — The Final Cut (2007) is out on BlueRay, HD-DVD and normal DVD in a variety of box sets, and has also appeared for short runs in theatres here and there. Given its cult popularity, chances are it will show up on a big screen near you sooner, rather than later.
Included with the home video release is the exhaustive documentary Dangerous Days, which runs almost 4 hours and contains extensive never-before seen footage, interviews with pretty much everyone who was involved with the making of the film still alive (with the notable exception of actor William Sanderson), plus many others, and lots of background information. A real treat for all Blade Runner fans, even if it avoids or only superficially treats contentious issues such as the studio-ordered voiceover that made it into the original Theatrical Release and the tug-of-war over the home video rights to the movie that delayed the release of the Final Cut for years. Most of this is understandable though, since creating and releasing it at all would have required the green light from producers Bud Yorkin and Jerry Perenchio, who were also at the root of these issues.
Also, it is a pity that it does not contain a section devoted to the production of the Final Cut itself and the choices that went into it. There is a bit of this in a separate featurette, but it mostly deals with recovering the original negatives (which had been marked as junk in 1988(!), but fortunately were never thrown away), and with the new special effects shots, but not so much with aesthetic concerns. The most comprehensive of the five different home video sets also includes all previous versions of the film except the so-called ‘San Diego Preview’ which was very close to the original theatrical release, and thus not of great import. It even includes the fabled ‘Workprint,’ which offers a wonderful opportunity to glance into the creative process behind the movie and see fascinating roads not taken. Plus copious amounts of extra material, most of which does not seem superfluous. A high water mark for the archival release of films.
For a more detailed review of the changes made to the Final Cut and the contents of the box sets, go here.