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The new-er-est "Blade Runner"

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This shot has always been there.

Steven Boone over at The House Next Door has seen the latest -- er, "Final" -- cut of what may now, 25 years after its debut, be "Ridley Scott's" "Blade Runner," in the new version premiering at the New York Film Festival. Above all, Boone was wowed by the digital presentation:

"The Final Cut" is remastered from original 35mm elements and transferred to High Definition digital video at 4K (4096 horizontal pixel) resolution. Projected in HD at 24 frames a second for this year's New York Film Festival, this "Blade Runner" has no visible grain, dirt or scratches, stuttering frames, reel-change "cigarette burns" or soft-focus moments when the film gets loose in the projector gate. Funny how I thought I'd miss all those things, their "organic" qualities, but this restoration gives us a pristine image without sacrificing warmth. The picture even fooled our editor, who at first thought he was looking at a 35mm projection. This "Blade Runner" removes every barrier to getting lost in Scott's fire-and-rain Los Angeles short of presenting it as interactive theater.

I saw the original version first-run in 70 mm at Seattle's Cinerama Theater in 1982, and grain was evident, probably for a couple reasons: 1) many of the visual effects involved multiple, non-digital exposures; and 2) the film wasn't actually shot in 70 mm, but was blown up from 35 mm.

 

According to an extensive, multi-sourced Wikipedia article on the film, the 1990 version advertised as a "Director's Cut" and shown at the Nuart in LA and the Castro in San Francisco was actually a 70 mm workprint. (In the days before digital, effects were often done in 70 mm, even for 35 mm releases, for better optical quality.) Scott approved the 1992 Director's Cut, but wasn't entirely satisfied with it. Wikipedia offers comparisons of the various versions, citing the primary changes as:

* The removal of Deckard's explanatory voice-over * The re-insertion of a dream sequence of a unicorn running through a forest * The removal of the studio-imposed "happy ending," including some associated visuals which had originally run under the film's end-credits.

It was apparent from the beginning that the voiceover was a big problem -- and Harrison Ford (who didn't get on with Scott, much less the studio execs who were calling him in to read narration) has said he did it badly and begrudgingly, hoping they wouldn't even be able to use it. (It's that cringe-worthy at times.) Scott, however, says he wasn't taken off the picture, and that he completed the original release version after it tested badly with audiences.

But the movie was a theatrical flop anyway, producing rentals of only $14.8 million at roughly the same time "E.T." was on its way to zooming past $300 million. According to a definitive piece by Kenneth Turan in the Los Angeles Times Magazine (September 13, 1992), the film may have died then and there. But the new home video market extended its commercial termination date:

"Blade Runner's" availability on video kept it alive in the eyes of the always loyal science-fiction crowd, and gradually, over time, the film's visual qualities and the uncanniness with which it had seemed to see the future began to outweigh its narrative flaws. Scott says he saw the interest rise, "And I thought, 'My God, we must have misfired somewhere; a lot of people like this movie.' " And not just in this country. In Japan, where the film had always been successful, "I was treated like a king," art director [Snyder reports. "The fans would be too in awe to even look at you." The film's look began to show up in art direction and design: Terry Gilliam's "Brazil" and the stage design for the Rolling Stones' Steel Wheels tour were influenced by "Blade Runner." And when laser discs appeared on the market, "Blade Runner" was one of the films that everyone just had to get. It became Voyager's top-selling disc immediately upon its release in 1989, never losing the No. 1 spot.

(Are spoiler alerts now becoming unfashionable because we should just assume everybody's seen the movie or knows the ending? I don't care. This is one.)

In Sunday's New York Times ("A Cult Classic Restored, Again"), Scott says of Ford's character, Deckard: “Yes, he’s a replicant. He was always a replicant.”

The clue to Deckard’s true nature comes in a scene that was cut from the original release and only recently unearthed by Charles de Lauzirika, Mr. Scott’s assistant and the restoration’s producer, In the film, Deckard falls in love with Rachael (played by Sean Young), a secretary at the Tyrell Corporation, the conglomerate that makes replicants. She discovers that she’s a replicant too. Her memories of childhood were implanted by Tyrell to make her think she’s human.

In the last scene of Mr. Scott’s version, Deckard leads Rachael out of his apartment. He notices an origami figure of a unicorn on the floor. A fellow cop [Gaff, played by Edward James Olmos] has often left such figures outside replicants’ rooms. In an earlier scene, Deckard was thinking about a unicorn. Looking at the cutout now, he realizes that the authorities know what’s in his mind, that the unicorn is a planted memory, that he’s a replicant and that he and Rachael are both now on the run. They get into the elevator. The door slams. The end.

House Next Door publisher Matt Zoller Seitz, however, says the movie isn't so definitive on that score:

I didn't get any of this from the new cut. And I also don't see how it makes any sense at all that Deckard could be a replicant given that the most advanced models have four-year lifespans, and Deckard's association with the police department seems to have lasted longer than that. Or is Deckard's "long history" as a blade runner something that Gaff and the rest of the LAPD have collectively agreed to pretend is real?

I can't weigh in on this yet, having not seen the new cut, but in the 1992 version I thought we were intended to understand that Deckard and Rachel were both Replicants. Even the narrated 1982 version ended with:

[Deckard picks up paper unicorn. ]

Gaff (memory): It's too bad she won't live. But then again, who does?

Deckard (voice-over): Gaff had been there, and let her live. Four years, he figured. He was wrong. Tyrell had told me Rachael was special: no termination date. I didn't know how long we had together. Who does?

In 1982, we naturally assumed the issue being addressed here was Rachael's "termination date." The new version (without that scene) might cast that same question in a new light, since neither Deckard nor Rachael knows for sure when either of their termination dates might be. Just like humans. But producer Bud Yorkin, talking about the changes made to "Blade Runner" for the first theatrical release, told the LA Times Magazine in 1992:

"Is he or isn't he a replicant? You can't cheat an audience that way. It's another confusing moment," Yorkin says. And so the unicorn dream was never used, and a new, more positive ending line -- revealing that Rachael was a replicant without a termination date-was written. To indicate the joy the happy couple had in store for them, scenes of glorious nature were to be shot and added on, but attempts to get proper footage in Utah were foiled by bad weather. Instead, contact was made with Stanley Kubrick and, remembers Rawlings, they ended up with outtakes from "The Shining": "Helicopter shots of mountain roads, the pieces that are in all the 'Blade Runner' prints you see everywhere."

But Matt is right: We should always trust the art more than the artist. It's what's actually on the screen that matters, not what the filmmaker may have said he intended afterwards, or between versions. The central issue is not who is a Replicant and who isn't. It's that we know that they know that we know what it's like to be aware of one's mortality. The Replicants, of course, have always been metaphors for the human condition. (Do they dream of electric sheep?)

Again, from the original version:

Roy Batty: 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 Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time like tears in rain. Time to die.

Deckard (voice-over): 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.

Who can? Who does?

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