One of the most seminal works of science-fiction, Blade Runner played to the strengths of nearly everyone involved, Ridley Scott developing atmosphere and visual storytelling over a plot-light screenplay, Phillip K. Dick’s original novel being smoothed and distilled into a cinematic vehicle working off the same themes and worldbuilding, Harrison Ford given a character that actually fits his tendency to underplay things, Vangelis coming in at a time where his unique and unorthodox soundtrack music would capture the melancholy and particular atmosphere of this particular film, cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth’s striking and gorgeous infusion of film noir visuals into a science fiction context, and so on. It was lightning in a bottle, the product of many very skilled people working on a project that unified their unique talents. Ridley Scott was vindicated as the unifier between all involved when his alternate cuts of the film gained great praise, partially leading to the ubiquity of alternative editions of films on home releases today.
Scott and Cronenweth’s injection of film noir visuals into a science fiction setting precipitated not just the visual identity of the cyberpunk movement, but a lot of its thematic concerns as well (cyberpunk’s most direct creator figure, Neuromancer author William Gibson, famously despaired at seeing Blade Runner while editing early drafts of Neuromancer, feeling he’d been beaten to the punch), using visual shorthand to imply conventions of film noir and transplant them to this new context. The sheer scale of technological and urban progress might be unique to science fiction, but the melancholy, dehumanising society certainly isn’t, and techniques like backlighting and high focus on facial contrast support that. This is all further supported by the exquisite set and prop design – I particularly like the quasi-analog feel to the technologies Deckard uses.
The omnipresent smoke, rain, and inconsistent lighting (what properly brightly-lit shots there are are mostly drenched in artificial neon light rather than anything warm or natural) reflect the film’s film noir heritage and immediately contrast the wondrous technological and cultural progress of the film’s future with the ultimate lack of progress, of change, that humanity’s actually made. This of course then ties right into the themes of the film, the question of what actually defines humanity, which plays off contrasting the android replicants with the literal humans.
The irony underpinning the film is that the robotic “villains” exhibit more humanity than the human “heroes”. The dehumanising corporate landscape of the future produces automatons in all but name. Deckard carries out his job with little feeling or consideration, he stares blankly at most people, he shrugs off most interactions, meanwhile the replicants cavort and express themselves passionately and make clear their motivations. Deckard and Rachael’s relationship bridges the supposed gap between the two class of beings showing them both capable of legitimate emotion. The ending, where Roy shows greater humanity and appreciation for life than Deckard, shows the replicants transcending the human bounds of “humanity” and validly claiming it for themselves, tearing away the concept of humanity from solely being the property of literal humans. The replicants are like a microcosm of humanity, their frustration with their lives having no inherent meaning, their pleading intellectual appeals to their (literal) creator figure, their terror management and anxiety over death, their ultimate acceptance of the nature of life, it all plays as a heightened mirror of humanity’s own struggle, which really is embodying the spirit of science fiction.
Naturally there’s some ambiguity (in the workprint and theatrical cuts) about whether Deckard is a literal human or not, but not really any more than any other human. Deckard being a replicant would undermine his characterisation of a human acting so much like an automaton, the significance between Rachael’s relationship with him, and Roy’s famous speech and actions in the climax. Sure it makes for an effective “twist”, but for a film that relies so much on ambiguity, the inclusion of heavy-handed scenes like the unicorn dream in certain cuts of the film seems at conflict with the film’s thematics to me. Small, ambiguous details like a shot of Deckard seeing his retinas reflect light strangely, the same way Scott expressly made sure replicants do, support a general sense of ambiguity that plays to the irony of the film’s human protagonist resembling a robot, but unambiguous inclusions like a fellow detective leaving behind origami of an animal Deckard bizarrely dreams about (possibly implying Deckard is actually a product of that other detective’s memories) undermine the mystery and ambiguity that are the lynchpins to the film.
There are five different cuts of the film that are generally talked about. The workprint, a pre-theatrical 1982 version notable for different title presentations (the beginning not elaborating on the worldbuilding beyond a short definition of a replicant, a simple “The End” title card at the film’s conclusion), the lack of the infamous unicorn sequence, one moment of narration after the climax of the film, some alternate musical cues, and numerous comparatively minor changes like different takes used. The US theatrical version, the 1982 cut shown in cinemas, featuring narration from a very unwilling Harrison Ford who quarrelled with producers over its inclusion, a tacked-on “happy ending”, and some toned-down violence. An international theatrical release, also from 1982, identical to the US theatrical release apart from more violent scenes (also present in the workprint) remaining. The misleadingly-titled Director’s Cut, a 1992 edit overseen by film preservationist Michael Arick, with some notes from Ridley Scott, with different (very blue) colour grading, the removal of narration, the inclusion of a dream sequence of a unicorn taken to imply protagonist Deckard is a replicant himself, the removal of the “happy ending”, and some minor cut changes, basically a reversion to the workprint but including the new unicorn dream sequence, and tinging everything blue. The 2007 Final Cut is the only version Ridley Scott had complete control over, and today is generally taken as the “definitive” version. The remastered transfer is striking, the unicorn dream is extended, more alternate edits and takes are used (as are certain moments of violence absent from the US theatrical and “director’s” cut) and a steel-green colour grading tinges the film.
I think the theatrical cuts and the “director’s” cuts are interesting artefacts but the workprint and Final Cut are the only editions to really interest me. I find the workprint the purest, and ultimately my preferred, version of the film. The visuals are more dynamic without being so oppressively colour graded long after release (they lack the clarity of the excellent transfer for the Final Cut, but the moody atmosphere of the film doesn’t demand such definition), I prefer some minor editing choices like actually showing Deckard’s food at the beginning of the film (making Deckard’s interaction with the cook more amusing), the ambiguity around Deckard’s identity is preserved, there are no disastrous editing choices like the voiceover, I prefer how the worldbuilding is made less literal with the lack of extensive title cards, and I enjoy its unique musical cues. The Final Cut is a very strong version of the film and undoubtedly Ridley Scott’s definitive version, and I prefer some of its choices (no narration at the climax, and keeping the aftermath in more intimate closeups, the ending titles music), but the colour grading bothers me, and the unicorn sequence undermines a lot of what I appreciate about the film’s themes and characterisations. In any case, the film is a titan of the genre and a stunning achievement. I give it four and a half prawns, and a snake’s scale.