Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (December 17, 2007)
Over the last 25 years, many trees - both organic and electronic - have perished due to the never-ending discussions of Blade Runnerís meaning and merit. While it meets the criteria to be called a "cult film," that designation seems too insignificant to describe its continued impact upon movies as a whole. A fairly inane flick like The Rocky Horror Picture Show - with its relatively small but terribly devoted band of rabid fans - is a cult film; Blade Runner is an innovative cinematic classic.
All this prior discussion creates a dilemma for me as a reviewer. Where do I go from here? What's left to say? Well, probably not much, but that never stopped me before and it sure won't stop me now.
The most obvious continuing influence from Blade Runner involves its production values. I won't say that this was the first film to present a dark, dilapidated future because it's not, but none had ever done so quite as vividly or elegantly. Bar none, Blade Runner offers an absolutely stunning visual experience from start to finish. The care and detail exerted in creating this environment remain stunning and virtually unsurpassed.
Because of the overwhelming quality of the visual imagery, much criticism portrayed Blade Runner as a tasty but empty meal; reviews at the time of its June 1982 release were largely negative. Boy, did the critics get this one wrong! Blade Runner offers a feast of philosophical issues to ponder and discuss. Probably foremost among these stands the importance of memory in our lives, and how little we can trust them. To humans, memories are reality, but they're an extremely faulty form of truth since they can be interpreted and distorted so many different ways.
Thankfully, Blade Runner explores this and other issues with a very deft touch. I think that's largely why so many critics missed the point that first time; this is a film that virtually requires repeated viewings if you really want to get anything out of it. Man, I hate saying things like that, because it sounds so pseudo-intellectual and pretentious, but in the case of Blade Runner - as with 2001: A Space Odyssey and a few other seminal flicks - it's the truth.
Blade Runner offers an experience of uncommon depth and subtlety. The viewer needs to attend closely to it to pick up all the small touches and various levels of meaning. I've seen it perhaps twelve times but I still see different nuances in it with every viewing, both from the story and from the acting. Take, for example, one scene in which Rutger Hauer's character Roy reacts to the abundance of robot toys J. F. Sebastian (William Sanderson, better known as "Larry" on Newhart) has created to keep himself company. Simultaneously, Hauer displays an adult's sarcasm combined with a child's envy and wonder; he mocks and honestly compliments Sebastian all at the same time.
One area that also received negative criticism upon the film's initial release concerned its acting. Ford, as the titular blade runner Deckard, took much of the heat for his fairly aloof, emotionless performance, and technically they were correct; Ford does seem rather alienated from the role. Once the film has been viewed a few times, however, his acting makes much more sense. (Beware: potential spoilers lie ahead!)
A lot of that issue relates to one of the eternal questions of Blade Runner: Is Deckard human or a replicant? At this point, it seems likely that the latter is the case, but either side of that argument remains open to debate. Within that context, Ford's performance works perfectly. It offers subtle clues to the possibility that he, too, is not human. Thankfully, the film does not shove this issue down our throats.
Actually, the "director's cut" of Blade Runner included on this DVD makes the replicant or human debate seem less vague. This occurs because of the inclusion of the "unicorn scene." At the end of the original theatrical version of the film, Edward James Olmos's character Gaff leaves a paper representation of a unicorn outside Deckard's apartment door; Gaff drops origami throughout the film kind of as a Greek chorus. Deckard finds this as he leaves with definite-replicant/love-interest Rachael (Sean Young) to escape the blade runners who will surely pursue them.
During the original version of the film, this unicorn clearly indicates that Gaff has been to Deckard's apartment but chose to let Rachael live; he grants the two of them a head start, apparently out of professional courtesy for Deckard's work. Any particular meaning attached to the unicorn itself seemed vague; I dunno - it represented the possibility that they'd live their lives happily ever after was a myth? Yeah, I'm really stretching here.
In the director's cut, however, we see a dream that Deckard has midway through the film. At that time, he dreams of - bingo! - a unicorn. We already established that replicants have implanted memories, so the unicorn seemed to indicate that Gaff knew that Deckard has the image of the unicorn in his brain. As such, that seemed to more strongly indicate that Deckard was a replicant. This wasn't the only clue, but it certainly seemed to push the debate much closer to the "Deckard's a replicant" side of things.
In addition to the unicorn dream, the director's cut of Blade Runner also dispenses with a narrative voice-over from Ford. This piece had been added to the theatrical cut essentially at the insistence of the studio, which felt that the film lacked clarity. Allegedly, Ford intentionally offered poor voice acting in the hope that it would be unusable, but use it they did.
Much criticism from serious Blade Runner fans has been leveled at this narration, and I can't say they're wrong. Frankly, I don't really have any strong feelings about it either way. I thought the film worked fine with it and it works fine without it. Really, it's hard for me to judge because all but four of my viewings of the film featured the voice-over version; even when I watch the director's cut, I still "hear" the narration.
The final main difference between the original version and the director's cut involves the film's ending. The theatrical release showed Deckard and Rachael as they almost literally drove off into the sunset, and a happy continuation to their relationship is strongly implied. For one, we learn that Rachael, unlike the other replicants, has no "expiration date," so we assume she and the presumably-human - in that version - Deckard will live a life of happy anonymity as they hide from the authorities.
The director's cut, however, stopped after Rachael and Deckard get on the elevator in his apartment building. The doors close, and that's that; the film halted right at the point where the shots of them driving away began. Obviously, this version offers a much more ambiguous conclusion to their saga. In this one, we assume that Rachael only has a few years of life in her, since replicants only get four years. Deckard probably has a rapidly ticking clock as well, since we now likely believe him to be a replicant.
Which ending's preferable? I vote for ambiguous. The artificially happy ending seemed like it was from a different film, and it literally was; the clips of snow-covered mountains came from Kubrickís outtakes shot for The Shining, and they didn't fit the movie's overall tone. The truncated conclusion, however, matched the film's vague nature nicely. Nothing's clear or obvious in Blade Runner, starting with the hero and villains, so why would it end on such a positive note? The uncertain nature of the future also adds resonance to the piece and makes it more thoughtful.
At this point, you may wonder if I'm ever going to shut up about all the imagery and meaning of Blade Runner. Yeah, I've had my fill. The amazing thing about the film, however, remains the fact that as much as I've rambled, I've barely touched the tip of the iceberg. Blade Runner stands as one of the most provocative and fully realized films of the last few decades.