Blade Runner (1982)
Today we have the dubious honor of recommending the worst version of the best movie ever made - not the best science fiction movie, not the best Harrison Ford movie, the best movie. The Theatrical Cut of Blade Runner is, on the other hand, what made me love this movie in the first place. It's also the only version available for streaming currently, since Amazon Prime took the Final Cut off its rotation a while back, so it'll have to do.
Blade Runner is a movie that predated and either influenced or predicted many, many trends in both the real world and in fiction, even if, like most SF, its timeline was way off. I can barely look at a city skyline at night without thinking of this movie. The way lights are arranged on top of police cars? That's because of Blade Runner. It was heavily influential on manga and anime in the 1980s, most notably Bubblegum Crisis (which featured a band called Priss and the Replicants) and Masamune Shirow's Ghost in the Shell, which was a big influence on near-future SF in its own right. William Gibson was writing Neuromancer when this movie came out, and he was afraid he'd be accused of stealing from it, since it is essentially cyberpunk before cyberpunk was even a term. (Most cinematic scholars - a group among which I can hardly count myself - actually see it as spiritual kin to Fritz Lang's Metropolis.) At the time, it was just a neo-noir detective story set in the dystopian future of Los Angeles, 2017, loosely based on Philip K. Dick's novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. It opened to mixed reviews and didn't make much cash at the box office.
In this future, the Earth is in its final downward spiral. It's overpopulated. Radioactive dust from the atmosphere is settling on its surface. People with the means to do so are relocating to off-world colonies, where android replicants are used as slave labor. Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is an ex-Blade Runner, a replicant hunter whose job it was to "retire" replicants who went rogue and found their way to Earth. Replicants are faster, smarter and stronger - but they have a four-year expiration date before they seize up and shut down for good. Their defining psychological trait seems to be a lack of empathy, but this is the only way in which they differ from their human creators, and a psychological test is needed to figure out if someone is a replicant, if such a situation should arise. In order to counterbalance the strain of their short lifespan and the harsh conditions under which they "live."
So when a gang of replicants kill the crew of an off-world shuttle and go to ground on Earth, Deckard is brought out of his own retirement to track them down. Their leader, Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), is the latest Nexus-6 model, essentially superior in every way to an ordinary human. He and the other replicants - Pris (Daryl Hannah), Zorah (Joanna Cassidy) and Leon (Brion James) - find assistance in J.F. Sebastian (William Sanderson), a reclusive genetic designer who is human, but also suffers from a condition that makes him age at an accelerated pace, giving him something in common, as Roy points out, with the synthetic humanoids whose genetic makeup he crafted. Roy's ultimate goal is to reach his creator, Tyrell, who designed the minds of the replicants and can - or so Roy believes - extend their lifespans. Meanwhile, Deckard becomes involved in a very questionable relationship with Rachael (Sean Young), an experimental replicant designed by Tyrell and implanted with the memories of his niece.
None of this is going to end well. It's not a happy movie. It is, however, probably the closest thing anyone has ever, or will ever, come to making a perfect film. I can't do this movie justice with a review. I can't tell you how much it's influenced me, how many times I've watched it or what it means to me - it's just too much. I think I own most versions of it. I have the Theatrical Cut on VHS, DVD and Criterion Collection laserdisc. I have the Director's Cut on DVD. I have the 30th Anniversary Edition, including all cuts of the film, including the workprint and the 2007 Final Cut, on limited edition HD DVD (it comes in a Voight-Kampff Machine case with a police spinner) and Bluray (it comes with a silver origami unicorn). It's at the top of my "top 10 movies of all time" list. Everything about it just clicks perfectly into place, from the incredible soundtrack by Vangelis to the singularly bleak urban atmosphere.
At its core, behind the detective story and the cat-and-mouse hunt as Roy tracks a wounded Deckard through Sebastian's creepy apartment building (the Bradbury Building, an iconic piece of architecture that's been featured in many a film and TV show) at the end, Blade Runner is an examination of what it means to be human. Deckard, after a career that basically consisted of murdering escaped android slaves, is dead inside. It would be easier to count the scenes in which he isn't drinking. Roy and Pris, meanwhile, mourn their rapidly dwindling lives. Between a man with many years ahead of him that he doesn't even want, and a group of people who never even had a chance to live, who are we really meant to sympathize with?
The differences between the Theatrical Cut and the others are mainly the result of executive meddling. There's a "hard-boiled detective" voiceover that provides some backstory and clarification, but is ultimately just not very well-written and breaks up the atmosphere. There's a long-standing urban legend that Ford read the lines badly on purpose, but he says he did the best with what they gave him, and I can believe that. The ending is also radically different; the Theatrical Cut ends on an disjointedly optimistic note that's entirely the result of focus-group testing, while every other version of the movie keeps the ending's tense ambiguity. And the last big thing that changes between cuts is the amount of evidence for the notion that Deckard himself is a replicant. I've been on both sides of this argument, and my current position is that it's unlikely. Yes, there's the origami unicorn left behind by Deckard's mysterious partner Gaff (Edward James Olmos), which seems to be a statement that he's gone over Deckard's potentially false memories and dreams and will be hunting him and Rachael wherever they go, but on the other hand, why create a replicant whose physical capabilities are inferior to those of the synthetics he's hunting? There's also something to be said for the idea that a definitive answer to the question of Deckard's nature would go against the entire point of the film.
So, by all means, watch the Theatrical Cut on Netflix, but consider picking up the Final Cut somewhere along the line. This review was a long time coming. I'll never be happy with it.
It should also be noted that Rutger Hauer's speech at the end was ad-libbed. It's an absolutely amazing piece of dialogue, probably the most moving death scene in all of cinema. The last words of a man who wanted only to live and to have his existence acknowledged.
Available On: Netflix.