Blade Runner: The Director's Cut Review

In the early 21st Century, the genetic scientists at the Tyrell Corporation have created android artificial beings called Replicants, androids specifically designed to withstand the conditions of working on off-world colonies where most of the earth’s population have emigrated to escape the dire conditions of an almost uninhabitable earth. The ultimate model of these highly advanced humanoid robots is the Nexus 6, which is virtually indistinguishable from humans except in two key areas – they only have a four-year life span and they lack the empathic and emotional complexity of a human being. Highly dangerous on account of this personality flaw, they are thus prohibited from earth, but in 2019 six Replicants have escaped from one off-world colony and are loose on the streets of Los Angeles. They are all Nexus 6 models.

Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is a former police detective in the LA Police force, part of the Blade Runner unit, bounty hunters whose task it is to track down and “retire” rogue Replicants. Since they are indistinguishable from normal humans, the only method of identifying them is by subjecting them a Voigt-Kampff test, a technique designed to measure emotional responses. This method of investigation hasn’t proved successful on the advanced Nexus 6 models however, and has resulted in the hospitalisation of one Blade Runner officer. Although Deckard has retired from the force, Police Chief Bryant (M. Emmet Walsh) needs an officer of his ability to find the missing four Replicants. As one of the escaped Replicants was found to have infiltrated himself as a worker for the Tyrell Corporation where the Nexus 6 model was created, Deckard starts his investigation there.

Blade Runner is credited as being the film that comes closest to the vision of science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick, but let’s be honest – there’s very little of the rather messy source novel ‘Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?’ left in Ridley Scott’s film version, and in this case, it’s probably for the best. Even the term ‘Blade Runner’ is borrowed from William Burroughs and is never used in the original novel - nor is the term ‘Replicant’. Blade Runner however works in the best manner of book adaptations, jettisoning the sprawling and twisting narrative threads of Dick’s original storyline and his characterisation of ineffectual losers, but remaining utterly faithful to the thematic essence of the original novel’s fascinating ideas and concerns. In Philip K. Dick’s case, those themes are the familiar ones of paranoia, entropy and mental illness on the one hand and considerations of divine purpose and what it means to be human on the other. In his books he continually explores the essential characteristics that define a human being - the ability to think, to rationalise, to have memories, appreciate art, but most particularly the ability to empathise, feel and love. In a modern world where such characteristics are less evident, does their absence make us any less human?

In the dystopian world of ‘Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?’, Rick Deckard’s ambition is to own and look after a real animal of his own, a symbol of his humanity in his empathic concern for other creatures, but in a post-apocalyptic earth where animals are becoming extinct on a daily basis, all he can afford is a robotic simulacrum of a sheep. Deckard also seeks to retain his humanity by being part of a religious cult called Mercerism, communing with other adherents in shared pain and suffering. Neither of these elements appear in the film version Blade Runner, yet the film is no less successful in addressing these issues through other means - through Rachel (Sean Young), Dr. Tyrell’s beautiful niece, a Replicant who is unaware she is not human; through Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), the Nexus 6 Combat Model and leader of the escaped Replicants, who has evolved an emotional response, a survival instinct and wishes to preserve the memories and events that no human has ever experienced; and through Rick Deckard himself, a killer – albeit of non-humans - who, as the Director’s Cut of the film makes more explicit, must consider his own human responses and empathic capacity.

Script-wise then, Blade Runner hits all the right notes and elements, but more than this, what makes the film even greater is how the astonishing production design by Lawrence G. Paull based on Syd Mead's concepts are combined with Ridley Scott’s extraordinary visual sense and direction. Unlike most futuristic science-fiction films, and even subsequent Philip K. Dick adaptations like Minority Report, the filmmakers here realise that the future is not created from scratch in shining chrome, glass and neon, it’s built upon the past. Blade Runner achieves this dystopian appearance to perfection and the sets look as if they were created by grafting neon and plastic onto an old film noir set – as indeed they more or less were – capturing its rundown, retro, seedy glamour. Every other element supports this, from the ubiquitous presence of intrusive advertising blimps, the vacant buildings, the permanent darkness and constant rain of a world whose ecosystem has been destroyed by some unspecified disaster, and the incomprehensible street-speak that has evolved out of a mixture of European and Asian languages. The film doesn’t need to make explicit what has happened to create this future - it’s a believable possible extrapolation of our own world.

Most brilliantly, Ridley Scott and his writers identify the inherent sense of film noir in the setting’s post-war desolation, and use it as the perfect ground for the film’s Cartesian ruminations. The original 1982 theatrical release of the film even included a dry, Philip Marlowe-like, world-weary voice-over narration from Harrison Ford’s Deckard, which I personally miss greatly in the Director’s Cut. Right from the very first scene of the film, the whole visual tone is established and Vangelis’s seductively rippling and pulsating soundtrack draws the viewer entirely into this compelling yet appalling world. The coldness of humanity eking out its miserable existence on the damp, dark, littered streets is counterbalanced by the vast sparkling edifices of multinational conglomerates made rich by off-world technological developments. The inhuman and unfeeling product of this corporate domination is personified in the six android Replicants who stalk earth in search of a creator to answer the questions that will give their lives meaning. Despite the danger they represent towards humanity – as much in existential terms as in posing a physical threat – Rick Deckard, despite his self-doubts and reservations, must defend those little qualities that distinguish and define what it is to be human.

It’s the 1992 Director’s Cut that is presented on this limited DVD release of Blade Runner, and it is not substantially different from the original 1982 Theatrical Release. Apart from the dropping of Deckard’s voice-over, the Director’s Cut makes one or two other significant changes that cast a different aspect on the film’s ending, making it all a little more coherent, but I’ve personally never felt that the tampering was strictly necessary. Blade Runner had already achieved a considerable reputation before the Director’s Cut was ever released and I feel that the final narrated words and sentiment of the original version a perfect summation for film’s examination of the human condition. Certainly, the Director’s Cut makes that ending less conventional and feels more complete in how it ties up threads and character arcs that lacked consistency in the writing and rewriting process that the film would undergo over the course of its tortuous production. This would give rise to certain visual continuity errors and several little plot flaws, including some questions around the number of escaped Replicants. None of these elements can or should be explained away since, like some of the best film noirs, there’s no need for the film to make too much sense of its world’s ambiguous morality.

The Director’s Cut of Blade Runner has been the only version of the film available on DVD, and the existing edition is quite an old one. Warner Bros, prior to their release of a new “Final Cut” and an ultimate Blade Runner Box Set for its 25th Anniversary in 2007, have released a restored and remastered barebones version of the 1992 Director’s Cut. The US and UK editions of this release will be available for a limited period only, and will be superseded by the box-set next year. The US Region 1 edition of the Limited Edition Restored and Remastered Director’s Cut is reviewed here. A comparison to the original Region 2 release of the Director’s Cut is also provided below.

The new remastered transfer of Blade Runner is a noticeable improvement over the original edition in many ways, but it is still far from as good as might have been hoped for. Expectations in this case however may have been unreasonably high for a film that is shot in very extreme conditions with diffused lighting and it’s probably more subject to deterioration than most films of its vintage. Grain is consequently quite evident, particularly in the darker, smokier and somewhat misty sequences – which is a considerable part of the film. Nonetheless shadow detail is noticeably improved and blacks are strong and solid. Furthermore, there are none of the frequent dustspots and specks that littered the previous print released on DVD. Contrast seems to have been boosted, and not always to the film’s advantage, making it look slightly more clinical and not quite as warm as it might be – at least to my eyes. The image is not perfectly smooth in movements, even if there is none of the obvious compression blocking and artefacting that is evident on the original edition of the film. A slight flicker can however occasionally be detected, which could possibly be dot-crawl. Edge-enhancement is a problem, causing noticeable haloes. Comparison screenshots between the new Region 1 edition and the previous Region 2 edition are provided below - the R1 is first followed by the R2.

There hasn’t been any major restoration of the audio track, which is presented in its original stereo mix as Dolby Digital 2.0. (A 70mm 6-track for the film however should also exist). The volume is quite low and there is no great depth, dynamism or body to the soundtrack. The track crackles at loud volumes and there is a lot of background analogue hiss, which becomes quite noticeable when you pump up the volume to compensate for the low level presentation. I would expect that the forthcoming new Blade Runner boxset will include a remastered Dolby Digital 5.1 mix, which is hopefully an improvement over this original mix.

Optional English subtitles are presented for the hearing impaired. The font is white and well-sized. Spanish and French options are also included.

There are no extra features on this edition.

Ridley Scott’s 1992 Director’s Cut of Blade Runner is the most commonly seen version of the film, so this release of it on DVD in restored and remastered condition is only a taster for the forthcoming new Blade Runner: The Final Cut to be released theatrically on the film’s 25th Anniversary in 2007. Both these cuts of the film will eventually be collected with the Original U.S. Theatrical Cut and the Expanded International Theatrical Cut in a multi-disc DVD set. Although there is noticeable improvement in the quality of the transfer on this new barebones edition of the Director’s Cut, it is perhaps not enough to tempt those waiting for an improved version as part of an ultimate collection next year. In whichever version it is viewed, the consideration of metaphysical concepts on the nature of existence and being human, combined with Ridley Scott’s superb visual representation of those conflicts, make Blade Runner much more than just a chase movie or film-noir pastiche - it remains fresh, relevant and still the standard by which all subsequent science-fiction films must be judged.

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