First Takes: Blade Runner

First Takes is a series in our film section where contributors review their first time seeing a film they really should have seen before.

Is it just me, or do a lot of people feel like an imposter in their chosen subjects? Perhaps that’s an experience most keenly felt when studying film, as it’s an art form to which everyone is exposed, leaving you with fewer excuses when you’ve not seen the classics. In this way, I can never escape the apparent truth that I’m a novice, surrounded by those who’ve grown up with films like Blade Runner and can accurately cite its influence on the medium. So, this presents me with the chance to make up for lost time – to engage with the 1982 masterpiece as its legacy sequel makes the rounds in cinemas.

Except that wasn’t what I was assigned to see. In fact, upon asking which of the seemingly countless cuts of Blade Runner I should watch, I was swiftly told “the good one” – meaning The Final Cut released in 2007. As the complete realisation of director Ridley Scott’s vision, it seemed like the obvious choice and it was indeed the version I ended up watching. But did that inadvertently ruin my plans to fully assimilate with my fellow film students? After all, if they first watched it over a decade ago, then it would have been via 1992’s The Director’s Cut, or possibly even the original theatrical release. Would this truth create a firm barrier between them and myself, leaving me to wallow in ignorance?

Nothing quite so dramatic, in fact. Despite endless discussion over the differences between the various renditions, it seems that most of Blade Runner remains intact across them all; Harrison Ford plays Rick Deckard, the title character tasked with assassinating illegal android “replicants” in a dystopian Los Angeles. During his investigation, which includes entanglements with Sean Young’s replicant Rachael, he is forced to question the morality of his profession – as well as the possibility that he could be a replicant himself. Though that last point is more explicit in the later cuts of the film, the majority of what people remember about Blade Runner can apparently be found in the 1982 version. So why then does the general consensus dictate that it be rejected in favour of a modern rerelease, when it also decries the various changes made to the original Star Wars trilogy?

Perhaps because, unlike the Star Wars “Special Editions”, The Final Cut and its 1992 predecessor are not significant for what they add, but for what they remove – and having watched comparison videos on the original and latest renditions, I’d have to agree with the majority that this tampering ultimately improved my experience. I’m sure I wasn’t missing out on Harrison Ford’s notably flat narration, nor did I need to see Deckard and Rachael ride off into leftover aerial shots from The Shining. Without them, the film is free to establish its world and characters on their own terms, and leave both on an ambiguous note more suited to its sombre atmosphere. If left unaltered, my encounter with Deckard, a man whose humanity is constantly undermined, would itself be undermined by studio mandated clichés.

However, is it right to pretend the original doesn’t exist? Prior to watching The Final Cut, I read an article from The Verge debating which version was the definitive Blade Runner, and Bryan Bishop’s defence of the theatrical cut struck me. Whilst he ultimately lost the argument, his point remained that it is the Blade Runner which has influenced the art form for thirty-five years; both its strengths and flaws have fuelled not only an abundance of sci-fi dystopias, but the very reworking I was told to watch. Said reworking, according to Bishop, was little more than Ridley Scott trying in his late-sixties to recapture the vision he had in his mid-forties, and whilst I don’t regret seeing the later rendition first, I can’t help but remain fixated on this evaluation.

After all, shouldn’t the film student strive to engage with the original work, to critically examine its existence and what that means for cinema? If so, then I have a little more work to do – because that is only possible with the version of Blade Runner that first inspired audiences all those years ago. True, my instincts tell me that I will still prefer The Final Cut, but I owe myself the complete experience if I am to continue developing my interest in the medium.

[Dominic Miller]

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