A Multitude of Blade Runners

Not having a definitive version is the best thing that ever happened to the 1982 classic.
By  · Published on October 6th, 2017

Not having a definitive version is the best thing that ever happened to the 1982 classic.

Leading up to the release of Blade Runner 2049, these past few weeks have brought a downpour of articles addressing the question, “which version of Blade Runner should you watch?”. After all, there are approximately five extant versions, though of those only three really count, as well as some, such as the legendary San Diego sneak preview version and its three scenes not found in any other cut that appear to be lost to the ages forevermore. Of those remaining, he big three are the US 1982 theatrical release, the 1992 director’s cut which cuts out Deckard’s voiceovers and the studio-imposed happy ending and adds a unicorn dream, and 2007’s Final Cut, which features a longer unicorn dream, some extra violence, and a whole lot of restoration and remastering. While the general consensus amongst these articles tends to lean in favor of the Ridley Scott approved Final Cut, many express this preference in rather mild terms or ultimately conclude, in the words of Blade Runner 2049 scribe Michael Green, that the best starting place for a Blade Runner newbie is, “Whichever [version] you can watch tonight.” This sort of an attitude towards multiple cults of a film is highly unusual, and more importantly, quite significant in thinking about Blade Runner’s tremendous legacy and enduring cultural presence.

There are a lot of reasons for recutting a movie. Generally, they fall into two major categories: restorative and additive. Restorative cuts are those that follow the basic pattern of “the studio screwed us over but hey, look, we fixed it.” You end up with a good version and a no-don’t-watch-that version. Just looking at Ridley Scott’s own body of work, there’s the example of Kingdom of Heaven, with its “Special Addition” cut that is actually damn good, and its theatrical release version that is excessively mediocre due to all the character and plot development sacrificed in the name of brevity. Additive cuts, meanwhile, are those that are really just larger portions of the original theatrical versions. They are one of the few occasions were the classic “we did it for the fans” argument actually (sometimes) holds more water than an upside-down salt shaker. Not all additive cuts are any good, but those that are still remain second fiddle to the definitive theatrical versions. The “Special Extended Editions” of the Lord of the Rings trilogy are a good example of this.

The multiple cuts of Blade Runner represent something different. While the Final Cut has some slight favor over the others, it has not rendered them obsolete. This is partly because there has not been any particular effort on the part of the powers that be to suppress earlier versions—the five disk special edition includes four full versions besides the Final Cut, along with other footage, such as alternate endings—unlike, say, what happened with George Lucas and Star Wars. Instead, as the recent great influx of Blade Runner comparison articles demonstrates, they all remain in dialogue with each other.

That said, the Voice of God in this particular situation—that is, Ridley Scott—has expressed confusion (and little patience) over the one-movie-five-versions situation, showing up for all of about twenty seconds in the half hour long documentary featurette “All Our Variant Futures” made to accompany the Final Cut in order to say that he considers the whole matter “a great fuss about nothing.”

‘All Our Variant Futures’: Ridley Scott doesn’t see the point

Thankfully, the restoration team behind the Final Cut and the masses (fans, critics, academics) who have kept Blade Runner part of the conversation and our cultural consciousness for the past thirty plus years disagree with him.

One of the key reasons Blade Runner has enmeshed itself in our culture and refused to fade away with time in a way few other films have managed is because, when it comes to Blade Runner, we have never run out of things to talk about. And while any one cut of Blade Runner is visually stunning, mentally engaging, deeply immersive, and markedly flawed, making the film a great subject for discussion and analysis, the existence of multiple versions of the film compound all of these traits. As such, I think of the various versions of Blade Runner as being “exponential recuts”—they co-exist, and in doing so, Blade Runner is elevated from the status of one film to its own little multiverse.

Blade Runner, especially when considering all its variants, asks far more questions than it answers, and often asks questions it did not necessarily intend to through accidental inconsistencies. These mistakes are very largely the visible byproduct of a fraught production that involved, among other things, a t-shirt war, but in a film about such elusive metaphysical concerns such as the nature of reality, continuity errors go from being irksome flaws to accidental genius. Blade Runner ponders what it means to be human, that question among questions that religion, philosophy, and much later science (once the field formerly known as natural philosophy was rebranded under that name) have spent the past few thousand years attempting to address. But for all the time and attention we have given the question, and the many angles from which we have attacked it, time—or, more accurately, the things we as a species have achieved in said time, in fields such as computing and AI—has deepened our confusion far more than it has broadened our understanding. The whole situation is something of a glorious and melancholy mess, so it presents a beautiful symmetry that, in many respects, Blade Runner is, too.

“All Our Variant Futures” features several minutes of various individuals involved in the making of the Final Cut going over how they tried to tread with caution around the film’s “beloved flaws.” The Final Cut’s Restoration Producer, Charles de Lauzirika, goes so far as to say, “I think these flaws actually, strangely, give Blade Runner its life.” And it’s true—though that didn’t stop the Final Cut from “fixing” many of the larger ones. A key example comes from what we might call Deckard’s “Your mission, should you choose to accept it” moment, when Rep-Detect department captain Harry Bryant informs Deckard about the rogue six-member replicant crew, one member of which had already gotten fried in an electrical field. The film then goes on to show us four other members of the replicant crew, and four plus one equals five, which is not six. Could Deckard be the sixth? some pondered.

The “truth” of the matter is that there was a replicant named Mary that got cut out of the story somewhere along the way (maybe Zhora and her snake were considered sufficient to meet the Biblical allusion quota for the film), and the math was simply not adjusted accordingly. Still, it left room for an intriguing fan theory until the Final Cut managed to fix it through ADR and some clever shuffling of shots and camera angles. The beauty of existing in a multiverse, though, is that the 4 + 1 ≠ 6 versions are still very much around, and there to have and to hold, as long as you shall live, should you wish it. The “correction” of the Final Cut does not end the discussion, it only adds a caveat.

If you had to pick one version of Blade Runner to bring with you to a desert island, perhaps the best case could be made for the Final Cut. But proceed with caution in calling it a “definitive version.” Though it could stand fine on its own, it is far stronger as one of the several parts that make up the much larger, more complex, and delightfully flawed whole of a Blade Runner multiverse.

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Ciara Wardlow is a human being who writes about movies and other things. Sometimes she tries to be funny on Twitter.