Ridley Scott | 118 mins | Blu-ray | 15 / R
You don’t need me to tell you about Blade Runner. It’s one of the most popular movies ever, if not with a mass audience then with a significantly-sized cult following and even wider-spread respect. Still, I’m going to go on about it for a bit anyway.
First off let me say that I have seen it before, in the guise of its 1992 Director’s Cut, the only cut available on Home Entertainment/TV since I’ve been old enough to know the film exists, and which is surely to blame for almost every blockbuster getting a Director’s/Extended/Unrated/Ultimate/Complete/etc Cut on DVD these days. Ironic, really, considering it’s a slight misnomer as Ridley Scott wasn’t properly involved with its creation. The Final Cut isn’t fundamentally different to that Director’s Cut, however. Yes, there are an array of editing tweaks and myriad effects fixes, but the meat-and-bones of the story and the content of the scenes — including the removal of the voiceover and the foreshortened ending — remain the same as the Director’s Cut. (If you’re interested in a blow-by-blow account of all the differences between the five cuts now available, try here.)
Normally such minor surface changes wouldn’t warrant a new number on this blog. But this is Blade Runner — or should that be Blade Runner, undeniably one of the most significant films of the last quarter-century thanks to its enduring influence. Yes, it is heavily influenced itself — by the likes of Metropolis and the whole of film noir, primarily — but its dystopian future — all constant night-and-rain, busy streets, neon advertising, canyon-like decrepit skyscrapers towering over dirty streets, high technology rubbing with the everyday detritus of humanity — has been copied everywhere. Without this there’d probably be no Ghost in the Shell, no Dark City, no Matrix, no re-imagined Battlestar Galactica, no thousand other things that have nothing close to the brains but do have the look, the style, the feel. Not to mention Red Dwarf: Back to Earth, of course (he says, as if that has greater significance than the rest!), which sits somewhere between homage and rip-off, surprisingly large chunks of it making almost no sense without at least a passing familiarity with Blade Runner. And the whole thing’s cyclical, because look how The Matrix has gone on to influence countless other lesser efforts. But that discussion is for another time.
In fact, the film can also be seen all over the real world, in what is doubtless the skill of those who predicted its future rather than a genuine influence on Real Life (though you can never be sure). It’s not all true, obviously, but for all the outdated technology (look at the computer displays!) or never-likely technology (flying cars!) there’s an example of the way the world’s headed or already gone. Video phones? Look at Skype, or video inboxes on the iPhone. LA’s skyscrapers, gaudy neon signs, huge video-screen advertisements, rundown areas of the city that are so unrestored they seem to be from decades ago (because they are), the increasingly widespread integration of Eastern culture, photo manipulation available in the home to anyone… it, and more, is all already here, or just around the corner.
But being Surprisingly Accurate does not a popular film make (well, not necessarily), and so of course Blade Runner has a lot more to offer than “ooh, I can do that too!” Putting the future setting aside for a moment, it’s plain to see that the film is as shaped by film noir as by other sci-fi, if not more so. The dark cinematography is perhaps the most obvious area of influence: shafts of light breaking up shadows; imposing cityscapes; constant rain, constant night (with any daytime scenes stuck indoors, often with blinds drawn and/or the light made hazy by smoke). There’s the plot too: it’s packed to bursting with sci-fi concepts underpinned by metaphysical discussions (who is God? what does it mean to be human?), but these are driven by a pure noir narrative, complete with beaten-down reluctant detective (who even loses the final fight), a femme fatale, a questionable moral perspective and a storyline that is predicated on an investigation/manhunt.
That this tale unfurls at a relatively slow pace is surely not to everyone’s taste, but it suits the film’s somewhat intellectual bent. The pacing renders it majestic, stately, both thoughtful and thought-provoking. Even the action sequences tend toward this. This overall languidness frequently allows moments of beauty to leap out, from the visuals, the ideas, the dialogue — Batty’s dying words, for example, are beguiling, elegant and meaningful, mixing the fantastical with an identifiable reality to memorable effect.
The image that most stands out is, appropriately, eyes: the V.K. test, the occasional orange glint in Replicants’ pupils, Batty squeezing out Tyrell’s eyes, the latter’s huge glasses, Pris’ spray-painted eyeliner, Gaff’s odd-looking eyes, and so on. It succinctly reflects the themes of what things seem to be and what they actually are — “seeing is believing”, if you will, although in Blade Runner’s world that clearly isn’t true. The famous photo manipulation scene also feeds into this. One of the great things about the eye motif is that you can’t exactly miss it — the very first thing seen is an extreme close-up of an eye — but it’s obvious not in a batter-you-round-the-head-so-even-the-most-simple-simpleton-will-notice way, but the if-you’re-an-intelligent-viewer-you-shouldn’t-fail-to-spot-it-on-a-repeat-viewing kind of way.
Elsewhere in the filmmaking pantheon, the specials effects are astounding. They look brilliant today, easily besting most of the still-obvious CGI we’re bombarded with. Yes, they’re now aided by some digital clean-up, wire removal and that kind of thing, but the basic models and composites remain untouched and are beautiful. Similarly, Vangelis’ score should by all rights sound dated and discordant, filled as it is with early-80s synths. Fortunately, it has a kind of unusual beauty that matches the visuals it drifts over, complementing as it should rather than providing an uncomfortable reminder of exactly which decade produced the film.
Blade Runner is by any count an incredible piece of work (something the extensive making-of documentary on The Final Cut DVD/BD only emphasises, incidentally). Not everyone will (or does) like it, but I should imagine even they find it hard not to admire (an altogether different thing to “like”). Either way, I think it’s safe to say it can lay claim to a place on the relatively select list of films everyone really must see.
BBC Two are showing Blade Runner: The Final Cut tonight at 9pm.
Blade Runner: The Final Cut is on BBC Four tonight, 26th September 2013, at 10pm.
I covered the 1992 Director’s Cut as part of my 100 Favourites series, here.