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Memories of Blade Runner
A 2-part look back at and region 2 DVD review of Blade Runner
 

Part 2: Welcome to the World of Tomorrow

First encounters, the director's cut and the critical turnaround on

by Slarek

 

"I want to become the John Ford of Science Fiction Films."
Director Ridley Scott to science fiction writer
Harlan Ellison, circa 1988

 

"They don't advertise for killers in the newspaper."

Back in 1982, things were not going well for me. My initially positive experiences with the film industry had turned sour, in part because I'd failed yet to learn the industry maxim that each job you do is really about the next one, and my inability to charm people I regarded as dickheads was shutting doors like there was a force nine gale blowing through my working life. I'd taken a crap job to pay the bills, one made tolerable only by the earthy humour of my workmates. They liked to have the radio playing all day and provided a sometimes painfully funny running commentary on the music that escaped from it. Occasionally, we got a break from the pop onslaught in the shape of interviews with musicians and actors – these did not interest my colleagues and so I got to listen to them uninterrupted. Unbeknown to me, the seeds for my love affair with a certain science fiction film were to be sown right there.

I knew about the existence of Blade Runner, of course. What genre fan didn't? Alien had been a genuinely life-changing experience for me, as terrifying and exciting a time as I've ever spent in a cinema. I'd loved The Duellists, Ridley Scott's first feature, but Alien had proved a whole different ball game. Science fiction had been turned on its head, mated with gothic horror, doped up on Freud and shaped into to a work that was to change the genre forever. Gone was the hospital-clean look of 2001 to be replaced by a dark industrial functionality, spaceships that were built and inhabited by the proletariat. And now Scott was making another science fiction film. Oh boy.

I didn't know Philip K. Dick's book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and at that point did not even realise this new film was based on it. I didn't know much about the film at all, just snippets in the genre press (mainly the UK sf/horror film monthly Starburst) and the odd intriguing photo of a crop-haired Harrison Ford. The release date was still some months away, but the anticipation was starting to build, and thanks to a comment made on the radio at work by John Hurt, it was about to take a kangaroo-sized leap. Hurt was being interviewed about his career and his latest film (I cannot recall what it was), and the conversation eventually moved round to his spectacular demise in Alien. The interviewer, clearly a fan of the film, said (and this may not be verbatim, but is as close as I can remember):

"What struck me most about Alien was its realistic environment, it's sense of place – I mean you really felt like you were on that spaceship."

And John Hurt, bless him, replied with barely concealed excitement:

"Oh-ho, you wait until you see Ridley's new film!"

I think I actually dropped what I was doing at this. It remains the best movie teaser I have ever had thrown at me.


"It's not fancy or anything, is it?"

I had a friend in those days, as close as any I have had since or can ever imagine having again, one who was by turns hilarious, imaginative, infuriating, outrageous, and a whole sack of other attributes both positive and negative, a true Withnail to my Marwood. I can't remember which one of us opened that month's Starburst to the page that announced that there was to be a preview screening of Blade Runner, but whoever it was they were on the phone to the other within minutes. It was being shown simultaneously in three cities, a good two to three months before it went on general release, and all you had to do to get in was turn up waving a coupon contained within that magazine's pages.

We met up the day before the screening and, knowing that the London one would be particularly well attended, pledged not to drink too much the night before to aid an early rise. We got plastered. We always got plastered when we met up. The early rise and journey to Shaftsbury Avenue the next morning was thus a difficult one, and despite arriving three hours before the screening, there was already a substantial queue snaking around the cinema exterior.

One thing you don't expect to have hear when you arrive at such a screening is a voice shouting "What the fuck happened to you?" but that's what greeted me. Camus and I had been at film school together, albeit briefly. He was in the year below me, but we were kindred spirits who very quickly found each other, or rather had been pointed in each other's direction. I was idling my way through the course, but he soon tired of how things were progressing and dropped out and went off to Hollywood to look for work. And found it. We'd stayed in touch for a while, but communication in these pre-internet days had faltered. It never occurred to me, although it really should have, that he'd be at the screening too. A good omen.

Where Camus sat I am not sure, but Withnail and I were front and centre, and the ABC Shaftsbury Avenue has – or certainly had – a big bloody screen. This was and remains one of the most charged audiences I have ever been in, and I was there for the opening night of Return of the Jedi, where a good twenty percent of the attendees were dressed in full costume and danced in the aisles when the Emperor was killed. The Blade Runner audience was made up solely of the generically devoted, hundreds of hard-core science fiction fans all twitching with anticipation at what they were about to see. Everyone was talking to everyone else, and the excitement was generating a thrilling buzz of electricity.

I remember the opening credits, partly for the music, but mainly for the cheers that greeted the names Harrison Ford and Ridley Scott, and the all-female whoop that sounded for Rutger Hauer.

And the opening. Oh man, if ever I was swept away by a first few seconds, then 2019 Los Angeles, viewed on that screen, was that moment.

The film that unfolded was spellbinding, exciting, beautiful – a totally cinematic experience. Visually it was and still is stunning, but in a way that feels organic to the place and story, building on the industrialisation of the future to – accurately, I believe – reflect the duality of a technologically progressive society, where new invention is surrounded by the debris of its development and the make-do struggle of those left in its wake, whose lives Scott once again aligns us with. The cultural mix of the locality is such that a new language, city-speak, has developed that owes only part of its lineage to English, and the skyline more closely resembles that of Tokyo than Los Angeles. The soundtrack is equally mesmerising, blurring the distinction between music and sound effects to such a degree that there are times when you genuinely cannot tell where one ends and the other begins, a constant city-song of flying cars, floating advertising hoardings, street sounds and industry. And Hurt was right – never have I been more convinced of the reality of a future vision than the one presented here.

The narrative functions on several levels, as a Chandler-esque detective story (the The Big Sleep is a recognisable influence), as dystopian vision of a future corporate-run America, as an examination of just what constitutes humanity, as a fated and unconventional love story. And they all work. Withnail and I were both left reeling and stumbled out of the screening and into a pub, where we drank an awful lot of ale and wandered out into Chinatown in a dazed attempt to recapture the atmosphere of the film. It seemed only right that it was raining.


"All I could do was sit there and watch him die."

Between this screening and its eventual release I got everyone I knew fired up to see the film, and when they did they all loved it. But all was not well in the land of critical analysis. Younger viewers coming to the film today do so with an awareness of its classic status – it has become a standard text on film and media studies courses, has been the subject of numerous literary evaluations, and has influenced the work of any number of subsequent filmmakers. It was even listed as number 7 in a list of the 10 greatest films of the past 25 years compiled by Sight & Sound in 2002. And yet on its release there was barely a critic anywhere who had a good word for it. Indeed, a fair few openly hated it. Writing in Starburst, John Brosnan described it as "a masterpiece," but added that it was "much to my surprise." Another very positive review in either Time Out or City Limits (I cannot remember which) attracted a barrage of angry letters berating the reviewer for standing up for a film that they believed was callously misogynistic. And this was the positive stuff. Elsewhere critical guns were loaded, aimed and fired squarely at a film whose production design was deemed its only positive feature.

So what happened? How did Blade Runner make the transition from Most Hated Film of The Year to Modern Classic? Was the film so far ahead of its time that it took a new generation of critics and writers to appreciate its achievement (a fate that also befell the greatest of all science fiction films, 2001: A Space Odyssey)? Did the cult that started at screenings like the one I attended grow to such a degree that it engulfed much of negative critical response? Did the original naysayers have a rethink when they realised they were out of step with the film's later re-evaluation? It could well be down to a combination of all three. The process was certainly a gradual one, and to a certain extent caught me by surprise. If the expanding cult following theory is correct then being part of that cult from the start perhaps made it hard to see beyond its borders, until one day you realise just how far they have spread. One thing for sure is that there was, in retrospect, a clear shift of critical opinion and some obvious attempts to disguise or deny that initial hostility. Film writers everywhere suddenly wanted to be aligned with the cult, to be thought to have been all for the film when others were throwing their critical rocks. Which brings me nicely back to that Sight & Sound poll.

Now before I go any further I should state that for my money Sight & Sound is far away the best film magazine on the market. It contains detailed and well-written articles on the films and filmmakers I am interested in and perceptive and intelligent film reviews, so I have no axe to grind here, just a point to reinforce. For those of you too young to remember, the Sight & Sound we know today is actually a composite of two magazines, both published by the British Film Institute. The original Sight & Sound was a highbrow quarterly consisting of articles on films and filmmakers, while Monthly Film Bulletin was the review magazine. Thus when the modern hybrid that is Sight & Sound today published their list of the Ten Greatest Films of the past 25 years, they included an extract from Tom Milne's original Monthly Film Bulletin review of Blade Runner. And a very positive extract it was too. I quote:

'It's not hard to see why Philip K. Dick expressed his approval of the original script in interviews, since a potentially intriguing narrative line has been evolved, eventually bearing fruit of sorts in the scene where the replicant Roy confronts his creator, who welcomes him as a prodigal son but can offer no hope to his anguished cry of "I want more life, father."'

But for those of us who remember that review, and especially those of us who still own a copy of Monthly Film Bulletin number 584, a small double-take was in order. So you're telling me now that Tom Milne liked the film, that Monthly Film Bulletin had recognised the film's greatness from the start? Hmm... Let's have a look at the sentence that immediately followed that quote:

'The trouble is that this theme of the progressive humanisation of the robot is so entwined with irrelevant motifs left over from Dick's novel, which are in turn so buried in frequent and gleeful (but curiously ineffectual) bouts of violence, that the result is an aimless muddle.'

Or how about this:

'The sets are indeed impressive (especially the rubble-strewn desolation of Sebastian's apartment block, the skyscraper-high neon ads that line the streets, and the steamy claustrophobia of a permanently rainy Chinatown), but they are no compensation for a narrative so lame that it seems in need of a wheelchair.'

Aside from the fact that I believe, and always did believe, that Mr. Milne was talking complete twaddle about a narrative that is far more layered than he and many others seemed either aware of or were prepared to admit to, his review, and the extract pulled for the Sight & Sound poll, has a revealing glitch. As many will no doubt have spotted, Roy's exclamation to Tyrell is not an anguished "I want more life, father," but a very threatening "I want more life, fucker!" Now some will write this off as Milne not paying attention, but this alternate line does indeed exist and was part of the 113 minute 70mm working cut that was shown only briefly at sneak previews in London and the USA (and later received limited screenings selected US theatres). The version Milne saw was thus not the one that went on general release.

But there's more. Elsewhere in issue 584 of Monthly Film Bulletin, Steve Jenkins favourably reviewed Clare Peploe's short film Couples & Robbers and predicted that it would prove a pleasant surprise for those happening on it by chance, 'especially as support to Ridley Scott's dire Blade Runner.' What was that word again? Dire? I notice that wasn't quoted for Sight & Sound's poll.

I'm not sniping for the sake of it here – I myself glean all manner of positive adjectives from reviews when publicising film seasons for our film society, and for years distributors have been lifting upbeat segments from otherwise less favourable reviews to slap on film posters. But it does all serve to illustrate the complete critical turnaround that has occurred in the years following the film's release.

Now there are those who will tell you that this is primarily down to the release of the so-called 'director's cut' of the film, which those in the know are aware was nothing of the sort (see Camus's comments on this). For years there had been complaints about the ending, the voice-over and the missing unicorn shot that obliquely suggested Deckard was himself a replicant. OK, sure, the ending kicked against the film's own logic and was intercut with outtakes from The Shining. But the issue of the voice-over is not as clear cut as some continue to claim, with some of the stories surrounding its inclusion repeated so often that it became impossible to tell truth from myth. The most commonly heard of these was that the Harrison Ford had delivered a deliberately dreary narration as a protest at its inclusion. A lesson is called for, I believe, on the difference between dreary and world-weary, the latter a recognisably Chandler-esque quality that sat well with the film's noir detective borrowings. Whether it is better or worse without it is a matter of opinion, but as Camus states in his piece, it was there when we first saw and first fell in love with the film and we should thus still be able to view it with the voice over intact should we choose to do so. I would also argue that there are times where the removal of the voice-over is keenly felt, with the editing of some sequences clearly timed for its inclusion and their rhythm noticeably disrupted by its excision.

When the three-disc Final Edition arrives (five disc, as it turned out), comparisons will be more widely made, though I have a sneaking suspicion that the vast majority of those arriving at the original cut having only previously seen the 'director's cut' will react negatively. That cut is for the old hands, those who were there at the beginning. Either way, home video is no place to judge. Like 2001 before it, Blade Runner's extraordinary impact is severely diminished on the small screen and it's going to take a High-Definition-Plus disc playing on a top-of-the-range 100-inch LCD screen with DTS sound to come close to the experience of seeing it in a top London cinema. But for now we have DVD, which is still a bloody big leap up from the tape prints we put up with for so long, and Warner have, in advance of the Final Cut, re-released the 'director's cut' as a stand-alone disc one final time...

vision

Looking at the box and the complete lack of extra features, this looks like a simple re-issue by Warner of their 1999 release, but sit down in front of both and the differences soon show. For a start, the print on the new release uses the whole width of the screen rather than sitting inside black side borders, with the result that there is more picture information on both sides (although CRT TV owners may lose this to overscan). The print has also been cleaned up, the dust spots of the first release now nowhere to be found. Contrast and sharpness have been improved, the brightness tweaked (though very occasionally at the expense of highlight detail), the colours are slightly richer and there is a subtle shift in the colour timing of some scenes – I have to presume, though cannot confirm, that the new transfer is more faithful to the original film print. There is still some visible grain on a few of the effects shots, but otherwise the film looks damned fine.

1999 release (above) and 2006 release (below) – note the extra picture information on the new release


 

1999 release (above) and 2006 release (below) – the shift in colour timing is clearly evident here


sound

Oh if only the sound had undergone a similar upgrade. What we have here is exactly the same 5.1 track as was found on the original release, one that lacks punch, volume and the sort of all-around aural inclusiveness that the film screams out for. If this means that a remix is required for the Final Edition then it gets my vote, as the film's beauty as an audio-visual experience is severely diminished when half of the marriage is not up to scratch.

extra features

As with the original release, not a bloody thing. No doubt it's all being held back for the Final Edition release.

summary

I've said all I intend to say for now about the film. If you have the earlier DVD release than this may be worth the upgrade for the picture quality, but it may be worth hanging on to see what turns up in the Final Edition, which is expected to include all three cuts of the film, hopefully with remastered sound as well as picture.



<<Part 1: Man and Machine, Kendred Spirits

Blade Runner: The Final Cut Ultimate Edition DVD review

Blade Runner – The Director's Cut Remastered

USA 1982
112 mins
director
Ridley Scott
starring
Harrison Ford
Rutger Hauer
Sean Young
Edward James Olmos
M. Emmet Walsh
Daryl Hannah
William Sanderson
Brion James
Joe Turkel
Joanna Cassidy

DVD details
region 2
video
2.40:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 5.1 surround
languages
English
subtitles
English
Danish
Finnish
German
Greek
Norwegian
Polish
Portuguese
Swedish
Turkish
extras .
none
distributor
Warner Brothers
release date
9 October 2006
article posted
1 November 2006

Related review
Blade Runner: The Final Cut - Ultimate Collector's Edition

See all of Slarek's reviews