“Ford’s mission seems of no particular consequence. You get the feeling of not getting anywhere of being part of the atmosphere of decay.”1
The “final cut” of the 1982 film Blade Runner was released to DVD in early 2008, and yes, I’m sure they’re aware of the irony, somewhere in that big five-disc set, of having a movie as ubiquitous in postmodern cinema classes as this one released in (three) altered versions with digital re-colorization on shiny silver discs.2 I remember that at the time the original Blade Runner came to the big screen, I was an alienated suburban boy writing computer games in Basic on my TI 994A and loading them on cassette tape; the cassette made weird fax machine noises as it uploaded into the console — if a kid saw that process now, he would think that was some weird science fiction shit, but silver DVDs and zip drives are normal!
Confounding the issue is the “director’s cut” of Blade Runner that came out back in 1997. That “middle version” is considered by some to be the best (new ending, no voiceover, and no digital “cleansing”). Considering the movie takes place in a dystopian future where “replicants” of humans are given “implant” memories so that not even they don’t know they’re not human, there’s a whole postmodern hall of mirrors you can wander through with the idea of a digitally re-colored “final cut” of a 10-year-old “director’s cut” of a 26-year-old movie, especially if you add your own metatextual history as someone who saw the film in different guises over and over during the last 26 years . . . just looking into this new DVD set is enough to fry your own neural hard drive. You look in vain for that movie you saw once way back when in a big old crumbling theater in Small Town New Jersey . . . and you realize even the exact same movie (included on one of the discs) doesn’t seem like the same film . . . is this movie really 26 years old? Are you really 26 years old? Or was it just made yesterday, and your own memories of all those wasted teenage years just implants by the Tyrell modeling corporation?
When it comes to “remembering” films from that long ago, don’t our memories often seem to jar with what’s onscreen? We might, for example, have seen a print missing some footage (there’s the notorious eye-gouging scene missing from some Blade Runner versions, for example, even of the original cut), or we might just have misunderstood certain sequences — especially if we were very young when it came out. Then there’s the changing social conditions in which we live . . . what was shocking and weird then is so normal now, it’s not science fiction at all, and vice versa. Then take into account the “retro-futurism” of the film itself, its nostalgia for 1940s noir contrivances: rainy city streets, tough cops harassing hardboiled private eyes, aloof millionaire industrialists with femme fatale secretaries, etc.
For all its faults, Blade Runner was a science fiction movie that “heard” the cry of the pre-Internet teenage generation, trapped as it was in a weird, self-conscious prison of new suburbia, cut off from everyone else in a fake environment of prefab tract homes, shopping malls, and minivans — all ubiquitous now but just beginning to stultify human imagination back in 1982. The kids of that era are now filmmakers and marketers and DVD collectors, and so Blade Runner is an apotheosis of sorts. It’s not just the cool cityscapes in the film, or the way it eerily nails the mess of urban blight circa 2008; it’s that inside its noir core is a distinctly teenage sense of existential despair, one that requires not just shadows and femme fatales but a humorless, operatic sense of futility and objectless longing, a poetic tortured soul hounded by the sterility of a world that’s all shiny pretty surface and no depth whatsoever. Most of the obsessive crackpot kids like me fell in love not with Harrison Ford’s soggy detective, but with the punk-rock Euro-masculine poetry of Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty, and gutter-pixie Daryl Hannah. We sympathized completely with the character of J. F. Sebastian (William Sanderson), his pitiful humanity, his inventiveness and “Methuselah syndrome” all perfect metaphors for our twisted teenage ectomorphology. Poor Sebastian is a sitting duck for the one-two seduction of this lethal pair, who arrived as older siblings or bad-influence friends might, ferrying the Jersey teenage mope addict across the Hudson to his first rock shows, introducing him to hard drugs . . .
But even we who came of age with the film can’t ignore its faults, especially as we get older and the cuts get wilder. Ridley Scott as a director depends on the forgiving 15-year-old in us all, on our willingness to sacrifice coherent narrative in exchange for a string of brilliant, isolated moments. The Vangelis soundtrack works like an ace hypnotist in his corner, creating emotional response via melodic trigger. If you freeze-frame on one of these city images, it looks like a painting by Edward Hopper if it was dipped in neon and smoke-machine smoke . . . it’s all gorgeous images suitable for framing that just don’t hang well in the same gallery. Whole elaborate tapestries of shape and color seem to be etched into the black-eye makeup of Pris as she sits motionless underneath a veil in amidst Sebastian’s toys, for example. But after she’s dead and Roy Batty is chasing Deckard around the premises, you have no idea they’re even in the same film, let alone the same apartment.
Ridley’s eye for a good picture is undeniable, though, and his realization of the future as a Russian doll simulacrum of infinitesimal images within images is right on the money for 2008. The really spooky thing about this movie is that in 1982 we were still not completely subsumed by simulacrum; cable TV and the VCR were still just rich man toys. The forward-looking amphetamine freak Phillip K. Dick (on whose Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? the story is based) and Scott are clearly visionaries . . . who could know that our future would be one of urban decay coupled to the most small and sleek micro-technology? In Blade Runner we have old Chinese peasants out in the rainy streets, in little rickety stands, reading serial numbers off of snake scales. In the reality of 2008 we have ghetto youth carrying vast libraries of information and access to satellites, all inside little black chips clipped to their ears and waistbands.
Standing alongside the “realization” of Blade Runner’s futuristic noirscape is the “new additions” of the “final cut.” The digital “cleaning up” of some images leaves one baffled at how far we’ve come only to return to a more soulless and empty version of exactly where we began. The nighttime streets praised in post-theory book and song have been so overworked digitally in the final cut that they almost seem like anime; the colors are way too contemporary, so garish and bright now they seem relatively (and ironically) retro. The thick fog of smoke in the original seems half-cleared. At least Scott didn’t remove the cigarettes. That’s the main thing that seems “different” about the film; not the replicants and the giant off-world colonization advertisements, but the indoor smoking! Then there’s clearly some stuff added and removed in the big chase through the streets of replicant Joanna Cassidy after Deckard peeps her snake dance. To my 1982 eyes this was “action” — the suspenseful chase prefiguring a good gunfight. Now the sequence is slowed in a molasses mixture of rain, traffic, and punk-rock fashion. Now it is not so much that Joanna is being chased by Ford through the rainy streets as it seems she is falling through a k-hole at a Halloween rave, squished into an art gallery space in Chelsea, crashing through glass in her giallo horror transparent raincoat, hurtling through a succession of shop windows full of mannequins and fake snow. Seeing it in the final cut version made me wonder whether Scott was inspired by Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci films before making the original film? Or was he inspired to reshape the footage after checking out the recent boon of 1960s-’70s Eurosleaze titles on DVD? Or is it just that I myself am now changed by seeing so many of these titles on DVD lately, so now notice the similarity, whereas in 1982 it was all but impossible to see any Argento or Fulci film outside of a Times Square grindhouse?
The only thing that the over-eager team behind the digital refurbishing seem to leave alone is the faces of the “mortal human” actors: M. Emmet Walsh and Edward James Olmos as the cops, J. F. Sebastian and Tyrell. To see their blue veins and gray, pockmarked, sweaty skin in amidst all that shiny CGI-enhanced finery reminds me of those dehumanizing days spent getting to and from airplane travel, lost in that hurtle through time and space of going from home to car to train to airport to plane to airport to car again — the sort of a journey where you feel like the human self has become mere cargo, bare life as the burden of the machine. We want to apologize to the CGI computer for being so hard to duplicate, not just vis-à-vis the “uncanny valley”3 but with our decomposing faces. M. Emmet Walsh’s scenes of bad expository dialogue now seem to hover in time. His bloated face uneasy with smoke and green light, hovering in the dark like some depressed apparition from Christmas past, Walsh’s humanity as an odious, anachronistic element.
Seeing these poor humans clinging to their original shapes in amidst all this recutting and re-digitizing makes me wonder if Scott’s penchant for themes of “alienation and dehumanization” isn’t the end result of all his fussing over lights and sets until his actors are exhausted (a habit he shares with Kubrick, another alienation specialist). Unless dehumanization is the theme, Scott’s or Kubrick’s movies will suffer, because neither can “do” human, the way, say, Capra or Hawks can. Blade Runner has a hard time making a plea for humanity since Scott’s style is itself so artsy and disconnected. His ear for dialogue is as bad here as it is 35 thirty years later for American Gangster (2007). His saving grace is that, at least in Blade Runner, he gives his actors freedom to make their own characters. In this “do as you will” environment, there’s room for great awkwardness and also poetry. After some agonizingly clunky dialogue in Deckard’s apartment, there’s suddenly a moment of repose — just gushing Vangelis music and Deckard drinking a shot of whiskey and the blood flowing into the whiskey like it’s a perfume ad. The film drifts to a romantic halt as the saxophones and chimes on the score build and fade to a naturalistic romantic peak. There, almost by chance amidst the sterile squalor and mismatched splendor, is a moment of pure delirious cinematic perfection. Then it’s back to business again.
Other oases of greatness: the “cityspeak” language which is brought in and used by Edward James Olmos in the beginning and then completely forgotten about (Olmos’ own invention, according to the documentary); the poetic ending of Batty, with the dove and the soliloquy about “tears . . . lost in rain” (Hauer’s own idea, according to the documentary) as unmarred by corny voiceover as it was in the original “director’s cut” of 1998. The better ending, which “calls into question all you have seen before.” And now, with the golden false memories of 26 years’ time difference, the uncanny effect of having so much of the film’s futuristic mise-en-scene seemingly come true. The film’s many little termite touches all point to a collapse of the simulacrum, a merging of the real and the fake until it’s Sisyphean to continue trying to sort them out; the blade Deckard is running on turns out to be a mirage; his own feet are not even his own.
Everything is so melted into itself that, for example, when Joanna crashes through the snowy window display, it starts to snow outside, just for a few short dissolves — the real snow mixing in with the fake flakes, until warm rain comes back in. Meanwhile here’s this cop shooting an unarmed girl in the back, and she’s crashing through glass display windows in slow motion, and everybody on the crowded street keeps walking past and not even reacting. Cops appear out of nowhere without sirens. It’s the quietest downtown shooting in the history of cinema. Is this all just a dream Deckard had not long ago? For the first time in all the myriad versions of the film, it seems that way, and we realize that for all his faults, Ridley Scott really is one crazy postmodern trickster; he susses out new postmodern riffs on the nature of cinema and memory just from minor manipulations in the text. If Orson Welles was working today, I wonder how many different versions of Touch of Evil or Citizen Kane there would be? Perhaps what was once considered indecision and fussiness will soon be a strength — as hypertextuality and increased bandwidth continue to dissolve the boundaries between memory and “reality,” the finished and the forever open, the retro and the futuristic, and the impossibility of a cut ever being truly “final.”
- Pauline Kael, 5001 Nights at the Movies (New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston, 1985). [↩]
- It’s interesting to remember that Terry Gilliam’s eerily accurate dystopian sci fi film, Brazil (1985), was one of the first films to get a multi-version, multi-disc release on DVD. [↩]
- The Uncanny Valley — “Mori’s hypothesis states that as a robot is made more humanlike in its appearance and motion, the emotional response from a human being to the robot will become increasingly positive and empathic, until a point is reached beyond which the response quickly becomes that of strong repulsion.” [↩]