BLADE RUNNER 35th Anniversary: Which Cut Should You Watch?

Ridley Scott’s seminal future noir Blade Runner turns 35 this year. Well, the Theatrical Cut of the film does. Blade Runner is actually celebrating three anniversaries in 2017 with the Director’s Cut reaching 25 and the widely acclaimed Final Cut turning 10. To celebrate this triple bill of milestones we’re going to break down just why these different cuts exist, what drove Scott to keep exploring his sci-fi masterpiece, and what exactly the (often pretty small) differences are between each of the cuts.

Ridley Scott‘s two science fiction masterpieces have both been defined by their legacies as much as they’ve been defined by the films themselves–Blade Runner by its multiple cuts and Alien by its multiple sequels, reboots, and late stage re-imagining. Scott’s need to constantly hold control over his creative vision has led to mixed results but has left us with a unique public record of his creative editorial process in the various Blade Runner cuts. Numbering seven in total, the different versions of the film span almost two decades, but it’s the original cinematic release, first director’s edit that flourished on home video, and eventual final cut that we’re going explore today. ENHANCE.

The Theatrical Cut

In 1982 there was nothing else quite like Blade Runner. Scott’s sprawling science fiction vision of a dystopian Tokyo-infused Los Angeles looked and felt like something completely new, re-imagining classic noir tropes and massively expanding on the slim but iconic story on which it was based. But the Theatrical Cut wound up far from Scott’s original vision. After numerous test screenings with what is now known as the film’s Work Cut, the studio was concerned by the audience’s negative response and lack of engagement with Harrison Ford‘s private investigator archetype on a morally questionable mission. Bad feedback and fearsome studio executives led to two things that define the Theatrical Cut: the now infamous post-production voice-over and the Hollywood happy ending.

The Theatrical Cut is arguably a very different movie to any of the other edits of the film. Harrison Ford’s uneven voice-over grounds the story and creates a more simplistic structure that leans heavily into the noir films that Blade Runner takes inspiration from. In this version we find a Deckard’s brain filled with expository thoughts that guide the viewer through a paint by numbers model of the open-for-interpretation world that audiences would later be introduced to in the Director’s Cut. That’s not to say the voice-over doesn’t have it’s fans, many people enjoy the overt hard-boiled influence and the direction that Deckard’s inner monologues give to what some may find an overlong and listless story. The film’s one true failing is in it’s Hollywood ending, a complete misunderstanding of the type of story that Blade Runner is attempting to tell, this “perfect” ending will leave some feeling satisfied but tonally misses the mark.

The Director’s Cut

In 1990 a few American movie theaters managed to get their hands on an unauthorized print of Blade Runner‘s infamous Work Cut. These sold out screenings just built on the cult status that the film had already gained since its release on VHS. This resurgence and Scott’s unhappiness with the rough nature of the Work Cut encouraged the studio to pursue a Scott approved Director’s Cut. Though this version of the film was OK’d by Scott, it wasn’t actually his direct handiwork, but rather the accumulation of a collaboration between Michael Arick, who was in charge of the finished film, and Les Healy, an assistant editor on the original Theatrical Cut, both pulling heavily from detailed notes by Scott.

There are three main differences in this version of the film. Most instantly noticeable is the removal of Deckard’s voice-over, which completely changes the film’s pacing and structure, transforming the landscape of Blade Runner into an expansive exercise in slow-burn storytelling and visual world building. Though the removal of Deckard’s post-production thought process is the most visceral to the experience of watching the movie, the Director’s Cut also included new footage which would reignite one of the biggest conversations in film fandom: is Ford’s neo-gumshoe Deckard actually a replicant? The addition of a few seconds of footage depicting a unicorn turns the Theatrical Cut’s simple narrative on its head, giving oxygen to the burning fan theory that Deckard is actually one of the very machines he’s hunting. Topping off this new vision of Scott’s future was an updated ending, one which had enigma and energy, pushing Blade Runner from cult hit to certified classic.

Final Cut

By the time the Final Cut was released in 2007, Blade Runner was regarded as a cinematic masterpiece. Critics revered the state-of-the-art practical effects that aged timelessly and Ridley Scott was still widely seen as one of Hollywood’s biggest names. The Final Cut at long last gave Ridley Scott full creative control over the film that’s defined much of his career. Scott worked alongside a film restorer, Charles de Lauzirika, putting together what he deemed the ultimate iteration of his dystopian sci-fi. Though the pair began in 2000 it wasn’t until six years later and a number of legal battles that Warner Bros. gained full distribution rights and the Final Cut was unleashed on the world a year later.

Keeping all of the biggest changes from the Director’s Cut and expanding on the significance of the unicorns, the Final Cut used the full restored footage which couldn’t be used in the Director’s Cut due to a lack of film quality. Building in the now famous unicorn dream sequence–the full version of which had never been seen in any of the other cuts–this sequence confirmed to many that Deckard was in fact a replicant. Scott also did press around this time stating himself that Deckard’s a replicant, though in the original story Deckard’s human and Harrison Ford always denies that his character is anything less than human. A full restoration of Vangelis’ iconic electronic soundtrack gave the film a new depth, and Scott also included three extra scenes that were taken out of the Theatrical Cut but were included in the International Theatrical Cut. Widely regarded as the best version of the film, this cut is an immersive experience that’s still screened in theaters to this day.

Do you have a favorite cut of the cult classic? Are you stoked for the sequel? Did we miss your favorite version? Get in touch and let us know!

Images: Warner Bros.

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