Disk format: DVD (in collector's tin)
Disk format: Blu-Ray (2-disc edition)
Directed by: Sir Ridley Scott
Starring: Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young, Daryl Hannah, Brion James, Joanna Cassidy, M Emmett Walsh, Edward James Olmos, Joe Turkel, William Sanderson, James Hong.
Warning: If you haven't already seen the film, beware. This review contains SPOILERS.
It's hard to believe it's now nearly thirty years since I went to a cinema in Croydon to see a film that would go on to redefine how cinema approached science fiction. I didn't know it at the time. Back in 1982, Blade Runner didn't get too many good reviews and it's fair to say that the film that was released didn't exactly reflect Ridley Scott's original vision. Despite going significantly over budget, there were one or two rough edges in evidence. For example, the number of replicants - artificial humans - that was discussed didn't add up; the dialogue we heard didn't always match the movement of the actors' lips; at one point there is a hand resting on Rutger Hauer's shoulder, despite the fact that the next moment we see that he is standing in a closed phone booth; there was a very clunky narration to explain what was going on and - perhaps most irritating of all - there was a peculiar ending that didn't seem to fit with the rest of the film whatsoever.
As the summer of 1982 wore on, Blade Runner disappeared from cinema screens quite quickly, ending its run after a few weeks. I saw it twice during that initial release and it definitely made an impression. I loved the music, but soon discovered that despite the statement in the closing credits that a soundtrack album was available, I couldn't buy Vangelis's music in any shop.
But here's the thing: 1982 fell almost exactly at the dawn of the video age. Affordable video cassette players had just begin to hit the market. When the video rental market arrived shortly afterwards, people found out they could watch films when they wanted, not just when they were broadcast by the TV stations. One of the films that people decided they wanted to watch, over and over again, was Blade Runner. One reason for this might have something to do with the fact that the studios overestimated the demand for retail copies, which used to go on sale six months or so after the rental copies. As a result, the original version of Blade Runner became available widely and very cheaply in discount video stores. Every video shop had copies of Blade Runner for sale in the bargain bins. So people bought them, and played them. They played them a lot. I used to have the film playing in the background when we got back from the pub in the evenings and even while drunk, I retained the ability to quote vast tracts of dialogue from the film. I was not alone in being able to do this, either. As people became much more familiar with Blade Runner, it became an obvious choice for being shown at science fiction festivals and midnight movie specials.
As the 1980s drew to a close, something extraordinary happened. At one showing of the movie, the wrong copy of the film was delivered. Instead of the film as it had been released, Ridley's workprint of the movie was shown to a paying audience of film buffs. It has different opening credits, but as it started, the thing people really noticed was that the narration - "They don't advertise for killers in the newspapers..." - was completely missing. From what I've heard, the reaction in the cinema was electric; those watching quickly realised that this wasn't the film that had got the poor reviews, oh no. This was something else entirely. As the film played out, extra details cropped up. Dialogue was different. At the end, there was another surprise. There was no happy ending: the movie finished on a much darker, more ambiguous note.
That workprint showing became the stuff of legend. The amount of interest in the film and its chequered history built and built, to the point that in 1992 Ridley Scott was given the money to tidy up the film. The narration and the "driving off into the sunshine" ending disappeared; one or two tweaks were made to tidy things up a bit, but most importantly a scene of just a few seconds featuring the appearance of a unicorn was reinstated. This alters the meaning of a subsequent event near the end of the film and leads to a startling conclusion. The Director's Cut version of Blade Runner got a release in cinemas, too. This time, the reviews were far more favourable. Roger Ebert, who had originally criticised the film as being "clichéd and a little thin" now described it as "one of the visual touchstones of modern movies." At long last, the soundtrack album saw the light of day.
As the 1990s progressed, the World Wide Web proved to be fertile ground for BR aficionados. The film was discussed on the Internet in great detail, and there are still some great websites dedicated to the film. A computer game of the film (where the player is cast as one of Deckard's Blade Runner colleagues) was released in 1997. At the end of the 90s, Paul Sammon wrote a book about the making of the film (Cinema Noir), which was a runaway success.
When DVDs arrived on the scene, the Director's Cut was released in the new format. It was one of the first DVDs I bought, but it was a disappointment. It was a bare-bones issue, with no extras and a transfer that was distinctly below average. The print was covered in dust and scratches, and it carried a Pro-Logic stereo soundtrack that was flat and uninspiring. It was disappointing, yes - but at least we had a copy to play on our machines on a format which meant those old VHS copies could finally be retired.
In 2002, rumours began to surface that Ridley Scott was going to release another version of the film. After the revised releases of the first three Star Wars movies proved successful, was something similar going to happen with Blade Runner? Fans started to get excited, but some were worried: would Ridley adopt George Lucas's somewhat revisionist approach to what was now rightly considered to be a classic? As it turned out, the excitement was short-lived. For one reason or another, the right to release the film together with associated extras got tied up in legal wrangles, and work on the new version ground to a halt.
Or so we thought; it turned out that actually, Ridley had pressed ahead regardless and in early 2006 Warner Brothers announced that a new release was indeed on the way. In September 2006, a cleaned-up version of the Director's Cut arrived on the scene. It was a vast improvement over the original, but the DVD still didn't carry anything in terms of extras. The shiny new all-singing all-dancing version would be out by Christmas, we heard. But December came and went with no sign of the release. Had things gone pear-shaped again?
A year passed...
On December 1 2007 the latest release (dubbed "The Final Cut") arrived on my doormat in a 5-DVD set contained in a very spiffy collector's tin. It contains a mind-boggling five versions of the film. There's a documentary about how the film was made with contributions from almost everyone involved. And there are lots of extras about the making of the film. So let's go through what you get in more detail.
Disc 1 - The Final Cut
This is what we've been waiting for for five years or so, and before I go any further, all you really need to know is this: yes, the wait has been worth it. The sound has been remastered into proper 5.1, and on my system it gives you a full-on, floor-shaking experience. Some of the background audio (such as "Next subject, Kowalski Leon; engineer waste disposal...") has been brought up in the mix, so it's more audible than it was. The music sounds stunning. The video quality matches it, too, and the transfer this time round is much, much better. The print is clean and the resolution on my DVD player is excellent. I bet the high definition version is amazing.
Although they've done a lot of work to restore the film, the technical changes aren't as intrusive as those made by George Lucas on the Star Wars special editions. To be honest, you have to be pretty familiar with the film to even notice them. This is, of course, exactly as it should be. For the nerds amongst us, the changes include:
- The wires holding up the "Spinner" police cars have been removed digitally.
- The number of replicants mentioned by Bryant has been changed from five to four, and now makes sense.
- Bryant describes Leon in much more detail: "The only way to hurt him is to kill him."
- Our first sight of Roy Batty has been zoomed in slightly so that the hand on Rutger's shoulder is no longer visible.
- The mismatch between action and dialogue in the snake shop has been fixed.
- The woman in the "esper" sequence now has Joanna Cassidy's face.
- There are some new shots when Deckard chases Zhora.
- The stunt woman's wig falling off in the scene where Zhora is shot has gone - in fact, new footage of Joanna Cassidy's face has been motion-mapped to the original scene, a superlative technical feat in itself.
- When the dove flies off at the end, it flies up past the buildings from the scene, not into a pristine blue sky as before.
This release also has commentaries. There's one track from Ridley Scott, another from the design crew (including Syd Mead) and one from the production crew, including Deeley, Fancher and Peoples.
Disc 2 - Dangerous Days
A new documentary about the making of the film that runs for over three and a half hours. About the only people involved who don't take part are William Sanderson (J F Sebastian) and Vangelis (composer), both of whom declined to appear, and Brion James (Leon) and cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth who are both, sadly, no longer with us.
At one point, Edward James Olmos asks, "did you get Harrison?" Yes, they did, and he is gracious and amusing as he talks about a film that by all accounts wasn't a pleasant experience for him. For a BR geek like me it's fascinating stuff: Syd Mead talks about the design; the actors talk about their roles and the experience of shooting the movie; Hampton Fancher and David Peoples talk about the script, Philip Dick's daughter talks about what her father thought of the film, and the producers talk about the headaches. You find out exactly what Eddie Olmos is saying to Harrison Ford as he brings him in for questioning by Bryant, and why the line gets a big laugh when the film's shown in Hungary. Dare I say it, this documentary may even be better than Mark Kermode's classic Channel 4 film, "On the Edge of Blade Runner."
Disc 3 - The previous versions
On this disc you get the 1982 US and European releases, and the 1992 Director's Cut. This is handled using branching in the same way as the spiffy "Terminator 2" DVD that came out a few years ago. If you enjoy the cheesy narration, you can get your fix here but I found it very strange to finally see a film I've only had as a VHS tape get the full anamorphic widescreen and 5.1 surround sound treatment. These versions also give you a chance to compare the work that's been done on the Final Cut, as they haven't been tweaked in the same fashion.
Disk 4 - The extras
There is a bunch of featurettes on everything from the work of Jordan Cronenweth to the posters that were used to promote the film. Various directors, including Frank Darabont and Guillermo del Toro talk about the film's impact on cinema and on their own film making. You get the original teaser and trailers for the various versions of the film. There's some behind-the scenes footage, a convention showreel, and a whole bunch of deleted scenes strung together with previously unreleased Harrison Ford voiceover done for the 1982 release that is even more cheesy than the stuff that made it into the film. But some of the cut footage is a real treasure. There's a brilliant exchange between Deckard and Rachel as they drive off into the sunset in the "happy ending" finale. The final line of the conversation consists of a now happy Rachel turning to Deckard and, smiling, she says "We were made for each other." Given Ridley's well-publicised explanation that Deckard was himself a replicant, the phrase takes on a new, ironic meaning. There is also an additional conversation between Bryant and Gaff, who spy on Deckard's conversations with Holden in the hospital. Hearing Gaff come out with a line like "I spit on metaphysics, sir," is worth the price of the set by itself.
Disk 5 - The Workprint.
I was rather surprised to see the legendary workprint included. It's a work in progress, obviously, so it's very rough and ready in places and as Ridley Scott says in the introduction, the print has also deteriorated rather badly since it was made, but it's intriguing to see just how much of the final film was there from the start. It's also worth watching to see all the extra little pieces of footage that were cut from the subsequent release. The shooting of Holden, for example, was originally much more graphic. The inclusion of the workprint really does elevate this DVD release beyond special - it makes it one of the must-have releases in the medium.
DVD or Blu-Ray?
Visually, the Blu-Ray release of the Final Cut is, as you would expect, an absolutely breathtaking experience. To produce the Final Cut, the print was scanned at 4K resolution (and in 2011 we're only just beginning to hear about the industry's future plans for TVs in this format). The resulting level of detail revealed in the high definition picture as the film starts is stunning. It's one of the best ways I know of showing people "this is why Blu-Ray is so good," and you probably won't be surprised to learn that the first three films I bought in the format were 2001, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and The Final Cut. From a visual perspective, the Blu-Ray is unparalleled.
But (and this is a big but) it's only the visuals on the Blu-Ray release which get an upgrade from the DVD. As far as the audio goes, you get the same, Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack as the DVD release (there's no DTS soundtrack, sadly.) You get the same three filmmaker commentaries as the DVD. Furthermore, the Blu-Ray version is only a two-disc set. You get the Final Cut version of the film on the first disc, and disc two carries exactly the same Dangerous Days documentary as disc two from the DVD set, and I mean exactly the same: the disc itself is a DVD, it's not Blu-Ray. There's no workprint, no previous versions, no "extras" other than the documentary. So unless you've got a TV that can do the visuals justice, you might be better off getting the 5-disc DVD set instead. Or, if you're like me, you just buy both releases regardless. That's probably the optimum solution, after all.
Blu-Ray: Five stars out of five.
DVD: Six stars out of five. Trust me on this.
Update (June 2012):
To mark the 30th anniversary of the film's original release, in 2012 I spent the month of June writing extensively about the film. I hope you find something in Memories - You're Blogging About Memories to pique your interest.