I viewed Blade Runner last night, which was probably a mistake. Whenever I see this film, I become congisant of Time as predator, stalking me; like the Star Trek villain Dr. Tolian Soren, I am increasingly aware that sooner or later, Time will hunt me down and make the kill. When I first saw this film, I was sixteen years old, watching a heavily-used VHS tape in a friend’s basement on a tiny television. Today I am more than twice as old as I was then; VHS and non-HD televisions have all but disappeared from the consumer landscape; the edge-of-farmland community I grew up in on north of the city has exploded into highly-developed urban sprawl; and despite the wonders of Facebook and modern social media, I have no idea what became of that particular friend.
It is not death I fear so much as the unconscious passage of time; we are all being carried along on a current whose swiftness is not always evident, forever leaving behind sights and sounds we do not realise will never be experienced again. Some of the people, places and things we see today we will never see again hereafter; or if we do see them, they too will have been altered irrevocably by the passage of time.
Blade Runner itself is one of these things; it is no longer the film you have seen in theatres or VHS; every iteration since (laserdisc, Director’s Cut, Final Cut) has been subtly altered. Deckard’s voiceover/narration is no longer present, for example; other scenes have been added, and some—present for theatrical release—have been deleted. Ridley Scott’s penultimate work is still, on the whole, a thoroughly engaging and immersive film; visual futurist Syd Mead’s iconic designs are every bit as intriguing and alluring as they once were. But there is something insidious and unsettling about the film itself slowly morphing and changing as the years go by.
Some of us enjoyed Blade Runner as a detective film that happens to be set in the future; we may have enjoyed the nods to film noir such as Deckard’s mid-movie narration—even if the bolted-on ending was unnecessary. Others might enjoy it as a future movie featuring a detective as a main character, and are happier without the heavy leaning toward noir conventions. My own sense is that the film’s own narrative precludes hasty changes to its themes or characters. Deckard’s boss, Bryant, clearly has memories of working with him in the distant past; yet director Scott’s latest tweaks are meant to make the audience think that perhaps “blade runner” Rick Deckard is himself a replicant. This then raises the question of how Bryant could have memories of working with replicant Deckard, who presumably has a finite four-year life span. Does that make Bryant a replicant, too? Or is he merely lying? What would be the point?
It is worth remembering that Blade Runner rose from forgotten mediocrity to mass popularity in ten years as a video rental—and all of it based on the pacing and story of its theatrical release form. Ridley Scott’s constant tweaking of his creation in later years is a strong clue that perhaps he does not understand what made his film great in the first place. And he is not alone; the same could be said for many directors who have befouled their own creations with unnecessary adjustments. Amadeus, Apocalypse Now, Donnie Darko, The Exorcist, The Last Emperor, and the Star Wars original trilogy are all films that have been cheapened by “Director’s Cut” editions. Perhaps the only director’s cut I have seen that actually improved a film’s story and pacing was the extra 17 minutes in James Cameron’s Aliens—but that is the rare exception.
There is one little touch in Blade Runner that really sold me; when we see Gaff’s spinner ascend (with Deckard aboard), Gaff puts on a helmet and mic, and communicates with local air traffic control. He doesn’t do crazy things like engage in an airborne car chase, or make sudden, erratic movements with other spinners/aircraft in close proximity. It’s all calm, cool and collected; a lot like air traffic control today. Contrast this with the cityscape and speeder/flying car scenes in Attack of the Clones, an inferior realisation by any estimation.
As I mentioned earlier, even with the changes, I still enjoyed Blade Runner. It is one of the most visually compelling and completely realised science fiction worlds to ever grace the silver screen. I just wish directors would quit fussing with their successful products decades after their original release. Logically speaking, it is not the successful films which require tweaking; they already have a winning formula. The ones that don’t do well, on the other hand, are the ones that need to have their stories, editing or pacing re-examined.