Thursday, October 2, 2014

Miscellaneous Musings - On Blade Runner and the Question of Where to Begin

On Blade Runner and the Question of Where to Begin

October 2, 2014

There was a time when there was only one version of a film. Sure, producers and studio execs have always butted heads with directors over how a film should end or how long was too long, but up until fairly recently, these disputes did not result in the existence of multiple cuts of the same film. There was also a time when ending up on the cutting-room floor actually meant that a scene or a performance was lost forever. After all, for the majority of film history, there was no need for unused footage to be preserved.

This is of course not true of present-day Hollywood. Now practically every bit of footage has to be preserved for the eventual DVD or Blu-ray release, for there seems to exist an unrelenting desire for deleted scenes, alternate versions, extended editions, and director’s cuts, a term that is often applied erroneously, for what is a theatrical version if not a director’s cut?

The first director’s cut that I can recall seeing was the special edition of Steven Spielberg’s seminal 1977 film, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. All that was added to the film was a long series of shots of the interior of the spaceship that Roy Neary enters at the end of the original version. The scenes were indeed breathtaking, and what they showed gave both the audience and Roy a sense of satisfaction. Here, in the images of bright lights and floating ships, was proof that both he and the viewers had been right to invest so much time and emotion in search of answers. Perhaps the only problem with the extra scenes is that they rob the audience of the chance to imagine what Roy saw on board that ship for themselves.

Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner was first released theatrically in 1982, five years after the first version of Close Encounters and long before the current trend of promising the release of a longer version came into vogue. Studios were not shooting extra footage with the intent of including it on a DVD or dropping hints that a well-liked character would be in a later version of a film. Over forty minutes of deleted scenes exist from Blade Runner, but it seems clear that Scott still felt those scenes did not add anything to the film when he returned to it years later. Perhaps that is why both the director’s cut and the final cut are more the product of subtraction than addition. Made today, I have no doubt that there would be many more "unused" scenes, many of them having been made specifically for the eventual DVD release. These scenes might explain that it is necessary for animals to be cloned, that the Replicants have begun to explore human affection, yet can’t seem to get it right, and that they intend to spend any additional years they are given somewhere peacefully minding their own business. Also included would likely be much more superfluous moments, ones that explain how Leon brought a gun to his test, why Zhora was working as a stripper when that had nothing to do with the Tyrell Corporation, and just when Roy decided to strip down before chasing after Deckard. All of these scenes would be released as something akin to Blade Runner: The Ultimate Extended Final Cut.

This is of course not what we have. Instead, we have an international version with one scene of extended gore and another in which Pris seems to be doing something unnatural to Deckard’s nose. Ten years later came the director’s cut, a version of the film that strips the film of its noir-like narration, leaving the film with long stretches of screen time in which nothing much happens other than a ship flying from one place to another while Deckard looks off into space pensively. Perhaps the intent was for the audience to take a moment and marvel at what could now be done with special effects. Also added is a scene in which Deckard either remembers, imagines, or dreams of a unicorn running in the woods. This is said to indicate that Decker might be a Replicant himself, yet there is nothing that expands on this idea. Time simply didn’t allow it. Were the film to be made now, it would likely have an entirely different final act. Back then, all that could really be done to create a more challenging ending was to remove the more positive images that brought the theatrical cut to a close.

The final cut of the film is not much different from the director’s cut. It does seem noisier at times, as if Scott went back and added sound effects to break up the silence of the scenes that had previously had narration. We also see a few scenes from different angles, and in one or two key places, dialogue has been added, usually when a character’s back is to the camera. What was unexplained in previous versions remains unexplained in this one, and the dialogue that sounded corny in the 1982 version still sounds corny today. (Really, how many android killers would talk about having an itch that they couldn’t scratch?) In fact, after the international theatrical cut, it seemed that my interest in Blade Runner waned with each successive version. Having now seen the final cut, I feel certain that I have gotten everything out of the film that I am ever going to.

It goes without saying that Blade Runner has had a tremendous influence on science fiction, and there are shades of it in the dystopian realities on display in films such as Elysium and District 9 and TV shows like Battlestar Galactica. Today, the film is often hailed as a masterpiece. If it is one, though, and I am not saying I believe it to be, it is an awfully cold and imperfect one. Its tale is incredibly bleak and violent, and its characters are neither sympathetic nor downright appalling. They occupy that moral gray area that often prevents people from being entirely for or against them. However, Blade Runner tells its dark tale skillfully enough that, with its masterful visuals, it pulls you in, and its final duel between two characters grasping for the same thing remains quite involving. Its holes are easy to overlook.

Yet there remains a question. If someone wanted to discover Blade Runner for the first time, where should he begin? Should his indoctrination begin with the final cut, the one which Roger Ebert wrote about when he added the film to his list of Great Films, or should he begin with the 1982 version, which Leonard Maltin proclaimed a bore and gave one and a half stars to? Expanding this further, what should people do if they decide to watch other films that have had multiple cuts for the first time, films like Amadeus, Das Boot, Almost Famous, Farewell My Concubine, Cinema Paradiso, and Apocalypse Now? Should they start with the version that made them so beloved in the first place, or should they go with the later, often longer versions?

I confess that the film enthusiast in me says start with the original, but how do you convince someone that all of those scenes featured in the extended versions of, say, the Lord of the Rings films are not necessary? And if the film in question is part of a larger series or cinematic universe, such as the X-Men or the Avengers, which version of the film best represents that universe in subsequent films? In other words, if deleted scenes are on a DVD or if they are put back into a film at a later date, are they now officially part of the film? If they are, there may be no reason for anyone to ever watch the theatrical cut again except out of sheer curiosity. It would be as if the 1982 version of Blade Runner simply never existed, and that would be a shame.

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