BLADE RUNNER - HD DVD review

Stylistically, Blade Runner is the Citizen Kane of sci-fi movies.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.
Puccio

"A cult film is a movie that attracts a devoted group of followers or obsessive fans, despite having failed on initial release. The term also describes films that have remained popular over a long period of time amongst a small group of followers. ... Cult films often become the source of a thriving, obsessive, and elaborate subculture of fandom, hence the analogy to cults. ... Usually, cult films have limited but very special appeal. Cult films are often known to be eccentric and usually explore topics not considered in any way mainstream--yet there are examples that are relatively normal." --Wikipedia

Now I'd like to step out of this standard definition of a cult movie and consider WB's 1982 release of director Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner" for a moment. It's hardly what you would call "cult" by its size or importance. Warners spent a goodly amount of money on it and gave it a strong, popular cast and director. Surprisingly, though, it did not do as well at the box office as people imagine, taking in about $27,000,000 on a $28,000,000 budget. What's more, it did not go over as well with critics as we like to think. For instance, Leslie Halliwell described it as a "gloomy futuristic thriller, looking like a firework display seen through thick fog, and for all the tiring tricks and expense adding up to little more than an updated Philip Marlowe case." Tim Milne wrote that "the sets are indeed impressive, but they are no compensation for a narrative so lame that it seems in need of a wheelchair." And Leonard Maltin called it "a triumph of production design, defeated by a muddled script and main characters with no appeal whatsoever."

Yet today, after more than twenty-five years, many people herald the movie as one of the finest sci-fi noirs of all time, a classic of its kind, so much so that Warner Bros. have now reissued it in elaborate standard-definition, HD DVD, and Blu-ray editions for an impatient audience. Clearly, "Blade Runner" is an example of a big film gaining at first a small but devoted following, which has now blossomed into full-scale support. Heck, nowadays even critics like it. So, is it a "cult" film in the strictest sense? No, but its following has been so loyal and so vocal that it shames most other more-conventional cult movies.

Therefore, it's fitting that Warner Bros. give it its proper due in the five-disc HD DVD package under review, a set that includes just about every change the director ever made to it in five complete versions, most notably the new "Final Cut," all of the versions in high def. Of course, there is no absolute guarantee that the "Final Cut" will actually be Scott's last word on the subject. Maybe in another ten years we'll get a "Positively Last and Definitively Conclusive Director's Cut." Who knows. What's important is that the new cut includes the best of all worlds, added and extended scenes, added lines, improved special effects, and restored and remastered picture and sound. What's not to like?

But first, let's talk about the film itself a little. As Leslie Halliwell pointed out above, "Blade Runner" really is a reworked 1940s detective yarn updated for the future. It contains all the basic elements of film noir, but it places them in a future, sci-fi setting, where Harrison Ford stars as a bounty hunter, Rick Deckard, persuaded to return to his old job as a police-force "blade runner," a person whose calling is to track down errant robots in human form. In this regard, he's sort of like the Will Smith character in the movie version of "I Robot," only "Blade Runner" is a bit more realistic (for science fiction) and a bit less silly. The screenwriters for "Blade Runner," Hampton Fancher and David Webb Peoples, adapted their script from, who else, Philip K. Dick and a story called "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?"

The movie's setting is Los Angeles in 2019, by which time humans have developed robotic engineering to the point where they can produce robots that look and think exactly as we do, robots called Replicants, and we use them as slave labor in space, "Off-world." After quelling a rebellion of Replicants, humans no longer allow them on Earth. But a few have come to Earth, anyway, four of them, and it's Decker's job to track them down and terminate them. Er, "retire" them.

More specifically, a Replicant is a being virtually identical to a human. The most advanced Replicants belong to a class called Nexus 6, which are "superior in strength and agility, and at least the equal in intelligence, to the genetic engineers who created them." Among these engineers are Dr. Tyrell (Joe Turkel), the "father" of Replicants, and J.F. Sebastian (William Sanderson), a contributor who lives with his "toys."

Now, here's the thing: As a safeguard against Replicants getting too uppity and taking over the world, the Tyrell Corporation that makes them have built in a safety device--the creatures only live for four years and then die. Well, the four Replicants that have escaped back to Earth want to change that. They are Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), the Replicant leader; Zhora (Joanna Cassidy), a combination beauty and the beast; Pris (Daryl Hannah), a standard pleasure model; and Leon (Brion James), a thug. None of them are pleasant to be around.

The plot moves along methodically, as all good noir mysteries should. There are no explosions or outer-space battles; it's not that kind of sci-fi flick. It's sort of like Ridley Scott's "Alien" of several years before, which was really a haunted house story masquerading as science fiction. Well, "Blade Runner" is "The Big Sleep" or "The Maltese Falcon" under the guise of sci-fi. Deckard is a typical hard-boiled gumshoe in the Philip Marlowe/Sam Spade tradition, world-weary and living alone. Naturally, he's got to have a beautiful girl around, and she enters in the person of Rachael (Sean Young), a beautiful Replicant who doesn't know she is one until Deckard reveals it to her early on. It's a poignant moment. And we have to have the usual assortment of colorful, and shady, characters, too, like Bryant (M. Emmet Walsh), Gaff (Edward James Olmos), Hannibal (James Hong), Taffey (Hy Pyke), and others.

But the plot and characters are not what are really important. The movie is, if nothing else, a triumph of set design. It's got dazzling production shots, fascinating scenery, 1940s' style costumes and hairdos, distinct camera angles, imaginative lighting that places everything in shadows, and atmosphere galore. Then it's set in a world that seems perpetually night, an idea that the film "Dark City" would run with some years later. Additionally, it's fun to see that Scott filmed a few parts of his movie in familiar L.A. locations: Frank Lloyd Wright's Ennis-Brown House, also used famously in "House on Haunted Hill" (1959); Union Station; the 2nd Street tunnel; the Bradbury Building; etc. Stylistically, "Blade Runner" is the "Citizen Kane" of sci-fi movies.

Moreover, it's science fiction with thought. Tyrell gives the Replicants memories so they don't know they're not human. Which makes Deckard wonder if he is really human, either. And that, in turn, asks us to think about ourselves, what makes anyone "human," where we come from, where we're going, and what it means to be alive. With the exception of Kubrick's "2001," few sci-fi films pose such significant questions.

"All those moments we lost, like tears in the rain. Time to die." --Rutger Hauer, "Blade Runner"

Video:
WB reworked, restored, and remastered everything about this new "Final Cut" edition. Director Scott says this is his "preferred version" of the film, with tweaks and enhancements. The result looks as good as it probably could possibly look, which is to say pretty good. Fans will undoubtedly go the extra step and say it looks fabulous. I still see minor imperfections in the original print, a bit of softness in a few shots, some light grain, and some intentional glares and prismatic coloration. That's OK; it's expected. What's most important is that the 1080 resolution, VC-1 encoded video captures all the beauty of the 2.40:1 ratio picture in vivid detail and mostly terrific definition, something that is all the more remarkable given the movie's dark tone throughout. Fortunately, the strength of the black levels helps improve the clarity of the image as well as bring out the depth and richness of the colors. WB may have waited quite a long time finally to issue this movie in a condition that does it justice, but the wait was worth it.

Audio:
The "Final Cut" comes with both Dolby TrueHD 5.1 and Dolby Digital Plus 5.1. The other versions of the movie come only in DD+. Warner Bros. audio engineers went back to original sources and came up with a brand-new five-channel soundtrack, plus subwoofer effects. The bass definitely thunders from the opening credits, and the dynamic range is extended. There is, understandably, not a whole lot of information in the rear channels; regardless, the front-channel stereo spread is quite wide. We do hear some things, like rain, in the surrounds, and Batty's howls are nicely amplified as they echo in the rears; but mostly what we hear is a pleasant ambient bloom from the musical score. My only minor concern is that even in TrueHD there seems to be a slight midrange edge to the sound, exacerbated further in DD+. Still, it's minor.

Extras:
Disc one contains the all-new "Final Cut" of the movie, as I say, restored and remastered with added and extended scenes, new and cleaner special effects, and new 5.1 audio. It's in high definition, as are all of the "Blade Runner" films on these discs. Along with the movie, we get a brief, thirty-second introduction by Ridley Scott and three audio commentaries. The first commentary is by director Ridley Scott; the second is by executive producer and co-screenwriter Hampton Fancher and co-screenwriter David Peoples, producer Michael Deely, and production executive Katherine Haber; and the third is by visual futurist Syd Mead, production designer Lawrence G. Paull, art director David L. Snyder, and special photographic effects supervisors Douglas Trumbull, Richard Yuricich, and David Dryer. Of the three, I think I preferred the second one best for its continual insights, although all three are serious enough to satisfy the movie's fans.

In addition, there are thirty-six scene selections; an informational booklet and chapter list; English as the only spoken language; English, French, and Spanish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired. Of course, this being a WB HD DVD, there are also pop-up menus, bookmarks, a zoom-and-pan feature, a guideline to elapsed time, and a special, five-disc HD case.

Disc two contains the standard-definition, widescreen documentary "Dangerous Days: Making Blade Runner." It's three-and-a-half hours, divided into eight chapters, "culled," as the book insert says, "from over 80 all-new interviews with cast, crew, and colleagues and hours of never-before-released outtakes and on-set footage." The chapter titles give you an idea of its contents: "Incept Date--1980: Screenwriting and Dealmaking," "Blush Response: Assembling the Cast," "A Good Start: Designing the Future," "Eye of the Storm: Production Begins," ""Living in Fear: Tension on the Set," "Beyond the Window: Visual Effects," "In Need of Magic: Post-Production Problems," and "To Hades and Back: Release and Resurrection." It's one of the most comprehensive documentaries on the making of any film I think I've ever seen and pretty much answers every question you've ever had about the movie.

Furthermore, the second disc includes four trailers for other Warner Bros. and New Line films: "I Am Legend," "Invasion," "Fracture," and the animated "Superman: Doomsday."

Disc three contains, thanks to seamless branching, three separate previous versions of the movie. There's the 1982 theatrical version, which includes Harrison Ford's sleepy, voice-over narration and a so-called "happy ending," a version I liked somewhat more than other critics because it gave the film a more 1940s, noirish feel; the 1982 international version, which WB also used in tape, laser disc, and cable releases in America up to 1992; and the 1992 Director's Cut, which many of us know from WB's initial DVD release, and which leaves out Ford's narration as well as the happy ending and adds the unicorn scene (the latter retained in the "Final Cut"). All three of these versions are in widescreen high definition.

Disc four, the "Bonus Disc," the studio labels an "Enhancement Archive." It contains a series of featurettes and galleries, all in standard definition. Section one, "Inception," includes "The Electric Dreamer: Remembering Philip K. Dick," fourteen minutes; "Sacrificial Sheep: The Novel vs. The Film," fifteen minutes; and "Philip K. Dick: The Blade Runner Interviews," over twenty minutes of audio only in which Dick concedes he wasn't too happy being left out of the production process. Section two, "Fabrication," includes "Signs of the Times: Graphic Design," thirteen minutes; "Fashion Forward: Wardrobe & Styling," twenty minutes; "Screen Tests: Rachel and Pris," different actresses testing for the parts; "The Light That Burns: Remembering Jordan Cronenweth," twenty minutes; and, most important, twenty-four "Deleted and Alternate Scenes," forty-seven minutes altogether, which creates practically an all-new movie. The phrase "You and I were made for each other" takes on a whole new meaning. Section three, "Longevity," includes the 1982 promotional featurettes "On the Set," fourteen minutes; "Convention Reel," thirteen minutes; and outtakes, nine minutes. Plus you get "Promoting Dystopia: Rendering the Post Art," nine minutes; "Deck-a-Rep: The True Nature of Rick Deckard," nine minutes that ask the question, Is Deckard real or a Replicant? Director Scott thinks he is a Replicant and says "If you don't get it, you're a moron," but others among the filmmakers have their own, differing opinions. Finally, "Nexus Generation: Fans and Filmmakers," is twenty-one minutes, followed by six trailers and TV spots spanning the years 1982-2007.

Disc five contains a rare, workprint version of the film, 110 minutes (about seven minutes shorter than the other versions), and newly remastered in HD (although still looking rather rough). It has a slightly different opening, none of Ford's narration until the very end, no "unicorn," no "happy ending," altered dialogue and music here and there, and the like. There is also an audio commentary by Paul M. Sammon, the author of "Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner"; a brief director's introduction wherein he reminds us this workprint is a "work-in-progress"; and a twenty-eight-minute featurette: "All Our Variant Futures: From Workprint to Final Cut," to wrap things up. I have to admit that a lot of this final documentary began to feel redundant, but the movie's fans can probably not get enough of it.

Parting Thoughts:
There is no doubt in my mind that director Ridley Scott and the Warner Bros. restoration and remastering team did a bang-up job making a sci-fi classic even better. The new "Final Cut" is really no longer and no shorter than the original version, but somehow the additions and subtractions add up to a movie that feels tighter. I know there are a lot of folks who still won't like "Blade Runner" no matter how much the director and the studio improved it, complaining it's too dark, too slow, too muddled. That's fine. This new edition is for old fans and future fans. And it works. Brilliantly.

"Do you trust me?" --Harrison Ford, "Blade Runner"

Ratings

Video
9
Audio
8
Extras
10
Film Value
9