Rewatched May 30, 2012
I'm just going to go ahead and say it: Ridley Scott isn't a great director, and Blade Runner is the masterpiece that proves it.
Scott is the kind of guy that believes things are best when they are dumbed down, that Maximus is a good name for the protagonist of a historical epic. He's also the kind of guy that doesn't understand storytelling, but still wants to leave an audience satisfied. With the exception of Alien and Blade Runner, most Scott films I've watched are categorized by two things: great production and sound design, and mixed to lousy everything else. I believe Alien and Blade Runner are the accidental product of a good director, not the work of a great director.
Blade Runner itself is the lucky result of a perfect storm of people and circumstance all coming together. Alien had been a huge hit, and because of that Scott had a great deal of freedom to choose his next project. When the Blade Runner script came around, he actually turned it down because he had his heart set on making Dune. Yes, Dune. He wanted to make Dune into a popular commercial franchise on par with Star Wars and thus join the distinguished club of rock star millionaire directors that then consisted of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.
This thirst for major commercial success is a common feature of his directorial decisions. For example, on Dangerous Days he outright states that the controversial choice to add Deckard's voice-over narration for the theatrical release was his, after test screenings came back negative (of course). Being commercially minded and being a set designer par excellence is obviously because before he got into film Scott was actually a commercial director and set designer, shooting television advertisements. And while I'm certainly a believer in making obscene amounts of money, I also think great directors have balls enough to make the right artistic decisions in the face of financial risk. No guts no glory and all that.
But Scott's dream of controlling the spice wasn't to be. After a year of setbacks, and the death of a close family member that sent him into a deeply melancholic state, Scott abandoned Dune and somewhat reluctantly took up the offer to direct Blade Runner. As horrible as this sounds, this death greatly benefitted the movie, because it put the director in a state of mind that met the needs of the film.
Along with this several other factors contributed to the success of Blade Runner, not the least of which was a generous budget and incredible special effects talent left in the wake of Star Wars. Scott had the privilege to work with Syd Mead and Vangelis, both of which Blade Runner owes an incalculatable debt to. And of course there's the cast, which largely created their characters themselves, instead of merely being asked to step into carefully pre-prepared roles. The result is Pris, Gaff, Rachael, Tyrell, and Roy. Even relatively trivial parts like the noodle vendor or the VK test operator are incredibly well acted.
With an incredible group of people all doing their thing, and Scott just sticking to his thing, what emerged was a beautiful mess. And that world that Scott created, to his credit, is still amazing to this day. You only have to compare the Los Angeles of 2019 to the futuristic environments depicted in movies that came out not that long before Blade Runner did, movies like Soylent Green and Logan's Run which are laughable by comparison, to be amazed.
The Los Angeles of Blade Runner feels real: more human than human. That's Scott's talent. And what a talent. If you combine that talent with narrative simplicity that lets mood and symbolism emerge as the film itself, you get Alien and Blade Runner. If however you combine that talent with Scott making poor decisions in a misguided attempt for commercial success, feebly trying to tell a story, you get mediocre films like Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven.
Which brings us to the question: "what version?" The Theatrical Cut and the Workprint are both crappy in their own ways. The only two good versions of Blade Runner are the Director's Cut and the Final Cut. At the risk of sounding contrarian for contraians sake, I think the DC is unquestionably the definitive cut of the film. The FC in comparison is a mixed bag.
The FC isn't even a cut. Sure it's put together differently, but it's not actually the existing footage edited in a different way, rather it's Blade Runner: Director's Cut Special Edition. The term "Final Cut" is a just a clever marketing term.
The FC consists of not only a different edit, but also numerous CGI aspects that have been added and a scene that was reshot. Not as well known is that the FC has very different color timing throughout which has a surprisingly large effect on the final product: just compare many of the same shots in the DC and the FC and you'll notice the FC has a certain saturated quality to the colors, like it's trying to be a Suspiria sequel. I'm skeptical that this is an improvement, after all a generation of filmmakers were inspired by the pre-FC look of the film.
But it's true that the FC represents the director's definitive vision of the film. The problem with that is that the director is Ridley Scott. The ambiguity inherent in the DC is all but destroyed by Scott with a few changes in the FC (maybe he should have called it the Maximus Cut). That's a grave sin as far as I'm concerned, but less commented on are the numerous fixes to mistakes and continuity errors that the FC sought to rectify. The film is better for having those mistakes in it, in my opinion, especially when one considers that memory and perception are both themes that run throughout the film. I'll never understand why people feel the need to "perfect" everything.
In comparison to the FC, the DC had to embrace a different philosophy when it came to decision making, to its benefit. Scott provided suggestions, but some key decisions about the DC had to be made in his absence, and surprise, surprise, the result is phenomenal. I will say outright however that there are three changes made in the FC that I personally think are superior compared to the DC, none of which have to do with editing. One is the reshot scene, one is a background added to the first shot of Roy, and one is the new background added to the shot of the bird flying. This doesn't add up to a better film by any means however, and the DC is still the best version in my opinion.
Still, rather annoyingly, because the FC has been sold so well to the public it's going to be the standard version from this point on. As such I'd still recommend watching the FC first to anyone who hasn't seen the film.
And now that I've seen the workprint (it's amazing how poorly it comes across just from a few differences in the soundtrack, and the lack of the classic Vangelis score) I would rate the versions thus...
Final Cut: ★★★★
Director's Cut: ★★★★★
Theatrical Release: ★★