What makes us human? That is a question pondered and speculated on by philosophers since the dawn of mankind. It’s a question often explored by science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick and the central theme of many of his stories including Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the basis for the 1982 film Blade Runner. The film’s story of human versus androids (known as replicants in the film) offers up a dystopian futuristic setting where basic morality is lost amongst the over-crowded landscape. Blade Runner is stylistically brilliant. It creates an entirely believable world within its own context. The dark and dreary landscape, androids more human than real people, and the disaffected performance from star Harrison Ford nearly makes up for the lack of a truly compelling story. Director Ridley Scott’s film is often hailed as a classic, but 30 years after its initial release it’s hard to ignore some of its obvious flaws.
There is no doubt Blade Runner creates a unique world and asks questions that are difficult to answer. At the center of it all is the question of whether the replicants deserve life. They’re created in the exact image of humans. They are stronger than humans, able to figure out complex problems, and possess intelligence equal to their own creators. Because of all of this, they also have developed some basic, primitive emotional responses. Due to their programmed four-year lifespan, they only live long enough to develop the emotional maturity of a two or three-year-old child. It’s a dangerous trait for beings that have been programmed to fight our wars for us. Four of these replicants have escaped the “off-world” planet they worked on and have returned to Earth. Their goal is to find their creator and force him to expand their lifespan.
It’s the job of the so-called blade runners to root out the human imposters and “retire” (a nicer word for execute) them. Rick Deckard (Ford), the best of the best in terms of blade runners, has been charged with the task of taking out the four rogue replicants. We really don’t know anything of Deckard’s life, other than his expertise at spotting replicants. This is by design. Deckard’s lack of meaning in his life stands in stark contrast with the replicants’ desire to live. The rogue replicant leader, Roy (Rutger Hauer), wants something real. He wants his life to mean more than fighting battles on the violent off-world colonies. He is also deeply in love with fellow replicant Pris (Daryl Hannah).
Roy seems to be a very intelligent being. He questions things about life. He has a deeper understanding of his surroundings than any of the depicted humans seem to. But because of his emotional immaturity, he can’t reconcile his feelings with his actions. He lashes out violently when he doesn’t get what he wants. Still, it’s hard to not have some sympathy for him and Pris. She’s like a lost child discovering the world for the first time, though she’s also prone to the same violent tendencies as Roy. At one point in the film she quotes the famous statement of French philosopher René Descartes: “I think therefore I am.” Surely Descartes could not have imagined artificial intelligence when he pondered that which makes us human, but the advent of it fills the statement with ambiguity.
Deckard has lived his life denying that ambiguity. He refers to any replicant as “it,” destroying them without hesitation. He doesn’t give it a second thought until he meets Rachael (Sean Young), a replicant so human she is unaware of her own true nature. In a way, Deckard is the biggest weakness of the film. Since we don’t know anything about him, it is hard to want anything for him. We don’t even know if he has really learned anything by the film’s end, or if he just wants what he wants, without considering anything beyond that.
The Blade Runner 30th Anniversary Collector’s Edition four-disc set includes five different versions of the film: the original 1982 theatrical version, the 1982 European cut, the 1992 director’s cut, the 2007 “final cut,” and an early workprint version. As I watched the different versions for the first time, I was hoping for some revelatory differences that would profoundly change the film. It didn’t happen. Truthfully the film is essentially the same no matter which version you watch. The biggest change is that the original theatrical version contains Deckard’s voiceover narration (lazily read by Harrison Ford) and a slightly expanded ending. Though the narration is a source of contention and debate among fans, I don’t really have a problem with it. The delivery is slightly corny, coming off like something out of 1940s film noir, but it does provide some additional insight into the story. Otherwise the changes are negligible.
Essentially every version of Blade Runner leaves me feeling a little empty. I think there are some great ideas presented, but I don’t ever feel satisfied that they are fully explored. Blade Runner is more about atmosphere than storytelling and characters. Perhaps it is a cautionary tale about technology run amuck. Perhaps it’s a glimpse into a future we hope never happens. The film’s style-over-substance approach is the downfall of what could have been a great film.
Visually, Blade Runner is a winner on Blu-ray. The 2007 cut, which director Ridley Scott considers to be definitive, is the crown jewel here. This may be starting to sound like a cliché when describing 4K restorations, but this transfer truly looks like a new movie. The only thing that dates things is the layer of consistent fine grain, but that’s a good thing as DNR was obviously used sparingly. In terms of clarity and detail, this 1080p image is almost shockingly good. The other versions, especially the workprint one, are sort of treated as extra features (for reasons involving the audio presentation). But the ’82 theatrical versions and ’92 director’s cut are visually on par with the ’07 version.
The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack provided for the 2007 cut is a masterful study in contrasts. Sometimes it’s quiet enough that we hear only the subtlest of audio details, but other times the mix springs to life with powerful subwoofer effects uncommon for films of its era. When it needs to be immersive, it certainly is. The celebrated score by Vangelis is spine-tinglingly clear and it emanates from all channels. This is a very strong audio presentation all around. Strangely, the only lossless soundtrack for the other versions is included with the workprint version, which features DTS-HD. I find is very disappointing that the other three cuts are only available in lossy Dolby Digital 5.1. The 1982 original theatrical cut absolutely should have been presented in either Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD.
Special features are extensive on this set, though the audio commentaries and video features are all carried over from the previous standard DVD multi-disc collector’s set (from 2007). The “final cut” has three audio commentaries, the first being a director’s track. The second includes various producers and writers, while the third is a technical commentary with many participants. An additional commentary, by film historian Paul M. Sammon, is found on the workprint edition. I found this last one to be the most interesting to listen to, after sampling each of the tracks. Ridley Scott provides brief video introductions to each version.
The amount of material contained on the third Blu-ray disc is so great, anyone not convinced that Blade Runner is a great film will probably consider it overkill. The go-to piece is a three-and-a-half-hour documentary called Dangerous Days: Making Blade Runner that literally covers everything there is to cover. Pretty much every key participant chimes in, offering insight into every stage of the film’s production. Beyond that, the 48 minutes of deleted and alternate scenes are probably the second most-essential feature, especially considering the differences between the different finished film cuts are not all that extensive. “All Our Variant Futures” is a nearly half-hour featurette that outlines the differences between the cuts. This is a great shorthand examination that can save you a lot of time if watching all the various editions is not convenient.
Many additional featurettes appear, including audio interviews with the late Philip K. Dick, a tribute to Dick, closer looks at various technical aspects of the film, a breakdown of the novel compared to the film, archival promotional featurettes, and much more. The fourth disc is a standard DVD of the “final cut,” which includes the three audio commentaries found on the Blu-ray. There’s also an UltraViolet copy. If all that weren’t enough, the Blade Runner – 30th Anniversary Collector’s Edition comes with a toy spinner car and a 72-page book featuring never-before-seen production art. Blu-ray collector’s sets don’t get much more comprehensive than this and I’m sure many Blade Runner fanatics will have this one on their Christmas list.