Twenty-five years have passed since the debut of director Ridley Scott's visually stunning Blade Runner, the futuristic sci-fi tale adapted from a story by Philip K. Dick. To mark that milestone, a new version has been released. More than the usual "director's cut," however, the latest incarnation, Blade Runner: The Final Cut, offers a decidedly different take on the movie that appeared in theaters in 1982.
Most of the story hasn't changed. It still focuses on the fate of artificial humans (called replicants in the movie) who have decided they want to "live" on their own terms. They especially want to continue their existence beyond the arbitrary expiration dates they've been given by their human creators.
Unfortunately for the replicants, the humans in Blade Runner don't want the replicants to take charge of their own lives. In fact, to insure that no replicant outlives the time allotted to it by its human creators, enforcer Rick Deckard (played by Harrison Ford) is dispatched to take care of any replicants who try to avoid termination. With this set-up, there's plenty of conflict to make an exciting story.
Blade Runner is a widely known film, probably more fondly regarded now than when it was new. (Many viewers in 1982 preferred Steven Spielberg's family-friendly E.T.) One reason people do remember Blade Runner is purely visual. The movie's portrayal of a decaying megalopolis is breathtaking. In fact, the convincing visual depiction of an imagined future world, awash with castaway humans and perpetual gloom, is perhaps Scott's biggest and most enduring achievement with the film. Whatever else they thought about the movie, many people in the original audiences realized they were seeing a visionary (if nightmarish) cinematic creation.
Back in 1982, people behind the scenes were nervous about whether audiences would know what to make of the story itself, however. What Scott planned was not exactly an uplifting tale. Therefore, prior its first wide release, Blade Runner was touched up, with the story altered in an effort to give it a better chance at the box office. In a word, it was made a bit more optimistic.
One major change, which the original audience probably didn't realize, was made to the way the story ended. As it appeared in theaters, the admittedly bleak story was capped with an ending that was not as bleak. The final scene, in particular, seemed to offer some sense of optimism. It implied that some sort of human redemption might be found.
As it turns out, however, that was not the ending that Scott originally had in mind.
An earlier re-release made some progress in returning the film to Scott's original vision. Now, with the newest release, the director's original vision for the story is fully resuscitated. Indeed, after careful restoration and re-editing, Blade Runner: The Final Cut is much darker, if not downright depressing. And yes, the biggest change is to the ending, which is now decidedly downbeat. I won't give away the details, but it's the kind of ending studio executives feared would alienate audiences in 1982 when Scott first tried to use it.
Today, the movie industry is less fearful of this kind of darkness, of course. In modern cinema, we somewhat expect that "serious" films, regardless of genre, can be identified by an unflinchingly bleak stare into the abyss of human existence. In many, perhaps most, dramatic screen productions, optimism is cast aside as though an optimistic outlook can only be the expression of naiveté or weakness or ignorance. Rightly or wrongly, optimism is often not regarded as the stuff of serious filmmaking.
Undoubtedly, audiences today are more tolerant of bleak stories with dismal outcomes, at least to some degree. Still, I'm not sure audiences will come to prefer Blade Runner's new, darker ending (which is actually the old ending) to the version that they already know. Viewers will have to decide for themselves, of course.
Blade Runner: The Final Cut has appeared in limited release in several cities. The DVD version has a December release date.