Saturday, September 08, 2012

Blade Runner: The Final Cut

A couple of nights ago I finally sat down and watched the "Final Cut" version of Blade Runner. It had been sitting on my TiVo since July, and I figured it was past time to finally get into it. I have a patchy history with Ridley Scott's movie. I never liked it when I was younger, and it was one of those movies that "everyone" kept telling me they loved and was this amazing film. It just left me cold. When I saw the so-called "Director's Cut" version in 1992, I liked it a lot more. I understood more what Ridley Scott was going for, and I even understood the coldness, the impersonal nature of the film, a lot better.

Sitting down and watching the Final Cut was, for me, a revelation. Now I see the masterpiece that I never saw before. This is the first time I've ever sat down and given Blade Runner my full attention and felt completely rewarded. I loved it. I'm not even sure what Ridley Scott did that was significantly different from the Director's Cut, other than some retouched special effects and one very important edit. I'd look it up, but I kind of like not knowing. This is the version where, for me at least, everything flows perfectly into what it's supposed to be.

The edit I referred to above is the unicorn sequence. What I remember is that in the Director's Cut, Deckard's vision of the unicorn is a dream. In this version, he's wide awake. And I think that edit alone reveals everything that needs to be revealed about Deckard's character.

I've been reading a number of blog posts lately about Blade Runner and its various deficiencies. I don't buy any of the arguments anymore. Or, I should say, my experience with the film is different. I don't fall in with the people who say the movie isn't human enough, because I now realize that the remoteness is part of the point of the movie. It's not a failing; it's what makes Deckard's awakening possible.

I'm just going to say right up front that Rick Deckard is a replicant. That's my interpretation of the movie, so my reading of the movie is all based on that notion. I think the new version of the unicorn bears out that interpretation; now when Deckard finds Gaff's origami unicorn in the hallway, we're seeing not that Gaff knows about a dream, but about something Deckard was thinking about while he was awake. To me, that implies an implant of some kind. Something Gaff may have read in Deckard's files, the same way Deckard knows all about Rachael's fake memories through her files. (She has a couple of old photos that convince her of an entire life lived; Deckard, it's worth pointing out, has photos, too. They're on his piano, looking out at him, reassuring him of the continuity of life. Very interesting parallel that the film doesn't need to hit you over the head with. Leon, too, wanted his photos back. Photos are how we remind ourselves of things that happened, and I find their almost totemic use in this movie very interesting.)

I think Deckard being a replicant makes a lot of what happens in the film fall into place easier. The way Captain Bryant regards him in the briefing scene with a mix of curiosity and wariness; he knows he's sending Deckard to hunt down his own kind, but he's worried that Deckard might figure it out and go rogue. The near-total lack of empathy he has when he's tearing apart Rachael's illusions of humanity. His awkwardness the first time he makes love to Rachael, a scene which begins with anger and violence and then turns into this sort of yearning need to connect on an emotional level, even though he seems to not know quite what it is he's yearning for. I think, too, that the fact that he nearly gets killed while fighting Zhora, Pris, Leon and Batty means that he doesn't know he's a replicant and doesn't know he can access the same abilities. Like Rachael, he thinks he's human and bound by the same physical limitations. After all, if you had a replicant whose entire job was to kill other replicants, would you tell him what he was?

I've seen people argue that Deckard being a replicant takes away from the film's morality, but I completely disagree. There are people who argue that the slavery metaphor doesn't go far enough, or that having Deckard as a replicant takes away from the idea of empathy; part of original author Philip K. Dick's point was that people who are capable of atrocities such as murder have no empathy and are somehow a different type of person, which is why the Voigt-Kampf test is meant to test a replicant's capacity for empathy. But I think one of the things Blade Runner shows us is that replicants don't have a capacity for empathy simply because they're not allowed to live long enough to develop it. Their lifespan is four years, which keeps them at a child's level of understanding humanity. Just as they begin to get to that point--say, when Batty decides not to take Deckard's life away--their bodies shut down and it's over.

I don't think Deckard being a replicant takes away from the point of empathy at all. Because, again, I think the real point of the film is not the metaphor or the morality, but of one being emerging into consciousness. Deckard being a replicant makes that point stronger, because of course the implication then is that human beings don't murder artificial humans, they just manufacture artificial humans to do it for them. Doesn't that actually makes the slavery metaphor stronger? They're sending a slave to hunt down other slaves in order to keep them from self-actualizing. And the most inhumane, chilling part of it is that Deckard doesn't even know he's doing it. He thinks he's one of "us." That's a big part of what makes the final confrontation between Deckard and Batty so powerful: Batty is able to say "I'm here, I existed, I have experience, and now all of that will be lost: this is a life that's ending." And Deckard is able to realize, for the first time, that he's not just doing a job shutting down machines, he's taking lives. He's a murder and he had no idea that's what he was.

It's also what makes the final moments so poignant, when Deckard desperately wants Rachael to love him, to trust him. He's awake. He knows what he is. He knows who he is. And he wants his own chance at self-determination before the inevitable end comes. What makes Blade Runner work is that we see someone becoming fully human--not in the biological sense, but in the sense of being fully conscious--in a world that has utterly dehumanized everyone in it. Even Tyrell, the creator, who lives completely separated from humanity. And JF Sebastian, who surrounds himself with toys instead of humanity. (This movie says a lot about how we relate to our machinery and creations and the personalities we imbue them with; I wonder if part of the reason the idea of replicants achieving that kind of awareness as an abhorrence is the idea that they could develop independently of their original programming. Too far into the uncanny valley.) The only people we really get to see act like emotionally capable human beings are the artificial ones.

Observe Rutger Hauer's performance and how viscerally he reacts to everything, like a child who is alternately delighted, arrogant, uncertain, angry, petulant or afraid. His reactions are always big, always pure, never tempered by the things you learn as an adolescent, such as patience or decorum. He hasn't developed the ability to process these things, and his tragedy is that he won't live long enough to. He's afraid of dying--and in a very human way, not merely as an innate act of self-preservation--but I think he's also afraid that his life won't have meaning. Trying to protect his friends had meaning. What he does with Deckard has meaning. He doesn't really want to kill Deckard; he just wants Deckard to know what it's like to be afraid, to be hunted, to be hurt and terrified and hopeless. His death is, in a way, a defiance: I lived, and you didn't stop me from living, no matter how you tried to. He makes Deckard aware of just what he's taken away from the others, and after that, Deckard can't do it anymore. He learns to value life.

I don't know that this is the "right" way to read the film, but I think the ending is just ambiguous enough to interpret it this way. I feel like I've seen it now for the first time. I think it stops at just the perfect moment. We don't need anymore. To show us more--as that tacked-on happy ending did in its original release--is to do our thinking for us. It's not what Deckard does with his new realization that's important. It doesn't need to make a point about slavery or life or happiness. What's actually important here is that someone who didn't know suddenly becomes aware.

That's the point, and it's beautiful.


Hobgoblin238 said...

Maybe I need to see the Director´s cut too. I HATED Blade Runner. Still do to this day.

SamuraiFrog said...

I hated it for a long, long time. People would tell me it was one of the greatest science fiction movies ever--this was before the director's cut even existed--and I would have no idea what they were even talking about. "Even with the narration?"

Kal said...

That was terrific. I need to seek out the version you saw with your opinion fresh in my mind.

Lockwood said...

Quite enjoyed your take on this. Not sure I agree on every point, but I think you state your views persuasively. My real question is- and I'll point out I haven't seen this cut- how is it you didn't catch these themes before? I didn't much care for the film the first few times I watched it, but it grew on me. It was the realization that with Roy's death, he had *lived* more than most humans, I realized how moving this film was.

In short, Blade Runner is more work for the viewer than most run-of-the-mill sci fi, and I can understand how some viewers might not enjoy that. However, you clearly are not one to shy away from difficult movies, you indicate that you've seen a number of versions a number of times, and I'm powerfully curious as to what it is about this particular cut that "clicked" with you in a way that is apparently so new and compelling.

SamuraiFrog said...

Kal: Thanks.

Lockwood: Well, it's like I said in the post: I'm not exactly sure. I think part of it may have been that when I first saw it, I was too young to really appreciate it. The voiceover held me back, too; I was so annoyed at being told everything that was happening I was watching it that it frustrated me and I couldn't look beyond it. It felt like the movie thought I was stupid, and that was the feeling I carried around for a long time.

When I saw the Director's Cut, I appreciated it much more as a noir thriller, but still didn't get into the implications of the story as much. By that point I had read the novel (for my high school science fiction lit class), but it still felt remote.

I think one of the things that changed in the 15 years since then is me; I'm older and, I hope, more thoughtful. I haven't seen it since about 1994. I'm not even entirely sure what's different in this version, like I said, but somehow this is the time when it all got through. Maybe I just wasn't ready to see it before.

Lockwood said...

Ah... didn't realize how long it had been since you last saw it. I agree, original theatrical release was sort of dumbed-down, and could be tedious. And it definitely wasn't until I was in my 30's that I began to appreciate it as much as I do now. Unlike most sci fi cliches, this is not a film that works well for youngsters. Perhaps it's not until one has a firm sense of and belief in one's own mortality that the way it speaks to and about life and death becomes apparent.

SamuraiFrog said...

I think one of the biggest problems I had as a young man was that people were talking about it like it was this sort of action thriller. At this point in my life, with its observations on the meaning of experience and how we construct our identities, it's exactly the movie I wanted to see.