Blade Runner Returns

by Graham Edwards

"Blade Runner" Returns

In the autumn of 1982, I seated myself in a darkened cinema and waited for Ridley Scott to transport me 37 years into the future. I was seventeen years old, a card-carrying movie geek, and almost beside myself with excitement. Would the film I’d been anticipating all year live up to my high expectations?

The film, of course, was Blade Runner, and it didn’t disappoint. Even before the titles had finished rolling, I’d been seduced by the haunting tones of Vangelis’s sultry score. When the opening shot faded up – a spectacular moving vista in which flying cars soared above a fiery, industrialised future Los Angeles – I gasped.

Come to think of it, I think that most of Blade Runner’s future city shots made me gasp. Through the course of the film, I felt myself swept bodily into that glistening, neon-lit metropolis. I could feel its rainfall stroking my face. I could feel its smoke choking my lungs. I’d never felt so immersed in an imaginary world.

I embraced the people of the future, too. Rick Deckard was Harrison Ford like I’d never seen him before: no dashing, romantic hero this, but a cynical, downtrodden gumshoe. I fell head-over-heels in love with Sean Young as the immaculate Rachel, and with Daryl Hannah as the primal Pris. Most arresting of all was the leader of those renegade replicants, Roy Batty, played by Rutger Hauer in a performance that moved effortlessly from chilling to heartbreaking and back again.

Yet it was the ground-breaking visual effects work that spoke to me most clearly. Created by Douglas Trumbull, David Dryer, Richard Yuricich and the rest of the team at Entertainment Effects Group, they were simply breathtaking. What’s more, they blended seamlessly with the live-action that had been shot on the Warner Brothers backlot in Burbank. Was that real rain I was seeing, or some kind of animated effect? Where was the join between the full-scale set and the matte painting? The futuristic environment conjured by Blade Runner was so soaked in atmosphere, and so unbelievable in its complexity, that I fell for it hook, line and sinker. I’d never seen anything like it before.

Frankly, I don’t think I’ve seen anything like it since.

This miniature cityscape for "Blade Runner" was constructed on its side, so as to be aligned correctly for the camera

“In order to get aerial views of some of the cityscapes, the miniature structures were tilted sideways and aligned individually at varying angles so as to appear correct to the barrel distortion of the camera’s wide-angle lens. Numerous in-camera passes were required to balance external and practical lighting. Separate multi-pass film elements were also created for the various billboard and spinner insertions. Like most of the other miniature work, the cityscapes were filmed in smoke and augmented optically with rain.” Original caption: “2020 Foresight” by Don Shay, Cinefex 9, July 1982.

Now, in the spring of 2015 – just four years before Blade Runner’s predicted future is due to arrive, and just weeks after Alcon Entertainment announced that Ford would return in a sequel to be directed by Denis Villeneuve – I find myself anticipating the film all over again. As part of its Sci-Fi: Days of Fear and Wonder season, the British Film Institute is bringing Blade Runner back to cinemas across the UK.

In advance of the release, the BFI has prepared a brand new trailer. Here’s what director Ridley Scott had to say about it:

The Final Cut is my definitive version of Blade Runner, and I’m thrilled that audiences will have the opportunity to enjoy it in the way I intended – on the big screen. This new trailer captures the essence of the film and I hope will inspire a new generation to see Blade Runner when it is re-released across the UK on 3 April.”

The version that’s being released theatrically is the 2007 digitally remastered Blade Runner: The Final Cut, which is different to the 1982 original in a number of crucial respects. For example, it lacks both the tacked-on happy ending and the controversial Deckard voiceover (regarded by many as clumsy and unnecessary). Equally controversial is the most notable addition: a Deckard dream sequence featuring a unicorn. The unicorn’s appearance suggests – via Deckard’s uneasy relationship with his detective colleague, Gaff – that our hero may be a replicant himself …

Blade Runner: The Final Cut also features myriad other changes, including tweaks to both edit and soundtrack, a dusting of new shots, and a number of “fixes” and upgraded visual effects, executed primarily by The Orphanage, supervised by Jon Rothbart, with additional shots supplied by Lola VFX.

I asked Stu Maschwitz, co-founder of The Orphanage, what it was like treading on the hallowed ground of Los Angeles, 2019:

I’m very proud of The Orphanage’s work on Blade Runner: The Final Cut. We all truly felt a sense of reverence, working to preserve a film that meant a lot to us, and everyone involved was completely committed to doing the work at the highest possible quality. It’s a touchy thing, trying to tastefully update a classic and beloved film, but The Final Cut is, in my opinion, a perfect example of how to do it right.

One of the first questions I asked when I found out we were doing the work was, “Are we going to paint out the Steadicam shadow in the final chase through the Bradbury building?” Being a huge fan of Blade Runner, that camera shadow was something I’d seen, and wondered about, a hundred times. The answer was yes, and it was an incredibly difficult shot, replacing an entire wall behind layers of shadow and aerial haze, tracking through the complex warp of an anamorphic lens.

We did all that work in Flame, on a 4K scan of an interpositive that was the highest quality original they could find. We were almost done when the production managed to locate the original negative. We scanned that at 4K and started the work completely over from scratch! That’s how committed to doing it right everyone was on the production.

A police spinner comes in to land in Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner"

Are all the changes in The Final Cut necessary? The question is moot. This version exists, so live with it. Personally, I like The Final Cut best out of all the versions of this timeless classic. But I’d be just as happy to watch the original when Blade Runner appears on cinema screens again next month. I’m just glad of the chance to submerge myself once more in that dark and dazzling world of future noir.

The reason for my enthusiasm is simple. When you leave a showing of Blade Runner, the only possible thing you can say is to echo the words of Roy Batty during the film’s closing scenes, as he sits on the rooftop beneath the tears of that endless, future rainstorm:

“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe.”

What are your memories of Blade Runner? Were you there in 1982, or are you one of the millions who discovered this sci-fi classic later on home video, DVD or Blu-ray? Which version do you prefer?

And here’s the biggie … IS Rick Deckard a replicant?

6 thoughts on “Blade Runner Returns

  1. I was one of those teenaged geeks who, before the film’s release, had already seen a presentation of preview stills/slides from “the upcoming” Blade Runner at a sci-fi convention in NYC. They must have handed out some promo material too, I guess…

  2. I saw Blade Runner when I was 28. I was already a Ridley Scott fan, both because I’d enjoyed his two earlier films – Alien and The Duelists – and because I worked in advertising so I was familiar with his commercial work and one of my fondest dreams was to work with him – something I ultimately did in 1986 when we produced the Max Headroom campaign for Coke with him. And I was a Phillip K Dick fan as well. I loved the film. Totally transported. I saw it several times the first week and I’ve seen every version since. It’s still one of my favorite films and it never ceases to amaze me how well it holds up after all this time. And I still have my Cinefex #9.

  3. I stepped out of the theatre at the Warner West End, just off London’s Leicester Square, where I first saw “Blade Runner” one rainy September night in 1982, and I felt like I had stepped back into the movie. The sticky, neon-lit streets teeming with low-life, punk-rockers in laser specs, and tourists coming at me from from all sides were like something right out of the film. I can still hear the ‘walk-now-walk-now’ of the robotic pedestrian crossing and I can smell the greasy steam coming up from Chinatown. It was a surreal and unforgettable experience.

    I went home that evening and sat around till late with my Super 8 filmmaking friends talking robots, science fiction and the future. One of our ‘what-if’s became the basis for a screenplay that I spent many drafts writing and eventually sold to a producer as a six-month option the first year I came to live and work in California. The film did not get made, and all I have to show for it is a little sketch I made of the main protagonist (http://bit.ly/ArbyHoloroid), but to this day I have a fondness for robots.

    Don Shay’s story about the making of “Blade Runner” is still one of the best in the history of Cinefex (it’s my favorite Cinefex cover) and Paul Sammon’s labyrinthine book “Future Noir” is one of the best books ever about the making of a science fiction film. I don’t mind that Ridley Scott has tinkered with his film over the years, or that he’s become convinced Rick Deckard might be something more than Philip Dick or Hampton Fancher imagined. I still find “Blade Runner” to be a beautiful, haunting film, and I love it for all its encrustations of textures and ideas.

    • Love that little robot, Joe. I wonder how many other budding filmmakers “Blade Runner” influenced?

      I paid my own homage when I contributed to a student film made by some friends (we’d graduated from Super-8 to 16mm by then). I did an establishing shot of a Tyrell-esque building, painted on card, with backlit cutout windows. I was especially proud of the little slot gag that made the elevator lights move up and down. Oh, and we boiled a kettle in front of the camera to give the whole thing extra atmosphere!

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