Ridley Scott has a greater visual talent and less feel for narrative than any film director of his vintage. Philip K. Dick's writing is wonderful at conveying keyed-up emotional states and prophetic paranoia but notably weak in the mechanical what-comes-next business of plotting.
When these artistic doppelgangers met, they created "Blade Runner," a visually impassioned epic that played to their respective strengths and cleverly camouflaged their liabilities. The film, reissued as the definitive director's cut 25 years after its theatrical debut, still represents the cutting edge of dark science fiction.
The film follows Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford playing against his Indiana Jones persona), a bounty hunter in 2019. The setting is Los Angeles, a rain-soaked, congested megalopolis. Deckard is blackmailed by the police to track down and "retire" a quartet of fugitive replicants - genetically engineered humanoids who are superior to their human masters in every way, but have a pre-programmed four-year life span. They can pass for human, and the newest model, Rachel (Sean Young) has implanted memories and feelings so authentic that Deckard feels a disturbing emotional tug toward her.
As he "airs out" the rebel replicants, who are seeking a way to extend their lives, the film raises social, moral and ethical issues about his assignment and questions the qualities that define humanity. When Rachel asks, "Have you ever retired a human by mistake?" Deckard offers a not entirely convincing "No."
The new edition is radically different from the unpopular theatrical original, which slapped a hokey film noir narration ("Sushi. That's what my ex-wife called me. Cold fish.") and an unconvincing happy ending on the story. It's a more polished version of the 1992 10th-anniversary special edition that pointedly hints Deckard is a replicant, too.
The look of the new print, painstakingly retouched, is startlingly clear. Every puddle on the scuzzy nighttime streets shimmers, the sky-cars that buzz the city have multiplied, the death scenes of the replicants that Deckard kills are more harrowing. The obsessively detailed sets have an almost three-dimensional clarity. If you haven't seen this film on a theater screen, you really haven't seen it.
The film's understated performances and its arresting visuals give us the story's blueprint and let us fill in the details ourselves. Everything is implied in the look of things - the poignant way replicants use old "family" photos to reinforce their factory-installed "memories," the oppressive smog that chokes office and apartment interiors, the eternal nighttime that envelops the city.
As Roy, the leader of the rebels, Rutger Hauer is eccentric and unfathomable in his early scenes, an emotionally childish superman capable of manipulation and murder. As the film progresses, he grows in understanding and compassion until he chooses to spare Deckard's life. In a scene of real power, Roy saves Deckard as he dangles from a high rooftop.
Deckard evolves as a character, too, through his love for Rachel, but the film convinces us that Roy is a more advanced being, capable of self-sacrifice for an adversary who has killed his closest companions. But Deckard's name echoes Rene Descartes, the philosopher whose credo, "I think, therefore I am," is echoed in the screenplay, so perhaps there's hope for him yet.
A quarter-century on, "Blade Runner" has earned its longevity not just for its unforgettable look, but for its challenging themes. It has grown from a box-office disappointment to one of Warner Bros.' most popular titles, and with this visually stunning new edition its place in cinema history is secure. *