The Various Versions Really Don’t Matter
A big part of the Blade Runner narrative from flop to undisputed classic comes from the sheer number of versions that exist, allegedly showcasing the nuanced genius. In total there are seven variants: the Workprint prototype version (originally the closest to Scott’s vision); the San Diego Sneak Preview version (the theatrical version with three extra scenes); the Theatrical cut that struggled with audiences; the International cut (the theatrical version with three more violent, extended scenes); the US broadcast version (the theatrical version with toned down violence); the Director’s Cut (Ridley Scott’s first revised attempt from 1992); and the Final Cut (the latest version from 2007).
However, in practice only three really matter – the Theatrical (TC), Director’s (DC) and Final Cut (FC), with most of the others evidently variants on the former. There’s a lot of minor differences and slight effects alterations between them, but on a macro sense they hinge on a few specific moments: the TC features a narration delivered with sardonic disinterest from Ford that undercuts key emotional moments and a happy ending where Deckard and Rachael run off into the sunset; the DC removed both of these and added in a couple of moments that teased the possibility of the hero being a replicant, most pointedly a unicorn dream that ties into the final origami piece; and the FC is a technological refinement with corrected images in some shots, superior visual and audio quality, as well as additional footage that smooths the Deckard identity mystery. The latter is the undisputed best on a narrative, thematic and technical level, preferred by Scott, Ford and Blade Runner 2049‘s Denis Villeneuve.
But, as you may have got from those “differences”, it’s all subtleties. Villeneuve says that while 2049 follows on from the FC, his favorite remains the TC he grew up with, and when you get down to it, all the seven versions of Blade Runner are intrinsically the same movie. The narration and happy ending certainly provide a barrier to the climax of the TC – it overexplains the theme and sands the whole story down to a simple love story – but the alterations aren’t as seismic as the legend suggests. At their core, they all tell the same story and ask similar questions of humanity.
Indeed, Blade Runner‘s changes are definitely nowhere near as brutish as what George Lucas did to Star Wars. In fact, counting all re-releases, the original 1977 movie has more alternate takes than Blade Runner. The distinction is how it’s presented; in popular parlance, the big changes came with the 1997 Special Edition, even though subtle adjustments (including the Episode IV: A New Hope subtitle and select lines of dialogue) had been made prior, some as early as 1981, and there were two equally seismic updates in 2004 and 2011. The only reason such a distinct fuss is made about each take with Scott’s film – to the point a TV edit enters the discussion – is because Warner Bros. outwardly embraced the different versions that exist whereas Lucasfilm suppresses them.
The whole multiple version fallacy is more a fallout of production ills turned into a marketing tactic to highlight the film’s lofty status than it is a sign of true creative importance. What does this have to say about the film’s reputation? Well, ostensibly all they really do is create a barrier to getting into it and a needless defense to enjoyment; those new to film often spend far too long prevaricating over which version they should watch or chalk up finding the movie so-so to having viewed the wrong one. But, on a bigger scale, it just distracts from the art itself. There’s variation, but not enough to warrant such a dominant portion of the discussion – which is really kind of fitting.
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