Blade Runner: The Director's Cut (1992)

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Author: Ethan Alter
Date: 2014
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Blade Runner: The Director's Cut (1992)

The Film: While the director's cut of Ridley Scott's seminal science fiction drama hits many of the same notes as the original theatrical version, it plays a very different tune

Having final cut on a film—which essentially amounts to deciding which version of a movie goes out into the world without any interference—is a contractual privilege enjoyed by a relatively small and select group of filmmakers, particularly those working at the studio level where executives generally get the last word on their investments. So when a director who initially lacks final-cut privileges is later granted the opportunity to unveil his or her desired version of a movie months or years after its theatrical release, the expectation typically is that this new “director's cut” will differ substantially from its previous incarnation. What's most surprising, then, about the producer-approved cut of Blade Runner that moviegoers saw in theaters in 1982 versus Blade Runner: The Director's Cut,1 which the film's maker, Ridley Scott (who did not have final-cut privilege on the theatrical version), gave his blessing to in 1992 prior to its theatrical rerelease is how few substantive changes there appear to be on the surface.

After all, both versions of Scott's futuristic film noir about a grizzled ex-cop (Harrison Ford) tasked with pursuing a pack of illegal “replicants” (the movie's jargon for androids) through the mean streets of Los Angeles circa 2019 tell the same story, have a majority of the same scenes and even share the same running time (give or take a few seconds). And where other director's cuts can boast a significant amount of notable additions and/or deletions, the '92 version adds only one new sequence—a brief vision of a unicorn that runs through the mind of Ford's replicant hunter (a.k.a. “blade runner:”), Rick Deckard—and eliminates another, an upbeat ending that Page 86  |  Top of Articledepicts Deckard escaping into the wilderness with the movie's femme fatale, Rachael (Sean Young), herself a replicant. Hands down, the biggest change between the two cuts is something that's heard—or to be more accurate, not heard—rather than seen: the elimination of Deckard's pulpy voice-over narration that accompanies the theatrical version.

Compared to the extensive revisions seen in alternate director-overseen cuts like Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now Redux or Peter Jackson's extended versions of his Lord of the Rings trilogy, these alterations seem fairly minor. At the same time, though, their impact is, in many ways, more pronounced. Where the longer cuts of Apocalypse Now and The Lord of the Rings don't fundamentally alter much about those movies beyond their runtime, Blade Runner: The Director's Cut proves a strikingly different viewing experience from Blade Runner. With those small but potent tweaks, Scott fundamentally alters both the tone of the film and its driving thematic concerns. If the theatrical cut is somewhat akin to a detective yarn laced with sci-fi trimmings, the director's cut is a full-throated piece of speculative fiction strongly rooted in issues of identity and memory. It's the version that ultimately feels more in line with the work of Philip K. Dick—the celebrated sci-fi author who wrote the novel upon which the movie is loosely based, 1968's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?—than a crime writer like Dashiell Hammett.

The evolutionary leap that Blade Runner made between these two cuts is only appropriate since, from its earliest inception, the film was always something of a work in progress, one that the director kept tinkering with trying to find the right combination of elements that would best meet his artistic goals while still keeping the audience engaged. Scott himself wasn't the originator of the project, which started as the brainchild of Hampton Fancher, a struggling actor-turned-screenwriter who was in need of extra cash and felt there was money to be made in the science-fiction realm. Turned on to Dick's work, he got in touch with the author himself and wound up securing the rights to translate Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? from the page to the screen.2 But dramatizing the dense, difficult novel proved a challenge, and Fancher went through multiple drafts trying to crack it, altering a number of story points and adding the noir flavor, with the character of Deckard deliberately taking on some of the same voice and mannerisms of one of the genre's best-known stars, Robert Mitchum. Even the title went through multiple changes, acquiring and shedding such names as Android and Dangerous Days before finally settling on Blade Runner—a phrase coined by author William Burroughs for a book that had nothing to do with the eventual movie.3

Even as he struggled to settle on the right title, Fancher's script made the rounds amongst various directors, including Scott, who had just completed the 1979 blockbuster Alien, a gripping sci-fi/horror hybrid that proved there was more to the genre than the light space opera of Star Wars. Initially, the Page 87  |  Top of Articledirector was reluctant to commit to another dark futuristic piece, instead dallying with the grander mix of spectacle and adventure offered by the movie version of Frank Herbert's Dune that Italian producer Dino de Laurentiis was trying to get off the ground. (That film was eventually made with David Lynch at the helm in 1984.) But he ultimately departed that project for several reasons, one of which was the untimely death of his elder brother, Frank. He committed to the movie that would be Blade Runner not long after and worked closely with Fancher—as well as Fancher's eventual replacement, David Peoples—to refine and hone the script.4

Given the personal backstory that preceded Scott's direct involvement in Blade Runner, his specific influence on the film's narrative seems most deeply felt in the replicants' motivations for coming to Los Angeles in the first place. Advanced models designed and built by the L.A.-based Tyrell Corporation for use on off-world colonies, these cybernetic organisms have been programmed to self-terminate after four years, a way to avoid them developing messy human emotions. But one particularly thoughtful replicant, Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), is unwilling to accept his fate and, along with a small group of like-minded androids, escapes a life of space servitude to make the pilgrimage to their corporate “father’s” pyramid-shaped house with the unlikely-to-succeed scheme of requesting a longer life span. One can only assume that Scott felt a strong connection to the idea of a dying man bargaining with his creator for more time on this Earth, and, indeed, the film itself seems far more taken with Batty than with its ostensible hero, Deckard. (Batty's role feels even more prominent in the director's cut—despite not having any additional screen time—due to the elimination of Deckard's voice-over, which shifts the movie away from a first-person point of view.) A large part of that is due to Hauer's charismatic performance, but it's also a deliberate decision on the director's part to emphasize the tragedy of the character's plight, even as Batty engages in assault, murder, and all the other attributes typically associated with your average cinematic heavy. By the end of the film, it's made clear that those actions are the replicant's way of raging against the dying of the light, an end that will claim not only his artificial life, but also all memory of the very real things he's witnessed. It's only in his final moments that Batty comes to a kind of acceptance of his fate, delivering a haunting monologue that serves as his own eulogy.

As involved as he must have been in shaping the film's story, it was in the visual design of Blade Runner's dystopian future that Scott brought the full weight of his influence to bear. It's not an exaggeration to say that Blade Runner's striking, lived-in vision of twenty-first-century Los Angeles—a hellscape where flying cars soar between fire-belching smokestacks and towering skyscrapers, while on the streets below, waves of people shuffle through overcrowded streets marked by signs of urban blight—has profoundly impacted the way American filmmakers have depicted the world of tomorrow on-screen ever since. A director who has frequently remarked on the Page 88  |  Top of Articlepleasure he takes in creating detailed worlds in his movies,5 Scott's inspiration for Blade Runner's universe was a fusion of the “city on overload”6 feel of early '80s New York City with the “future medieval”7 skyline of Hong Kong, filtered through the boldly graphic art and design work glimpsed in Heavy Metal magazine.8 Certainly, the pronounced Asian influence on the movie's futuristic production design was something new at the time it was made and reflected, in part, the changing face of the real Los Angeles. The 2019 glimpsed in Blade Runner isn't “realistic” per se, but it is all-enveloping and, thanks to a deft mixture of tabletop models and set-dressed locations, possesses a tactile quality that many of the digitally generated futurescapes that followed haven't always shared. Dick himself was deeply impressed by Scott's visual interpretation of his book; after attending a private screening of footage from the film, he remarked that the images on-screen capture precisely what was in his mind when he wrote the book.9 (The author died in March 1982, four months before the movie's theatrical release.)

A stern taskmaster on set, Scott was thrilled to see that his exacting demands on the crew had paid off. As early screenings of a work print (a rough cut of a feature assembled by the editor that frequently lacks completed sound and visual effects and music) indicated, though, his careful attention to the movie's visuals arguably came at the expense of the characters and the story. Trying to clarify the narrative for confused test audiences, Scott decided that narration might be the best way to fill in any gaps. From the beginning, however, that approach seemed doomed to fail, as both the director and his star were unimpressed with the voice-over dialogue that had been submitted by the writers—in one recording session, Ford can be heard muttering “Goddamn, this is bizarre”10 after intoning one particularly pulpy bit of prose—and for the final taping, Ford was required to read his lines without Scott present,11 which might account for his flat, affectless monotone that's heard in the completed theatrical cut. Rather than supplement the movie's plot and Deckard's personality, the narration actually distracts from both, due to Ford's poor delivery and the dialogue's penchant for stating the obvious instead of providing fresh insights. At the producers' behest, Scott was also required to scrap his original downbeat ending in favor of a “happily ever after” finale, with Deckard running off into the wilderness with Rachael, a trip spliced together out of leftover second-unit footage from Stanley Kubrick's The Shining.12 Again, whatever intrigue there is to Deckard's character is largely undone by this unnecessary addition, which resolves his complicated situation in the most simplistic way possible.

Eliminating the voice-over and the happy ending alone are enough to make the director's cut of Blade Runner a substantially different (and significantly better) movie. Deckard still remains something of an aloof, detached protagonist—Ford had a famously difficult time making the film, and that's felt in his stiff performance—but that attitude complements the revised thrust Page 89  |  Top of Articleof his character arc, namely the growing realization that he himself is likely a replicant. The theatrical cut dances around that particular plot thread, but the director's cut makes it more explicit with the inclusion of Deckard's unicorn fantasy that Scott had shot but been blocked from using.13 (The sequence is intended to echo a moment toward the end of the film, where one of Deckard's fellow cops leaves an origami figure of a unicorn at his doorstep, a hint that the vision has been implanted in the blade runner's artificial mind.) The character's journey toward self-awareness was the story that Scott and his screenwriters had intended for him all along but were unable to effectively realize in the theatrical cut, due to disagreements with the producers, Scott's lack of final-cut privilege and their own uncertainty over how the film would be received.

Even after the release of the director's cut righted those wrongs, Blade Runner continued to be refined and changed. Fifteen years later, in 2007, Scott assembled a version that was billed as “The Final Cut” and featured spruced-up visual effects, as well as alternate lines of dialogue, sound effects, and shots (including one that was specifically reshot with a stunt double), along with other assorted nips and tucks. In contrast to the jump the film took between the theatrical cut and the director's cut, though, the “Final Cut” feels less like a reinvention than a refinement of the material. Still, it's satisfying that, three decades after its initial release, Blade Runner at last exists in the form that Scott always intended. Until he feels the urge to improve it again.

The First: The positive response to Blade Runner: The Director's Cut helped Hollywood see the artistic and commercial incentive in releasing alternate versions of films—even those that were once considered failures

Browse through any DVD section either online or at a brick-and-mortar store and you’ll be greeted with an avalanche of choices, frequently for the same film. Phrases like “Director's Cut” or “Extended Edition” or “Unrated Version” adorn the box art for both new and older titles, promising that even if you’ve seen the movie before, you haven't seen it like this. And sometimes, these alternate cuts make good on that promise, incorporating new material or restructuring existing scenes in ways that enhance your knowledge of and appreciation for the film. More often than not, however, they turn out to be exactly the same movie you’ve already seen, just with a few extra swear words and maybe a bonus bit of nudity. The tease worked, though; you paid to see the movie again and thus contributed more money to its bottom line. And that's really what the film's backers are hoping for; a superior version of the movie—as in the case of Blade Runner: The Director's Cut—is just a bonus.

Page 90  |  Top of ArticleIt's largely because of DVDs—and laserdiscs and VHS tapes before them—that a healthy market for director's cuts and other such alternate versions exists in the first place.14 Prior to the advent of the home entertainment revolution, moviegoers typically only had one cut of a movie to choose from, the one that was playing in theaters. And while longer versions—including those that the directors themselves approved—occasionally played at repertory houses, in international markets, or on television (for example, the L.A.-based television station Z Channel aired Michael Cimino's original full-length cut of Heaven's Gate that was pulled from theaters in favor of a reedited shorter version15 ), they weren't often available in wide circulation.

That began to change in the mid-'80s once viewers were able to literally bring films home with them on video, and the studios came to recognize that releasing an alternate cut might generate commercial interest.16 One of the most high-profile of these rereleases was a 1989 restored version of David Lean's 1962 Oscar-winning epic Lawrence of Arabia supervised by the director himself and boasting improved sound and image quality along with several never-before-seen sequences.17 This new cut of Lawrence was released in theaters prior to turning up on home video, which only made it seem like more of an event.

The deluxe treatment that was awarded to Lawrence of Arabia was something Scott hoped to replicate with Blade Runner when Warner Bros.—which had distributed the film in 1982 and watched it do a fast fade at the box office—contemplated taking the movie back into theaters in the early '90s as its anniversary approached. Not the '82 cut, but rather a rare 70mm print that the studio's Director of Film Preservation and Asset Management, Michael Arick, had unearthed in a screening room's archive in 1989. At first, Arick was unaware that this version wasn't the theatrical cut; it was only after he loaned the print to the Los Angeles-based Fairfax Theater for a classic films series that he—along with a dedicated audience of fans that turned up for an early Sunday morning screening—discovered it lacked both the narration and the upbeat ending that had been tacked on to the cut viewers originally saw in theaters. After viewing the print in 1990, Scott identified it as an early cut (though not his official director's cut) that had been used for test screenings prior to its general release. He proposed a plan to remaster and reissue the newly discovered version, but the studio initially balked, uncertain that there'd be any commercial value in that kind of undertaking. They eventually changed their minds when requests to screen the rediscovered test print poured in, culminating in a two-week, sold-out run at L.A.'s Nuart Theater in the fall of 1991 that pulled in an impressive single-screen gross of over $200,000.18

Although both Scott and Warner Bros. were now in agreement that demand existed for a theatrical rerelease of Blade Runner, they parted ways over how to ready the film for its return to theaters in a form that was closer to the director's original intentions. The disagreement essentially boiled Page 91  |  Top of Articledown to the studio wanting to put the new cut in theaters as quickly as possible, while the director wanted the time, money, and resources to make a cut he was truly proud of. (Complicating matters further was the fact that Scott was in the midst of back-to-back productions of new movies, going from 1991's Thelma & Louise to 1992's 1492: Conquest of Paradise.)19

The conflict was understandable given that they were in uncharted territory. While Lawrence of Arabia had performed well during its high-profile “director's cut” rerelease in 1989, that film was an Oscar-winning classic that had been a hit in its day. Blade Runner was a cult film with a passionate but still relatively small fan base. Rereleasing a box-office disappointment in theaters was rare enough; financing and rereleasing a restored director's cut of said box-office disappointment was practically unheard of.

Scott dug in his heels, however, arguing that Warners wouldn't be able to successfully market the rerelease as being a director's cut without his approval. (Prior to its run at the Nuart, the studio had, in fact, advertised this cut as “The Original Director's Version” without running this wording by Scott. A wider release would demand his cooperation and support.) Warners acquiesced, and Scott was given the go-ahead to assemble a rough cut of his director's cut with the assistance of Arick, who had left the studio to work as an independent consultant for Scott and other filmmakers. While Scott was in the midst of making 1492, Arick collected existing and archived elements, paying particular attention to locating the unicorn scene that Scott had filmed but had been prevented from including in the theatrical cut. That sequence proved troublesome again as, when the studio was unable to locate the original negative, they used it as an excuse to scrap the director's cut and release a cleaned-up version of the 70mm test print. Scott and Arick only learned of this change as Blade Runner's September 1992 rerelease date drew near and once again stood by their argument that the studio couldn't hype a “Director's Cut” of a version the director hadn't approved.20

As the impending release date left Scott with too little time to complete his own assembly of a director's cut, the studio approved an Arick-conceived plan to repurpose an interpositive (the intermediate stage of a film between the original negative and its final release version) of the theatrical cut and adapt it to fulfill some of Scott's specific requests—no narration, no happy ending, and the insertion of the unicorn scene. While this approach wouldn't allow Scott to make all the improvements he wanted, it would result in a version of Blade Runner that was close enough to his preferred vision that he felt comfortable approving the “director's cut” label.21 (The director would have a chance to roll up his sleeves and reconstruct the film to his exact specifications over a decade later with “The Final Cut.”)

With The Director's Cut subtitle featured prominently in the marketing materials, Blade Runner reopened in 58 theaters on September 11, 1992, and collected an impressive $618,586 first weekend gross. The film added almost another 40 theaters during the course of its monthlong run and Page 92  |  Top of Articlereached close to $4 million in its final box-office tally with an equally successful home video release in March of the following year.22 It was a strong showing for a movie that had long been deemed a failure and demonstrated the commercial viability of director's cuts both in theaters and on home entertainment formats.

More importantly, however, the striking differences between the theatrical and director's cuts of Blade Runner popularized the notion that there could be artistic as well as financial benefits in allowing filmmakers the opportunity to make their preferred version (or at least a version close to it) available to moviegoers. The restored, director-approved version of Lawrence of Arabia did not fundamentally change the prevailing opinion of a film that had already attained the status of a classic. Blade Runner: The Director's Cut inspired a reevaluation of a film that wasn't as widely loved. In his review of the '92 version, Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman suggested that the changes made to the film might allow skeptical viewers to finally realize that “Blade Runner is a singular and enthralling experience.”23 On the other hand, Roger Ebert wasn't as easily persuaded by the alterations, writing, “Watching the director's cut, I am left with the same over-all opinion of the movie: It looks fabulous, it uses special effects to create a new world of its own, but it is thin in its human story.”24

In the wake of Blade Runner's revival, Hollywood and filmmakers alike have embraced the trend toward allowing for more director's cuts, none more eagerly than Scott himself. Since 1992, he has released director's cuts of such library titles as Alien and Legend as well as more recent films like Kingdom of Heaven and American Gangster. (With the exception of Alien, these cuts bypassed theaters and premiered on DVD, as most director's cuts do.) And filmmakers as diverse as James Cameron (The Abyss), Guillermo del Toro (Mimic), and Richard Donner (Superman II) have followed in his stead, taking the opportunity to revisit and reassemble movies for which they didn't necessarily enjoy final-cut privilege the first time around. (Or, in Donner's case, for which they were fired and replaced before the final cut was even completed.) And then there are all the marketing-friendly variations on director's cuts—extended editions, unrated versions and the like, which promise more footage whether or not the director actually wants it in there. Where the theatrical version used to function as the be-all and end-all in a film's existence, today, it's occasionally the first draft of a movie that's regularly rewritten.


One of the lasting appeals of Blade Runner is its vivid depiction of a dark, stormy, and thoroughly dystopian Los Angeles—an urban hell teeming with too many people and too few resources. Although the movie's specific vision Page 93  |  Top of Articlehas not come to pass, it's still a scarily convincing representation of a potential future. Here are five equally persuasive cinematic Cassandras that hopefully continue to remain fiction rather than fact.

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Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón, 2006)

Year: 2027

State of the Planet: Since humankind has lost the power to reproduce, the world's aging population has essentially given up all hope, allowing the world around them to fall into grim disrepair. Despotic dictatorships have seized control of the few stable societies that remain, and immigrants are regularly seized and imprisoned in squalid camps.

Cloud Atlas (Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski, 2012)

Year: 2321

State of the Planet: With the majority of Earth's advanced civilizations wiped out following an apocalyptic event referred to as “The Fall,” the pockets of humanity that remain have reverted to more primitive ways of life. The Hawaiian Islands, for example, are currently home to various tribes ranging from peaceful farmers to vicious, man-eating warriors.

Idiocracy (Mike Judge, 2006)

Year: 2505

State of the Planet: Centuries of willfully allowing its collective mind to atrophy thanks to modern conveniences and other distractions have transformed humanity into a population of morons and maroons who believe energy drinks are a fine substitute for water when trying to make plants grow. The scariest part of this potential future? The highest-rated TV show, Ow! My Balls!, sounds like something that a network might actually broadcast today.

The Running Man (Paul Michael Glaser, 1987)

Year: 2017

State of the Planet: Ever since a worldwide economic collapse rendered jobs scarce, the best way to earn a living is by competing in various high-stakes, high-body-count reality TV shows where people die more often than they get rich. Don't give the producers of Naked and Afraid any ideas.

The Terminator (James Cameron, 1984)

Year: 2029

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State of the Planet: Under the control of the A.I.-enabled Skynet computer system, the machines have risen up and nuked their makers to kingdom come. Nevertheless, flesh-and-blood survivors band together amidst the rubble to battle the metallic warriors tasked with hunting them down.


Even though the changes between the two seem relatively minor, the theatrical and director's cuts of Blade Runner play like entirely different movies. The following five director's cuts boast more substantial alterations that also result in substantively different movies.

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54 (Mark Christopher, 1998)

Negative test screenings led Miramax to lean on Mark Christopher to reshoot and recut his coming-of-age story set amidst the wild times of the '70s New York hotspot Studio 54. The changes omitted several key storylines, most notably one that emphasized the main character's bisexuality. At a 2008 film festival, Christopher screened his original cut of the movie, which restored that plot point along with 45 additional minutes missing from the theatrical release. That version—currently unavailable on DVD—is reportedly much grittier and more emotionally honest than the sanitized, starry-eyed cut that was released.25

Kingdom of Heaven (Ridley Scott, 2005)

Ridley Scott's director's cut of his medieval Crusades epic runs almost an hour longer than the version released in theaters and has the kind of dramatic weight and historical insight into the era that critics complained was missing from the theatrical cut. It's by far one of the most extensively revised films of Scott's career (the tinkering done to Blade Runner seems almost minor by comparison), and in its intended form, it's also one of his best.

Léon: The Professional (Luc Besson, 1994)

There was always something a little uncomfortable about the relationship between Jean Reno's hitman and Natalie Portman's 12-year-old orphan he welcomes into his life after her parents are murdered. And the longer version of the movie makes it even more uncomfortable by overtly commenting on the sexual attraction between the two, not to mention depicting the assassin bringing his ward along to his “job.” These added scenes deeply affect our understanding of the duo's already peculiar bond.

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Mimic (Guillermo del Toro, 1997)

Almost fired during the already problematic production of his sophomore film, a giant bug creature feature for Miramax, del Toro had the movie taken away from him and extensively reedited with second-unit footage of scenes he refused to shoot. The version that was eventually released in theaters was more of an action movie with horror overtones. For his director's cut, del Toro jettisoned the majority of the second-unit sequences and worked to shape the existing material he had filmed into the character-driven story he had set out to make.26

Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut (Richard Donner, 2006)

Replaced midway through production of the 1980 sequel to his groundbreaking comic book blockbuster, Richard Donner watched as incoming director Richard Lester reshot key sequences and eliminated more dramatic elements in favor of an overall lighter tone. In 2006, Donner had the opportunity to reconstitute his original vision using outtakes, alternate takes, and previously unreleased material. His cut featured an entirely different way by which Lois Lane learns Clark Kent's secret identity as well as a significantly different ending.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX6187700018