More obsessive fans than I will have to parse the alterations found within Blade Runner: The Final Cut, Ridley Scott’s latest—and supposedly last—version of his seminal 1982 future noir. To these eyes, the most discernable change is simply AV-related, as the considerable upgrades in the audio and video departments lend newfound luster to the influential classic’s portrait of dystopian 2019 Los Angeles, in which Harrison Ford’s Deckard, a semi-retired cop known as a blade runner, attempts to track down a foursome of renegade slave cyborgs known as replicants. Even as it deliberately harks back to ’40s pulp fiction and many of its elements now appear creakily dated byproducts of the ’80s (hello, Sean Young’s hair!), the radiant image and sound clarity helps reconfirm Blade Runner (loosely based on Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) as a landmark achievement in inventive prognostication. Whether it be its narrative fatalism or its haunting evocation of its urban setting, a multicultural techno-grunge hellhole drenched in rain, infested with advertising and shrouded in mist, the film continues to be the mother of modern sci-fi, blending disparate genres with philosophical queries to produce a work that remains, 25 years and reams of critical analysis later, the style-over-substance Scott’s only substantive text.
Given its exhaustively pored-over legacy, sifting through Blade Runner’s past-present-future hybridization is at this point somewhat redundant. Yet revisiting the film does yield revelations about its depth. By and large a spiffed-up edition of 1992’s director’s cut, it maintains Scott’s most crucial post-theatrical release subtraction (Ford’s tacked-on narration) and addition (the unicorn daydream sequence that suggests Deckard is himself a replicant), two modifications that feel wholly crucial, the former eliminating what was always the hoariest, most superfluous of devices, and the latter adding more cohesion to the story’s rumination on the existence of free will and the status of memory as mankind’s defining characteristic. More striking to me this time around, though, is the pervasive, haunting eye motif. From the opening cornea that reflects geysers of fire and replicant-manufacturer Tyrell Corp’s Egyptian-styled complex—an image of the spark of life, as well as that of the “all-seeing eye”—to Tyrell’s (Joe Turkel) fatally gouged sockets, the film roots itself in the idea of eyes as windows to the soul. More prescient still are the Voight-Kampf empathy tests that determine through close scrutiny of optic modulations whether subjects are people or replicants, an exam that, along with the plethora of video phones and computer read-outs, seems prophetic in its depiction of humanity’s increasing reliance on technology to discern reality.
However farsighted its vision of segregated metropolitan America, and however tantalizing its questions about man’s relationship to God—the latter via chief replicant Roy Batty’s (Rutger Hauer) desire to meet his maker Tyrell, as well as his Jesus Christ impersonation with a white dove and a spike driven through his palm—Blade Runner thrives thanks to its fundamental appropriation of noir elements. Archaic clothing and M. Emmet Walsh’s corny hardboiled-ism “Beauty and the beast—she’s both!” aside, the film thrills with its startling vision of the future but throbs with old-school despondency, its tale infused with a marrow-deep belief that you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t. This pessimism is its lifeblood, and given greater resonance by the aforementioned unicorn reverie, which—along with snake-loving stripper Zhora’s (Joanna Cassidy) query to Deckard “Are you for real?”—makes so abundantly clear the 21st-century gumshoe’s synthetic nature that it’s a wonder anyone still debates the topic. As a creature desperate for acceptance and for life, Batty has long been Blade Runner’s most human, and thus sympathetic, creature. The Final Cut’s triumph, then, is to definitively cement Deckard as his equal, a romantically tragic, doomed spirit who longs for something greater (not the “new life” dreams of Off World commercials, but self-awareness and actualization), and ultimately learns that there’s no self but oneself.