November 2019 is finally here. I haven’t yet decided to pursue a new life in the off-world colonies, and my flying car is having some work done.
Seems like a great time to reflect on a classic film: 1982’s Blade Runner.
Now whenever someone brings up the original film, there’s always a debate about which version is best. The answer is the first cut, because while it has sci-fi elements, Blade Runner is really film noir.
For fans of the genre, this is obvious. For starters, it’s a crime drama and its main character is a hard-bitten detective, Deckard. His job is to find some missing people – and uniquely for the genre – lawfully kill them. He’s got a boss he hates, he’s filled with self-loathing, he’s not afraid to lean on people and bend rules to get his way.
And of course there’s the femme fatale, Rachel, played by Sean Young.
Movies of this sort often involve intricate plots and to handle this their creators use one of two methods to bring the audience up to speed and keep them informed: expository dialogue and/or a character voiceover.
The Voiceover is an Essential Part of Film Noir
The Maltese Falcon is sometimes called the first film noir and it uses crackling, fast-paced dialogue to tell the viewer what is happening. Another movie that uses this approach (with an even more convoluted plot) is The Big Sleep. Again, we rely on the characters conversations to know what’s going on.
But what if you want a more brooding feel to the story? Not every detective is surrounded by people he can constantly chat with to explain the plot.
Here’s where the voiceover technique comes into play. Sunset Boulevard does a marvelous job with this and it is essential to keep the eerie and sinister mood in place. Of course, the twist is that the main character who is recounting everything is also dead, which is a nice touch.
Double Indemnity also has the main character provide a voiceover, explaining to his adversary (and the audience) how his scheme came to be and how it fell apart.
All of this brings us back to Blade Runner. It does have some sharp banter and clever lines, but what sets it apart is its striking visuals and surreal soundtrack. Given the nature of the story, there isn’t a lot of opportunity for the main character to have conversations. Gee, that he’s a loner who dislikes his boss, his partner and pretty much everyone else. So who would he talk to?
The answer is: the audience. This is why the subsequent edits that removed the voiceover made a terrible mistake. Without that background, the film is diminished because the character of Deckard is diminished as well.
Several of the narration sequences in a montage for the uninitiated.
Consider his first scene. In this brief voiceover, we learn three critical pieces of information:
1. He is unemployed. Subsequent dialog reveals that he left the police force, but doesn’t say what he was doing. Now we know: he’s out of a job and can’t find another one.
2. His ex-wife called him a ‘cold fish,’ which establishes he has a difficult time keeping a romantic relationship together. This, by the way, is another element of the classic noir protagonist.
3. He understands the underclass dialect, though he sometimes pretends he doesn’t. This lets us know that he’s a creature of the streets.
All three of these elements flesh out the character and build up the story.
When he meets his ex-boss, there’s more voiceover, and this is also conveys important information. We learn that even though Deckard kills replicants for a living, he doesn’t hate them. In fact, he dislikes his boss derisively calling them “skin jobs.” It reminds him of old-time bigots.
This brings us to Scott’s edits. The most significant thing he changed was removing the voice-overs. This may work if you already know the movie (which Scott obviously does), but new people seeing it will have a lot less information. It also moves the film from the “noir” category into something more surreal, which in turn contradicts what he was trying to do.
Another objection is that Harrison Ford’s narration was somewhat listless and cold.
Well, yes. That’s because he’s a burned out ex-cop! He’s supposed to be listless and cold. If the voiceover was full of verve and passion, it would be off-putting.
I get that Ford may be self-critical, but this is another of those examples where the actors/production staff think they screwed up and instead they got it exactly right.
About That Ending
Screwing up classic films is a common problem with directors in the digital age. George Lucas is of course one of the worst offenders, having virtually gutted his original trilogy with “special editions,” which is one reason why Star Wars is dead to me.
A lot of art relies on the imperfection caused by time and cost pressure. Yes, this can impede the artist’s original vision, but it also adds new elements.
Scott is similar to Lucas in that he never quite leaves a film alone. His extended version of Aliens fares a little better, but it’s still got problems.
But the changes to Blade Runner aren’t beneficial. It’s interesting to see what might have been, but just as with Star Wars, the original is the definitive version.