blade runner revisited

An MHP Interview with Doug Cummings
To commemorate the release of Blade Runner: The Final Cut, The Matthew House Project’s Kenneth R. Morefield sat down with film writer and critic Doug Cummings. Cummings runs the popular film site, Filmjourney.org, and is a curator at Masters of Cinema (www.mastersofcinema.org).

KM: Blade Runner has been available on VHS and DVD for most of its twenty-five year history, so why is its theatrical re-release now a big deal? Or is it a big deal?

DC: I think it’s a pretty big deal. Warner Brothers is making it a big deal. They are wheeling out a five disc DVD set next month that has every version of the film ever made and a three-hour documentary and something like an hour and a half of alternate takes and deleted scenes. […] Vangelis has a three-disc CD [of the music] coming out, so they’re really getting behind it, and the new print is playing all over the world right now.

I think we’re realizing right now, the film had an enormous impact on popular cultural aesthetics, on cyber-punk literature as well as film. You can see a direct line between Blade Runner and Akira, Ghost in the Shell, and The Matrix, for example. It had a huge influence on the sort of backlit, high-contrast lighting of the 80s. Ridley Scott actually directed the first commercial for Macintosh in 1984 [….]

So the film has just had a really big impact on culture even though it wasn’t that big of a critical or commercial success when it was first released. Over the years now, it’s become one of those rare films that spans cult, fan-genre—all the way up to academic film criticism.

KM: Just about every film now, it seems, has a director’s cut on DVD as a means of milking a little more money out of a product we’ve already seen, but this feels a little different.

DC: The Blade Runner DVD that’s out now—the so-called 1992 “Director’s Cut” --was one of the first DVDs ever released, so it’s a very poor quality disc by today’s standards. (Although Warner released a cleaned up version about a year ago in anticipation of the new Final Cut.) Practically speaking, it’s one of those DVDs that needs to be upgraded.

KM: When Star Wars came out as a re-release there was almost a backlash because some people seemed to be saying, ‘Don’t tinker with my sacred cow or my childhood memory.’ I haven’t heard that same backlash from the people who are revisiting Blade Runner. […] What, if anything would you attribute that difference to?

DC: I think the main thing is that the “special editions” that George Lucas made for the Star Wars series really changed the aesthetic character of those films in a pretty major way. Lucas was adding all sorts of effects and all kinds of scenes, whereas the stuff that’s been added to Blade Runner: The Final Cut is not that different at all. There are a lot of small changes to the film, but they’re mostly in the areas of dialogue or visual detail. Just little continuity problems that needed ironing—wire removal and things like that. They actually went out of their way not to change the look of the film in any way. […]

Blade Runner had a very difficult production, and near the end of it, they had gone over budget a little and Ridley Scott was actually fired from the film; some of the producers of the film basically took ownership of it. And there was a sort of panic due to poor test screenings, and they made some rushed decisions at the last minute and tried to reconfigure the film. So the initial theatrical release has always had a few continuity errors, and the Final Cut is just one last final polish to a film that never really had one. […]

KM: Perhaps some of the backlash against re-releases comes from the fact that it shatters some of the illusion. We as an audience may be aware, peripherally, that an actor may not have been a first choice or that a production ran out of money, but we like to maintain the illusion that the film we got was the exact vision the artist intended.

DC: I think, too, that film-going is such a communal activity. When filmmakers go back and begin to reedit their films, somehow it threatens that idea that I’ve seen the same film that you’ve seen and we can share that experience and talk about it, that it can be a reference point for our relationship. With Blade Runner, the differences are very minor, but just knowing there are five different versions of the film might cause people to suspect the authenticity of any cut. […]

KM: What was your experience in re-screening the film? Was it as you remembered it, or were there particular aspects—even if they weren’t the changes—that you experienced differently because you were different?

DC: […] The one thing I really noticed was what a historical last gasp Blade Runner was for pre-digital cinema. Pretty much everything in the film is either live action or props or models, and it just sort of resounds with an overwhelming physicality that’s missing from so many contemporary films that depend so heavily on digital effects. I don’t know…you watch today’s films…a lot of them have this sort of ethereal, weightless, artificiality to them, because everything is so digital […] I think the audience senses that. With Blade Runner you know what you’re looking at—even if it’s a model—is physical, it’s material, it’s real and actually exists in this world. Even if it’s just a subconscious thing, I think it somehow lends a lot of credibility to what you’re looking at…

KM: …Unlike a film such as, say, Transformers, where, on some levels, we think almost none of it is physical. It may be seamless, but we know very little of it is—I like the word that you used—weighty. It has a physical presence in there and it’s not just looking and feeling like Toy Story. It just feels two dimensional.

DC: Right.

KM: You quoted Harlan Ellison at Filmjourney in saying that he found the film deeper in human values than he had supposed and more than a glitzy melodrama. I’m assuming you quoted that in agreement?

DC: Yeah.

KM: What are some of the human values that you see in the film?

DC: I think it’s a pretty profoundly human valued film, but it’s set in a very dark dystopia. (Even though it looks a lot like today’s cities!) The central questions the movie asks is what it means to be human and whether or not our humanity can survive the commercial, social, and authoritarian excesses of contemporary times.

It’s based on a book by Philip K. Dick who in the early 60s wrote one of his most esteemed novels called The Man in the High Castle, and that’s basically an alternative history book where he imagines what the world would be like if the Nazis had actually won World War II. Apparently while he was doing research for that book, he was reading journal entries from various Nazi guards at concentration camps, and one of them was complaining in his journal that he wasn’t getting any sleep at nights because the Jewish children were crying and keeping him awake. Dick was pretty shocked by this. It made him begin to think that if we begin to lose our empathy for others, we lose a critical aspect of who we are as human beings. This was fermenting in his thinking and his imagination for a while, and in 1968 when he wrote Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the novel that was made into Blade Runner, it was the height of the Vietnam War, so once again he was thinking about empathy and asking what separates humans from indifferent conquerors. The book and the film are really rooted in those questions. […]

I think what’s really interesting about the film is that it begins with this very, sort of science-fiction/action movie premise. It begins with a definition of killing, it’s not called ‘killing’ or ‘execution,’ it’s called ‘retirement.’ Already it’s sort of setting up this [expectation with this] sanitized word for killing and this action movie premise with Harrison Ford playing the ‘hero.’ But then I think the film systematically questions that premise and those genre clichés. Harrison Ford’s character, you see him drinking throughout the film, constantly, alone. And he’s really insensitive to everyone in the film, particularly women, which is interesting. The film kind of blurs the line between hero and villain, and I think its ultimate conclusions are that basically all of life is sacred…that genetically engineered people are just as worthy of compassion as natural born humans. And this undercuts audience expectations and the sorts of story elements it sets up at the beginning…which I think contributed to its lack of popularity at first. I think people were expecting a story that was more traditional […]

KM: One of the reasons there may have been some resistance, going back to your ideas of empathy…it seemed to me a lot of people got hung up on the literal question of whether or not Deckard is a replicant, the “Is he or isn’t he?” The literal answer to that question replaced the thematic question of “what does it mean to be human?” and I think it’s significant that the film leaves us—at least in the voice-over version of the film—with the question of Deckard questioning the question, of saying “well she doesn’t know how much time she has left, but neither do I…”

DC: Right, right.

KM: He’s questioning his terms and definitions about what it means to be human, so I think in some ways, to the extent people focus on that literal question they were expecting a literal answer rather than a film that made you go back and re-question the answer that you already thought you had.

DC: Or a film that just negates that question or dissolves that distinction […] At one point in the film the genetic designer, the head of this huge corporation, named Tyrell, says their motto is, ‘More human than human,’ which is kind of ironic, because by the end you realize that the replicants really are more human than the hero, at least, who very rarely demonstrates empathy at all. Certainly—and this is probably spoiler territory—by the end when Ford’s nemesis catches him before he falls to his death, you realize that act of grace is definitely a more human thing to do than…

KM: …the ‘human’ thing of ‘retiring’ the replicants.

DC: Absolutely.

KM: In my memory, when I think back on Blade Runner, it’s always sort of been framed as this dystopian counterpart cited in contrast to the more idealistic or humanistic Star Wars and Star Trek franchises. Star Wars and Star Trek are the positive views of the future [even though Star Wars is set “a long time ago”], the positive science fiction, that takes the best parts of humanistic belief in man and projects it into the future and says that the world is going to get better, and that Blade Runner will be the dark, dystopian view—things are going to get worse and worse. I scanned the reviews at Rotten Tomatoes and the adjective I saw most often was “dark,” and yet in our thematic discussion of the film, I don’t think it’s a particularly hopeless or nihilistic view of human nature. Is there some reason you think people tended to read it more pessimistically? Is it because the film is literally dark?

DC: I’m not sure that Star Wars is humanist as much as it is triumphalist; I mean it ends with the hero blowing up millions of people on a space station! But with Blade Runner, society is a dystopian society. It’s overrun by advertising, it’s polluted, it’s constantly raining, there’s probably some atmospheric damage that’s been done…things are overcrowded. So, yeah, it’s a scary vision. But one of the reasons it’s so scary is that it’s so similar to things we see in our own cities. At the same time, I think the message beneath the film is very much one that suggests that inner transformations and deeper human values can transcend that, or at least provide some hope for the future. I think it’s a dark world, but I think the themes of the characters, of the drama that’s playing out, is much more hopeful.

KM: In Jurassic Park, the Jeff Goldblum character says, ‘Life will find a way’ as a way of talking about chaos theory. There’s actually a more hopeful aspect of that scene’s message in Blade Runner...[…] It’s used in Jurassic Park to describe man’s hubris in thinking he could ever control life, but there’s a humility about that chaos in Blade Runner, which is saying, just as we can never control it, we can never totally erase it.

DC: Exactly. As dark as this world is, there’s still these characters that are concerned with ethical behavior and ultimate concerns. For me, that’s pretty hopeful. And it’s important to note that the film is not preachy about its themes, particularly with the Director’s and Final Cuts shorn of their narration. It really plays more ambiguously and trusts the audience to sort through the implications themselves. I’m not sure the audience always took it up on that invitation…

KM: But I think all the best art, or the great art, really if it’s going to err, it’s going to err on the side of trusting the audience to recognize that ambiguity rather than leading it by the nose [….] I’ve always appreciated that about Blade Runner. Even with the voice-over, it seemed to be less preachy than say, a Star Wars or a Star Trek where someone said, ‘Here is your fortune cookie philosophy doled out for you in nice easy chunks, and here’s some nice special effects to make it go down easily.’

DC: I also think the violence in the film contributes to the knee-jerk reaction that Blade Runner is dark, but actually the violence is very morally inflected. It’s not idealized or reduced to a cartoon…I mean on one level we see that even though these replicants are genetically engineered, they’re just like normal people, they’re made of flesh and blood. So it’s pretty relevant to the film, actually. […]

KM: One of my academic areas of interest is the way genre expectations mediate responses to works of film or literature. Maybe one of the reasons people don’t expect Blade Runner to be humanistic is that they don’t expect science-fiction to be humanistic [….] Is science-fiction a legitimate genre to explore these humanistic themes?

DC: […] Part of the problem is that I don’t think cinematic science-fiction has caught up to literary science fiction in terms of its depths or its themes…yet. I think cinematic science-fiction still tends to emphasize spectacle and technology over human psychology or characters or emotions […]

KM: That creates a snowballing effect, too, because the most important artists want to make important films, so they’ll gravitate towards other projects because science-fiction might not have the same amount of prestige…

DC: Exactly.

KM: […]That’s interesting for thinking about Ridley Scott. You seemed to indicate at Filmjourney—and I kind of agree—that some of his best, probing, deepest and more important films actually came fairly early, and that as he’s gotten more successful […] that some of his projects don’t really stand up to Blade Runner or Alien in terms of their level of importance. Do you think of Blade Runner as being an auteurist film? As a Ridley Scott film?

DC: I think it’s certainly his key film, and there are auteurist angles to it that one can certainly point out. I think it’s interesting that a core of the film’s dystopian vision is advertising gone wild, because Ridley Scott had just spent well over a decade directing literally thousands of European commercials, and I think it’s really interesting in Blade Runner to see this sort of outpouring of advertising for Atari and Pan-Am, all this neon everywhere. You sort of feel like he’s purging something…it’s a film that suggests the overabundance of advertising by one of the world’s most successful advertisers. I think you can look at that from an auteurist angle, and maybe a couple others.

Another is its story of an antagonist and a protagonist that are kind of spiraling in on one another to this decisive confrontation that’s moral as much as it is physical, which kind of recalls his first film—which I’m pretty fond of—called The Duelists

KM: A wonderful film…

DC: Yeah. It’s based on a story by Joseph Conrad. Blade Runner has a similar ending in some ways; I think one can find some interesting connections there.

KM: It has a lot of the same probing qualities as well, expressed in the duality or the conflict in terms of ‘what does it mean to be human?’ and ‘what does it mean to have empathy, even to someone who’s your antagonist?”

DC: That’s right.

KM:..or the central theme of honor. ‘What does it mean to be honorable?’ All sort of questions we have easy sound bites for but that make us look beyond the sound bites to really examine, ‘Is that true?’ So I think that’s a wonderful comparison.

DC: I think all his—especially his early films—you know his 80s films…after Blade Runner he had a really difficult time getting critical and commercial successes, until—well I guess he did Thelma and Louise—but in terms of genre pictures he did Gladiator, which I’m not that big of a fan of…but all of them have an aspect to them that it’s clear that he’s thought through them on a certain level, and as much as he’s attributed as being this visual stylist and sort of a quote/unquote ‘slick’ filmmaker, I think his films, when you really look at them, usually have an interesting moral component.

KM: […] You mentioned that science fiction as a film medium hasn’t quite caught up with literary science-fiction. Are there other science-fiction or fantasy works that you esteem as highly as Blade Runner or that are more generally esteemed? I did a quick scan of Internet Movie Database of other Philip K. Dick adaptations and wasn’t sort of impressed by the resume: Total Recall, Imposter, Minority Report, A Scanner Darkly, Next…so, is this just a case of one person being ahead of his time, or have there been other entries in the sci-fi genre that […] might be less familiar to viewers but might be equally valuable?

DC: Definitely. You could certainly begin with Metropolis, which a lot of people have seen and was obviously an influence on Blade Runner. The science fiction films I think you’re asking about, and a lot of the ones that really stand out to me are the ones that move beyond spectacle—spectacle’s great, there’s nothing wrong with a sense of awe…but you have to ask yourself if it’s deserved. Just because it’s awe inspiring doesn’t mean it’s deserving of our respect.

Metropolis is a parable about management and labor, the need for them to have a healthy relationship and mutual respect, which is an interesting, timeless theme. […] I think a couple of the early science fiction horror films really still stand out and hold up well. The Bride of Frankenstein and Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are both very much about science versus the soul so to speak, and whether or not they can keep up with each other and what our responsibilities are. Blade Runner owes a lot to Frankenstein in many ways.

A couple of French science fiction films: La Jetée by Chris Marker and Je t’aime, je t’aime by Alain Resnais. Both of those are profound meditations on time, memory and identity. My favorite end of the world movie is a film called The Day the Earth Caught Fire by Val Guest. On the one hand it’s a film about journalists, and nuclear issues, and our treatment of the environment. But it’s also a pretty penetrating character study that’s done very well.

I think the apex of science-fiction films about the human person would be Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris and Stalker, both of which are pretty deep meditations on love and identity and spirituality. I think they set the standard for introspective science fiction…moving from outer space to inner space so to speak.

KM: […] [Anything since Blade Runner?]

DC: My two favorite science fiction films since Blade Runner have been Gattaca and Dark City. I think both of those films—which were arguably influenced by Blade Runner—have very distinctive looks as well, but certainly the visuals in both films are very tied in to their themes. They’re not just, ‘hey this looks cool’ but they are tied in to everything that’s happening…

KM: ..and are able to ask important questions. Not just ‘will he get the maguffin?’ but ‘why do I want him to?’ or ‘what do I want?’ Asking questions where I have a vested interest in the answer to that question as reader or viewer and not just questions about ‘how will it end?’ but ‘what is the meaning of how it ends?’

DC: Yes, exactly.

KM: Doug, thanks so much for talking to us about Blade Runner: The Final Cut.


Kenneth R. Morefield is an Assistant Professor of English at Campbell University in Buies Creek, North Carolina.