Ridley Scott’s 1982 dystopian science fiction film Blade Runner is widely regarded as one of the great tonal masterpieces of the 20th century. It’s a detective story that investigates what it means to be human, and only provides the audience with ambiguous answers.
Despite having a stellar cast, breathtaking visuals, and one of the greatest scores of all time, stories about making Blade Runner tell of a production plagued with chaos and on-set tension. What's more, the movie's hectic post-production schedule lasted 20 years, and ultimately spawned all the crazy versions of Blade Runner you can see today. So what happened to Blade Runner? How did Ridley Scott’s vision of the future get so turned around? Just like in the film, there are no easy answers.
Even in Blade Runner’s weakest cuts, the film is still a fascinating blend of science fiction and Raymond Chandleresque noir. But it’s only in viewing cuts of the film that are closer to Ridley Scott’s vision that the audience is able to see how truly breathtaking the film is. These Blade Runner behind-the-scenes stories shine some light on the turbulent process that gave viewers so many different versions of the film to choose from, and they might even provide some answers to the film’s most enduring questions.
It’s not out of the ordinary for a film to have an early cut, a theatrical release, and an international cut, but when there are eight versions of a movie released to the public, something has gone wrong.
The almost OCD level of editing that occurred on Blade Runner didn’t have anything to do with the film’s quality. The movie works regardless of which version you watch; some are better and some are worse, but the story is relatively the same. The multiple edits exist because Ridley Scott only had two films under his belt at the time, and couldn’t demand final say in the cut like he can now. Blade Runner’s producers were nervous that no one would understand the movie, so they chopped it up until it more closely resembled the sci-fi adventure movie that they felt audiences wanted.
The Work Print (1982) – This is exactly what it sounds like: a test print that was shown to early audiences that only became readily available in 1990, and was inaccurately referred to as the "director’s cut." There's just one piece of voiceover narration, it’s littered with placeholder music, and there are a bunch of rough effect shots.
The Four-Hour Cut (1982) – This one is almost the stuff of legend. Apparently it was only screened for studio staff, and was never seen again.
San Diego Sneak Preview Version (1982) – This is basically the same as the US theatrical release, except it includes three additional scenes that aren’t in any other version of the film.
US theatrical release (1982) – The version that actually went to theaters in America is considered by Ridley Scott to be a complete betrayal of his artistic ambitions. The film was cut behind his back by the film company executives, and it completely eschewed the ambiguous tone he was going for (this Deckard is human). This version features unused aerial footage cribbed from The Shining that was used when Deckard and Rachael leave Los Angeles. It also features a voice over from a very annoyed-sounding Harrison Ford, who ties things up in a neat little package.
International Theatrical Release (1982) – The international version of the film is essentially the same as the US theatrical release, but it’s much more violent. The most intense of these scenes features Roy Batty giving himself stigmata.
US Broadcast Version (1986) – Imagine, if you will, a Blade Runner devoid of all violence, sex workers, and coarse language. That’s what you’ll get if you decide to watch this version. Good luck finding it if you don’t have a time machine or access to someone’s homemade VHS library.
The Director’s Cut (1992) – This isn’t actually a director’s cut, but it’s sort of close. The film was cut by film preservationist Michael Arick with notes from Ridley Scott. This version includes the first insertion of the unicorn, which appears in Deckard’s dream. Gaff leaves him an origami unicorn at the end of the film, pointing towards the possibility that Deckard is a replicant. This is the version that finally loses those pesky voiceovers.
The Final Cut (2007) – The actual real-deal director’s cut was released in 2007 as "the final cut," and it really does play like the apex version of Blade Runner. The unicorn dream from the director’s cut is in there in a big way, and the ultra-violence from the international cut is back. Also, no voiceovers.
There’s a lot of hemming and hawing about Ridley Scott’s original intentions being excised from early cuts of the films, and how the loss of the unicorn dream completely strips the film of its ambiguous nature. While the original and international theatrical cuts of the film remove the largest clues that Deckard is more machine than man, many of Scott’s visual cues are still there. The origami unicorn still represents the uniqueness of Rachael, and when Deckard is surrounded by “family photos” in a scene directly after he tells Rachael that her memories are fake, that still works to raise doubt about whether or not Deckard is who he thinks he is.
Even in later cuts of the film, where Deckard’s humanity is overtly in question, the movie doesn't provide easy answers. While watching Blade Runner, it’s important to remember that the answer to whether or not Deckard is a human isn’t the important part of the film. It’s the question of what makes someone human that you’re meant to ponder.
Of course, you could always ask Harrison Ford what he thinks. He always considered Deckard a human, saying, "I felt that the audience needed to have someone on-screen that they could emotionally relate to as though they were a human being."
Scott had other plans, though, and began secretly inserting clues into the film hinting at Deckard's replicant nature. This came as a surprise to Ford; in fact, when they began rolling on the origami unicorn scene, the star reportedly yelled, "Goddammit, I thought we said I wasn’t a replicant!"
The line that most overtly questions Deckard’s humanity is spoken by Gaff, another detective on the force, and a character who’s openly antagonistic to Deckard. Gaff spends most of the movie dropping hints that Deckard may not be human via origami, and through lines about Rachel, Deckard’s replicant love interest.
However, in the director’s cut Gaff has a line that calls out Deckard’s existential crises, and subtly undoes the ambiguity of the film. After Deckard finishes off Batty, Gaff calls out to him, “You did a man’s work, but are you a man? It’s hard to be sure who’s who around here.”
It’s telling that this line was added to the “director’s cut,” but excised for the final cut, likely because even Ridley Scott felt that this line was beating a dead unicorn.