It used to be that we changed and the movies we loved didn’t. When we revisited classic films we could rely on their immutability. If we remembered bits of dialogue and certain scenarios differently, it was good to have those memories renewed and corrected as the images flickered by in the big dark.
Nowadays and nowanights technology, marketing, and the cult of the director often upend that relationship. You change, but your movies can too.
No film epitomizes this transformation more enduringly than Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi neo-noir, Blade Runner. A steady stream of different versions have been released since the premiere. There was the San Diego Sneak Peak early in 1982 the results of which meant that the theatrical release accrued Harrison Ford’s voice-over, added with the aim of explaining the plot to a supposedly befuddled audience; the producers mercilessly tacked on a happy ending to boot. Soon after that, a somewhat more violent version made the rounds in Europe, and then one trimmed of the most brutal scenes appeared on America television.
A decade after the film’s financially disappointing first run came Blade Runner: The Director’s Cut. This re-packaging led the charge of auteurs loftily reclaiming artistic visions disfigured by the financiers.
“Finally” there was the Blade Runner: The Final Cut of 2007, its release savvily timed to coincide with the movie’s twenty-fifth anniversary. This version assures us that it is the definitive one. At last, we can come to the end of our own story in the cinema and be redeemed, like the Christ-figure replicant (i.e., android) Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), by our faith in the movie and its message. Yet Scott and Ford disagree on the matter of whether Ford’s character, the replicant-hunting “blade runner” Rick Deckard, is himself replicant. Scott is resolved that he is, but Ford disagrees. Could there be an Actor’s Cut in one of the movie’s infinite possible futures?
I saw the Final Cut again last Sunday at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a block from Harvard Square. Now a not-profit foundation and going strong, the Brattle claims to be this country’s first art house cinema, founded in the 1950s by Harvard graduates who wanted to present the latest offerings of the French New Wave and other imports.
The places I’ve watched Blade Runner in are more important to me than the changes made to the film itself.
As the opening titles giving the set-up (enslaved replicants as real as humans are now deemed a threat that needs to be terminated) played on Sunday night, I realized that I’d first seen Blade Runner in the fall of 1983 at the Harvard Square Theatre just around the corner from the Brattle in my first months after heading off to college.
In 1990 I joined the throng for the first screening of the Director’s Cut at the venerable Castro Theatre in San Francisco. I watched a second time during a Sunday night blizzard in 1996 in the dilapidated State Theatre (like the Castro built in the 1920s) in Ithaca, New York. I was alone in the cavernous space except for the projectionist. In 2013 I watched the movie again on the home screen of one of my closest friend a few weeks before cancer claimed her. She wanted to see once more this movie about living beings’ illusory quest to live longer. A termination date has been programmed into the DNA of the rogue replicants, but they want “more time.”
Time, we are told, is an illusion, as are the movies. It must have been the geographic nearness of my first encounter with Blade Runner that brought certain facts into irrefutable relief as I watched the movie on Sunday in the Brattle. Harrison Ford had just turned forty when the film first came out in the summer of 1982. He turned eighty in June. Blade Runner marks the exact midpoint of his lifetime, and the start of my “adulthood.”
Hauer died in 2019. He has the script’s best lines, and not just when he quotes William Blake: “Fiery the angels rose, and as they rose deep thunder roll’d.” This is a movie about appearances: vision and, more specifically and biologically, the miracle of the eye. They are squeezed out of a genius’s head during a Frankenstinian monster-meets-creator Oedipal kiss. Pupils are scanned and studied at close range for signs of emotion—or lack of them—and, in turn, as evidence of human-ness or android-ness. Eyeballs are fabricated in vaporous labs that resemble street food vendors in the over-polluted perpetual night of Los Angeles 2019. An escaped slave, Roy/Rutger intones to the black market biotechnician who made his android eyes: “If you could see what I’ve seen with your eyes.”
Ears are not hymned by the camera in Blade Runner, but sound and hearing are as crucial to its world as the images and dialogue. The soundtrack’s composer, Vangelis, died this past May at the age of 79. A self-taught musician who never learned to read music, he was unbound by the notated score. You can hear this freedom in his immediately recognizable and unforgettable contributions to the spectacles of cinema and sport, including ceremonial music for the 2004 Athens Olympics.
In 1981 he won an Oscar for his work on Chariots of Fire, composed and performed by him alone—modern synthesized music that brought to thrumming life a period piece about the 1924 Olympics. That theme song raced to #1 on the pop charts. The next year his Blade Runner soundtrack was nominated for an Academy Award, the off-world theme vibrating in cultural and commercial harmony with music he supplied for Carl Sagan’s television program Cosmos, which had begun airing in 1980.
Vangelis’s Blade Runner soundtrack is not simply a sonic scrim and mood-setter, but crucial to the movie’s aura and essence. At the opening of the film the liminal, pulsing synthesizer strains drift into a foreboding L.A. soundscape with its ambient off-gassings and concussive blasts. The music is unconscious, dreamlike suggestion before it emerges as melody, its simple shape and elemental electronic texture simultaneously evoking the antique and the futuristic. Vangelis created music of the spheres brought down towards blasted earth.
In Blade Runner all is in the eye of the beholder, and in the ear too. After Roy has pulled Deckard from the cornice of the building he has been hanging off, the replicant tells his pursuer: “I’ve seen thing you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fired off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the darkness at Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be in time like tears in rain. Time to die.”
Penned by one of the two writers, David Peoples, and altered by Hauer the night before the scene was shot, the speech is delivered by Roy in the purifying rain. The pathos is so extreme it risks preciousness, but miraculously does not succumb to it.
As Roy speaks then dies, synthesized sonorities trace their orbits around one another. Electronic chimes toll the hour of death, their harmonic path warped by the sonic gravitational field into which Vangelis launches them. Vangelis ascends a scale slowly with, yes, angelic bells ringing out above Los Angeles.
His hand pierced by a crucifying nail, Roy has been holding a white dove even while chasing, menacing, and finally rescuing Deckard. We don’t witness Roy loosen his grip on the bird, but see it flying towards heavens just after the moment of death. His soul has left his supposedly soulless android body, which does not topple but remains sitting, sanctified. Vangelis’s bells loop back on themselves in a four-note pattern, free from time and space, the suspended moment immune to the intermittent explosions heard down below.
That scene will never change even if it feels different every time I see and hear it.
(David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical Notebooks. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)