Reality caught up with it faster than anybody expected. That eerie prescience helps explain why Ridley Scott’s 1982 Blade Runner, a box office bust when it opened in theaters, has become such a cult hit over the last decade. In the wake of full-blown ’80s urban scourges like crack, AIDS, homelessness, and rotting infrastructures, Scott’s apocalyptic vision of a 21st-century Los Angeles sinking in grime, vandalism, and decay no longer plays like remote, impossibly fatalistic sci-fi; today, it’s practically cinema verité.
Ironically, Blade Runner’s reputation rose in the ’80s mainly through its steady success on home video — a medium that hardly does it justice. Several tape versions have been released over the years, and in every one (as well as in some disc versions), the film’s sweepingly panoramic images have been cropped almost in half to fit the square TV frame, destroying much of the careful visual balance and teeming detail Scott packed into each shot. Even if you watch the wide-screen laserdisc version released by Criterion in 1989 (the company’s best-selling disc ever), smaller home screens still diminish the visual impact and push the movie’s worst two elements to the foreground: its muddled story line about a bounty hunter named Deckard (Harrison Ford) who tracks renegade androids, called replicants, and Ford’s dreadfully flat voice-over narration.
It is happy news, then, that a new tape release of Blade Runner: The Director’s Cut (1992, Warner, $39.99, R) — the same version reissued to theaters last fall — puts most of these problems right. Not that you should expect a major reworking along the lines of video ”Special Editions” like The Abyss and The Alamo. Despite the promotional materials’ promises of ”added sequences,” there is in fact only a single new shot here: a unicorn that Deckard sees in a sort of daydream while mooning over a female replicant (Sean Young) who doesn’t know she’s not human. Scott has said in interviews that it’s a link to an image later in the film that’s supposed to suggest Deckard may be a replicant himself. It really doesn’t do that clearly at all; it might just as well have been left out.
The rest of the changes are all deletions, including the removal of an upbeat epilogue tacked on for the original U.S. release and a few bits of gore that made it into international theater prints as well as earlier, unrated home-video editions. It’s a marginally better movie without this stuff, but one final trim makes all the difference: Ford’s voice-over, which constantly intruded, has been removed. That’s the way Scott thought the movie should be released in the first place, and he was right. Now, all sorts of sonic detail that got crushed by those dopey, Chandleresque asides can easily be heard. When we first see Deckard, for instance, the loudspeaker in a roving, airborne billboard drones on about replicants in a way that sets up the following scene, where he’s called in by the police to track down a few. And the techno-noir flavor the narration strained so hard to suggest comes across much more simply in the music cues that now play at full volume: Imagine a reedy, lonely-town sax solo played on synthesizer and you’ve got the mood. If your VCR is hooked up to a stereo system, you’ll find the whole movie has a rich new layer of ambience; in fact, good home equipment will bring the film to more vivid life than a typical, mediocre multiplex sound system could.
Visually, on the technical front, the home-viewing experience is more mixed. Not that this isn’t a careful transfer; for a VHS tape, it’s remarkably sharp and colorful. But since Scott chose to film in a very wide, narrow frame, on anything less than a 25-inch TV screen you’ll have trouble making out what’s happening in long shots. Fortunately, most of the action is in ( close-ups, and as the replicants terrorize their creators, then Deckard, it is decadent rebel replicant Batty (Rutger Hauer) who winds up the true emotional center of the movie. Since his plaintive voice, bleached- white hair, and furious eyes are the easiest things to focus on in this home edition, they’re what you’ll remember — not the haunted cityscapes. Maybe this isn’t exactly what the director intended, but it’s a perfectly evocative translation nevertheless. And if higher-definition video someday resurrects Blade Runner’s full, dystopian big-screen impact for living rooms, the human scale this tape brings to Scott’s machine universe might be still more alluring. B+