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Which Version Of Blade Runner Is Best? What To Watch Before 2049

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A convoluted history

Alternate cuts of movies carry a certain mystique. They can bring greater insight into the film’s story and even make a movie into a different experience--or they can just pad it with superfluous extra fluff that adds nothing at all. Few movies, however, have managed to earn such legendary status about both real and rumored alternate versions as Blade Runner.

Looking back at the storied history of Blade Runner now can be a confusing mess. There have been at least seven different cuts of the classic 1982 film. Starting with the original American theatrical cut, there was a slightly different international cut, an edited-for-content cut for TV, Ridley Scott’s early test "workprint" cut, another 1982 preview version only shown to test audiences in San Diego, the questionably named Director’s cut, and the 2007 Final Cut.

It’s important to remember that the cinematic landscape was a lot different in 1982. Star Wars had ushered in a new era of science fiction and special effects, but it was nothing like the dirty, violent, unsanitized grit of director Ridley Scott’s opus. Blade Runner not only helped create a new subgenre of sci-fi, but affected nearly every example of science fiction since. Audiences had never seen anything quite like this.

Workprints and Director’s Cuts

Ridley’s initial Workprint version shown to test audiences before the film hit theaters took a fair bit of negative feedback for its grim premise and, especially, its dark ending. Warner Bros. felt audiences would be too confused about the setting and ambiguity of the original ending, so they required Scott and Ford to add a film noir-style narration and a “happy” ending where Ford’s Deckard drives off into the sunset with Rachael, his replicant girlfriend. The implication was given that Rachael, unlike every other replicant, does not have a set lifespan.

Fast forward to 1990 and the work print, rediscovered, is sent out to do the rounds at film festivals, because the movie is a bonafide classic now and fans have been desperate to see this new, seemingly underground and more subversive cut for the last decade. It was initially called a “director’s cut”, but no one told Scott, who reacted badly to the whole debacle. Warner, as a result, worked with Scott to create an official director’s cut in 1992.

It was this actual director's cut that finally reveals the theories fans held for years that made the film far truer to the intent of Philip K Dick’s original story, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. The infamous unicorn dream sequence was added in from rough found footage, along with a few short, but key scenes that strongly hint that Deckard himself is a replicant. The first-person narration was stripped out and the film ended where Scott meant for it to--with the closing of the elevator doors in Deckard’s apartment building.

This version of the film was released in 1993 on VHS and laserdisc, a year after Criterion released a 10th Anniversary home video version of the international cut, which only added a few extra scenes of extended violence to the original US theatrical version.

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Finally, the Final Cut

Scott preferred the director’s cut version to the original, but still wasn’t happy with the results since he was unable to work directly on it. He wasn't able to really tackle the project until the mid-2000s, resulting in 2007’s Final Cut. This evolution of the director’s cut has subtle changes, most notably the complete and remastered version of the unicorn dream sequence, fixes in the special effects and lighting, a re-filmed death sequence featuring Joanna Cassidy (as replicant, Zhora), and the redo of a lip sync issue that had hounded the film for years actually featuring Harrison Ford’s son, Ben, standing in for his dad.

Some have complained that the Final Cut in HD and, especially, 4K amps the lighting too much, negating some of the noir sensibilities of the movie. Just the same, if you want the quintessential version of the director’s intent, the Final Cut is the best way to watch.

Be Prepared

But what if you just want to be prepped for Blade Runner 2049? Well, that remains a mystery.

In the end, there are really only two versions of Blade Runner that matter: the original theatrical cut and the Final Cut. It’s understandable that a lot of fans prefer the original, since the idea that Deckard is a machine made to kill his own kind and then die is disturbing (if absolutely the kind of plot twist Philip K. Dick made an entire career out of).

Our official recommendation can only be that you watch them both and decide for yourself!

Jason D'Aprile on Google+

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