1992: The second edition ‘Director’s Cut‘ is released on 11 July. At the time I’m a student of history and as a pet project I’m trying to write a history of Earth from the vantage point of the year 2400. In order to conceptualize the 22nd Century, I look to Blade Runner, and the images found in magazines, which are promoting the release of the Director’s Cut. But I live in rural Nova Scotia and I only know one person in my class who’s even heard of Blade Runner.
1993: I’m in Toronto that March, and look for a copy of the movie to buy. It’s not in stores anywhere.
Which is to say, it took me a few years before I got to see it for the first time. And once I did, it wasn’t the story-line that mattered so much as the sets; for years I’ve watched this movie as a series of montages in fantastic settings, the story-line connecting the scenes seemingly incidental and not even that interesting.
1999: I watch the Director’s Cut for the first time, and I find the extreme letter-boxing distracting to the extant that makes it almost unwatchable. I had the chance to see it on the big screen that spring but decided a now forgotten ’round-table’ conversation on art-something at the Khyber was more important.
So I can’t remember when I first saw Blade Runner, but it was probably one of the CityTv broadcasts that they ran on New Year’s Eve/Day at midnight through the 1990s. Ten years ago, January 1 1998 at 12am I recorded this broadcast and brought the VHS tape back to Halifax with me, where it quickly became wall-paper. Whenever it rained that year I would on returning to my small one bedroom basement apartment at the end of the day put in this copy and let in play in the background as I went about my work.
Later I found the Director’s Cut in the video store and rented it. I think that was the last time I watched the film straight through, sometime after its release in February 1999, and with memories of the voice over in mind, I had an its interpretive slant on the images. I found the Director’s Cut version was superior in its subtlety. This film, without Harrison Ford telling you what to think, invited you to consider it on your own terms.
At the time, Blade Runner was part of my extra curricular studies which also included the novels of William Gibson. For a time I was confused and thought I’d read somewhere that Blade Runner had influenced the writing of Neuromancer, (and later read that Gibson had actually been far more influenced by Alien, and imagined Neuromancer as a bit of background to that world). Given that the 21st Century was looming on us all in the late 90s, and my excitement at seeing that s-f time become real, Blade Runner and Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy were part of a process of understanding what kind of world I’d spend the rest of my life in.
Walking up Spring Garden Road in 1999, and seeing the recently installed refurbished pay phones, I recognized their design as something ‘futuristic’ (a term that I hear less and less often these days) and something that would have looked fine in Blade Runner. There seemed to be an attempt to update our world to match the set design of 1980s s-f films, and given how such films then as now use the experimental work of industrial designers, this all made perfect sense. In that way, s-f films function as marketing for new designs. It seems to me that things like Blackberries and iPods are so successful since they were preceded by lengthy marketing campaigns in the form of s-f novels and films, so that when they arrived, we knew what they were, and had a good idea of what we could do with them.
Watching Blade Runner and reading Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy was a way of prepping myself for the life I expected in Toronto, where I knew I’d end up. In fact, Gibson’s descriptions of the Sprawl always reminded me of Scarborough, so at first, experiencing mini-mall urban decay and franchise restaurants had the excitement of visiting a film-set from the future.
(I had the same experience when I visited Ottawa in early October 2000, just after Trudeau’s funeral, and the city reminded me of San Fransisco as seen in the Star Trek Voyager episode ‘Non Sequitur‘. Ottawa had not only cleaned itself up for the new century, but it was also a giant film set, constantly on our television screens hosting those actors of Parliamentary debate. Meeting someone by the Peace Flame, I looked down at the roses laid in honour of Trudeau’s memory, the flag above the Peace Tower at half-mast, as I’d seen in on television in the days before).
So to see Deckard eating noodles in 2007 is a different experience than seeing the same in Halifax in 1998, where chopstick joints were few and far between as they say. There was a Japanese restaurant on Argyle St but I was still too much of hick to understand the menu. Of course, after these years in the Toronto, Blade Runner just seems like a rainy night on Spadina, only more congested with archaic neon logos. Our bars aren’t filled with smoke and clay pipes, and while it probably will cost $1.25 to use a pay-phone in twelve years, the real Deckards by then are much more likely to use an old fourth generation iPhone.
As Gibson was saying over this past summer’s book-tour, even imagining a future in the first half of the 1980s was an act of optimism. I’m old enough to remember television stories about the Cold War and talk of Nuclear Winter. Blade Runner too offered a vision of the future, not quite post-apocalyptic but close, based loosely on Dick’s novel, which had projected a post-nuclear envirocide where ‘real’ animals were all but extinct. The novel’s Deckard dreamed of buying a ‘real’ goat as that society’s status symbol (as I recall, but I read the novel fifteen years ago). Now the movie has eclipsed the novel and the focus on artificial animals seems out of context, and we have a different understanding of artificiality. There’s enough GMO stuff around already that doesn’t seem any less ‘real’ to us, and the idea behind the Replicants is equally strange. Today it’s comprehensible as ‘Oh, there just genetically engineered humans with a four year life-span,’ which is a different play on 1982’s confusing ‘are they robots or something? How are they fake?’ And as we approach November 2019, it’s one time cyberpunk has become steampunk. Maybe our computers will accept voice commands by then, but we won’t have CRT-television set-top scanners at work printing out Polaroids of our 600+dpi zoom.
And it’s such scanning tech which has enabled this final cut version to come out. The original print was scanned at such an extremely high resolution that watching this version of Blade Runner is a new enough experience in itself – such clarity of image and level of detail was never seen before. This ‘restoration’ reminded me of that done on Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling – we live in an era of restoration, the grand updating to reflect cinema’s recorded vision, our imaginations inhabited by visions focused through Carl Zeiss lenses. Some critics then complained that the ‘brightening’ that occurred with the Michelangelo restoration destroyed the experience, while others welcomed the return to the ‘original’ condition.
Michelangelo’s Blade Runner: The Director’s Cut, circa 1970
Michelangelo’s Blade Runner: The Final Cut, circa 2000
Which is to say that the 21st Century experience of Michelangelo’s ceiling is different from that of the 19th, when the paintings were obscured by three centuries of candle-smoke and the like. And so with Blade Runner: in twelve years time, when it’s actually November 2019. undoubtedly this version of the film will be playing in theatres, and I most likely will find myself in front of the big screen once again, remembering both the time in 2007 when I saw it and the Halifax of twenty one years before. And if the film then still has any currency with the twenty-somethings of that world, what will their experience be of a quaint steam-punk movie depicting questionable dating practices (a forty something throwing a 20 year old girl up against the wall and telling her to say ‘kiss me’, followed the next day with a ‘do you love me?’ question), congested public spaces filled with cigarette smoke, and a level of visual detail lost on the earliest versions of the movie? Will copies of the original voice-over narrated film still be watched, or as ignored as the as murky as the reproductions of the Sistine Ceiling made in the 1960s? Treated, if anything, as historical curiosities, but not invitations to historical experience.
My sense is that Blade Runner is one of those rare works of art which is a master piece despite everything. One feels watching this that no one involved in the actual production had any idea they were making a masterpiece, and watching in straight through as I did, with the scenes visually clarified to highlight how they work together gives one the sense that the plot is kind of weak, in some places (as mentioned above with the romantic scenes) nonsensical, and that this film continues to work for the special effects alone. (It’s a silent movie originally provided with two voice-overs and now only one remains. Blade Runner is probably worth watching with Vangelis’ soundtrack alone). As a masterpiece it gets away from all intentions of its creators and that is one of the reasons it rewards viewing. No one knew what the fuck was going on with it or why, but it just works.
I’m reminded here of Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘story telling problem‘: that when we are confronted with something new we may not have ready-at-hand language to describe how we think about it or how it makes us feel. This in turn can cause us to make simplistic decisions rather than go with more ambiguous and complicated ones. This is how I understand the motivation for the first version’s voice-over narration. It was felt that the film needed some language to orient the viewer. But because this movie is so much about it’s visuals, it should be thought of as a form of animated narrative painting, for which language is not necessary.
So why then record my thoughts on it as I have? Because when I come home from seeing it on the big screen again in November 2019, I’ll want to read this record of what I thought of seeing it in 2007. And for that matter, I might as well share.