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Which is the definitive version of Blade Runner?

A thorough and absolute examination

On October 6th, Blade Runner 2049 will arrive in theaters, and audiences will finally get to find out how Arrival director Denis Villeneuve continues the story Ridley Scott started with Blade Runner in 1982. Both stories are about professional law enforcers who hunt down rogue androids, and both consider the philosophy of what exactly makes someone human. But the sequel also picks up storylines that the original film left open. Viewers will enjoy the new movie better if they brush up on the old one before heading to the theater.

Unfortunately, that raises some questions: what’s the best way to catch up on the original film, given all the available versions, and all the arguments they’ve started? Eight different cuts of Scott’s 1982 original have been shown since the movie’s release, and the 2007 Ultimate Collector’s Edition of the movie includes five of them. For the average moviegoer, that’s approximately four too many. But even the most common debate — whether the original 1982 Theatrical Cut is better, or Scott’s 2007 Final Cut should take its place — leaves viewers with one too many options. Clearly what we need is a final showdown between them.

Here at The Verge, trying to crown a single version of Blade Runner as the “definitive” one has proven impossible. Legend tells of a nightmare email chain between staffers years ago, hundreds of bad opinions long, over this exact issue. Because I seek to sow internal conflict at all times — and because I’m also not willing to sacrifice several hours of my precious life to watching five versions of the same movie — I’m reawakening this blood feud. I’ve enlisted two of my colleagues to dig into how the Theatrical and Final Cuts differ from each other, to explain why it matters, and to help settle this war for once and for all. Senior editor Bryan Bishop and managing editor T.C. Sottek, take your places.

Round 1

In this first round, we’ll debate the GENERAL PLOT and PACING of your favorite cuts of Blade Runner. First up, we have T.C. coming in hot to fight for the Final Cut, with Bryan defending the Theatrical Cut.

I’m reawakening this blood feud

T.C.: The Final Cut is the only version theaters are allowed to play. This concludes my argument.

Megan: Hang on, that can’t be it from—

Bryan: I definitely see your reasoning, T.C. But that same fact also holds true for revisions like the Star Wars special editions. So unless you’re also arguing for a Han-shot-first kind of world across the board, we’re going to need a little more nuance on this one. Which is funny, because when you’re vouching for the 1982 Theatrical Cut as I (shockingly) am, nuance is pretty much the last thing on your mind.

The lore of the Theatrical Cut was that executives were worried audiences would be confused by the oddities and dystopic vision of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. (It apparently wasn’t the world’s most test screening-friendly film.) So they essentially made Scott dumb the thing down, replacing his thematically complete but narratively open-ended final scene with a much more traditional happy ending (well, as happy as you can get with a movie set in a dreary, rainy hellscape full of murderous androids).

There was also the issue of the voiceover: every spare moment of the Theatrical Cut is filled with Ford doing his worst Sam Spade impression, with details that explain every single beat of the movie. It’s definitely redundant at times, and stylistically dissonant with the rest of the film Ridley Scott wanted to make. But even though the voiceover sounds like Ford was stoned at times — not out of the realm of possibility — it nevertheless makes the film move, cramming fascinating, word-building details into every moment, and giving Blade Runner a propulsive noir-investigation feel. You want to know the name of the language everyone is speaking at the noodle bar, and where it came from? The ‘82 Theatrical Cut has you covered.

It’s all well and good to lean back today and ponder the existential questions of Scott’s original vision, but if we’re going to talk about core elements like story and pacing, the competition isn’t even close. Now, lest I sound ungenerous, I’ll concede that the Theatrical Cut lacks one of my favorite elements of the later cuts — namely, an emphasis on the idea that Deckard himself may be a replicant. It’s there between the lines, but the movie could have easily struck that note just a little louder without scaring off any test screening audiences. Still, it’s an easy trade-off.

Megan: Stellar points, Bryan. T.C., I’d like to point out that theaters play many bad films. Mark Wahlberg has built an entire career off this loophole. Did you want to add anything else?

… T.C.?

Did he seriously leave? We still have two more rounds to go!

Looks like T.C. has fled the stage, following a fearsome argument from Bryan. Tagging in instead is video producer Creighton DeSimone! This was planned. Everything is fine.

Creighton: While T.C.’s argument is compelling in its simplicity, I do feel it’s worth expounding a bit. I also want to note that I’ve known Bryan since 2012, and I respect the hell out of him as a writer and a person. I hope he doesn’t take offense while I pick apart his defense of what is, in retrospect, an inferior and sometimes laughable film.

I’ll also say I think Bryan has the easier job here. He only needs to make a few positive points about a movie that isn’t widely accepted in fandom, and he’ll have piqued their curiosity and acquitted himself reasonably well. He even says in his introduction that he is “shockingly” defending the Theatrical Release. Meanwhile, I’m defending the de facto. The status quo. The accepted choice. It’s like defending chocolate and peanut butter as a good combination. The Theatrical Release is like chocolate and pickles. It sure is something, but it’s not the perfection that is chocolate and peanut butter.

the voiceover sounds like Ford was stoned at times

So let’s get into it. We’re talking general plot and pacing? The two versions of the film actually share a lot in common. The opening visuals and Leroy’s Voight-Kampff test, which sets a tone and kickstarts the story, are the same. The scenes run in the same order, too. The differences are minor, but they add up, changing a lot about the tone and some of the smaller story beats.

We have to talk about the narration, because it’s so closely tied to the pacing. The narration feels extremely tacked-on. Everything about it is wrong: Ford speaks in a dull monotone, the dialogue is written out of sync with the way the character speaks and acts, and it seems to be slotted in wherever the producers felt they could squeeze it. An early voiceover line has Ford explaining “Bryant's threat about ‘little people’” that happens two scenes prior. I can’t think of something more disrespecting to an audience than explaining something they already parsed nearly five minutes ago. The voiceover generally comes during transitional scenes that show off the world. Thanks to the added VO, the audience is actually missing some world-building and immersion because our narrator is talking about things we’ve already taken in. It’s not “moving the film along,” as Bryan puts it, when we’re talking about things in the past.

A slow movie doesn’t make a bad movie. But the Final Cut demands your attention by showing you things you’ve never seen, and making the audience understand the world by revealing it slowly. The Final Cut sets out to captivate the audience, not spoon-feed them.

Winner

Megan: Creighton, I’m having a little trouble seeing your argument through all the smoke from these American Spirits you’re puffing. Undermining your opponent by campaigning that you have the easy job is an interesting tactic, but I feel you never got off the runway here. Could this be a long con? Your own version of a slow movie, so to speak? I have no idea, but I’m obligated to stick around for this whole thing.

A round of applause for Bryan, who appears to have turned self-loathing into an argument strategy. I’m intrigued by the idea of a voiceover, my all-time favorite lazy exposition device. Why should I have to figure out if a character is sad, when they can inform me in a melodramatic voice, “I am sad”? I’m a woman of the world, and I don’t have time to parse everyone’s dumb feelings and thoughts about everything. That’s what Twitter is for.

Round 2

A strong start for Bryan, but can he keep it up? Now we move on to discuss the MOOD of the film, and the overall EXECUTION of Ridley Scott’s vision.

Bryan: Thanks for your intervention there, Megan. (What the hell, T.C. — seriously? How do you mic-drop an online discussion with no mics?) Creighton, I enjoy your attempt to frame defending the Theatrical Cut — which is about as beloved as the ending of Lost — as the easier job, somehow. I’m not sure how arguments work when you have them, but trying to convince people that something they loathe is better than the thing they already love isn’t easy; it’s pretty much internet-debate suicide. But that’s how confident I am that actual facts, not Director’s Cut deification, will win the day here.

In any case, in terms of mood and feel, the 1982 Theatrical Cut of Blade Runner changed the trajectory of cinema. Up until that point, we were on a run where robots and science fiction vistas meant raucous, operatic adventures. (Not to return to Star Wars again, but as a cultural reference point, it’s useful to remember that the first Blade Runner came out just a year before Return of the Jedi.) Scott’s vision of a dark, noir-and-neon near-future where humanity was bailing on Earth for the chance to live in off-world colonies had a tremendous impact, even as the film itself was incredibly divisive. From that point forward, the film’s unforgettable look and feel were ingrained into audience expectations.

While the voiceover wasn’t part of Scott’s original vision, it clearly didn’t detract from the film’s impact. I’d argue that it provided a framework for audiences to hold onto while the aesthetics and tone of the film seeped in. Art is not nearly as much of a one-way experience as we would like to believe, and changes that enable audiences to take in an artist’s intent aren’t concessions; they’re part of telling a successful story. Film is a collaborative medium, and movies don’t simply spill from a director’s mind and onto the silver screen. They’re full of battles and compromises, with audiences only ever seeing the final, collaborative version of the story. Even if we grant that, however, it still doesn’t matter, because there’s no question that the mood and vision portrayed in the 1982 Theatrical Cut was transformative, creating a reference point we’re still looking back on 35 years later.

Creighton: I agree, there’s no doubt about the impact of the Theatrical Cut. Ridley Scott did so many things right, and so differently for the era, Blade Runner is worthy of all the praise it received in 1982.

we could have been writing this article about Zack Snyder’s ‘Blade Runner’

However, the Theatrical Cut, feels like a film that would have been ripe for a remake in the post-Matrix world of the early 2000s. Those years were a boom time for remakes: 2001’s Ocean’s 11 and Planet of the Apes, 2002’s Rollerball and Solaris, 2004’s Dawn of the Dead, and 2005’s King Kong. Not to mention the 2000s remakes of a trio of John Carpenter films: Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, and The Fog. In all of these cases, the original films are full of great characters, great world-building, and great structure, but they leave the audience wanting just a little more, because they looked stylistically dated by 2000. The voiceover and the theatrical ending date Blade Runner in a way that would have made it a perfect candidate for a remake... if the Director’s Cut hadn’t come out in 1992, and blazed a trail for the Final Cut in 2007. You laugh, but we could have been writing this article about Zack Snyder’s Blade Runner (2007) vs. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. By staving off the studios’ full remake mode, the Final Cut and its predecessor, the Director's Cut, did as much culturally as the original.

Bryan: Wait a second. I thought we were arguing for a particular movie, not against our fear of Zack Snyder. The fact that you can only muster “Zack Snyder’s Blade Runner would be bad” as a defense of your cut is a pretty big tell. If anything, you’re just proving my point: the 1982 Theatrical Cut was so good, so culturally resonant, and so influential that it would have been irresistible to the Hollywood franchise machine. Which, of course, is the exact reason we now have Blade Runner 2049. So I guess I’m glad we agree on this one.

Winner

Megan: I can’t call myself a fan of Scott’s recent work, which includes the slaughtering of the Alien franchise, and that movie where Christian Bale got a tan to play Moses. But I remain a die-hard fan of his older films, like Legend or the original Alien. That gives me some modicum of faith in his preferred version.

Bryan gave an eloquent and thoughtful argument here, even without Ridley’s alleged support, but the horror of Creighton’s proposal of “Zack Snyder’s Blade Runner” stopped me dead in my tracks. This threat will haunt my sepia-toned, slow-motion-enabled, alternate-universe nightmares for years to come.

Final Round

Creighton makes a comeback, but this next round will determine our winner. We’ll talk OVERALL WATCHABILITY and how well each film holds up today. Then, our competitors will deliver their final arguments as their clinching move.

Bryan: So we’re scoring based on Batman v Superman instead of Blade Runner. Okay, good to know. I’ll see if I can work in some feelings about Sucker Punch. But given all the furor here, the funniest thing about the different versions of Blade Runner is how similar they actually are. The Final Cut is just a minute longer than the ‘82 Theatrical Cut, and while listing all of the changes can sound impressive — More violence! Re-shot Zhora death scene! Full unicorn dream! — those tweaks ultimately play as more or less cosmetic, and no one will notice them unless they’ve already watched the film multiple times. It ultimately all comes down to the voiceover and the ending. (Even in the Final Cut, the idea that Deckard is a replicant is underplayed to such a degree that it’s hard to call it out as a tentpole change to anyone other than a serious Blade Runner nerd.)

In terms of which version is more coherent, there’s little doubt that the ‘82 version excels. It’s simply easier to understand, and it offers a stronger jumping-in point for anybody eager to experience this world. It was made to usher people into a new world, rather than keeping them at arm’s length. For that reason alone, it should be the go-to version for new viewers. Besides, the Final Cut is filled with reshot scenes, and even used a cameo from Harrison Ford’s son. No matter what Director’s Cut obsessives tell you, the Final Cut isn’t his “original vision.” It’s the work of a nearly 70-year-old filmmaker second-guessing his 40-something self.

The cultural conversation about whether Deckard was a replicant, the angst about a dark film turning upbeat, and what that meant about its storied legacy, these are all questions spawned by the original 1982 edition of the film, and no matter how the movie has been modified or massaged since, those same questions and consternations trickle to the surface every single time you watch the Theatrical Cut. Does the voiceover hold up? I’ll be the first to say that we don’t get Goodfellas-level voiceover acting from Ford here. But even that ends up selling the film as a charming artifact of its time.

Creighton: I think Bryan is conflating “easy to understand” with “redundant and disrespectful to the audience’s intelligence.” I watched the Theatrical Cut for the first time in nearly a decade while writing this article, and yes, both versions are “watchable” because they have the same hooks. The world is captivating, the characters are great, and the overarching story is interesting. I agree with Bryan that the list of differences between the two versions looks more impressive on paper than what ultimately ends up on-screen, but I disagree that those differences are unimportant.

Put it this way: if I outlined the plot of 2010’s Knight and Day on paper, the description might sound exciting. But reading it, you’d invent some subtlety and cohesion that doesn’t exist in the finished film. The same goes for Blade Runner. The Final Cut is subtle. It doesn’t hit viewers over the head with every small detail. The idea that Deckard isn’t human is underplayed, but it becomes connective tissue throughout the film, and without that idea, it feels kind of disparate. Why even have Rachael ask, “You know that Voight-Kampff test of yours? Did you ever take that test yourself?” if you’re just going to change the meaning of Gaff’s final origami with a voiceover line, and completely leave out the unicorn dream?

And calling the voiceover “a charming artifact of its time” is extremely generous for something that actually stops viewers from taking in the information-dense world. At film school, I learned that voiceover is a crutch used to prop up films that have a weak story. The crazy part is: Blade Runner’s story isn’t weak, but the voiceover is telling a slightly different story than what’s actually on-screen. And that’s the part that gets me.

Only one film changed the course of cinema history

Even if I was willing to concede that the voiceover is charming (I’m not), the last shots of the Theatrical Release undercut every single piece of world-building in the cinematography, set design (interior, exterior, and information about the world we glean from those rad neon advertisements), and anything we picked up while hearing the characters interact. I won’t spoil anything, but it always felt like the last shots of the Theatrical Release told me the rain-soaked, dirty, pollution-filled world constantly promoting a better life in the off-world colonies was only confined to the city of Los Angeles. Look, as a New Yorker, I do appreciate it as a really funny 116-minute joke at LA’s expense. But, as a filmmaker and an audience member, that feels a little cheap.

THE CLINCHER

Bryan: I’ll admit I took this position almost as a troll, as I’ve historically leaned toward the more recent cuts of Blade Runner. But after running through this dialogue, I’ve convinced myself. Only one film changed the course of cinema history, reframing Harrison Ford as a gritty noir hero, and creating what became the definitive dystopic vision of the future. That movie did not come out in 2007. It came out in 1982, and for that reason, the Theatrical Cut of Blade Runner will always be the only one that truly matters.

Creighton: The Final Cut is a better film because it respects the audience and the world it created, and in the process tells a more captivating story than the Theatrical Release.

VERDICT

Megan: Declaring the definitive Blade Runner version of all time is an irreversible decision that will outlast us all. It’s a great honor, and I’m pleased to take credit for it. Look upon my mighty declaration and despair about how great it is, or however that poem Ozymandias goes. I can’t remember the ending, but I think that sums it up.

I appreciate Creighton’s argument about respecting the audience’s intelligence, if not their time. (Anyone who argues that a minute doesn’t matter has clearly never ingested a supersized Slurpee and then tried to sit through a two-hour-plus movie.) And Bryan has laid out a compelling argument for the Theatrical Cut’s cultural legacy and accessibility. Without the Theatrical Cut, we wouldn’t have the influx of Blade Runner rereleases now. Harrison Ford, who hasn’t been in any other notable films I can think of, would be a nobody. Still, I can’t stop thinking about this “full unicorn dream” you speak of. Creighton, why didn’t you mention that up front?

Anyway, my final decision comes down to something Bryan himself said: the Final Cut is simply Ridley Scott second-guessing himself. That’s a pessimistic view, and as a bundle of optimism and sincerity, I keep coming back to it. Don’t we all second-guess ourselves? Haven’t we all created something in our youth that, at the time, was our greatest triumph, only to learn with age and wisdom that it was actually a massive turd? Scott’s realization that he could improve on his work years later is inspirational, aspirational, admirable, and a bunch of other words I Googled just now to prove my point. It is proof that it’s never too late to improve ourselves and our work. Crowning a definitive version implies the best, the ultimate, the one we ourselves may choose. For this reason, I declare the Final Cut to be the definitive version of Blade Runner.

Thank you all for joining us in this crucial cultural debate. I look forward to your emails telling me how right I am.