At one time, it would have been highly unusual for a film to be released in one version then re-released in an alternative edit. Preview audiences frequently saw an early cut of a film and offered feedback that went into preparing the final version, but once it went into general release, that was it. The idea of a director’s cut, even for some of the most powerful and independent directors, was rather unthinkable (an exception being Chaplin’s 1942 self-release of a new version of The Gold Rush, 1925). Movies were often trimmed to please censorship boards and assure distribution in cities, states and countries with even more restrictive notions of acceptability than the Hayes Office. But the Hollywood system had little place for an alternative edition designed to showcase an artistic vision that contrasted with a studio’s official version.
Things noticeably changed around the 1970s. Some sources point to the box office success of the 1974 re-release of The Wild Bunch (1969), with its restoration of ten minutes originally cut to assure an R rating, as the beginning of the trend. Since then, particularly with the rise of home video in the 1980s, we’ve seen multiple versions of work by George Lucas, Peter Bogdanovich, Steven Spielberg and James Cameron, among others. Classic films got the re-do treatment as well; Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958) was re-edited in 1976 and again in 1998. Now, TCM is partnering with filmmaker Joshua Greenberg to hunt for the lost footage of Welles’ studio-butchered masterpiece The Magnificent Ambersons (1942).
Which brings us to one of the most relentlessly reworked films of recent years, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982). Most people today know the story of this atmospheric sci-fi thriller about the hunt for rogue replicants (humanoids manufactured essentially for slave labor in off-world colonies) causing mayhem in 2019 Los Angeles in their quest for freedom and longer lives. Discussing in detail the differences in various versions of the film would likely require spoilers. In an effort to minimize that here, readers are advised to go online for the explicit changes, deletions and additions made over the years. There is no dearth of information out there regarding the numerous cuts.
A workprint version shown to test audiences early in 1982 was badly received, so a “happy ending” and voiceover narration (by the lead character, Deckard, a replicant hunter or “blade runner”) was added for the U.S. theatrical release that June. Scott had no control over this, and Harrison Ford, who plays Deckard, strongly objected being called back by the film’s backers to record the narration. Responding to rumors that he had deliberately botched the reading to keep it from being used, Ford told Playboy in 2002: “I delivered it to the best of my ability, given that I had no input. I never thought they'd use it. But I didn't try and sandbag it. It was simply bad narration." This version got mixed reviews from critics (“muddled yet mesmerizing” – The New York Times) and fared poorly at the box office.
An unrated international cut was released abroad later that summer with three violent action scenes missing from the U.S. release. This version was released on home video (VHS and laserdisc) in 1992 as the 10th Anniversary Edition.
In 1989 and 1990, film preservationists discovered a 70mm print of Blade Runner in post-production vaults. On hearing about this, a theater in Los Angeles got permission from Warner Bros. to screen it as the Director’s Cut. This “new” edition, however, turned out to be nothing more than the original 1982 workprint. When Scott publicly disowned it, Warners pulled the print from distribution and assembled a new cut with notes and direction from Scott and gave it a 1992 theatrical release. This version removed Deckard’s voiceover and the ending imposed by the studio for the 1982 release and added a dream sequence of a unicorn and some other small bits to flesh out certain sequences.
Critics and audiences took more warmly to this version but many reviews, while praising the overall style and neo-noir feel and singling out Douglas Trumbull’s virtuoso special effects work, still found the human dimension of the story to be lacking. Likewise, Scott was still not pleased that it reflected his truest vision. Because he was working on two other films while the restoration work was being done, he felt he had not devoted enough attention to this so-called Director’s Cut.
Now we come at last to the Final Cut, the most acclaimed and critically satisfying version to date and the one being screened on TCM beginning in 2021. This is the cut that was firmly and completely under Ridley Scott’s control in 2000.
After several years of legal wrangling with Warner Bros., the film was released in 2007. Although he decided not to replace Trumbull’s work with CGI effects (a practice widely slammed when Lucas did it to his original Star Wars trilogy), Scott did allow for digital enhancement that brightened the overall look, revealing details that had originally been hidden or at best murky. Some sequences, such as the unicorn dream, were extended and clarified, the more violent moments from the international version were included, mistakes and discontinuities were corrected. This version also retains a more downbeat and ambiguous ending.
Many critics completely revised their initially tepid reaction to the film in 1982, calling it “stunning,” “an overwhelming experience,” and “one of the most extraordinary worlds ever created on film.”
Neither Scott nor anyone else involved in this long saga has expressed a need or desire to revisit the film again. But the story was fleshed out further to largely positive response in the sequel Blade Runner 2049 (2017), directed by Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, 2016; Dune, 2021) from a script co-written by Hampton Fancher, one of the writers on the original film.