Lowdown: The best got technically better.
Overview (as opposed to a review):
While I make no secret of the problems I have with rating "the best films ever", or anything that is "best" for that matter, I also make no secret of the fact that when called upon to name my nomination for best film ever my quick off the sleeve answer is Blade Runner. I add disclaimers, such as "best does not necessarily mean favorite", but I still answer Blade Runner. For the record, I am not alone in naming Blade Runner the best: a recent Australian survey by ABC came up with Blade Runner being the best film in most Australian minds (at least those that watch the ABC who bothered taking part in the survey, which is significantly different to the average Australia). In fact, I represent the very average Aussie according to the ABC: Their survey for best album ever came up with my vote too, Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon; and their survey for best book ever came up with a book that for most of my reading life I would have voted the best book ever, namely The Lord of the Rings.
Thus when director Ridley Scott has released his Final Cut of the film to celebrate its 25th birthday I just had to watch it to see whether it has, indeed, improved an already thoroughbred of a film.
In order to understand my affection to Blade Runner one needs to go back to a short history lesson. Going back to 6th grade, if I'm not mistaken, I missed out on the film's initial tour at the cinemas. Then I heard it's playing at this boutique cinema near where I ended up going for high school, so I dragged my regular movie partner at the time - my uncle - to come and see it. He brought my aunt with him; she mostly came because by then his health was poor, and indeed Blade Runner was amongst the last films we saw together at the cinema after years of watching at least one film a week.
Despite the cinema conditions which, by my current standards, I would label as "absolute crap", I really liked Blade Runner. By the time Roy Batty was chasing Harrison Ford I was scared shitless but in a positive way: I was totally immersed in the film. When it was over I had one of the biggest "wows" ever to say how much I liked the film. Indeed, in a 6th grade school project about me and my roots I wrote that Harrison Ford is my favorite actor and I named Blade Runner as the main reason for this choice; not Star Wars or Indiana Jones, but Blade Runner. That school project got me into trouble, by the way: I wrote there that I don't think school has contributed in any way to the way I think or to my values and that school just stuffs mostly redundant information into my head and then tests me on it; my teacher, Aliza, took me out of a class to discuss this observation and try to talk some sense into me, which is quite unprecedented for 6th grade. Anyway, she failed.
Back to Blade Runner, I only saw the cinematic version three more times off the air. Most of the times I have seen I was actually viewing the Director's Cut, released in the mid nineties: I saw that one around twenty times, mostly on laserdisc. The Director's Cut dispensed with the cinematic version's narration and putsi-mutsi happy ending and added the unicorn scene instead, thus creating a significantly more thought provoking film. There is no doubt in my mind that the Director's Cut is way better than the cinematic version, although to be frank I have no idea whether I would have managed to comprehend it to the level I actually had if it wasn't for the previous experience with the cinematic version's narration. In my next incarnation I'll try and watch the Director's Cut first and then the cinematic version and see what I think (check this blog for updates!).
The main problem with the Director's Cut laserdisc and DVD was their quality. The picture was very noisy and lacking in detail and the sound was poorly mixed. The worst thing about the laserdisc was that it seemed to have been mastered by an idiot: in the scene where Ford shoots the striptease dancer, you see him shoot, then the laserdisc side ends; when you flip it over to watch the next side and click play the first thing you see is the dancer getting hit by the previously shot bullet and falling down. A worst cut-over timing could not have been chosen!
So far for the history lesson. Now, where does the new Final Cut fit in all of this? Well, as a self proclaimed expert in Blade Runner (having seen it so many times I have to be), I can tell you that the differences between the Final Cut version and the Director's Cut version are very slight. Essentially, it's the same thing, unicorn included; contents wise, the differences are in a few extended scenes that really add nothing to the film's experience. For example, in the scene where Batty kills Tyrell, the murder itself is shown for a few gruesome seconds longer, and then we see more of Batty chasing J. F. Sebastian in order to kill him, too (but we don't see that murder). That's it, really.
Picture quality: Vastly improved over the Director's Cut. There are shreds of analog noise from the original stock footage, but not more than you'd expect. Detail, however, is high on the agenda, and colors are done properly: for the first time ever I noticed the patterns on Ford's shirts, to name but one difference.
Sound quality: This is where The Final Cut comes into its own. Scott knows how to make good sounding films, but obviously he didn't know that as well when he originally made Blade Runner (either that or he didn't get a much of a saying then). This time he made things right with an aggressive mix that puts you in the thick of action and does justice to the wonderful views and to the majestic Vangelis soundtrack. True, the dialog and many of the sound effects show their age, but for the first time since the first cinema viewing, Batty chasing Ford took my breath away with tension.
Overall: Contents wise, if you've seen the Director's Cut you can say that you've seen The Final Cut. Technically, however, the presentation in the new version is very significantly better. It's the same, but it's better.
Rating wise, the Director's Cut was always a 6 out of 5 stars film; now it has a presentation to match.