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MOVIES : FILM C0MMENT : A Prime Cut : Ridley Scott’s original ‘Blade Runner'--with its bravura visuals but without that grating voice-over--resurfaces after nine years

<i> Kenneth Turan is The Times' film critic</i>

As perhaps befits this darkest of dramas, Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” has spent most of its life in shadow. A landmark piece of visionary filmmaking, it hit theaters the same month in 1982 as “E.T.,” the most popular fantasy film ever made. Possessed of extraordinary visual qualities, “Blade Runner” found them eclipsed by a numbingly portentous voice-over. When Oscar time came around, “Gandhi,” of all things, bested it in the art direction category. And, until now, even seeing it as its director intended was simply not possible.

For the last two weeks, however, that experience has found a growing and appreciative audience. Scott’s director’s cut of “Blade Runner” has been playing to unprecedented audiences at the Nuart in West Los Angeles. The film’s opening weekend set a house record and its second weekend not only topped that by 13%, it made the Nuart the country’s highest grossing theater west of the Hudson, topped only by a Manhattan house showing the opening of Gus Van Sant’s “My Own Private Idaho.”

Giving in to this remarkable torrent of public demand, the Nuart has extended the film’s run through Oct. 23. And director Scott, who is in Costa Rica scouting locations for his forthcoming “Columbus,” said through a representative that Warner Bros. has agreed to let him fine-tune this version, which still is missing parts of Vangelis’ score and a small amount of footage, including a dream sequence, which Scott considers crucial to his cut. The director plans to do the additional work in London and to personally help promote the film, which he says Warner Bros. tentatively plans to re-release after the first of the year.

Even without that fine-tuning, “Blade Runner” is a work that no one who cares about the state of film in general and the state of Hollywood in particular should even think about missing. Not only is this a chance to experience a memorable film, a rare-enough treat these days, it is also an even rarer opportunity to look behind the curtain and see a film that the studio system thought was dead and buried. For once, Hollywood neglected to dispose of the body after a creative murder, and that is an oversight we should be grateful for.

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While there is no public record about what happened to Scott’s original cut back in 1982, it apparently ran into that old bugaboo, testing. Audiences ostensibly did not respond to the nicely modulated ending that Scott and screenwriters Hampton Fancher and David Peoples (working from the wonderfully titled Philip K. Dick novel, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”) came up with, so a simplistic and extraneous upbeat one was tacked on.

Even more damaging, because viewers claimed to have trouble following the circa 2019 plot, which had Harrison Ford as a former L.A. cop having to track down four particularly nasty replicants who are running amok right here on Earth, a film noir knockoff voice-over was added.

Even now, a decade later, the memory of poor Ford having to say lame things like “What the hell was happening to me?” grates on the mind.

Seen again on a big screen, the bravura visuals of “Blade Runner,” the carefully thought out, exquisitely textured and obsessively detailed way the future has been imagined is even more intoxicating than it was in memory. Aided by an exceptional visual team (production designer Lawrence G. Paull, art director David Snyder, consultant Sid Mead, special-effects guru Douglas Trumbull and cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth), Scott came up with a world in which civilization seems to have simultaneously advanced and regressed. Giant flying neon billboards and 700-story pyramids co-exist with grungy sidewalk restaurants, dwarf scavengers and open bonfires. Not only has nothing in the past decade surpassed the audacity of this look, no film has even come close to equaling it.

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The biggest revelation of Scott’s cut, however, is the difference the purging of the voice-over makes. Obviously, the absence of an irritant can only be a good thing, but the benefits go a considerable distance beyond that. Bad as it was, Ford’s voice-over provided the audience with something familiar and human to cling to, but this was a crutch that did more harm than good. Without it, the world of “Blade Runner” becomes at once more unnerving and disconcerting, leaving the viewer very much on his or her own, a stranger thrillingly alone in the strangest of lands.

Yet, even as you gnash your teeth at what Warner Bros. and the Ladd Co. did to Scott’s vision, it is possible to work up a certain degree of empathy for the executives who insisted on the changes. “Blade Runner” cost $30 million, a considerable sum today, a much larger one a decade ago, and the Ladd Co. was not a tower of financial strength at the time. (It went under in 1984.) So, seeing not only their investment but their future at stake, it is not surprising that the powers that be panicked and insisted on changes they felt would be more user-friendly.

But even if the impulse behind the cuts is defensible, the final judgments are not. Because executives ought to know, though they apparently never learn, that films like “Blade Runner,” Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil” and Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon A Time in America,” films that offer vivid and unique personal visions, can never be tampered with successfully, even if your only gauge of success is the box office.

Like butterflys unable to get airborne again if their wings are touched, these kinds of pictures can’t be “improved,” can’t be recut to earn more money. They can only be killed. And in fact, the studio’s version of “Blade Runner,” hampered by unenthusiastic reviews that focused on the voice-over, made only $25 million. If there is a motto here, it’s that if you must do audience testing, save it for “Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood” and leave the likes of “Blade Runner” alone.

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As befits any dark film, there are still mysteries left to be solved about “Blade Runner.” It is unclear why Scott’s original cut was left around to incriminate executives past, how it got out of Warner Bros. (which couldn’t be especially eager to have its past rehashed) in the first place, and what will happen to it now.

There is a final aspect to the “Blade Runner” rediscovery, one that is perhaps the most satisfying of all, and that is a rediscovery of the joy of the non-manufactured film event. For Scott’s cut of this film has done what it’s done in the marketplace without benefit of massive TV or newspaper ads, chatty guest spots on talk shows or careful placement of celebrity interviews in major magazines. Standing in a simply enormous line outside the Nuart on Saturday night, you could feel the pure excitement and joy of people looking forward to a film that nobody had told them they ought to go to. They simply wanted to see it and so they had.

Truly, if you build it, they will come. Even if it takes 10 years.


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