In 1982, a noir-esque thriller called Blade Runner quietly changed science fiction cinema forever. The reasons for this are numerous, and those explanations could (and have) filled several books. In the film, we’re not told exactly how “advanced robot evolution” intermingled with “genetic engineers” to create the Nexus 6 Replicants, but the film works anyway because we’re only interested in what the Replicants are doing right now.
Wondering why exactly science fiction film aficionados are so obsessed with Blade Runner is a similar paradox: It may not matter if we can explain the cult obsession and it’s probably just healthier if we accept it. Even Blade Runner canon is a little murky. Was there one Replicant fried in that electrical field or two? Depends on the cut of the film! No other science fiction film has demanded such hyper-granular scrutiny, partially because no other science fiction film has had as many versions of itself. Because of the numerous cuts of Blade Runner out there, it can be bewildering to try and figure out which one is the “real” one.
So, which cut of Blade Runner is the best? It’s time to answer that question.
Unfortunately, since time travel is not yet an option, and you can’t go back in time and catch all the various cuts of Blade Runner that were shown in theaters in 1982, we’re going to stick to versions of the film that you could conceivably watch right now, either on streaming, on DVD/Blu-ray, or by obtaining a VHS tape or a LaserDisc. Any other theater-only versions of Blade Runner are out of the scope of this article. (And if you’re curious about the existence of those Blade Runner variants, buy yourself a copy of the book Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner by Paul M. Sammon).
So, with that in mind, we’re dealing with five watchable versions of Blade Runner, some harder to find than others. That means:
- The Theatrical Cut
- The International Cut
- The Workprint
- “The Director’s Cut”
- The Final Cut
The Theatrical Cut (1982)
If you try to rent Blade Runner on YouTube, Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, the version you will encounter is — most likely — the theatrical cut of the film. How will you know? The short answer is that this version of the film has voiceover narration from Harrison Ford’s character, Rick Deckard. And, the first moment you hear it in this version is 8 minutes and 49 seconds into the movie. Deckard is reading a newspaper, he looks up at a blimp that is advertising life on the “Off-world colonies.” And then, in voiceover, we hear Ford speak the line: “They don’t advertise for killers in a newspaper.” This is one of thirteen separate voiceovers throughout the Theatrical Cut, and if you’ve ever had a conversation about Blade Runner cuts, the voiceovers are almost always the most universally derided.
Although the idea of having a narration from Deckard originated with director Ridley Scott, the actual voice-over mandated by the studio was not what the director wanted at all. Ford also hated the voice-over, and it shows. The question is, does the voice-over ruin the movie? Is this version of Blade Runner — the first version shown to the public — actually unwatchable because of the heavy-handed narration? Many fans believe subsequent cuts of the film sans the Deckard voice-over are superior for this reason alone. But, in Future Noir, producer Michael Deeley explains the only reason fans hate the voice-over is because they’ve been given the option of a version of the movie without it: “It’s important to remember when talking about this issue, that when the ‘Director’s Cut’—quote unquote—came out 10 years later, everybody said, ‘My God, it’s so much better!’ But that opinion was expressed by people who had already seen the picture with the narration.” In other words, if they hadn’t taken out the voice-over from later cut you wouldn’t have a reason to complain about the narration in the first place, according to Deeley.
As much as I’d love to embrace a contrarian viewpoint and actually argue in favor of the existing narration in the Theatrical Cut, I can only do so on theoretical grounds. Yes, the idea of 1940s-style Raymond Chandler narration is appealing and certainly has a place in Blade Runner, but the fact is, the voice-over that was mandated by the studio is laughably bad. Sure, this is an opinion we have the luxury of having post-1982, but it’s still valid. All the film nerds are mostly right: The voiceover is a problem, and in fact, in some places, straight-up offensive and problematic. And, for that reason alone, it’s impossible to recommend the Theatrical Cut as the best version of Blade Runner.
But the reason why the Theatrical Cut cannot be considered the best Blade Runner isn’t just because of the voice-overs. Infamously, the film also sports a “happy ending” in which Deckard and Rachael ride off into the literal countryside, which bizarrely enough, incorporates stock footage from The Shining. It also lacks a pivotal (and controversial) scene, which we’ll get to in a minute.
The International Cut (1982, et al.)
When Blade Runner was released theatrically in the US in 1982, a slightly different version of the film was released for international audiences. In terms of getting your hands on this for home viewing, this cut was released by the Criterion Collection on VHS and Laserdisc in 1992. At that time it was known as the “10th Anniversary Edition.”
This cut is virtually identical to the Theatrical Version other than the fact that it’s gorier and more violent. This means that Deckard shoots Zora a few more times, while Roy digs his fingers into the eye sockets of Tyrell a bit longer. For what it’s worth, most of these extra bits of gore made it into The Final Cut in 2007 because it’s Scott. This is the same director who made Alien, and who in the 2012 director’s commentary of Prometheus was very confident that “every kid” would watch that film’s infamous self-surgery scene. Uncle Ridley never met extra gore he didn’t love!
Bottom line: The International Cut isn’t different enough from the Theatrical Version to be the best Blade Runner. Mostly, this version is a curiosity now, a kind of stepping stone to where we’re at now.
The Workprint (1989-1991)
Of all the versions of Blade Runner on this list, the Workprint is the strangest because, without its existence, the more radical revised versions of Blade Runner perhaps would not exist. As its name suggests, the Workprint was a rough cut of the film. It was discovered by Michael Arick, a film preservationist, in 1989. This 70mm print of Blade Runner is thought to have been shown at test screenings in the US prior to release in 1982. This version does not have a voice-over throughout and lacks “the happy ending.” (Although Deckard does have a brief voice-over narration after Batty’s death in the final scene.) The Workprint has sound errors, and in the final fight between Deckard, Pris, and Batty in the Bradbury hotel, some placeholder musical cues were used, including Jerry Goldsmith music from Planet of the Apes and Alien.
Bizarrely, after this print was screened for Scott, the director insisted that this version had contained the infamous unicorn sequence, in which Deckard sees a live unicorn in a pseudo-waking dream. However, as Arick told Sammon in Future Noir, that’s not true. Apparently, Scott screened the the Workprint and then imagined that he’d seen the unicorn scene. So yes, even with various cuts of Blade Runner, false memories are being implanted into everyone’s minds, even with Scott’s.
The importance of the Workprint’s discovery is significant. If Arick hadn’t accidentally found this Blade Runner, the idea to release new, more definitive versions for the public probably would have never happened. By 1991, sold-out screenings of the Workprint in California proved that the cult obsession with Blade Runner was alive and well. Without this small ripple from a film archivist, it’s possible that Scott would have never been interested in doing an actual “director’s cut” of the film. Today, the only way to watch the Workprint is on disc 5 of the 2007 box set Blade Runner: The Ultimate Edition.
Is this the “best” version of Blade Runner? No. But in 1991, when it was hitting arthouse theaters in California, it certainly was. The Workprint is more than a rough draft but still less than a director’s cut. But, for a completist, it’s pretty damn awesome.
The “Director’s Cut” (1992)
Based on the success of a limited theatrical re-release for the Workprint, the idea of doing an actual cleaned-up director’s cut of Blade Runner was suddenly viable. Weirdly enough, the Workprint was being advertised as “the director’s cut” anyway, which apparently, frustrated Scott. Still, this was in 1991, and Scott was busy shooting the film 1492. And so because of his hectic schedule, Scott wasn’t actually the only person involved in this “Director’s Cut.”
Warner Bros. executive Peter Gardiner and Arick both worked on the project, while Scott basically told them what he wanted. This included fixing technical aspects of the film, including moments where dialogue wasn’t synced correctly, as well as reinserting several small shots absent from the theatrical cut. But, the big stuff was essentially built on the Workprint: this “Director’s Cut” cut out all the voice-over, and ended the film with Rachael and Deckard walking into the elevator, just as Deckard notices the tinfoil unicorn left behind by Gaff. This was also the first version to incorporate the unicorn dream sequence which Scott had wanted reinserted from the beginning.
The search for the missing unicorn scene was long and complicated (missing negatives, reshoots) and at one point, the studio was all about releasing this cut (sometimes called the Enhanced Workprint) without Scott’s dream sequence. Eventually, a cobbled together version of this scene did make it back into the Director’s Cut, which was enough to satisfy Scott, at least back in 1992. Overall though, both Scott and Arick claimed they weren’t totally happy with this cut of Blade Runner. As Scott said in 1995, “The so-called ‘Director’s Cut’ isn’t, really. But it’s close. And at least I got my unicorn.”
Obviously, this cut of Blade Runner can’t be the best, but for 15 years it was close enough. These days, the Director’s Cut is really only available on Disc 3 of the Blade Runner: Ultimate Collection.
The Final Cut (2007)
For the 25th Anniversary release of Blade Runner in 2007, Scott was determined to get a true director’s cut released into the world — and on home video. Since 2007, the Final Cut has effectively erased all other versions, other than the theatrical version, which, occasionally, pops-up on streaming. But, when you watch Blade Runner on HBO Max or Netflix, the version you now see is almost always the Final Cut. By now, you can probably predict the ways in which this film differs from the theatrical cut: No voice-over, no happy ending, unicorns both tinfoil and actual abound. So, what else is different between the Final Cut and the other almost-director’s cuts?
First up, this version contains a few scenes that were outright reshot only for this version, notably, the scene in which Deckard shoots Zora. In other versions, the stunt double used for Joanna Cassidy was utterly unconvincing, a fact which is fixed here. The dove released by Batty at the end of this cut also flies into a nighttime sky, rather than an inexplicable daytime sky, as in previous cuts.
Also, after several years of back-and-forth, Bryant’s line at the beginning of the film about one Replicant being fried in an electrical field is changed to two. This fixes a long-standing continuity error in which Bryant mentioned one Replicant, which contradicts the idea that there were six Replicants who escaped. (In fairness, this small change does not fix the basic contradiction that Holden should in theory have recognized Leon at the very beginning of the movie. Otherwise, why does Bryant have all the Replicant headshots?)
Plot wonkiness aside, Blade Runner: The Final Cut is undeniably the best version of the film. And, although it’s streaming at the moment, your best bet is to watch it on Blu-ray on a big screen. And that’s because the biggest difference with the Final Cut is that it just looks better. This version was totally remastered for picture and sound, and if you watch it back-to-back with any of the other cuts, you’ll see why these superficial differences are huge. Blade Runner is arguably a study in aesthetics, meaning an inferior version of its basic cinematic quality hurts the overall product. Blade Runner isn’t like the original Star Wars, wherein we kind of want to know that Yoda is a puppet and that some plastic models were used in filming. Cleaning up Blade Runner just makes it more timeless.
If you have a choice (which someday you may not!) the Final Cut is 100 percent the best version of Blade Runner. You may have already been told this. But, now, if someone asks you why that’s true, you can explain it to them quicker than tears are lost in the rain.
Blade Runner: The Final Cut is streaming on Netflix and HBO Max now.