'Blade Runner': The edge has grown dull

One of the most tinkered-with and talked-about films of the last 25 years, Blade Runner comes back to theaters today - locally the Ritz East - and back in three different DVD editions (two discs, four discs, or five) hitting stores on Dec. 18.

Officially, it's called Blade Runner: The Final Cut, with Ridley Scott - Sir Ridley now - having revisited his 1982 neo-noir, smoothing out a few plot wrinkles, digitally dusting off some special effects, adding key snippets of dubbing and dialogue. He's been shining up an old gem - at least, that's how it's remembered.

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Harrison Ford as Deckard in "Blade Runner: The Final Cut." The 1982 epic, set in a futuristic L.A., hasn't aged well.

Blade Runner was the first of a slew of pics to be based on the prose of prolific, pill-popping sci-fi scribe Philip K. Dick. (Others: Screamers, Total Recall, Minority Report.) It was adapted (by Hampton Fancher and David Webb Peoples) from the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Dick died 31/2 months before the movie came out, but he had read a revised script, and seen a 40-minute reel, and was said to have approved.

Like meeting an old flame again many years later, or returning home after a lifetime away (you can't, says Thomas Wolfe), watching Blade Runner a quarter-century on is a strange, strangely unsatisfying experience.

I was pretty much in awe of Blade Runner's rain-drenched, dystopian beauty the first time I saw it, in a theater in Los Angeles - the city where Harrison Ford, as Rick Deckard, walks the mean streets, like Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe before him. Ford's Deckard is a terse, tough "Blade Runner" - a P.I. guy who hunts down replicants, androids, "skin jobs." They look and act like humans, but have been banned from Earth after a deadly uprising on an off-world colony.

The year is 2019, and the City of the Angels is a dark, claustrophobic place. Giant electronic billboards loom over the narrow, gridlocked streets. The architecture tends toward bulking Mayan pyramids, with gothic and Frank Lloyd Wright influences. Police hover-cars float above the mess; the signage is as much Japanese and Spanish as English.

Outside, jets of steam mix with slashing rain. Inside, it's smoky and dim, faces illuminated through the slats of blinds, filtered by shadow.

All that atmosphere - and Scott laid it on thick - is still there, of course, but it now seems kind of dopey, anachronistic, backlot. No one can predict the future, but directors - and production designers - have had a grand time imagining the decades and centuries to come. From Fritz Lang's glorious sci-fi silent, Metropolis, to Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, filmmakers have offered up visions of the future as cautionary tales, as conjecture, as cool stuff that they, and we, would like to see.

But now, Blade Runner just looks dinky, and quaint.

The version released in theaters in June 1982 was a studio job, wrested away from Scott, with an explanatory voice-over added, and a happy ending tagged on: Deckard, a human, walking into some bucolic nirvana in the company of Rachael (Sean Young), the sad-eyed, cigarette-smoking, 1940s fashion plate replicant he's come to care for.

Ten years later, Scott got the go-ahead to issue his own cut: Gone is Ford's somnambulant narration, out went that sunny denouement, and Scott made it pretty clear, too - irony of ironies - that Deckard himself is a replicant. What's his unicorn dream about anyway, and the origami that the cop Gaff (Edward James Olmos) leaves on Deckard's table?

Blade Runner: The Final Cut is essentially a fine-tuning of Sir Ridley's 1992 version. What hasn't been fine-tuned, however, are Ford's performance (wooden), and Young's (sexy, but one-note). Daryl Hannah, as the agile android who almost strangles Deckard with her gams, cartwheels around like a punky plaything - her presence among a menagerie of robotic toys adds a kinky twist to the proceedings, but also an unintentionally comedic one.

Rutger Hauer, as the head replicant Roy Batty, is fierce and fiery (and Aryan), and gets to deliver one of the better spiels in the film: "I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die."

Mortality. God. Man and machine. That's what Blade Runner is about. But it's not the masterpiece I remember.


Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://go.philly.com/onmovies.