When a movie opens to critical and box-office failure only to be celebrated as a masterpiece 20 years later, it's nothing short of fascinating. In 1982, Blade Runner was pronounced DOA by critics, who claimed Ridley Scott's sci-fi noir was an expensive exercise in style over substance, with a poorly developed storyline and big gaps in logic. Though it's true the film suffered studio meddling — the embarrassing Harrison Ford voiceover and a ridiculously happy ending — the scorn heaped on the film showed the unreliability of film critics.
Grafting a '40s-style detective story onto a dystopian thriller, Blade Runner's tale of a cop (Ford) who hunts down renegade replicants (artificial human beings) in the crumbling, rain-soaked techno-hell of 2019 Los Angeles was not only visionary, its thematic influences are as profound as Fritz Lang's Metropolis or Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. In fact, it may be Scott's sole work of artistic substance.
Since its release, Scott has continually tinkered with the film, releasing various remastered versions. In 1992, a "Director's Cut" restored his ambiguous ending along with extra scenes and, most noticeably, dropping Ford's tacked-on narration.
Now, on its 25th anniversary, Blade Runner: The Final Cut hits the screen and, truth be told, Scott nails it: The story's tighter and nagging gaffes are corrected. In particular, an embarrassingly bad chase scene — which featured a beefy stuntman in drag standing in for Joanna Cassidy — was reshot with the actress' cooperation.
The real attraction here is the newly minted print. If you've only experienced the DVD, Scott's fantastically rich visuals make a trip to the theater worthwhile. The spectacle still holds up; breathtaking eye-candy reveals Blade Runner's thematic and moral complexities. Memory, identity and the nature of self are jeopardized as technology defines who's human and who's not.
It's clear how much Scott played with the notion that the eye is the window to the soul. From the opening shot of a cornea reflecting geysering industrial flames from factories to Rutger Hauer's eye-gouging attack on his creator to the Voight-Kampf Test, which reveals replicants hiding among us, Blade Runner questions how we view humanity.
Scott's highly textured depiction of the future is unsettlingly prescient. Though some notions of technology seem dated, his vision of L.A. is haunting, a nightmarish stew of neon-lit, overcrowded multiculturalism and claustrophobic urban decay.
The film boasts one of Harrison Ford's best performances, giving his handsome everyman persona a convincingly noirish bent. His world-weary detachment is perfect foil for Hauer's brilliantly played Roy Batty, the replicant Ford's charged with hunting down. Scary but sympathetic, Batty is a twisted vision of Christ (note the spike through his palm and white dove) as the angry child determined to confront his "maker."
Forbidding and fatalistic, Blade Runner may be too isolated for some. But for those looking for a sci-fi film that defies its genre, this latest incarnation finally delivers on the promise of Ridley Scott's original vision.
Showing at the Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.