Before you head out to see Blade Runner 2049 this weekend, you should probably rewatch — or watch for the first time, no judgement — Blade Runner, the 1982 Ridley Scott film that started it all and defined sci-fi for a generation. Luckily, that film is readily available both on disc and via streaming services.
But before you can watch Blade Runner, you have to decide which version to watch.
That isn’t as simple a choice as with most movies with multiple cuts — like, say, the Lord of the Rings films, where you can either watch the theatrical version or the longer “extended” edition, which has more scenes but preserves everything that’s in the theatrical version. Blade Runner, on the other hand, has been cut and recut eight different times (that we know of).
However, there are three main Blade Runner variants that have been released for public viewing in the US and that you can watch at home. Each version has pros and cons; each delivers a different viewing experience. So to help you choose the Blade Runner experience that’s best for you, here’s what each of those three main variants has to offer.
1) The US theatrical cut, a.k.a. the one with the voiceover
First up is the “original” or “theatrical” version — there are actually two of these, but the most commonly available one is the US theatrical cut, which is the version that people who bought a ticket to a US theater in 1982 would have seen. Ridley Scott was not a fan of the theatrical cut, which was put together by studio executives who wanted a happy ending to please moviegoers. But that undercut Scott’s original intention to leave much about the film ambiguous, both philosophically and narratively.
The theatrical cut also contains some voiceover from ex-cop and Blade Runner Rick Deckard (played by Harrison Ford), which serves two purposes. One, it explains some of his character’s backstory, which could aid moviegoers who aren’t feeling up to a moody cinematic challenge. But it also makes the film feel even more like a neo-noir detective movie, in the style of Raymond Chandler. Blade Runner draws some visual and narrative cues from neo-noir — dark and moody lighting, light shining through window shades, a femme fatale, and a morally conflicted protagonist — while being set in a dystopian future (2019!), and the narration makes the neo-noir side really come through. This lends an extra sheen of moral ambiguity to everything that happens in the film.
That said, the voiceover on the theatrical cut sounds bafflingly bad, and Ford’s listless delivery leaves much to be desired. Combined with the too-neat “happy ending” mandated by the studio, the theatrical cut isn’t anyone’s first choice, including Scott.
2) The director’s cut, a.k.a. the one with the Deckard question
You might think a director’s cut would fix all those problems, but you’d only be sort of right. Blade Runner’s director’s cut took a tortured path to the screen, the minutiae of which is probably only interesting to die-hard Blade Runner fans; in short, the new cut was “supervised” by Scott, though the actual edits were performed by film preservationist Michael Arick based on Scott’s notes. It was released in theaters by Warner Bros. in 1992, and it changed a lot about the film people had seen a decade earlier.
In the director’s cut, Deckard’s voiceovers disappear, as does the happy ending, restoring the intended ambiguous ending about Deckard and Rachael’s fates. But perhaps more importantly, several additions suddenly called into question whether Deckard is human — something the theatrical cut never gives much reason to interrogate — or is actually a replicant, created to hunt down other replicants.
This new ambiguity was accomplished largely through the insertion of a sequence in which Deckard dreams of a unicorn running through a forest. Because Edward James Olmos’ officer Gaff gives Deckard an origami unicorn, this seems to strongly suggest that Deckard’s memories are implanted rather than “real,” and thus he is a replicant.
Scott eventually and ironically voiced his dissatisfaction with the director’s cut, too — when it was being edited together, he was working on Thelma and Louise, and he felt he didn’t give it proper supervision.
3) The final cut, a.k.a. the true director’s cut
So in 2007, a “final cut” was released in theaters, which is the true “director’s” cut — Scott supervised it completely — but that name was already taken. A longer version of the unicorn dream appears in this version, some extra-violent scenes that had only appeared in the international theatrical release were reinserted, and the whole movie was restored and digitally remastered to feel like new.
The final cut is the only version of Blade Runner over which Scott had full control, so it best represents his original vision for the film. It played in theaters, then was released in a multi-disc box set that includes all three major versions of the film, plus the international theatrical cut, the original “workprint” (which had initially only been shown to test audiences and was later released in 1990 and 1991 as a “director’s cut,” without Scott’s permission), and some bonus features.
If you haven’t seen Blade Runner — or if it’s been a long time — then you should probably watch the final cut, which is available both on disc and on several streaming services, including Amazon and iTunes. That’s the one that most closely matches Scott’s original vision, and it most neatly matches Blade Runner 2049 (directed by Denis Villeneuve) in tone and style.
But if you watch Blade Runner on the regular, you might want to try one of the other cuts — especially if you’ve never seen the US theatrical version, which you can also rent on Amazon or iTunes. It lacks some of the sophistication of the final cut (as well as the unicorn dream), but experiencing the voiceover in particular lends the film a slightly different cast, reminding you that it’s also neo-noir — something that Blade Runner 2049 doesn’t sustain as neatly. And though the happy ending is undeniably cheesy, it’s also a little less depressing, which, let’s face it, might be what you’re up for right now. (You can also purchase the director’s cut to watch digitally, if you really want to, or find it in the aforementioned box set.)
Whatever version you choose, though, pay especially close attention to how the film looks. Blade Runner 2049 is set 30 years after Blade Runner, and one of its strengths is in how it imagines dystopian Los Angeles to have evolved in the future, and how it might stay the same. Film is a visual medium, after all — and all versions of Blade Runner, including the new sequel, are visually stunning and well worth watching closely.