When movies are re-released with additional footage, I usually steer clear. Most of the time, they’re a cynical ploy to separate me from my money. They might include a couple of seconds of additional gratuitous violence or a shot just a bit too sexy for cinemas. They’re rarely worth an additional viewing. In other cases, a re-edited film gives a director the opportunity, sometimes years later, to create the film they wish they could have created. Sometimes these re-releases are vastly inferior to the original cut, as with Apocalypse Now: Redux. Sometimes they’re unexciting but okay for the most part, like the re-release of the original Star Wars movies. Sometimes these movies are Blade Runner. Unlike most other re-releases, both the Director’s Cut of the film, released in 1992, and Final Cut, released in 2007, make substantial improvements over the original.
When Blade Runner was first shown to test audiences before its release in 1982, viewers reacted poorly to it. They found the pacing slow, the plot hard to follow, and the ending too much of a downer. In response to these negative reactions, the studio decided to include the now infamous Deckard voice-over and tacked on a happy ending where Deckard and Rachael escape into the countryside. Harrison Ford’s voice over, recorded after the filming, was terrible, but not completely ridiculous. As a neo-noir science fiction film, it made some sense to include a voice-over in the long, often parodied, tradition of hard boiled detectives narrating films. Still, the execution of the voice over is terrible, with Deckard sounding less Sam Spade and more Hal 9000. While the voice-over narration may have been an aesthetically questionable decision, in and of itself, it didn’t change much about the film.
The ending, on the other hand, had major implications on both the story, and perhaps more importantly, the tone, of the film. Where the majority of the film features a ponderous, gloomy mood, this added scene in the theatrical release has the couple escape into a beautiful sunny countryside to the backdrop of 80’s porno music. Furthermore, we’re informed in voice-over that Tyrell has told Deckard that Rachael is a special model that will live out a natural lifespan. We’re given this information despite hearing from Gaff moments earlier that she won’t live. This jarring happy ending upends the entire tone of the film.
Subsequent versions of the movie removed the voice-over and the happy ending, but they also added a crucial scene: the unicorn dream. With this sequence, featuring a dream of a unicorn running through a forest, later versions of the film open up the tantalizing possibility that Deckard is a replicant. This sequence connects to a shot found in all versions near the end of the film, where, as Deckard and Rachael are leaving Los Angeles, Deckard finds a tiny origami unicorn in the hallway of his apartment. In the theatrical cut, this unicorn simply indicates that Gaff was at Deckard’s apartment unbeknownst to him. In later versions, thanks to the unicorn dream sequence, the origami unicorn serves as an indication that Gaff knows what Deckard is. Just as Deckard, in an earlier scene, knew Rachael’s private memories, because they were actually implants, Gaff knows Deckard’s dreams because they, too, were implants.
Many people point to the insertion of the unicorn dream as altering the philosophical meat of the film by raising the possibility that Deckard is a replicant without knowing it. That’s not quite the case. Even the original theatrical release of the film includes Rachael, after all. She, possibly just like Deckard, doesn’t know she’s a replicant, but has false memories to keep her emotionally stable. That theme, then, is in all cuts of the film. The Director’s Cut and Final Cut of the film amp up that theme, turning it into its defining characteristic. While the line between human and non-human is explored at some length in all versions of the film, the later versions of the film encourage that theme to linger in our minds integrating them into the enigmatic and uncertain conclusion of the film.
The hint, though, could potentially have other meanings that would, in fact, make the later versions of the film philosophically distinct from the Theatrical Cut. For example, it’s possible that Gaff and Deckard and all other humans share the same recurring dreams. In this interpretation, the unicorn dream might serve as an expression of a collective unconscious. The collective unconscious, an idea posited by famed psychoanalyst Carl Jung, posits that there are certain unconscious symbols that are innate to all people across all cultures. If Deckard is a replicant and Gaff is not, the shared dream indicates that humans and replicants are similar even in the deepest corners of their minds. It would serve, in some sense, as a hint that replicants have souls just like people. On the other hand, if Deckard is not a replicant, this shared dream would serve as evidence that he is human. In this case, if Gaff believes that replicants are substantially different from humans, he would have left the unicorn origami to remind Deckard of his humanity as he runs off with a replicant.
Of course, the beauty of the later versions of Blade Runner is that they leave enough ambiguity at the end to foster this kind of conversation. More than three decades after its release, people are still arguing about the nature of Deckard. They continue to argue even though Ridley Scott has unambiguously stated that he had always intended Deckard to be a replicant. With Blade Runner 2049, this discussion is sure to continue as Denis Villeneuve has preserved the uncertainty that made the Director’s Cut and Final Cut so thought provoking. So, will we ever definitively find out whether Deckard is a human or a replicant? If the progression of the film’s universe from the Theatrical Cut to the Director's Cut to the Final Cut, and then onto 2049 is any indication, the answer is no.