Here's a thing: at the time of writing, there's a fair to middling chance that your local multiplex will be showing the new Ridley Scott film, American Gangster. Go see it, and watch out for an early scene while the story's still in the late 1960s, in which Denzel Washington nips out to a phone box to make the first call to his Asian drug contact. Behind him, in several shots, we can see a large billboard clear as day. Unfortunately, I can't tell you exactly what the billboard was advertising, because I couldn't see past the SODDING ENORMOUS INTERNET ADDRESS AT THE BOTTOM OF IT.
Just to reiterate: late 1960s.
But that's Scott for you: a perfectionist.
Ridley Scott has become as notorious as George Lucas for not being able to leave films alone after they come out. In recent years, he's released alternative cuts of Kingdom Of Heaven, Gladiator, Legend and Alien: a tendency that originally dates back to 1992, with Blade Runner: The Director's Cut. Ten years after the original release of that film, rumours continued to abound regarding the studio interference that had plagued it: narration added for the hard of thinking, cuts to some of the more ambiguous sections, a tacked-on happy ending. Scott recut the movie closer to his original plans, released it again in cinemas, and that was that.
Except it wasn't - because now there's Blade Runner: The Final Cut. It turns out that the so-called Director's Cut was more of a temporary stopgap, quickly hacked together as a spoiler for a planned Warner Brothers release of an old 70mm workprint. This new version - if we can believe anything anyone says about the film any more - is a more carefully considered re-evaluation of the original footage. It comes out on DVD in the UK on December 3rd, along with a giganto-box set featuring all four versions of the film mentioned here: in the run-up to that date, it's also playing a series of brief hit-and-run engagements in cinemas. (At the time of writing it can be seen in only two London locations - the Ritzy and the Renoir - as well as a small number of arthouses across the country.)
Is it worth seeing again? That depends on what it is you're looking for. Blade Runner's been one of my favourite films ever since its 1982 release, when I saw it in a stunning 70mm print at the ABC Deansgate in Manchester. In my memory, both the original and the Director's Cut have their merits. The 1982 version has a special place in my heart, simply because you can't recreate that initial glorious shock of the opening panorama of the LA skyline. But at the same time, I can appreciate how the changes made in the 1992 version add some interesting wrinkles to the plot - the lack of narration throwing you into this new world at the deep end, the unicorn sequence and its implications, the uncertainty of the abrupt ending.
The 2007 version, for all its nips and tucks, doesn't really bring anything new to the table. There are a few shots here and there that you haven't seen before, but most of the effort has been put into correcting mistakes in the original. The only place where this really helps is in the scene where Deckard confronts the snake dealer, which has previously been a masterclass in poorly-synchronised dubbing. This scene now looks a lot better, thanks to the fiendish ploy of taking correctly synchronised lip movements and CGIing them on top of Harrison Ford's face, a procedure that cruelly reduces him to the same level as the animals in Babe.
As for the other fixes: did we really need them? Is it such a problem that nobody can agree on exactly how many escaped replicants there are? Were people really drawn out of the film when Joanna Cassidy ran into a plate glass window and suddenly turned into a stuntman in a wig? I'd say no to all of that: certainly neither of those mistakes are as distracting as that URL appearing in American Gangster, which literally stopped me from concentrating on anything else for a couple of minutes. But no matter - both errors are 'fixed' now. Meanwhile, the violent scenes have been gored up a bit to no real benefit, while - moving in the other direction - Rutger Hauer now gets to say "I want more life... father," a substitution that left a whole audience mumbling "what the fath?" on the night I saw it at the Ritzy.
Which leads me to my main point. I've been a bit snippy about the changes made in The Final Cut, because I think that they're unnecessary. But at the same time, a huge amount of restoration work has been done to both the picture and the audio. It'll presumably look and sound great on your home system, particularly if you buy it in one of the new high definition formats. But if a digital print is playing at a cinema near you, then you need to run to catch it on the big screen, because then it becomes extraordinary. The visuals lose all that grain we tend to associate with early 1980s widescreen filmmaking, and look pin-sharp and flawless, even when Scott is drenching the set in smoke. There's also a new 5.1 sound mix, which inevitably has rear-soundstage-to-front-soundstage panning effects coming out of the wazoo, but which also emphasises the subtleties of the audio backgrounds in the quieter scenes. (And it makes Vangelis' score sound lovely, apart from that still-grating sax solo.)
So if you're expecting a new dramatic experience from Blade Runner: The Final Cut, you're going to be disappointed. But if you want to see the film looking and sounding as perfect as it's ever going to, then catch it at a cinema near you while there's time. And then wait to see if the DVD of American Gangster: The Director's Cut still has that URL visible...