Flopping in 1982 but ultimately accruing more critical acclaim and cinephile esteem than perhaps any other science-fiction film, Blade Runner, starring Harrison Ford and Sean Young, has become the quintessential modern example of a work of art before its time. Director Ridley Scott, a true cinematic pragmatist, had his suspicions about the film’s box-office fate even during production: “The fact is, if you are ahead of your time, that’s as bad as being behind the times, nearly.” “You’ve still got the same problem. I’m all about trying to fix the problem.” He and his team decided they could fix one “problem” in particular: the film’s ambiguous ending, which apparently left cold those who saw it. So cast and crew went to Big Bear Lake, where they shot a new sequence of Ford and Young escaping into the mountains. “I didn’t know how long we’d have together,” says Ford’s protagonist Rick Decker, in the final words of his faux-hard boiled explanatory voice-over. “Who does?”
The tight shots inside Decker’s flying car, built to soar across a dark, dense, neon-lined post-Japanification Los Angeles but now cruising incongruously through a lush forest, came out okay. Alas, cloudy weather ruined all the wide-angle footage captured at greater distances. Scott remembered that Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, a couple years before, had opened with just the sort of overhead mountain driving imagery he needed.
This gave him an idea: Kubrick “must’ve done a blanket shoot of every peak in Montana for The Shining using the best helicopter crew. I’ll bet you he’s got weeks of helicopter footage.” He did indeed have plentiful outtakes and a willingness to hand them over, which meant the first version of Blade Runner in wide release ended with shots from the very same photography sessions that produced the beginning of The Shining. For all the ingenuity that went into it, this relatively happy ending still, in a sense, wound up on the cutting room floor. Excised along with that widely disliked voice-over as new cuts and releases restored the picture to its original form, it gave way to the originally scripted ending, with its much more suitable (and memorable) final line delivered by Edward James Olmos as Deckard’s colleague Gaff: “It’s too bad she won’t live, but then again, who does?”
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.