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October 15, 2007
Lab Notes
Do Filmgoers Dream of Director's Cuts?

By Wil McCarthy
Philip K. Dick is a staple of Hollywood science fiction, as iconic as Robby the Robot and as prolific as Mickey the Rooney. From Total Recall and Paycheck to Next and Minority Report, Dick's name has been attached to some of Tinseltown's greatest hits.

But it all began with a turgid little movie called Blade Runner. Audiences hardly knew what to make of this classically Dickian story, and at first they stayed away in droves. But something happened after that first disappointing release; the movie never went out of style. It continued to play in small theaters around the world, enjoyed good ratings on cable TV and excellent sales in video, became the template for dozens of imitators, and established a new look and feel for the future in America's collective unconscious. Today it is widely considered the best science-fiction film of all time, which is why Ridley Scott's October 2007 release of "The Final Cut"—a true director's cut of the movie, over which he had full creative control—is such a momentous occasion.

Presumably, everyone reading this column will have seen Blade Runner at least once, but in case you've been living in a parallel universe where Ridley Scott was never born, the movie revolves around the problems of "replicants"—artificially created humans with extraordinary strength and endurance but painfully short lives. Like clones, replicants are copies of natural human beings (what K.W. Jeter, a friend of Dick's and author of the sequel novel, Blade Runner: The Edge of Human, called "templants"), but their genes have been tampered with along the way and, more seriously, the replicants are physically adult at the time of their biomechanical birth. For them, childhood and adulthood and the terminal years of old age all occur at the same time, with tragic effects on their mental and emotional health. They're also slaves, and they resent it every bit as much as human beings would.

There are artificial animals in the story as well. In the book, this is because the world has been poisoned by a limited nuclear war, and every citizen is required to care for at least one animal to help repopulate the ecosystem. Electric sheep are cheaper than real ones, though, and in a prescient echo of the carpool-lane traffic dummy, our friend Philip predicted that a lot of people would keep these robots instead of nurturing a real connection with the web of earthly life. In the movie, the animals are organic rather than electric, and people's reasons for keeping them are more obscure. By contrast, the role of the replicants is straightforward: They serve as soldiers, prostitutes, laborers and domestic servants in the off-world colonies.

Great power, greater responsibility

Like Frankenstein before it, Blade Runner serves to remind human beings that when we get around to creating made-to-order sentient offspring, our responsibility toward them will be grave. Is it possible we can't copy the advantages of a human servant—the dexterity, the keen senses, the easy comprehension—without also duplicating our innate, burning desire for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, however ephemeral they may be?

Obviously, the world of Blade Runner has advanced biotech, including the precise control over specific physical, mental and emotional traits through "genetic design." The results include not only subhuman "toys" with comical features, but also controlled life cycles without the helplessness of youth or the decrepitude of old age. In addition, the brilliant scientist Eldon Tyrel admits to a limited ability to modify the genes of mature organisms—reprogramming their fates on the fly. That's heavy stuff.

In the background, though, are other technologies with equally profound implications. The off-world colonies are never discussed in detail, and one gets a creeping sense that they may not be nearly as wonderful as the ads make them look. Nevertheless, star travel is not only possible but affordable to middle-class Earthlings. The replicant soldier Roy Batty, in discussing his adventures in outer space, even provides some clues about how it might work. His comment about "attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion" tells us that the journey involves a physical starship, and not a teleportation booth or anything like that. And since the ships carry tanks of combustible oxygen, the people inside must not be frozen or digitally stored, and the journey itself must not be instantaneous. It even says something about the distances involved, because the shoulder of Orion is a star called Betelgeuse, some 310 light-years from Earth. And when Roy reminisces about watching "C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tennhauser Gate," he gives another clue. Is the gate a constellation? A docking facility? Some sort of wormhole network?

The world's technology includes photographs that move a little when you stare at them, like video displays storing a few moments of high-def, and they also include 3-D details that can be hidden or revealed as the viewpoint changes. This could be accomplished with today's technology—a small amount of memory and control circuitry on the back of a sheet of digital paper, a sort of permanent video display made of rotating colored discs. However, the old, yellowed look of the photos suggests something a little more chemical is going on here. These are real photos, I think, on real photo paper, but made from very special "smart inks" that we don't currently know how to produce. "Nanotechnology" is the cheap answer for everything these days, but that word by itself doesn't really tell us any more than "chemistry" does. However, to store details holographically the image would need a pixel size of less than one micron—a thousandth of a millimeter—and the pixels would also have to double as computing and data storage elements. My guess? An ink made of quantum dots.

Sci-fi that shows rather than tells

The most visually striking technology in the film is antigravity. Today's aircraft must push the air downward in order to stay up themselves, but the flying cars—or "spinners"—of Blade Runner are not at all like helicopters. Though clearly made of the same sorts of metal and plastic, they float through the air making almost no noise or wind. Similarly, the flying billboards are streamlined like the Goodyear blimp but look much too solid to be floated around by mere helium. And yet the technology doesn't seem to be applied anywhere other than in vehicles. We see no personal lift belts or wheel-less barrows or hovering buildings. This tells me two things: First, that the antigrav generator is larger than a person can carry, and second, that it requires a lot of energy to operate. For a lightweight vehicle with a heavy-duty powerplant, this is no problem, but like the whirling blades of a helicopter, it doesn't lend itself to sports or architecture or hand tools.

One virtue of this movie is that it doesn't say very much. The technology is just there, in the background, doing its job without a great deal of attention from the characters making use of it. This is not only realistic (when was the last time you explained to someone how a refrigerator works?), but also makes it a lot harder to say something stupidly incorrect that ruins the movie for people like you and me. In fact, the only really implausible thing in Blade Runner is the year it takes place. Even from the vantage point of 1982, the year 2019 simply wasn't that far away, and the movie's world has a rain-streaked, soot-stained, lived-in feel to it that the characters simply take at face value. Nothing surprises them; nothing seems new or alien, encouraging or disappointing. They've been living with this stuff for long enough that they barely notice it.

Now, when this movie came out I was a mere lad of 16, but even then it seemed to me we'd have had to start building this world right then and there. The flying cars, the futuristic buildings, the starships and biotech infrastructure ... we'd have to build it all and then immediately give it to the homeless and walk away for it to look so run-down less than 40 years later. I've often tried to estimate a realistic date for this story, and the answers I come up with range from about 2100 to 2300. Any longer than that and I start to feel the world's a little too familiar, more similar to ours than 1982 was to 1682.


A happy ending is no ending at all

The original theatrical cut includes voice-overs and a nailed-on happy ending that were added very much over the objections of Herr Director. There were no hints that Deckard might be a replicant. Now, I'm all in favor of artistic freedom, and I think it's a shame the way Hollywood feels free to crap on the ideas of talented people, replacing them with committee-drafted drivel. But I have a dark secret to admit here: I really like the theatrical cut! The voice-overs give it a noir, detective-movie feel that helps ground it in our reality, and the ending is not only happy, but consistent with the preceding material. Rare indeed is the author or filmmaker who can survive without editing, and sometimes even the least-common-denominator instincts of a heartless film studio are better than no feedback at all.

The original plot centers around implanted memories, which are certainly possible even with today's technology. In fact, it's so easy to produce false memories in people simply by suggesting and repeating them over and over that the problem of "therapist-implanted memories" even has its own industry acronym: TIM. More recently, specialized drugs have been used to delete memories as well, so it isn't too much of a stretch to imagine that the memories of a real person could be encoded somehow—perhaps as proteins or messenger RNA—and transferred into another person.

In the 1992 director's cut, the voice-overs were removed and a handful of deleted scenes were restored. In this version, Deckard is clearly a replicant, though he doesn't seem to know it. Apparently based on a dead cop, he has spotty memories of being on the police force sometime in the past. Is it possible to be an artificial person—newly created and without a history—and not know it? Well, people with dissociative identity disorders (including multiple personality disorder) often have large gaps in their memory, and either fail to notice or fail to recognize it as a serious problem. Many of them simply assume that it's normal, and that everyone else is the same way. In extreme cases, even their marginal personalities, with very little time "on stage" and thus very little life experience, sometimes believe they are real people, with their own unique backgrounds that don't match the history of the host body. On learning they're nothing more than shadows, they can react with shock, heartbreak and even outright disbelief.

Similarly, amnesiacs normally retain skills such as mathematics and physical dexterity, and hold onto not only their language but their accents and vocabularies as well. Thus, even when they can't remember their own names, they feel (correctly) that they've lived a real life in a real place, complete with education, career and probably family. Clearly, then, the human sense of identity—of being a living, feeling person—is persistent and resilient and does not arise directly from our conscious memories. So it really does seem possible that a replicant could step out of the cloning tank and wander away without realizing that these are in fact its first moments in the world—that it isn't a real person at all. Which of course begs the question: If they believe they're human, who are we to disagree?

And now we have the final cut, digitally remastered in Dolby 5.1 surround sound, with several additional scenes restored. There has been some digital touchup to the actors' faces, removal of stunt wires, etc., but the changes are not all superficial. Some dialogue has been added, and some altered, to make Roy Batty, the leader of the escaped replicants, a less menacing and more sympathetic figure. Some of the movie's most striking moments have been swapped out, and after 25 years of living with the Roy we know and love, I have to ask, is this really necessary? Or desirable? In a way, the final cut is proof that we're living in a science-fictional world, where longstanding realities can be ripped away from us at a moment's notice, revealing that we've been living with a false memory all along.

DeFrancesco, John, et al., "Behavioral profiling: a panel of experts," The Forensic Examiner, June 2007
American Map Corporation Guide to the Stars, 1999
Wikipedia ( "Blade Runner"
Rotten Tomatoes ( Blade Runner
Keyes, Daniel: The Minds of Billy Milligan, Random House, 1981
Casey, Joan Frances: The Flock: Autobiography of a Multiple Personality, Knopf, 1991
Encyclopedia Britannica 2006 Ultimate Reference Suite: "Amnesia", "Betelgeuse"
Gray, Richard: "Scientists find drug to banish bad memories", The Telegraph, Jan. 7, 2007

Wil McCarthy is a rocket guidance engineer, robot designer, nanotechnologist, science-fiction author and occasional aquanaut. He has contributed to three interplanetary spacecraft, five communication and weather satellites, a line of landmine-clearing robots and some other "really cool stuff" he can't tell us about. His short writings have graced the pages of Analog, Asimov's, Wired, Nature and other major publications, and his book-length works include the New York Times notable Bloom, Amazon "Best of Y2K" The Collapsium and most recently, To Crush the Moon. His acclaimed nonfiction book, Hacking Matter, is now available as a free download.