The Mistake That Changed the History of Blade Runner

Harrison Ford in Blade Runner.

Harrison Ford in Blade Runner.
Photo: Warner Bros.

These days, Blade Runner is considered one of the all-time masterpieces of science fiction. The combination of Philip K. Dick’s idea, Ridley Scott’s direction, Harrison Ford’s performance, and a laundry list of technical masters behind the scenes created a film that has stood the test of time. But it wasn’t that way at the time of release and, if not for a tiny mishap, it might not have happened.

In the past few days, many people on Twitter have been responding to this prompt asking about moviegoing “flexes.” The responses have been incredibly varied. And then, filmmaker Bruce Wright chimed in.

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Um, what?

Now, this is a story I’m certain some fans, especially Blade Runner fans, have heard before. It’s on the Wikipedia and everything. But I hadn’t—so I’m guessing some others will find it new too. Hence the blog.

Wright’s thread above explains in more detail but we’ll summarize. Basically, in 1990, a 70mm print of Blade Runner found its way from Warner Bros. to a repertory theater in Los Angeles. The problem was, the print wasn’t the theatrical version of the film, which had flopped at the box office in large part because the studio demanded Scott make changes to clarify the film’s mysteries.

The print that screened didn’t have the explanatory voiceover. It didn’t have the more neatly tied up ending. And everyone in the audience couldn’t believe what they were watching: Ridley Scott’s original version, or so they thought.

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As Wright says, this incredible LA Times article gets into it more. Apparently what happened was a man named Michael Arick, who was Warner Bros.’ director of asset management in 1989, found the print randomly and hid it so he wouldn’t lose it. He never watched it, though, and didn’t know it wasn’t the theatrical version. So it got sent to the theaters.

However, the film that screened was not the Ridley Scott “Director’s Cut” as we know it now. It was close, but there were several major changes, most of which were just because it wasn’t a finished version. The film didn’t have the all-important unicorn dream sequences (a key to the question of Deckard’s biology), some of the music was temporary, and more. But, thanks to Wright’s write up as detailed in his Twitter thread, film fans got very interested in seeing this seemingly out of the blue alternative version of the film. So fans wrote to the studio, audiences started showing up to theaters, and after negotiations and discussions with Scott himself, Warner Bros. tracked down the unicorn footage and let him finish the film the way it intended. The director’s cut was finally released in 1992, 10 years after the original version.

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The rest is history—history that might not have happened if a Warner Bros. executive hadn’t found one random print of the film and mistakenly sent it to a Los Angeles theater. A theater filled with fans so passionate about the film, they instantly knew they were watching something new and different. And got it out into the world.

We’d highly encourage you to read this whole LA Times article, which goes deeper into the history of Blade Runner, and also Wright’s full thread. Blade Runner (and the changed again Final Cut) is currently on HBO Max.

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