Upon its initial theatrical release in 1982, director Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner met with only middling success. The movie—the story of Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), who is dispatched to eliminate androids dubbed replicants that have gone rogue in the year 2019—was reportedly caught between the wishes of Scott and executives at Warner Bros., who wanted less of the filmmaker’s ambiguous narrative and more clear exposition. Ford recorded a bored-sounding voiceover for the film and scenes were omitted; a “happy” ending was tacked on that repurposed aerial shots from 1980’s The Shining. It was trounced at the box office by E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. (E.T. earned more than $300 million; Blade Runner tallied $14.8 million.)
That would have likely been the end of the story, if not for a fluke occurrence in 1990. That’s when a Los Angeles repertory theater requested a print of Blade Runner from Warner Bros. and got something unexpected, as Gizmodo reports.
An exhaustive report in the Los Angeles Times, written by noted film critic Kenneth Turan in 1992, detailed how the Cineplex Odeon Fairfax asked for and received a 70mm print of the sci-fi film. Michael Arick, the director of asset management for Warner Bros., handed over what he thought was the theatrical cut of the movie, which he had grabbed after noticing it had been abandoned in a screening room. Arick never actually rolled the film, so he had no reason to believe it was anything other than the 1982 version audiences saw in theaters.
What audiences at the Fairfax saw instead was Scott’s cut of the film, which lacked Ford’s laborious voiceover and the tonally-inconsistent happy ending. Without these elements, which were a product of studio meddling, audiences began buzzing about this superior version of a film that had already taken on a cult classic status. Sensing an opportunity to revive the film, Warner Bros. allowed Scott to continue tinkering with it, changing music and adding a crucial unicorn dream sequence that made Deckard’s replicant status an important plot point. The director’s cut was released in 1992 to considerable attention and praise.
Once Scott got started, it was hard for him to stop. Several iterations of Blade Runner have been released in the years since, including a seemingly definitive Final Cut in 2007 that supposedly represents Scott’s full intentions. If not for a mix-up with the print, we might all still be listening to a half-awake Ford, dreaming of unicorns we never see.