Bladerunner courtesy Warner Bros.
I was dazzled by Blade Runner from the first time I saw it, on the day it opened in 1982. The cute 'n' cuddly E.T. killed it at the box office and reviews were mixed (everybody agreed that it was visually dazzling, but most critics were underwhelmed by the story), but over the years Blade Runner's reputation has grown from cult classic to widely recognized masterpiece - it's often called the best science-fiction film ever made, and it's unquestionably one of the most influential. There's a new version of the film - Blade Runner: The Final Cut - coming to DVD on Dec. 18, following a limited theatrical re-release (it was shown at the New York Film Festival last weekend). But Blade Runner is great in any version.

The first movie based on a novel by sci-fi visionary Philip K. Dick - Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? - Blade Runner is set in a decaying future Los Angeles where humanoid "replicants" do humanity's dirtiest jobs, from fighting wars to staffing brothels, and everyone who can afford to get out has moved to one of the off-world colonies. Detective Rick Deckard ( Harrison Ford) is assigned to track down a small gang of rogue replicants - "skin jobs," as his sleazy boss calls them - on the loose in L.A. after defying their programming by hijacking a space shuttle and killing everyone on board. Deckard's investigation takes him through L.A.'s underworld, to the glittering heights of wealth and privilege and, ultimately, deep into his own head. Though the movie differs greatly from Dick's novel, its core concern is the same: What does it mean to be human?

The cast is flawless: Dutch heavy Rutger Hauer as head replicant Roy Batty and Daryl Hannah as lethal sex toy Pris, Brion James and Joanna Cassidy as their partners in crimes of the future, character actor Joseph Turkel ( The Shining's enigmatic bartender; ironically, the landscape shots used for the tacked-on happy ending were borrowed from The Shining) as the head of the company that makes replicants and William Sanderson as one of his employees, Edward J. Olmos as Deckard's enigmatic partner, and M. Emmett Walsh as their boss. Even Ford's stiffness works here: Deckard is uncomfortable in his own skin - even he doesn't know how uncomfortable. And forget all the tabloid craziness about Sean Young; she's fantastic as the state-of-the-art replicant who has no idea she's not human.

Blade Runner's production history was notoriously troubled: Perfectionist director Ridley Scott (then fresh off Alien) alienated much of the cast and crew, the film went over budget and the previews went badly, leading to the 11th-hour addition of Ford's widely - and rightly - despised hard-boiled voiceover and a new, less-downbeat ending.

Since its rediscovery on (in order) video, laser disc and DVD, there have been numerous versions of Blade Runner, starting with the 1989 discovery of print minus the "happy" ending and most of the voiceover. Scott wasn't happy with that version either, but it helped further polish the film's reputation by eliminating elements that never felt as though they belonged in the first place. That version also restored a brief but crucial scene involving Deckard's dream of a unicorn, a crucial piece of evidence that the great irony of Deckard's mission is that he too is a replicant.

You can talk about versions for days, but the fact is, Blade Runner's dystopian future is gripping no matter what, and not just because it looks so seductively gloomy or because Scott's design team found such amazingly offbeat L.A. architecture, including the baroque Bradbury Building (also featured in Chinatown and the original DOA) and Frank Lloyd Wright's Ennis House, to incorporate into his vision of a seductively decaying future.

Things to consider:

Where do you stand on Blade Runner: Masterpiece, or style over substance?

What movie do you think is criminally underrated?

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Hear Maitland on the weekly podcast TV Guide Talk.

See Maitland McDonagh and Ken Fox review this week's new flicks on the Movie Talk vodcast.

Previously in DVD Tuesday:
Zodiac
Manhunter
A Simple Plan
Taxi Driver
Renaissance
Blowup
Hot Fuzz
300
Ace in the Hole
Eyes Without a Face
Apocalypto
Citizen Kane
La Jetée
Gone in 60 Seconds (1974)
Bob le Flambeur
Near Dark
Perfect Blue
Pan's Labyrinth
Les Girls
The Girl Who Knew Too Much
The Queen
Expresso Bongo
I'm Not Scared
Shocking Grindhouse Double Bill! - Scanners and The Candy Snatchers
Don't Look Now
Re-Animator
Casino Royale
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The Prestige
13 Tzameti
The Departed
Suspiria
Kiss and Make Up
Kiss Me Deadly
The Long Good Friday
What Alice Found
The Devil's Backbone
The Descent
The Devil Wears Prada
Pandora's Box
The Thief and the Cobbler
Nashville
Panic in the Streets/Jack Palance Interview
The Pusher Trilogy
Scarface
Slither
Sunset Blvd.
In Cold Blood
Brick
Also: This week's new DVD releases