God help you if you use voice-over in your work, my friends. God help
you. That’s flaccid, sloppy writing. Any idiot can write a voice-over
narration to explain the thoughts of a character.”

- Brian Cox as real guy Robert McKee in Adaptation

statement is just as often wrong as it is right, and we aim to document
both sides of that coin. Sure, when voice-over is used poorly it
becomes a distraction or redundant, but when it’s used well it’s a
complete joy, bringing you right inside a movie.

the course of this week we’re going to examine five of the best and
five of the worst movie voice-overs. There may be a couple of obvious
ones that we leave out so we can squeeze in a couple of
under-appreciated gems or a few under-hated turds, but for the next
five days you’ll be getting a guided tour of the highlights and
lowlights of people speaking over the action in a movie.

The Worst

Blade Runner (1982)
Director: Ridley Scott
Writer: Hampton Fancher, David Peoples, Roland Kibbee (voiceover)
Voice-over type: The donut-fat cop.

At this point in my life, there are almost no films where nostalgia comes into play. Blade Runner is one of the very few. I don’t have any problem remembering how bad elements of other movies are between viewings, but I always have to watch BR again to really feel how bad the voice-over is. I remember the film with Harrison’ Ford’s voice-over. In my mind the audio track transmutes into a sensitive, quiet layer of storytelling that adds depth and context.

Sometimes, my mind is shit.

Whatever the reasons were for adding narration to Ridley Scott’s adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s novel, they’re completely misguided. “I didn’t know whether Leon gave Holden a legit address, but it was the only lead I had so I checked it out” doesn’t add a damn thing when Deckard explores a Replican’t apartment. It takes away; by diluting atmosphere it reduces the movie to a children’s book. Even with narration in place, the film’s edit is happier without; massive swaths of celluloid go by with nary an intrusion from GodFord. It’s only when the movie becomes wholly quiet that Ford’s mindvoice arrives. Ridley Scott was prescient in some sense; too bad one of the things he prefigured was our current inability to let a quiet moment go by as is.

I can be thankful for the face that narration wasn’t added to scenes that don’t feature Deckard. But there is still the problem that Ford’s tracks doesn’t even sound like it is part of the same film. With the V/O, Blade Runner is like an artifact being examined by a bored scientist decades after the fact. We don’t even have to ask whether Ford is on dialysis, or if he just doesn’t care; the answer is obvious.

Voiceover lowlight: “I’d quit because I have a belly full of killing. But then, I ‘d rather be a killer than a victim, and that’s exactly what Bryant’s threat about little people meant. So I hooked in once more thinking that if I couldn’t take it I’d split later.”

- Russ Fischer

The Best

Blade Runner (1982)
Director: Ridley Scott
Writer: Hampton Fancher, David Peoples, Roland Kibbee (voiceover)
Voice-over type: The Fast Talking, Not Very Regretful Confessional

Narration in a film noir doesn’t have to be deep or even all that insightful. What it needs to do is provide a bedrock for the story, something to either help attain tone, entertain, share the thoughts of the protagonist, or fill the empty air. Blade Runner‘s voiceover is leaden, filled with some of Harrison Ford’s least passionate work, and creates as many arguments in the fan community as it silences. It’s cold and lifeless and unremarkable. Which is why I love it. It aids the tone, it’s entertaining, it fills the empty air, and in a film rife with questions and controversies it manages to help both arguments like some sort of bipolar accomplice.

The movie hasn’t aged a day for a variety of reasons, one of which (at least in the theatrical cut) is the voice work. Hard-boiled narration is timeless, having been effective and provided the necessary heightening for crime films and procedurals since the Baby Boomer era and Blade Runner is one of the colossal examples of tried-and-true genres smashing together. The “Future Noir” or whatever you want to call it, is made by the voiceover.

It’s still my preferred way to watch the movie. When I was ten years old seeing this movie in the theater, I was transfixed by it. Everything about it redefined and refined my tastes and expectations. Now as a shell of myself… it reveals new facets with each viewing.

Blade Runner is a masterpiece no matter which cut you’re watching. No matter with or without voice over. No matter what you, Ridley Scott, or Harrison Ford think Rick Deckard is at the end of the story. It’s a rare bird that allows each viewer to have their own way of taking the film in, whether the narration ruins the experience for you (scroll up) or makes it better.

Voiceover highlight: “I don’t know why he saved my life. Maybe in those last moments he loved life more than he ever had before. Not just his life – anybody’s life, my life. All he’d wanted were the same answers the rest of us want. Where did I come from? Where am I going? How long have I got? All I could do was sit there and watch him die.” 

- Nick Nunziata

Tomorrow: Our HONORABLE MENTIONS (yes, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is in there).