Upon hearing early reports of a planned Blade Runner sequel a couple years ago, I felt both anticipation and dread. I considered it a singular vision which didn’t necessarily need a sequel, yet could understand the desire to re-immerse oneself in the compelling world it introduced. Re-experiencing the film through its Director’s Cut and Final Cut versions in subsequent years seemed to me as satisfying as watching sequels since even the relatively minor changes had a significant impact on its meaning and the richness of the sound and production design allows for the discovery of new details with every viewing. Also, one’s subjective experience watching even the same movie can be vastly different depending on one’s age and other circumstances.
One of my earliest cinematic memories was seeing the first Star Wars film as a toddler. At around the same time I remember staying up late with my parents to watch the network television premiere of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Though I was too young to fully comprehend those films’ narratives, the spectacle and sounds definitely left an impression and established a lifelong appreciation for the sci-fi genre and it’s mind-expanding possibilities.
Flash forward to an evening sometime in early 1982. After viewing a commercial for Blade Runner I instantly knew it was a movie I had to see. In the short trailer there were glimpses of flying cars over vast cityscapes, the guy that played Han Solo in a trench coat, bizarre humanoid robots within settings as strange yet detailed as 2001: a Space Odyssey. My parents, responsible as they were, refused to give in to incessant demands to see Blade Runner and that Summer I must have been the only kid who reluctantly agreed to see “E.T.” as a compromise. I probably did enjoy it more than I expected to, but might have enjoyed it more had I not viewed it as a weak Blade Runner substitute and if I actually paid attention to the entire film.
Back then our family usually saw films at drive-in theaters and the one we went to that night had two screens, one showing E.T. and the other, to my delight and frustration, happened to be Blade Runner. Even without sound and at a distorted angle I was awestruck by the establishing shots of LA in 2019 (which I glanced over to witness just as E.T.’s ship was landing on the screen in front of us, and for the entire duration of the films my eyes would switch back and forth between screens. Even without understanding anything about the plot of Blade Runner it made the most fantastical elements of E.T. pale in comparison. Judging from the box-office receipts of its theatrical run, the majority must have thought otherwise since Blade Runner earned a relatively meager $28 million while E.T. was the breakout hit of the year with nearly $360 million.
Within a few years I’d see portions of Blade Runner on cable TV at a friend’s house and finally saw the complete film after my family got a VCR and it was one of the first videos I rented. The film served as a gateway to many other interests such as cyberpunk, film noir, electronic music, but most importantly, an appreciation of the novels of Philip K. Dick. Like a psychedelic drug, they inspired philosophical questioning regarding the nature of reality, consciousness, society and what it means to be human.
This background, which is probably not too dissimilar to other stories of obsessive fandom, outlines how one’s immersion in media is rooted not just in the work itself but how it resonates with and shapes aspects of one’s identity and personal narrative as much as other memories. There’s also a nostalgia factor involved because, similar to a souvenir or any object with sentimental value, revisiting such media can recapture a sense of the feelings and sensations associated with the initial experience and sometimes the milieu of the content as well. Nostalgia is a longing for the past, even a past one has never directly experienced, never was and/or never will be, often prompted by loneliness and disconnectedness. Because it can sometimes provide comfort and hope it’s a feeling too often exploited by the marketing industry as well as media producers such as those behind reboots and sequels. Though Blade Runner 2049 may not have been solely created to cash in on nostalgia for the original, as with most big studio sequels it’s still a factor.
The type of nostalgia evoked by Blade Runner is singular, for it envisions a (near and soon to be past) future through the lens of the early eighties combining a pastiche of styles of previous eras. The film also serves as a meditation on the importance of memory and its relation to identity and the human experience. In a sense, being a longtime fan of the film is like having nostalgia for distilled nostalgia. Also unique is the fact that it took 35 years for the sequel to get made, just a couple years shy of the year in which the original takes place. The long delay is largely due to Blade Runner being so far ahead of its time it took over a decade for it to be widely regarded as a science fiction masterwork. Also, it took an additional decade and a half to develop plans for a sequel. But perhaps now is the ideal time for a follow-up as aspects of our world become more dystopian and there’s a greater need for nostalgic escape, even through narratives predicting dystopia.
While the future world of the original Blade Runner was definitely grim, it was also oddly alluring due to it’s depiction of a chaotic globalized culture, exotic yet functional-looking technology and hybrid retro/futuristic aesthetic shaped by sources as diverse as punk rock fashion, Heavy Metal magazine, film noir and Futurism among many others. The imagery of Blade Runner 2049 expands on the original by visualizing how the future (or alternate reality) LA has evolved over the course of 30 years as well as the environmentally and socially devastating impact of trying to sustain a technocratic corporate global system for so long.
Blade Runner opens with shots of oil refineries in the city intercut with close-ups of a replicant’s eye. 2049 opens with a close-up of an eye and transitions to an overhead shot of an endless array of solar panels, indicating a post peak-oil world. Despite the use of cleaner energy, the world of 2049 is far from clean with the entirety of San Diego depicted as a massive dumping ground for Los Angeles. Scavengers survive off the scraps which are recycled into products assembled by masses of orphaned child laborers in dilapidated sweatshop factories.
The Los Angeles of Blade Runner 2049 looks (and is) even colder and more foreboding than before. Gone are the Art Deco-inspired architecture and furnishings, replaced by Brutalist architecture and fluorescent-lit utilitarian interiors (with a few exceptions such as Deckard’s residence, Stelline Corporation headquarters and the Wallace Corporation building). Aerial shots reveal a vast elevated sprawl of uniform city blocks largely consisting of dark flat rooftops with glimmers of light emanating from below, visible only in the deep but narrow chasms between.
One of the more prominant structures is the LAPD headquarters which looks like an armored watchtower, signalling its role as a hub of the future surveillance state panopticon. Though an imposing feature of the city’s skyline, it’s dwarfed by larger structures housing even more powerful institutions. Just as a massive ziggurat owned by the Tyrell Corporation dominated the cityscape of the first film, by 2049 the Wallace Corporation has bought out the Tyrell Corporation and not only claims the ziggurat but has constructed an absurdly large pyramid behind it. Protecting the entire coastline of the city is a giant sea wall, presumably to prevent mass flooding from rising sea levels.
In a referential nod to the original film, city scenes of 2049 display some of the same ads such as Atari, Coca-Cola and Pan Am, but even more distracting are product placements for Sony, one of the companies which produced the new film. Such details might work as “Easter eggs” for fans (and shareholders), but takes away from the verisimilitude of the world depicted in the film where the Wallace Corporation has such seeming dominance over the economy and society in general, it probably wouldn’t leave much room for competition large enough to afford mass advertising.
While the background characters in the city of the first film seemed rude or largely indifferent to one another, 30 years later citizens are more outwardly hostile. This could reflect increasing social tensions from economic stratification as well as hostility towards replicants because the protagonist of this film is openly identified as one. Speaking of which, Ryan Gosling turns in an excellent performance as the new Blade Runner, Officer K (aka Joe, an obvious reference to Joseph K from Kafka’s “The Trial”).
Ironically, the replicants and other forms of AI in 2049 seem a little more self-aware and human-like while the humans and social institutions have become correspondingly android-like. From the perspective of the future CEOs (and some today), both replicants and non-wealthy humans (known as “little people” in cityspeak) exist to be exploited for labor and money and then “retired” when no longer needed. Reflecting this brutal reality are the largely grey and drab color scheme of the landscapes, interiors, and fashions. Adding to the mood is the soundtrack which, while at times evoking the calmer and more subtle Vangelis music of the original, is more often louder and harsher, sometimes blending with the noisy diegetic (background) soundscape.
2049‘s screenplay is almost a meta-sequel, introducing plot elements seemingly designed to address problems and inconsistencies in the original which have been pointed out by fans and critics through the years. Numerous references to Blade Runner, while nostalgic and crowd-pleasing, are almost distracting enough to break the spell of the film (at least for those who’ve re-watched the original enough times to memorize every detail). Fortunately, just as frequently new revelations, concepts and hints at potential new directions pulls one back in. I especially appreciated the further exploration of the origins and impact of false memories and its parallels to the creation and consumption of media and the way the film expanded the scope of the story beyond the city. Also surprising were references to films partly inspired by the works of Philip K. Dick such as Ghost in the Shell, The Matrix, and Her as well as stylistic influences from more contemporary aesthetic subcultures such as glitch and vaporwave.
Like with most sequels, the main draw for fans is the chance to see familiar faces from the original and 2049 doesn’t disappoint too much. Judging from the posters, trailers, interviews, etc. it was clear Harrison Ford would make a return, but unfortunately it wasn’t until after the majority of the duration of the film had passed. Nevertheless, the reappearance of Ford’s character Deckard was memorable, found by Agent K as a disheveled hermit in an abandoned casino surrounded by copious amounts of alcohol and ancient pop culture detritus. Deckard is apparently as much of a drinker as in the first film, but now not just to block out the pain of the past and present but to escape to an idealized past. Though his involvement in the plot seemed too brief it nevertheless plays a pivotal role in resolving the central mystery of the film and providing additional metacommentary.
Ford’s performance is arguably more compelling than his work in the original, though his character’s lack of charisma in the first film could be seen as intentional. Deckard’s character arc in the film, as well as that of Ford’s last two iconic roles from the 80s he reprised, cements his status as our culture’s archetype for the deadbeat father. This seems inevitable in hindsight because for a generation of latchkey kids (many with actual deadbeat dads), stars such as Harrison Ford were virtually surrogate father figures. Thus, it makes sense that the beloved characters Ford drifted away from for so long would be written as variations of a long absent deadbeat parent in their last installments.
An interesting detail about the way Deckard was characterized in the film was how he seemed more in line with a typical baby-boomer today than the gen x-er one would be at that age 32 years from now. For example, people in their seventies today are probably more likely to be nostalgic for Elvis and Sinatra than a seventy-something person in 2049 who in our actual timeline would have more likely spent formative years listening to grunge or hiphop. A possible subtextual meaning might be that like false memories, nostalgia for media of enduring cultural value transcends lived experience. The referencing of “real” pop-culture figures within the world of the film seemed anachronistic at first, but the way it was done was interesting and worked with the themes and aesthetic (I suppose it’s preferable to having something like Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” shoe-horned into the film like in the Star Trek reboots). Getting back to the point, in the original Blade Runner, nostalgia permeated the film through its themes, production design, costumes and soundtrack. In Blade Runner 2049, nostalgia is a subtext of repeated callbacks to the original film, Agent K’s idealized retro relationship with his AI girlfriend Joi and Deckard’s hideout within the ruins of a city once associated with fun and glamour. The simulacrum of iconic figures from the past like Elvis and Marilyn Monroe (and Ford) haunting the deserted casino like ghosts reinforces the idea of media and culture’s ability to “implant” memories and resultant nostalgia.
As for the finale, I was disappointed that it was so far from the unconventional conclusion of the showdown between Roy Batty and Deckard. One could argue it’s a reflection of the state of the world (in and of film and reality), but it’d be nice to have a little more creativity and risk-taking. Though viscerally exciting and suspenseful, it wasn’t distinguishable enough from countless modern action films to be truly memorable. More satisfying was the epilogue which paralleled the contemplative nature of the original while reconnecting to the film’s recurring themes.
In a sense, the writers and director of Blade Runner 2049 were in a catch-22 situation. Creating a film too unlike or similar to the original Blade Runner would provoke criticism from fans. What director Denis Villeneuve and co-writers Hampton Fancher and Michael Green have managed to pull off is a balancing act of a film that’s unique in many ways yet interwoven with the original; nostalgic, but not in an obvious or overly sentimental way. Both have their flaws, but while I admire the thought and craft put into the sequel, I prefer the originality, tone, texture and atmosphere of Blade Runner. Blade Runner 2049 will likely satisfy most sci-fi fans, but I’m not sure it proves a sequel was necessary or that it stands alone as a classic.
Though not given the recognition it deserved in its time, Blade Runner was a groundbreaking and visionary film upping the bar for intellectual depth, moral complexity, production design and special effects to a degree not seen since 2001: a Space Odyssey. Its influence can be spotted in countless dystopian science fiction films made since. Though it’s too early to tell how influential Blade Runner 2049 will be, it doesn’t seem to have pushed the genre forward to a similar extent (of course contemporaneous opinions can seem wildly off the mark in hindsight). Regardless, it’s an above-average science fiction film by any reasonable standard so it’s unfortunate that judging from disappointing initial box-office reports, it seems to be following in the footsteps of the first Blade Runner pretty closely in that regard. Time will tell whether it achieves a similar cult status in years to come. Perhaps in 35 years?