When Blade Runner was released in 1982, its Cyberpunk dystopia seemed like a plausible possibility for the future. Indeed Blade Runner, along with the magazine-published story Johnny Mnemonic from one year earlier, may well have created the Cyberpunk cultural movement. When I first visited Los Angeles, several years after first having seen Blade Runner, it was easy for me to see how 1980s LA would become Blade Runner‘s LA within a few decades. The imagery of overcrowding, poisonous smog, and a dehumanizing of society in favor of technological advances looked to be a fair warning about where we were headed.
Similarly, the years around 1980 were at the height of our fears about Japanese corporations eclipsing the economic power of the U.S. Again, it seemed a reasonable assumption that if corporate America became a subsidiary of Japan, Inc., then so would Japanese culture come to overshadow American life, particularly where the two intersected. I remember 1989, when Mitsubishi bought Rockefeller Center, as peak fear of Japan. It would only take a few years more for Mitsubishi to lose their shirt, forced to sell out to Goldman Sachs at a huge loss. With that, Japan no longer seemed so scary.
There are two aspects of Blade Runner‘s warnings that seem particularly jarring today. First, is those predictions themselves. America has its worries; Global Warming, China, Mexico may top the list (particularly depending on whose fear-mongering you put your stock into) but pretty much none of the bugbears of Blade Runner are on our horizon. Japan is just a minor economic partner, at this point, and mostly one of the “good guys.” Environmentally, we’re more worried about “carbon” than actual pollution (sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and particulates) and cheek-to-jowl overcrowding. And despite coming ever closer to the realization of sentient AI and post-uncanny valley robots, our fear of these technologies may have actually diminished. Perhaps the realization of just how difficult the technology will be to realize lets us put our fears into perspective.
The other shocker is that Blade Runner is set in 2019. That future, that seemed plausible 37 years ago, has arrived. Instead of flying cars, artificial wildlife, and acid rain we have a future that doesn’t seem all that different than 1982. Blade Runner seems to have missed the cell phone thing, even though the technology was up and coming even in 1980. More understandably, they failed to anticipate graphic processing units*, with even advanced computer vision technology being rendered on tiny, staticky screens. The ubiquity of small screens and President Trump aside, I don’t think 1980s me would be terribly surprised by a sudden glimpse of 2019.
Upon release, the reception for Blade Runner was mixed. The studio sold it as an action/adventure but the films pace doesn’t quite live up to that billing. Some critics found fault with the over-emphasis on special effects and imagery over character development and plot. Audience response was luke-warm and the box office take of the movie barely exceeded its budget. It would take years and the release of different “Director’s Cut” versions of the film for it to really come into its own. Most critically, in those alternate versions, the removal of the narration added a feeling of depth to the movie.
I dug out my DVD (what version?… I can’t keep track**) and watched it again to prepare myself to watch Blade Runner 2049. It can be difficult to watch this move, now, without focusing almost exclusively on the question as to whether Decker is an android himself. After this pass-through, I’m going to have to say “no.” Your mileage may vary.
I would also say that some of those original critics do have a point. The story takes a back seat to the “ambiance.” Put aside the is-he-or-isn’t he question and it is hard to build a consistent world around what story you have left. But let’s give it a try, shall we?
The story that remains also persists in the popular imagination because of its questions about what it is to be human. The returned replicants, or at the very least Hauer’s Batty, are portrayed as superior in every way except lifespan to those who created them. While Batty is told by his “maker,” Tyrell, that the two come together we know from earlier exposition that the limited lifespan was deliberately engineered to halt the emotional development of the replicants before they can become independent. If we see ourselves as (allegorically) replicants, the quest of the Nexus-6s to seek out their creator and ask for more life becomes a stand-in for modern, scientific man’s struggle with the border between our advancement in thought and the realm previously occupied by religion.
The other theme is the one explored by Les Revenants: If you are not human, how would you know? We know Rachel is a replicant, but she does not. She is unable to the fact without being show proof from someone who is human. Assuming Deckard is, in fact, human, we are shown similarities between him and the replicants which he hunts. In Decker’s case, could his job (killing living beings) and the dehumanizing system in which he works siphon away his humanity? Is that why he sometimes seems less human than human?
Next to these symbolic themes, the story itself takes second fiddle. Although Decker does manage to kill all but two of the replicants, he is unable to prevent Batty from killing Tyrell – seemingly the whole point making replicants illegal on earth. For the most part, the replicants have inserted themselves seamlessly into society and, but for the Blade Runners hunting them down, cause no trouble or violence. As to Batty himself, Decker is unable to best him and, in the end, only wins when Batty dies of “old age.” The machine, as an individual, has triumphed over the man but, in the end, mankind still wins. Or is it that we, ultimately, will be defeated by the divine (or nature, depending on how you interpret it) no matter how much we can advance ourselves?
For all of the iconic position attained Scott’s cyberpunk imagery in the decades that followed, his world is surprisingly ill-developed. We have no idea what exists “off-world” much less outside the city limits of Los Angeles. As I said, the world seemed like a plausible future, circa 1982, but (or maybe because of it) the film makes no effort to explain how we got there. Los Angeles shows some signs of massive overcrowding and, also, depopulation. Despite the fact that Earth has been declared a haven, protected from replicants, it also seems to be an undesirable place to live. Several times it is mentioned that only those who aren’t healthy enough to leave earth remain on the planet. Yet, there are those like Deckard and Tyrell who seem to be on Earth as a matter of choice. The technology is particularly vexing. We see a combination of futuristic advancements along side apparent decline. The space exploration (particularly in combination with the Replicant’s five-year life span) hints at man’s having discovered faster-than-light travel. Yet, for whatever advancements we have made, our world has become less livable and less human. Again, it seemed a plausible future in 1982.
But importantly it is that lack of definition that allowed us, the 1982 audience, to make of it what we would. We could suspend our disbelief for what we saw on screen because we were being asked to accept it at face value.
There appears to be a general trend with respect to films today when compared to forty years ago. Today, audiences like their details. While I can see why, indulging them within feature-length films comes at a price. One particular bone stuck in my craw is the Star Wars “universe.” In the original Star Wars, we knew very little about that “galaxy far, far away.” We encountered only three planets (with one of them in pieces) and, beyond that, knew practically nothing about the rest of the inhabited parts of the galaxy. There was, we could surmise, an “empire” with an “emperor,” but we knew nothing about him except through a few of his minions. One might assume, if the minions were as scary as Grand Moff Tarkin and Darth Vader, some vast imperial hierarchy only hinted at by the cryptic names and titles we did hear. The empire seemed powerful indeed. When we do travel between worlds, we have little sense of the distances involved. The various planets that featured in the movie are supposed to be “remote,” suggesting both far and inaccessible from the seat of this great empire.
From sci-fi angle, th civilization of Star Wars understands faster-than-light travel. But unlike, say, Star Trek where that was quantified with “warp factors,” in the original Star Wars we have no idea how fast “hyperspace” movement actually is. We’re know little in the way of details of how it works. For example, the Millennium Falcon can travel over vast distances using hyperspace drive and Tie Fighters cannot. Why would this be? One question I’ve tried to ask people is this. First, imagine that you’ve just seen the original Star Wars for the first time, and no other Star Wars cannon exists. Using only what is in the movie, how long do you think it took the Millennium Falcon to travel from Tatooine to Alderan? At the time, I believe I would have said “weeks.” I’ve had that question answered that it is essentially the time consumed by the action as portrayed on the screen; a couple of hours at most, maybe less. Whatever the right answer is, the more salient point is that there is no way to know.
Enter, now, all the Star Wars stuff that has come since. We’ve learned that travel is near-instantaneous (it ignores relativistic effects, of course) between any two points in the galaxy. We also understand the nature of that imperial hierarchy and it now seems a lot less than I had original imagined. I don’t know if, somewhere, someone has counted up governors and/or other administrators but it has to be related to the size of the imperial senate, which we have seen. As to the title “Darth,” we now understand that applies to exactly two entities in the entire universe; a fact that I found particularly disappointing. The more that Lucas, and now Disney, fleshes out this “universe,” the smaller it becomes. Eventually, we have, literally, generations of space travelers bouncing around between a mere handful of planets, most of which seem to consist of one city.
I go off on this particular tangent because Blade Runner, like the original Star Wars, was left pretty vague. In terms of the science behind it, it leaves a lot of holes. It may even be that those holes are impossible to fill. However, by leaving those holes unfilled and the unimportant parts of the world undefined, the film invites the viewer to just ignore the gaps and go with the flow. Assume, we say to the viewer, that this all could be made sense of if you put your mind to it, but lets not put our minds to it just now. Let’s just sit back and enjoy the film. However, when a film is no longer a stand-alone piece but part of a series, it becomes harder and harder to ask this of the audience. At a minimum, the film should be required to connect the dots between the different installments shouldn’t it? Well, maybe or maybe not back in the late-70s, early 80s. But in the twenty-teens, yes, that is something we expect.
So now on to Blade Runner 2049, the 2017 sequel. But before we do, let’s think about sequels in general. Why make one?
I guess one obvious answer is “to make money.” We certainly see, these days, a primacy of the “franchise” as a basis for the major releases from the big studios. It’s a question of marketing as well as a way to eliminate some of the uncertainties. If everyone loved Splendiferous Man 1 and Splendiferous Man 2, Splendiferous Man 3: The Rise of Splendiferous Man should be an easy sell. On the other hand, if everyone hated Splendiferous Man 1 and it failed at the box office, it might be reasonable to assume that further Splendiferous titles will have a tough time turning a profit. One detects a certain level of this reasoning when it comes to Blade Runner 2049. A lot of people LOVE Blade Runner. A good chunk of these people are going to be guaranteed consumers of Blade Runner 2049 based on the title alone. There may be some hurdles you have to jump to execute this well, and we’ll come back to those later.
But first, lets try to be just a little less cynical. Sequels are made when a film is particularly successful but it used a curtailed form of its source material. Think The Godfather II, made largely from the parts of the book which didn’t make it into the original film. This obviously doesn’t apply to Blade Runner as the short story upon which it was based had no additional material to use. The connection between Philip Dick’s original and the Blade Runner story is tenuous enough already.
Sequels might also come from original screenplays where an audience is left eager to find out what happens next. For examples, it is easier for me to come up with examples in the television world, where a TV series continues adding new seasons as long as it draws viewers. This too, however, wouldn’t seem to apply to Blade Runner. Would you bring back Deckard to battle it out with even more replicants? That would be contrary to the film’s ending where we think (maybe, maybe not?) that Deckard has finally gotten out of the life?
Where Blade Runner does kind of fit, again cynical interpretations aside, is the case where you’ve created an appealing “universe,” as they say these days, and there is an audience that craves more stories taking place in that world. Lucas’ claims that Star Wars was a 9-part story from the get-go aside, this might be the perfect example. Even better if you and I had creative control over the Star Wars franchise before Lucas and then Disney ****ed it up. What else might have happened, long-long ago in this galaxy far-far away? Similarly, Blade Runner created such an iconic representation of the future that it would stand to reason the fans want to know more about what that future holds.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be where the production went, forcing us to fall back on the “more money” verdict when it comes to this sequel. When the original Blade Runner‘s future is only a year-or-two away, fleshing out that world makes considerably less sense. 2049 didn’t go this direction at all, creating several massive disruptions between that past-future and the present one. Consistent with our twenty-teen mentality, those disasters, one ecological and one electromagnetic, are described in some detail. In the original Blade Runner, we were willing to accept that the dystopia on our screens was merely somehow a result of stuff in that intervening 30 years, and it worked. In the new version, we’re are told what that stuff was. If it doesn’t make sense, well, too bad.
Also, to make sure the money connection works, the producers used Deckard’s character and actor Harrison Ford to bridge the gap. In doing so, the story itself has to, despite 30 years of time having passed, start right where we left off in the first film. The result is a number of contortions which, in the end, produce a story with even less narrative depth than that of the original. The search (and I’ll stay vague, here, so as not to ruin what story there is) seems to be for more of a MacGuffin than a meaningful artifact, either within the Blade Runner world or as modern-world allegory. As little sense as it might make narratively, it makes even less sense in terms of the science fiction. There is also some serious logical issues, particularly when it comes to information and awareness. The “government” of that future seems to be nearly omniscient, except when it comes to things about which they know nothing.
So far, I’ve been running down the new movie, but what it does get right is updating the look and feel of the original. In terms of visuals and special effects, everything that worked in 1982 can be done better with today’s technology. Beyond the visuals, I consider the Blade Runner 2049 soundtrack as a high point. I hesitated bit before writing this. It’s fairly minimalistic and sometimes a bit incongruous with the film that it is enhancing, but what modern CGI has done for the visuals, Hans Zimmer has done for the Vangelis soundtrack of the original.
So for several decades, the original Blade Runner helped define one way we thought about the future. Because of this, it grew in importance as the film aged. Effects-wise, it has aged better than one might expect. As its future is approached by our present, it allows us to think about how things have changed unexpectedly and how other things haven’t changed at all. Cyberpunk might have been a cool future for the imagination, but it wasn’t a very realistic one. I don’t expect Blade Runner 2049 to have any such cultural longevity. The movie says little about our future or even our present, except maybe that we live in fear of an environmental catastrophe (as if that isn’t going to be obvious from every work of fiction from our time).
*The exception is the massive, animated billboards ubiquitous in Blade Runner‘s landscape. These have actually come to pass. Today’s Time Square looks far more like Blade Runner than 1980’s Time Square, perhaps not entirely by coincidence (at some point, this was our image of futuristic). Animated billboards are a feature even of small towns these days yet Ridley Scott did not anticipate that this technology was the same that would produce cheap and available personal computer graphical displays.
**Actually, I can, if I just look at the the cover of the box. I have the original “Director’s Cut,” which is the first of the reedits to come out. It primarily fixes the narrator problem but does not include the alternate ending.