The fashion for all things 80s reached its most ambitious last year with a sequel to one of the most influential pieces of pop culture ever made. Rapturous reviews were penned by middle-aged male critics, the kind of sycophantic fervour that gets whipped up by the juggernaut of press junket momentum reserved for tent pole films. The vanguard was led by representatives of a demographic already in thrall to the original (guilty!). It was as though their favorite punk band had been reformed by a Silicon Valley advertising agency and was inviting them to re-live their youth with slick VIP packages and all-access backstage passes. They emerged out of the theatres in a delirium of misplaced nostalgia and saw it as the second coming, the saviour of artistic Sci-Fi. Barely a voice of dissension was heard among their ranks. All of them were eager to endorse the mainstream re-imagining of a film that had been denied the same commercial clout as the Star Wars franchise. A film that had its box office thunder stolen from it by, er… E.T. Each review was as myopic as the last, willfully ignoring the pitfalls and flaws of something slavishly harking back to an original work. Blade Runner 2049 has been accorded so much critical acclaim by the mainstream press that some have suggested it may have surpassed the original. For that to be true we should consider the enduring cult of Blade Runner against the easy hyperbole of film journalism and compare and contrast the two works. And look at Blade Runner 2049 within the context of today’s cinema and television.
In recent years, Ridley Scott has sought to mine the origins of the first Alien film, forensically examining every ambiguity and mystery until we have a kind of We Can Remember it for you Wholesale approach of painful explication that sullies the original “less is more” school of narrative, leaving us with dull answers to tantalizing questions. Budgetary restrictions provide wonderful opportunities for the narratives of both Alien and Blade Runner, whether these come in the form of unexplained vignettes open to audience interpretation or off-screen action told through characters’ dialogue. Scott was always able to make a virtue of the limited resources at his disposal, thus whole swathes of the ever evolving Dangerous Days script were rendered unfilmable and future-noir, rain-soaked, neon-lit darkness became a necessity since production only had one street set up, whose artifice wouldn’t have stood up to daylight scrutiny. Analogue technology that was pushed beyond its usual limitations. Tensions were high on set and there were threats of litigation to oust Scott and producer Michael Deeley, a pair of arrogant limeys in Tinseltown who refused to be dissuaded from their uncompromising vision. Upon its release, Blade Runner was a commercial failure that went on to become the most impactful Sci-Fi movie since 2001. It was a hard-won victory that straddled the line between art and commerce. Scott and Deeley fought tooth and nail to realise their vision, at constant loggerheads with Bud Yorkin and Jerry Perenchio, two producers of light entertainment who just didn’t “get it.” Its influence cannot be overstated and was so pervasive that, decades later, the Cyberpunk aesthetic that it came to define was still being referenced in pop promos, commercials, fashion and films.
With Blade Runner 2049, Michael Green, who scripted Alien Covenant (one of the most blatant examples of the prequel/origin hybrid) teams up here with Hampton Fancher to riff on all the original ideas that made Blade Runner so groundbreaking in the first place and provide us with a similar “greatest hits” package. Franchises, sequels and, to a lesser extent, remakes are for the most part director-proof. Any artistic signature that a team of creatives possess is superseded by an existing template that cannot be deviated from, unless the remit is to transcend the original. BR49 is a classic example of this edict and the principle team seems to have been employed under these constraints, where no one is able to bring anything fresh or groundbreaking to the table. Ridley Scott is The Man That Cannot Step Into The Same River Twice, so instead he sends in Denis Villeneuve to recreate lightning in a bottle, except he is unable throw away the blueprint from 1982. The core influence of Blade Runner’s art department, conceptualised by Syd Mead, was Gene Giraud ‘Moebius’ work in the Métal Hurlant magazine, artwork that influenced William Gibson’s Neuromancer and in turn created Cyberpunk. Blade Runner was the first cinematic manifestation of that genre. It is as central to Blade Runner as HR Giger is to Alien (Moebius also had a hand in designing the spacesuits for Alien). In BR2049, only here, everyone is working to a formula — and it doesn’t end with the production design. The post-punk replicant gang who made the original so compelling are given their Blade Runner archetypal roles: Sylvia Hoeks is there to channel her fellow Dutch compatriot Rutgar Haur, but without the William Blake quotes and sense of playful menace, Makenzie Davies is an obvious nod to Daryl Hanna’s Pris — 35 years on — and the Hazel O’Conner look is still in vogue for Basic Pleasure models. Meanwhile, Jared Leto plays a Tyrell-type character and even delivers his lines in such a way as to become indistinguishable from Joe Turkel’s robotic cue card delivery, where the Tyrell corporation’s motto of “More Human Than Human” becomes “More Turkel than Turkel.” Lennie James makes an appearance (bringing with him all that unfortunate straight-to-video post-apocalyptic baggage from The Walking Dead) as the overseer of an orphanage, swapping his ice hockey armor for pseudo Victorian garb in a kind of Oliver Twist Beyond Thunderdome. This is the kind of cynical Comic Con casting that leaves me shaking my head. Roger Deakins avoids creating an homage to Jordan Crononweth’s photography as the Blade Runner universe is delivered from the darkness of German Expressionism and Film Noir and into sleeker vistas of light and space. The Blade Runner visual aesthetic forever changed the look of science fiction. It came from an evolution of work that goes back some two thousand commercials that Scott directed and where he honed his so-called signature style over content. They were full of the obsessive attention to detail and dreamy cinematography that would characterise his later work. Directors of Photography like Frank Tidy, Hugh Johnson and Derek Vanlint all cut their teeth photographying these commercials with Scott and took the bucolic yesteryear of Hovis ads to the autumnal hues of the Napoleonic France of The Duelists and eventually through to the greasy computers of blue collar space freight in Alien. These films had little psychological depth and were thin on characterisation, but conveyed meaning through stunning visuals. Roger Deakins was Villeneuve’s closest ally here, and there are certain similarities to the aerial cityscapes of their previous work on Scicario. It came as no surprise to learn that the favelas of Mexico city provided a lot of the inspiration for the production. Some of the more interesting visual concepts of BR2049 are the forays into a ruinous sand swept La Vegas (another Syd Mead vision) which are a welcome distraction from the more sterile and dehumanised technological spaces. These scenes are where the film comes into its own. There’s nothing radical though, or as iconic as the Gordon Willis chiaroscuro renaissance of The Godfather or the 18th-century Hogarthian canvases of John Alcot’s work on Barry Lyndon, nothing that’s about to break the mould and redefine the look of Science Fiction. Whilst dazzling as a technical achievement, it’s mostly servicing a lifeless script that doesn’t ever seem to be referencing a whole lot on a cultural level that hasn’t been done to death before under the dystopian umbrella of grunge tech. I’ll go out on a limb here and suggest that most of BR2049 looks indistinguishable from any Tom Cruise or Will Smith vehicle, the kind of generic Sci-Fi that’s become the default setting for the IT help-desk. In fact, none of the creatives has anything to strongly key off of, probably due in part to Villeneuve’s director-by-proxy role, but mostly because said script doesn’t demand it. By the time the shelved Kubrick/Brian Aldiss project was being made, Speiberg’s AI was still going for the Blade Runner look in the cityscapes, albeit in a more sanitised version made more palatable for an audience who prefer a less subversive and less avant-garde view of the future. It’s that imagery which is evoked for the populated spaces in this movie, with its hundred foot holographic advertisements heavily influenced by the Ghost in the Shell reboot, plus liberal doses of Minority Report for some of the bleaker aspects. Similarly, the Hans Zimmer score is decidedly low-key and, like everything else, all it can do is to hark back to the original source and re-use Vangellis’ seminal work. Think of the subtle evocation of 40’s noir existentialism in the Ink-Spots inspired One More Kiss Dear featuring on Blade Runner’s original soundtrack that has saxophones and synths colliding and interweaving with Demis Roussos’ Arabesque vocals to underscore the disparate cultures of retro-futurist, hard-boiled Americana and the encroachment of far east corporatism. No such intertextual relationship exists in BR2049. Instead, would-be blockbusters, however thoughtful, demand more commercially reliable returns on their investments and so Sinatra, Monroe and Elvis are all referenced for immediate brand recognition. The iconic triumvirate of American stardom are all holographic ghosts, forever trapped in a decaying Vegas — a sad remnant of Western capitalism. The problem here is that their undisputed status is so inviolable that they overshadow and further undermine the film’s credibility as a stand-alone original work. It’s all the more amusing in the context of Ridley Scott’s comments a while back on certain sets on Forbidden Planet mirroring Fifties fashion and looking like Frank Sinatra’s living room — whereas here we have Ol’ Blue Eyes’ Vegas, in all of its moth-eaten Rat-Pack glory.
The conundrum faced with creating a Blade Runner coda is that the emotional core of the original film was never in the protagonist. Through expressionist lighting and production design, the film itself was imbued with a sense of longing and lachrymose nostalgia for the mutability of time and the theme of mortality. Ruination and decay were juxtaposed with high technology that was shown to do little to improve people’s lives. In the documentary On The Edge of Blade Runner, Rutger Haur’s summation of Deckard is “A Guy who gets a gun put to his head and f***s the dishwasher — and then he falls in love with her… He’s introduced as this detective hero, but he’s not the hero, he’s the bad guy.” This problem was off-set by making the replicants sympathetic and more engaging than the hero. With their attachment to photographs, memory implants and dreams of unicorns, a sense of emotion and mystery is implied, but the audience is never told what to think. The guy who gets a gun to his head and f***s the dishwasher is the legacy that BR2049 seeks to augment. Here we get Ryan Gosling playing a replicant living with the dishwasher. His holographic companion (a theme more effectively explored in Spike Jonze’ Her) never strays far from the most basic of Sci-Fi narrative devices and feels like something that could have been dealt with far more originally in a single episode of Black Mirror. Denis Villeneuve’s intellectually driven blockbuster was meant to be a game changer for mainstream cinema, but what was meditative and elegiac under a comparatively lean running time in the original Blade Runner now comes across as excessive and tedious. The first hour is particularly dull as it sets up its quasi-religious exposition. The central conceit of replicants being able to reproduce and having Deckard and Rachel’s union producing something thematic to the immaculate conception and messiah child is ridiculously portentous and bears all the hallmarks of Scott’s more recent grandiose Promethean fixations. There are, however, a few moments of cold cinematic brilliance, namely the Martian-tinged Vegas scenes and a Spinner chase resulting in a crash landing in a reservoir — even if it does have the female villain dispatched like a Glenn Close bunny boiler. Embryonic ideas that were rejected first time around are dusted off in a bid to authenticate the film: in wresting the cinematic potential from Philip K Dick’s novel, Hampton Fancher vividly describes a scene from an early draft for the original Blade Runner as a fevered state of farming and boiling soup amidst the setting of an arid wasteland. Now, 35 years later, this same scene provides the opening of BR2049 pretty much frame by frame. You can see why it wouldn’t have worked in the original because it would have interfered with the urban claustrophobia, but, in the upgraded version, it provides the springboard for something more grandiose and ambitious, yet it falls flat compared to the opening of the Hades landscape from the original. It also communicates the idea to the Blade Runner diehard that a writer who once drove himself to nervous exhaustion in adapting Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? can see a rejected idea finally realised, unfettered from studio interference in a more enlightened age that is less likely to turn a deaf ear to an artistic voice.
In the age of box set TV series and novelistic storytelling, risk-averse filmmaking and narrow demographics are being increasingly threatened by cable television. Blade Runner 2049 wants to indulge in the longueurs of HBO’s Westworld with a meandering narrative that allows its characters to wander off-piste and explore their terrain, except BR2049 results in a fan boy flick with all the sensibility and scope of a video game. Whilst Westworld has its synthetic humans developing self-awareness in accordance with the Sci-Fi tropes of artificial intelligence, its key theme is female emancipation in a kind of Calamity Jane Stepford Wives mashup, a show that bears many surface similarities to Netflix’s more ersatz feminist Godless. Despite its AI uprising ambitions, Blade Runner 2049 becomes the inverse of the feminine-centric television of today. There isn’t anything remotely feminist about it. It willfully screws its eyes shut and hopes that, by casting Robin Wright, it will somehow invoke the spirit of Clare Underwood — except her character in 2049 very much orbits around her male subordinate, as does every female character in the film. Never mind Voight Kamphf, 2049 doesn’t go anywhere near the Bechdel Test. Sean Young is allowed back into the fold as a necrophiliac CGI’d version of her younger self whilst her male co-star is allowed to grow old gracefully. The film has the uncomfortable air of being a throwback to an increasingly outmoded patriarchal and dynastic Hollywood system, which is odd considering a past work of Ripleys, Thelma & Louises and GI Janes on the Scott Free CV, and odder still when you think about how big a role maternity features in Villeneuve’s Arrival. The problem is that in the intervening 35 years, the Blade Runner legacy has caught up with itself. All that’s left is a misplaced tribute and Hampton Fancher’s reheated soup.
The relative commercial failure of 2049 suggests the Blade Runner phenomenon is still about cult rather than mass appeal because its principal themes are bleakly dystopian and existential. Anti-Hollywood endings and divorcing science fiction from the action film genre was never going to bode well for box office returns. To turn it into something resembling the Alien franchise, Blade Runner would need to be handed back over to the suits and subject to the laws of diminishing returns and diminished responsibility. But Blade Runner never needed an upgrade in the first place. Instead, it should be preserved in amber and curated as a museum piece in all of its revised forms: Director’s Cut, Workprint, Theatrical release, etc, like anything with an historical significance.
Instead of mining the original novel for ideas that weren’t used first time round, they sought to use big themes and broad strokes for an independent story that has no legs, but the crux of the matter is that whilst Blade Runner was freely adapted from solid source material and ignited the postmodern Cyberpunk zeitgeist, its successor seeks to furrow its own path and completely remove all Philip K Dick characteristics. Without a sense of prescience beyond the here and now, all it can ultimately be is a thin simulacra of the original. It might be interesting to see what Denis Villeneuve does with the proposed Dune remake (another crack at an 80s Sci-Fi commercial disaster and something else that dared to stray from the more anodyne shootout in a toy store Spielberg/Lucas commercial powerhouse.) Blade Runner 2049 wants to “Reverse the Polarity” of Lucasfilm Industrial Light and Magic influence and redefine blockbuster Sci-Fi with Tarkovsky-like meditations, but it cannot escape the long shadow of an established classic. The only way this would be achievable would be to create something wholly original that isn’t so indebted to the past, something that doesn’t perpetuate the specious notion (often propagated by the baby boomers) that the 21st century is artistically dead. The maverick social commentary and intellectualism of seventies cinema is finding its voice on increasingly large HD home screens, whilst pseudo intellectual fare such as Inception and now Blade Runner 2049 are being peddled to the multiplexes. The disparity is growing and cinema is losing ground to the streaming services of Netflix, HBO Amazon and Hulu. At its most poetic, the big screen can offer a transcendent experience that other mediums can’t, create unforgettable and iconic moments, or what Kubrick called non-submersible units. Under a consumer model that has no sign of slowing down its exponential growth, all of these streamed moments will be increasingly lost in time, like tears in rain. Guillermo del Toro describes Blade Runner — a film that, changed his life — as “pure cinema.” Pure cinema has an immersive and oneiric quality that television is still unable to compete with. Enduring non-submersible units lose their potency on made-for-TV. Television, no matter how well cinematically crafted, always leaves less of a lasting impression. Netflix’s latest offering: the self-reflexive Altered Carbon, (a show resembling Blade Runner more than BR2049 does) has a super-intelligent production design crowding every available space with vertiginous Blade Runner detail. It references everything from the futuristic museology of Louvre-like spaces for the rich above the clouds to street-level overpopulation, neon-drenched gutters and Chandleresque femmes fatales. Full of gorgeous set design and beautiful photography, with direction and editing reminiscent of the look and feel of American Horror Story, Cyberpunk has come full circle and now looks like a Ridley Scott commercial. Altered Carbon is also purposely trashy, neatly packaged for the consumerist, appealing both to goldfish-bowl attention spanners and to the more discerning viewer. The action sequences have an exploitative edge and have that Canon Group, Golan-Globus 80s-era sleaze about them. The show reads like televised segments of a blockbuster sequel beamed in from an alternate universe. The difference between Blade Runner 2049 and Altered Carbon is that critics have been calling Altered Carbon out for what it is, probably because it doesn’t take itself too seriously. But there is a Trojan Horse in there somewhere that threatens a life beyond the Blade Runner of 2049. Against such parvenus, Blade Runner as cinema looks set to be once more overshadowed in the populist stakes because of the near-impossible demands of how films have become judged by the blockbuster definitions of their opening weekends. In any case, the trying conditions under which Blade Runner was made back in 1982 and the aggressive atmosphere of short-sighted mistrust from the money men who opposed its completion is a direct contrast to Sony’s corporate indulgences and the kind of open check budget lavished on its sequel. All of this will doubtless prove in time that foresight and assured cult status cannot be bought.