By Joaquin Lowe
In 1982, Harrison Ford first graced the screen as Rick Deckard in Ridley Scott’s future-epic, Blade Runner. Ford, director Ridley Scott, and a host of the most talented production designers and artists working in the industry created a dark, technologically claustrophobic world where billions of people crowded into crumbling mega cities, cars flew through the air, zeppelins sulked low over the cityscape and blasted glaringly bright ads promising happiness on off-world colonies, where neon flickered in every window and above every doorway, and where human-perfect genetic creations, known as “replicants” were used as slave labor by the people who created them.
The film opens over Los Angeles in 2019. Spires of fire blast into sky and the pyramidal headquarters of mega corporations loom over the cityscape below. Six off-world replicants have escaped their bondage, killed their masters and fled to Earth, and Deckard, a replicant-hunter, or “Blade Runner,” is called in to find and “retire” them. But when Deckard falls in love with Rachel, another replicant, he finds himself on the run like those he was once employed to hunt.
Denis Villeneuve, who helmed last year’s breakout sci-fi drama, Arrival, has now taken the reigns from Scott for Blade Runner 2049, a sequel produced 25 years after the original. In doing so, Villeneuve has set out the monumental task of adding to, while attempting not to rip off, the much beloved original.
“The movie we did is deeply inspired by the first movie, but we tried not to become a pastiche or parody. We used elements from the first movie with humility and tried to find a strength in them. But this movie has its own personality,” Villeneuve said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times.
But in accomplishing his goal, Villeneuve had a lot of ground to cover. As time caught up with the original film’s vision of the future, the errors in the film’s futuristic predictions could appear more glaring. Companies featured prominently in the original—like Atari or Pan Am Airlines—far from dominating the landscape, no longer exist. Villeneuve’s strategy for approaching the world building of his new film took several different paths. In the run-up to the release date, three shorts debuted online that not only help fill in the 30 years between the two theatrical films, but also build on the world of the original and introduce changes in concept and characters that will feature prominently in 2049.
Luke Scott, son of Ridley, directed two of the three short films, “Nexus Dawn” and “Nowhere to Run.” These shorts are largely charged with introducing the characters of Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) and the replicant, Sapper (Dave Bautista), but they also go a long way toward setting up how things have changed in the time since the events of the original Blade Runner. What is most noticeable is that the Wallace Corporation, headed by Niander Wallace, has replaced the Tyrell Corporation, which featured prominently in the first film as the company at the forefront of replicant production.
In these shorts, it is also interesting to note the lack of “smart” devices, the ubiquitous phones and tablets that have become a part of our everyday lives, but that were unforeseen by Scott when he made Blade Runner. Indeed, Luke Scott ends Nowhere to Run with one of his characters reporting the “rogue skin-job,” Sapper, to the authorities using a somewhat anachronistic payphone.
In an interview with CNET, Villeneuve said, "The virtual world is a very powerful universe but is not necessarily very cinematic. There's nothing more boring than a detective behind the keyboard looking at Google."
So we see that one of the ways the director approached the events of the film was not to attempt a prediction of our future, as with many other science fiction stories, but to propose an alternate to the future we seem likely to encounter.
"Sometimes,” Villeneuve told CNET, “I had a strange feeling that I was more doing a period movie than a sci-fi movie.”
The third short film, “Blackout,” is perhaps the most interesting. Clocking in at just less than 16 minutes, it’s nearly three times as long as the other films. And while the previous shorts showed only isolated glimpes of the world and characters we’ll encounter in the new film, “Blackout” feels more like an epilogue to the original. Director and writer Shinichiro Watanabe, best known for his anime series Cowboy Bebop, borrowed heavily from the imagery of the first film. His replicant protagonists, Trixie and Iggy, are near perfect analogs for Pris and Roy Batty. Iggy’s monomaniacal agenda, Trixie’s gymnastic fighting style, a dove taking flight, death mixed with broken glass—they all evoke images and ideas from the original film. But besides being a clear continuation, “Blackout” goes a long way toward setting up what may be a key difference between the worlds of the first and second Blade Runner. Iggy’s mission is the release an EMP pulse that will erase all records of the replicants: who they are, where they are, and what they look like.
This fact, that the replicants surviving in 2049 have blended in and become anonymous, will strike both a shift in tone and storytelling between the two films. While Deckard’s job was straightforward, albeit difficult, Agent K’s (Ryan Gosling) will be more mysterious one. Indeed, we already know from the previews that his mission is to unravel a potential conspiracy that threatens humanity – a much larger and more complicated undertaking than Deckard’s.
Villeneuve seems likely to use this change in scope as a way of breaking free not only from the legacy of Blade Runner, but from the constraints that would otherwise limit his directorial vision by needing to adhere to the setting and tone of the first film. While the original was limited to the mean streets of Los Angeles 2019, trailers show Agent K escaping to a sun-blasted desert hellscape. For as large as Los Angeles of the future may have been, it was still limited in scope by the constraints of the first film. Those previews hint at a plot that escapes the city limits.
All of which makes sense, considering that Villeneuve and co-writer Hampton Fancher, who also co-wrote the first film, wanted to do more with Philip K. Dick’s source novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep than the original film. The first film focused its storytelling, set design, and cinematography on the neo-noir aspects of the book, while largely ignoring the environmental and ecological messages—threads that have only become more important since the book was first published. Those messages seem to be at the forefront of how Villeneuve has envisioned the world of Blade Runner going forward. While the world of 2019 Los Angeles was a rain-soaked noir wonderland, the Los Angeles 30 years later is a more severe environment with unpredictable weather—a subtle change that not only speaks to the idea of climate change but one that also loosens the sequel from its tonal heritage.
In an interview with Deepmind CEO Demis Hassabis, Villeneuve describes his sequel as a love letter to the original. But a love letter is not only an ode; it is something that evokes the object of the letter. The love letter contains all the worthy aspects of the object, but also expands and poeticizes those details. “For me,” Villeneuve said, “Blade Runner 2049 was like an edgy old sci-fi movie. It's a movie that has the romanticism of old sci-fi.” And this, in a sense, has been Villeneuve’s task all along – to continue what was so loved about the original film, while also sufficiently expanding the world. Because to make a story that strictly adhered to the original would have been a smaller film that didn’t necessarily justify its existence. And Villeneuve’s goal was always to make something epic.