Gosh, they made some good films when I was young. I can measure out my teenage years in them: Star Wars, Close Encounters, Alien, Excalibur, Blade Runner, Brazil… It’s no wonder that I ended up writing sci-fi and fantasy, or that half those titles are still generating sequels, spin-offs and reboots forty years on.
Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner has been so influential, and ripped off so frequently by other films, that it’s probably hard for younger viewers to imagine how startlingly new and real it looked when it was released in 1982. Before that, the futuristic cities I’d seen on screen tended to look shiny and super-modernist: pale concrete, spotless pavements, plate glass walls. Blade Runner recognised that the architecture of the future won’t simply replace the architecture of the past, it will be built amongst and around and on top of it. It also understood something that SF writer William Gibson (whose own work was strongly influenced by Blade Runner) put neatly into words; the street will find its own uses for new technology. It’s an extraordinary urban vision, made up of layer upon layer of detail, and every time you watch it there are new things to notice.
Of course, the version of Blade Runner I first watched back in ’82 isn’t quite the same as the one that’s now available. The producers had insisted on adding a voice-over, and a happy ending where Harrison Ford drives Sean Young off into lovely mountains (hastily tacked-on out-takes from The Shining, supposedly). Both these elements were disowned by Ridley Scott and removed from his later director’s cuts, but I think the producers had a point. The escape from the city into big skies and mountains at the end may not have made much sense, but it worked on an emotional level, and Blade Runner is not a film that makes a lot of sense anyway. The voice-over wasn’t a very good voice-over, and most of the things it told you can be worked out just by watching the images, but it helped tie together scenes which, without it, feel more like a lot of loosely connected set-pieces. It was also a sonic reference to the 1940s thrillers which are such an important part of the film’s visual DNA. (I was just discovering Chandler and films noir when it came out, so that link was a big part of its appeal for me.) When I saw the director’s cut, I liked it less.
Another thing which bothered me a bit when I first saw it (and a lot more when I re-watched it in later years) is its quite extraordinary sadism. This is a violent movie, and a lot of its violence is openly misogynistic. When men are killed it’s done quickly or off-screen (it took me several viewings to work out what had even happened to J.F.Sebastian) but the deaths of the women are explicit and elaborately drawn-out. I suppose fans may argue that Scott was making some feminist point about women’s bodies as commodities, but it ends up looking as if he just got a kick out of semi-naked ladies being gunned down in slow motion. The love scene is staged like a rape. I don’t know if this aspect can be described as a flaw – it’s clearly deliberate and the seedy nastiness is an important part of Blade Runner’s unsettling mood – but it certainly makes me less able to love it.
So, as an admirer rather than a fan of the original, I went to see Blade Runner 2049 with a fairly open mind…
Blade Runner 2049 has had an interesting reception. The first wave of reviews was spectacular, praising it as an improvement on the original and one of the best SF movies ever made, but once the film actually opened, a backlash set in, with viewers complaining about its slow pace and the fact that it’s really, REALLY long.
Oddly enough, my own opinion went through a similar shift. On a first viewing, BR2049 was hugely impressive. Ryan Gosling is great as replicant Blade Runner K, and the world of the original is cleverly expanded, and it’s a proper sequel rather than a Force Awakens-style reboot. (I guess it’s a sequel to the director’s cut, since Deckard and Rachel seem never to have reached those snowy mountains, and once you get outside of LA you’re into a landscape of dreary protein farms, gigantic scrapyards, or the orange smog of abandoned Las Vegas.)
The big difference is that it’s not meant to be the future any more, or, at least, not our future. The 1982 Blade Runner was set in 2019, and I watched it feeling that the actual 2019 might well look something like this. The new one takes place in a parallel world where 2019 featured flying cars and replicants and no mobile phones. Perhaps that’s one reason why it feels slightly less real, slightly more dream-like.
Still, it’s a beautiful dream. The city is bigger and colder than before; the rain turns frequently to snow, and huge new structures tower above the Tyrrell Corporation ziggurat which previously dominated the skyline. The score emphasises the wintry mood, constantly starting to quote the original’s Vangelis theme but never quite doing so until one delicate piano piece near the very end. There are some glorious panning shots across vast, foggy skylines, and several memorable versions of that trademark Denis Villeneuve sequence from Sicario and Arrival where a formation of helicopters (or flying cars in this case) rushes over an endless landscape while the music goes BuuhhWHAAAAA, BuuhhWHAAAAAAAA… (In the Exeter Picturehouse the bass notes made the whole screen ripple like a vertical pond.) There’s a curiously sweet relationship between K and his holographic girlfriend Joi, an interesting ambivalence about whether their feelings are real or just the result of programming. There’s a scene where 2017 Harrison Ford encounters 1982 Sean Young which is genuinely unsettling. The sadism is back (there is a lot of needless pain and gratuitous killing; a newborn female replicant is stabbed to death for no reason that I could discern) but it’s less glamourised than before. The questions about What Makes Us Human which the first film raised almost in passing are brought to the centre of this one, the thriller elements used as a framework to hang them on.
But although in many ways it’s smarter than the original, it doesn’t stand up nearly so well to a second viewing. Almost every frame of the first film is stuffed with visual detail. The second is much cleaner, and while that’s often very beautiful – the huge, empty chambers of the Wallace HQ, filled with shifting, rippling golden light – there’s less to look at, less to build a world from. There is nothing here to match the bustling street scenes of the first film, packed with punks and traffic and Hare Krishnas and scurrying pedestrians with neon umbrellas, and annoying traffic lights shouting DON’T CROSS! and CROSS NOW! This city has the same Kowloon vibe, but it doesn’t feel nearly so lived in. Nor do the interiors, which tend to feature blank grey or white or amber walls rather than the gnarly future-deco of the first film (an exception is the old casino, whose decaying grandeur is a nice call-back to the building where the climax of Blade Runner takes place).
And without that visual clutter to keep my mind busy, I started asking awkward questions. If Tyrell/Wallace can make replicants which are effectively fully functioning human beings, why would they have any trouble making one which can reproduce? If this society has huge numbers of unwanted children, and so little humanity that it consigns them to slave labour in ghastly ‘orphanages’, why is there a market for artificial people at all? Does Dr Stelline have a receptionist? How was she set up in her hermetically sealed bubble, and by whom? And does the LAPD headquarters have a receptionist, or security cameras, or some other system which might make it difficult for the same person to walk in and murder its employees TWICE? Is Wallace lying when he suggests that Deckard was only given his mission in the first film so that he would meet Rachel, because that would be a really strange way to get them together – why not just set them up on a nice dinner date? What keeps all the hovering vehicles up? Is the dreary final punch-up in the surf ever going to end? WHAT ARE THE BEES LIVING ON?
Most films (and most novels) have gaps in their plots. It’s not a big deal. The trick is to make them interesting or exciting or pretty enough that the viewer doesn’t notice, or doesn’t care. The original Blade Runner pulled off that trick quite a few times for me. Blade Runner 2049 managed it only once. But once is better than nothing.