Blade Runner (1982) and Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

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Contains some spoilers for both films

It’s hard to believe that when Blade Runner first came out in 1982, it was a major flop. These days it stands as one of the acknowledged great films of the 20th century, but that’s only because history has been reedited in hindsight. At the time it struggled to find an audience, with cinemagoers more interested in the user-friendly likes of Star Wars and ET – The Extraterrestrial than the dark, confusing fare of The Thing and Blade Runner. The very thought that the latter’s reputation would grow to the point where it could spawn a sequel 35 years later could scarcely have been more absurd – which just goes to show how hard it is to predict the future.I can’t remember when I first saw Blade Runner; it certainly wasn’t on original release. I might not have even been old enough to see it legally at the cinema at the time. Since this was still in the early days for home media, it probably wasn’t until several years later when the film was finally aired on broadcast television that I first watched it. And if I’m honest, I can’t really say that I remember it being love at first sight. To be sure, it was visually dazzling; but if anything, it was probably the soundtrack by Vangelis that really got my interest, as I’d loved his music since the days of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos TV series.

I haven’t even watched Blade Runner many times since, and not at all for a good decade now. However I’ve seen and read so many programmes, books and articles about the film that it feels like I’ve watched key scenes at least half a hundred times. At some point my brain must have decided to edit my memory entry for Blade Runner, with my subconscious unilaterally declaring it one of my all time favourite films. And strangely, it turns out that my subconscious actually got it spot on. Which is really rather annoying.

I confirmed this verdict last week, when I finally sat down to give a proper viewing of the latest of several different versions of the film. This one is decisively entitled “The Final Cut” and was overseen by director Ridley Scott in 2007. It trims a few scenes, excises others, and corrects a few mistakes that crept into the initial release and the subsequent misnamed “Directors Cut” in 1992. It also comes in a terrific remastered HD print on Blu-ray that not only makes the film look the best it’s ever done, but succeeds in making it sound better than ever too – an all-round enveloping triumph.

Scott’s visual design takes all he learned making Alien and then throws in the kitchen sink and everything else he can think of on top for good measure. It’s no wonder that he stayed away from the science fiction genre for decades after this, because there was literally no where further for him to take it. His work here still influences SF films to this day. As a result it can be easy to dismiss the film as “style over substance” with the script being relatively rather thin: it’s a routine 1940s detective film noir B-movie complete with alluring femme fatale Rachael (Sean Young) transferred to the disorientating world of an eye-popping futuristic dystopia.

In the film Harrison Ford (fresh from Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark at the time) plays Rick Deckard, a private eye charged with hunting down four fugitives. Only, in the world of Los Angeles 2019 (how futuristic that once sounded!) Deckard’s job title is blade runner, and his prey are biogenetically engineered synthetic humans known as replicants who are now so realistic they can barely be distinguished from the ‘real’ thing. Only a detailed test dubbed Voight-Kampff involving emotional stimulus and empathy response can prove they’re fabricated. But when the fakes are this realistic, is any difference actually meaningful?

It’s this last quandary that gives the film the requisite depth to balance the style. As Deckard tracks his prey down using a couple of simple forensic deductions, he realises that Roy Batty’s (Rutger Hauer) group of replicants are actually more vibrantly, passionately alive than the real humans in the story, who appear dull and lifeless by comparison – even Deckard himself. With his world weary flattened aspect, could he even pass as human if he took the Voight-Kampff test? Would any of us?

This question has ended up giving Blade Runner its enduring appeal: the debate about whether Deckard is human or replicant continues to echo across the Internet to this day. Ford insists that the film only makes sense if his character is human, while Scott says Deckard is definitely a replicant (and he even tweaked his Final Cut to bolster this view). Personally I’m with Ford on this: if Deckard is a replicant then the film’s narrative arc is a small, inward looking story of one man’s insular self-realisation of his own true nature; whereas if Deckard is human then the film is a more expansive revelation about what it means to be human and how replicants are therefore just as fundamentally alive. You can’t arrive at this conclusion if Deckard isn’t present as our benchmark of what it is to be human.

But in many ways we’re all wrong – Ford, Scott and I, and you as well if you have a definite answer. Because the point of the question is that it can be asked but can never be answered. By this very nature, the question becomes meaningless and it no longer matters either way whether Deckard is human or replicant: he is both. That Schrödinger uncertainty is the very heart of the film’s power.

The ambiguity also makes it very hard for the makers of any sequel. The question is difficult to avoid in any follow-up, but at the same time can’t be definitively answered without diminishing the original. That’s the dilemma faced by Blade Runner 2049 writers Hampton Fancher (who also worked on the 1982 film) and Michael Green, and by director Denis Villeneuve (who previously made Sicario and the magnificent Arrival.)

The new film circumnavigates the issue to a large extent by limiting Deckard’s physical involvement to little more than an extended cameo, although his presence is felt throughout the two-and-three-quarter hour running time. The question of his basic nature is never directly raised, although Blade Runner fans will doubtless pick up on a few sly comments such as one former colleague noting that he hadn’t expected Deckard to live for very long, and that there was “something about his eyes” – both nods to tell-tale aspects of being a replicant. But in general, there’s nothing about Deckard’s actual role in the sequel that requires an answer to the question definitively one way or another.

Instead, the focus is on a new character named K (Ryan Gosling), who is a blade runner 30 years on from Deckard’s time. Earth has gone through a number of crises since then, not least a worldwide blackout that caused catastrophic data loss and a nuclear cataclysm that wiped out Las Vegas. Food supply has been dangerously disrupted and millions of people have abandoned the planet for an off-world existence. In turn, new models of replicants – now deemed entirely safe and trustworthy – are allowed to operate openly on the home world and have a normal human life span. Indeed, K himself is one such, assigned to hunt down rogue earlier models and ‘retire’ them, as he does with protein grub farmer Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista) in the opening sequence.

Replicants are still seen as sub-human third class citizens, and K is subject to abuse and insults (“skin job!”) as he goes about his day. His boss Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright) defines the difference between human and replicant as the former being born with a soul, and the latter being manufactured and therefore merely property. It evokes thoughts of the 18th century slave trade which viewed ethnic minorities with the same distinction, and the oppressive weight of prejudice defines much of the film even more stridently than its implicit suggestion in the original. But if that is truly the core definition underpinning this dystopian society, then would would happen if a replicant was able to become pregnant and give birth?

This prospect propels K into a new quest, initially through the city streets originally glimpsed in Blade Runner albeit subtly updated, and then on to equally immersive new locations such as a vast garbage dump outside LA city limits and on to the devastated vistas of Vegas. He encounters billionaire Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) who took over the Tyrrell Corporation after the events of 2019; Wallace’s replicant assistant Luv (Sylvia Hoeks); memory creation expert Ana Stelline (Carla Juri); and Dickensian orphanage master Cotton (Lennie James). And as the film progresses, Scott’s trademark rain starts to turn to toxic snow and what was previously ugly, gritty and grimy begins to turn increasingly beautiful if no less deadly.

K is assisted in his work by a virtual assistant called Joi (Ana de Armas) who is essentially a supercharged Alexa or Siri with a holographic interface. Just as the film opens up the world of Blade Runner by taking us to new physical locations, so this relationship extends the socio-political environment by showing us yet another level: no longer do we have a simple two-tier system of human and replicant, we can now add a sub-sub layer of non-corporeal artificial intelligence as well. Is Joi really ‘alive’ in any meaningful sense? And what does K’s answer to that question say about him as a replicant? If there’s no difference between him and a human, how can he not extend that grace to Joi? And if he can only see Joi as a mechanical aid without true emotions, doesn’t that vindicate the abuse he receives from humans who see him in the same light?

There’s another, less obvious dimension to the film’s mise-en-scène of societal subjugation, and that’s in the way it depicts women. There is quite a lot of sexual nudity in the film, and arguably most of it is gratuitous – Wallace handling a new born female replicant, for example, or the explicit holographic adverts around the city in which virtual prostitutes ply their wares. There is a striking sex scene mid-way through, a hi-tech ménage à trois featuring Mackenzie Davis’ character Mariette who strongly evokes the ‘pleasure model’ replicant Pris played by Darryl Hannah in the 1982 film. However there’s no corresponding male nudity or whoring on display, leaving the film exposed to charges of sexism and misogyny. The director himself denies the criticism and makes it clear that this is actually a quite intentional representation of the way women have been badly treated in film and in real life: “Blade Runner is not about tomorrow, it’s about today,” Villeneuve told Vanity Fair. “And I’m sorry, but the world is not kind on women.” The aim might have been to make audiences feel uncomfortable with the exploitation – it did me – but it’s subtle and off-putting and may account for the marked lack of women going to see the film at the cinema.

As a whole the sequel succeeds in becoming an even deeper meditation on what it means to be human than the first film, while dodging the existential questions around Deckard. There is no doubt that K is a replicant, as all new models have an easily accessible serial number to confirm who and what they are precisely to avoid the old headaches of Voight-Kampff. However the look on K’s impassive face – a sort of bruised hope, like an adult Pinocchio who never stops hoping he will one day turn out to be a real boy – gives the character an emotional depth despite his stillness and equanimity under fire. It’s an impressive performance from Gosling, who is in almost every scene and who very much owns the entire film – at least as far as the cast is concerned.

Ultimately even Gosling has to play second fiddle to Villeneuve, production designer Dennis Gassner and cinematographer Roger Deakins, who between them make Blade Runner 2049 one of the most intensely ravishing films of recent years. While Scott’s original dazzled us with every eye-catching, eye-popping stylistic innovation possible at the time, Villeneuve uses today’s cutting edge technology to provide a much calmer, photo-realistic beauty that proves hypnotic and mesmerising over the extended running time. The icing on the cake is the music: Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch submerge their own established styles into a compelling reimagination of Vangelis’ original score, and at key moments even allow some of the first film’s familiar cues to take over entirely in order to better tell the story. It’s a wonderful soundtrack, simultaneously both hommage and worthy successor to the iconic 1982 original.

In amongst all this sublime visual and aural beauty, it has to be said that the film is deliberately and perhaps indulgently slow-paced. The film is very much intended for the fans and doesn’t believe it has to rush anything. There’s more plot to Blade Runner 2049 – inspired in part by a clever Biblical reference rather than than the simplistic film noir pastiche of the first film – but the pace is even more unhurried despite periodic outbreaks of viscerally depicted violence to encourage our continued attention. It’s certainly different from the usual fast and furious action blockbuster franchises that fear we’ll drift off if there isn’t some sort of explosion every 90 seconds. Younger fans brought up on an unending diet of such films may struggle to get into the spirit of Blade Runner 2049, but that’s fine – I’m sure that they’ll grow into it eventually.

For all its strengths, though, I find I’m not immediately in love with Blade Runner 2049, in much the same way that it took me a while before I finally succumbed and completely fell for Blade Runner all those years ago. This is too much of a cerebral, coolly intellectual offering to immediately incite unbridled passion – and I have no doubt that this is at least in part entirely intentional. The original film was just as much of a slow-burn, and it was partly because of very aspect that it gradually became an all-time cinematic classic over many years – as I suspect will Blade Runner 2049.

Only time and a few periodic repeat viewings will tell. But in terms of which of the two films is the original ‘human’ and which the inferior ‘replicant’, I think we can safely conclude that this question too is ultimately entirely meaningless in any worthwhile sense. They’re both pinnacles of their genre in their own magnificent ways.

Blade Runner: ★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2
Blade Runner 2049: ★ ★ ★ ★

Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049 are available on DVD and Blu-ray

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