Those of you who share an interest in these things will be very aware that this week we got a glimpse of Denis Villeneuve’s upcoming sequel to the 1982 film, Blade Runner. Blade Runner 2049’s trailer promises a continuation of Ridley Scott’s original, in that offers a number of familiar visual reference points, i.e. neon, mist, blasts of steam, deserted, derelict buildings, staccato notes picked out on a piano, lone men in trench coats, a Noir-inspired voice-over (which I thought we agreed in the 1990s was a mistake?) and a raddled-looking Harrison Ford, (who, these days, seems to be conducting a pre-retirement victory lap of his most well-known characters). All of this is packed into a short, successive sequence of images that tells us it will be ‘Blade Runner’, it will be ‘bleak’ and it will feature Ryan Gosling in a ‘Deckard-like’ role, looking as inscrutable as ever. There seems enough in there, certainly tonally, to infer a necessary sense of continuity with arguably one of the 20th century’s most influential science-fiction films.
Why we need this film is obvious. Blade Runner has grown from its initial muted reception (the film just about covered its investment on its original release) into a cultural touch point. Countless movies, advertisements, graphic narratives and animations since have brazenly stolen from it and have incorporated Scott’s colour palette, costume and architecture design, visual style and dystopian world-view that the film exists less as text as so much a larger cultural memory. This vision of a hellish Los Angeles in 2019, a cluttered and entirely plausible cityscape, is in itself extended from the images found in Métal Hurlant and from the early cinema of Fritz Lang and it seems to have evolved into the collective contemporary vision of our shared future.
Below: Maceado’s ‘Telefield’ from Heavy Metal magazine, January 1979, volume 2, no. 9, p.24.
Ridley’s Scott’s world was one ruined by environmental disregard and shaped by forces of commerce. Existing in stark contrast to Gene Roddenberry’s utopian future, as presented in his first Star Trek (NBC 1966-1969) series, Blade Runner offers a continuum extended from our own that seemingly cannot conceive of any other system of existence than capitalism. It presented a projection of our future along with a bleak confirmation of it. Today, we apparently cannot move beyond this idea and cannot imagine a future that isn’t that radically different to our own, other than being denser, more cluttered and more overwhelming and (by implication throughout the 1982 film), socially and economically unfair. Those at the bottom dream ‘of electric sheep’, whilst those at the top can afford the company of replicants and can at least see what passes for daylight and breathe the rarefied, polluted air. (I’m still waiting for the flying cars, by the way).
Below: Caza and Montellerie’s ‘Planet of Terror’, from Heavy Metal magazine, August 1978, volume 2, no. 4, p.86.
Blade Runner is undoubtedly a very important film and, yes, it is also a very well-known one. And in today’s marketplace, this is undoubtedly the primary reason for the sequel’s existence. Hollywood studios, (in this case Warner Brothers) have learned their lessons from the massive, expensive failures of old. No more will they take chances on properties that don’t contain some kind of pre-tested cultural element. As Rentrak analyst Paul Degarabedian said, of the recent failure of the 2015 Brad Bird film, Tomorrowland: “Audiences love to complain about a lack of originality with film offerings but are reticent to try something new. Maybe audiences have been ‘sequel-ized’ where the get conditioned to only get excited when they see the same characters or situations that go with those commodities”. It’s true that ‘the re-make’, ‘the prequel’, ‘the re-boot’, ‘the sequel’, the adaptation of a studio’s existing intellectual properties have all undoubtedly dominated production slates since the beginning of the century, but this isn’t an approach that supplies a cast-iron guarantee of box-office success, as John Carter (2012), The Lone Ranger (2015), Hulk (2003) and Wild, Wild West (1999) have all proved, to varying degrees of financial misery (cited by Cunningham, 2015).
Below: Fritz Lang’s 1926 UFA production of Metropolis.
That Blade Runner has been dragged into this cycle is inevitable if a little depressing. Despite suggesting a proposed kind-of-sequel in the last decade, provisionally titled ‘Metropolis’, Scott had made it clear from the beginning that his version of a 1968 Phillip K. Dick story about the nature of humanity was basically a ‘one-off’. K. W. Jeter’s series of novels (Blade Runner 2: The Edge of Humanity from 1995 onwards) and David People and Paul Anderson’s ‘side-quel’ Soldier (1998), which purported to be set on the off-world colonies outlined in Scott’s narrative, kept the universe alive for fans of the film. But what was refreshing about Blade Runner was that even Scott was admitted that it was a special film and one that couldn’t (and perhaps shouldn’t) be easily turned into a three-arc retro-fitted franchise of revenue stream possibilities. This was also the only film where Scott has since admitted where he’s ever considered himself as an ‘auteur’ and its troubled inception, numerous re-releases, multiple ‘director’ cuts and its very singularity as a text suggest, that it would never be a natural fit for contemporary multiplex culture. Until now that is.
As Prometheus (2012) and Alien: Covenant (2017) have shown us a Ridley Scott now more than happy to mine his old hits for new audiences. For whatever reasons, be it a retirement fund, to secure rights issues, to ensure the films don’t recede in cultural status, to facilitate their access onto different media platforms – who knows. Maybe all of the above? But in this particular case, something further nags at me here and I should say this also reflects on the more pragmatic film culture that has evolved since 1982.
Below: casting call for Blade Runner circa 1981.
I can vividly recall seeing the film on its original release in the Odeon cinema, Southsea (which of course no longer exists today), and can recall eagerly anticipating its emergence since it was discussed in the ‘coming soon’ pages of 1981 Starlog and Starburst magazines as a secretive project called ‘Dangerous Days’. At this point Scott was still openly considering himself as ‘the John Ford of science-fiction’, a view that dissipated under the realities of making films within the studio system around the time of 1985’s Legend. His (rare at the time) commitment to quality genre filmmaking was extremely exciting, especially when taking into account that opening run of visually innovative films such Alien (1979) and his proposed, (and sadly abandoned), version of Dune from that time.
For the seven of us who saw that film that evening, scattered around the cinema, it was a transformative, immersive experience. It was a moment of originality can never be recaptured. What we saw there set the bar for subsequent dystopian visions in terms of meticulous design and the kinds of mattes, miniature work and optical effects that we had all-but dreamed of. Stumbling into the evening after the film and re-adjusting to our mundane reality, we all agreed that it was a unique and all-encompassing ‘moment’. As a narrative though it was not without its frustrations. As the film was, at times, deliberately confusing. For initially it was actually difficult to tell what was going on. It presented no heroes, no easy ‘characters’ to identify with and no accessible, cathartic set-piece ending, which one would have maybe associated with a mainstream science-fiction/action release. The trailers that preceded the film’s release promised us synth-driven, action and adventure with Harrison Ford as a Neo-noir ‘Indiana Jones’ hunting down bad guys. Instead we got a philosophical treatise on the fleeting nature of existence and were left with the fact that, (as we left the cinema), that in truth we found the replicants more interesting than the ‘humans’ (who, notably, acted oddly disconnected throughout).
Blade Runner dragged us along through sheer style and atmosphere and it demanded that we keep up with it (or at least watch it again later on VHS to fish out the information we had missed the first time around). Nothing was made easy. Scenes, transitions, dialogue were all either understated or elliptical. Everything on screen seemed loaded with meaning. Even if it, perhaps half the time, it wasn’t.
So whilst today Blade Runner seems like an odd fit with contemporary film recycling demands, what really concerns me with Blade Runner 2049 is where this belated sequel fits into this contemporary drive to rationalize our narratives, to explain and to demystify. This postmodern epoch seems to embody, if anything, a constant access to information and to have everything in our lives either proved or explainable. As cynical, ironic and highly reflexive consumers we are now in the process of deconstructing the mystery out of our lives. The beauty of the 1982 original resided with numerous ambiguous moments that would have dissipated in lesser artistic hands. We knew little about anyone other than what information was presented on screen, which was often buried under background noise and in the futuristic street language and detailed through an odd set of performance emphases. Histories and memories were all inferred and, tellingly in the case of the replicant ‘Rachel’ (played by Sean Young), actually fabricated. The film drifted by like a claustrophobic dream, part-William Gibson, part Jean Cocteau, part Moebius. Thus, we were asked by Scott to fill in the gaps in, we were expected to pay attention. We had to work to establish meaning. We had to trust the film. We had go away and decipher it for ourselves. Scott’s, (then-preferred), European-style pacing and insistence on mood over literalism complemented the film’s ambitious agenda entirely.
But as a result of these choices, the film stayed with you. You thought about it. It left a trace. A residue. You kept coming back to it. The images alone hung around the psyche for days.
Contrast this with many of today’s big-budget genre films. For how many times have you been to a mainstream blockbuster recently and come away with nothing but a sizeable hole in your pocket where your money was? I saw Captain America: Civil War (2016) recently and I honestly could barely remember a thing about it mere hours afterwards. It was fun. It was frenetic. But it came and it went almost immediately. It was effective, it did its job as an entertainment but it left nothing behind. This is not the only example that I can name from today’s mainstream film culture. In truth I think this is partly down to the lack of participation and investment we are now expected to provide in our viewing experiences, as cinema drifts further and further into the territory of thrill ride rather than ‘experience’.
Below: Blade Runner 2049.
Now there is, of course, a massive difference between bad writing, studio interference and a highly considered and constructed ambiguity, as this year’s Batman Vs. Superman ably demonstrated. Weigh that film off against the (Scott-like) ending of Nolan’s 2010 Inception as an example and maybe you can see where I’m coming from. We’re not talking about plot-holes or lapses in logic here, (….a recent internet obsession, that replaces quality criticism with the application of the literary rules one would expect from hard science fiction and measured, in legalistic rigor on what are essentially magical realist stories, such as Man of Steel etc). Here we are addressing deliberate grey areas in terms of motivation, character delineation and status, narrative, imagery and resolution.
Today we err towards rationalization as part of a consumption demand. No longer can we be expected to work at a narrative or interpret an image or deal with an open-ended discussion. No one must be left out. No one must be challenged. Don’t put a reference or an idea that someone might be confused by otherwise they may just switch off. Screenwriting classes, marketing testing, studio bosses, advertising and merchandising forces all declare that we cannot and must not lose the audience – there are too many entertainment alternatives available these days to take this chance. Storytelling has undoubtedly become increasingly more mechanical within mainstream settings and, as a result, the potential for transcendent moments within popular film (the kind that can make you see things differently or actually feel something at an image or a narrative), are becoming very rare. Everything must be resolved or at least promised for a potential sequel. An audience member must never feel disappointed or short-changed. (For evidence of this have a look at the forums that burned with incandescent rage at the cliffhanger to season six of AMC’s The Walking Dead, for how dare the filmmakers make fans wait and not give them what they want there and now!!)
From here it’s no accident that the issue of Rick Deckard’s status as a human being has sat central to the film’s reputation. Is he man or machine? This has been a massive ambiguity that fans have debated since 1982.
Even the screenwriters, Hampton Fancher and David Peoples famously diverged on this issue. Fancher, more of a poetic, favoured Deckard as automaton. Peoples, more a literal, logic-driven writer, rejected this idea and Scott himself has batted the notion of a processed humanity back and forth continually across the decades. Leaving enough clues in the film to suggest that Deckard is not human, (i.e. reflective eyes in key lighting, a sense of disconnection with his life and the other people he comes into contact with, an inability to process emotions fully, a reliance on oddly constructed memories and hinted at by the curious manner through which Bryant, his boss, regards him at the very beginning of the film), Scott solidified this notion as fact in his 1995 director’s cut. In that version Deckard’s Noir-esque voice-over was removed, thus stripping the central character’s sense of agency posited. This clumsy device was imposed on the film once it was completed. (These ambiguities were making Warner Brothers nervous back in 1982, remember). Scott also brought back the originally-proposed ending, which signalled that Deckard’s consciousness was revealed, by the sideline observer Gaff, to be entirely a construct of the Tyrell Corporation. So that seemed to be pretty much to be that (Sammon, 1997).
Below: from James Van Hise’s article from Starlog #58, May 1982, pp. 21-23, ‘The Blade Runner Screenwriters: Hampton Fancher and David Peoples’.
The main thing is, I really don’t want this ongoing debate about Deckard to be the central issue of Blade Runner 2049. I don’t necessarily want the character’s status explained in clear terms. It’s not a mystery that’s really that important, as far as I’m concerned. The film should not be about answers, it should always be about questions – that’s what made it so unique in the first place and why it has lasted so long in our contemporary culture. Blade Runner’s longevity is entirely down to the fact that it was an interpretive experience. I want the film to be the jumping off point for imagination, not the end, or limit, of it. Scott’s genius was to create a world that seemed to live in the imagination, outside the frame. I want the sequel to enthral me and offer me things I have never seen before. Give me surprising concepts to mull over and to debate. Because we already live in a world where, today, we increasingly don’t value abstracts anywhere near as much as we used to. As our lives are being dominated by evidence-based information, statistics, means-tested concepts, committee-led decision making based on risk and business consensus.
We demand proof for everything (no matter how unreliable the sources most of the time!) Indeed how many times have you heard that if there wasn’t a photograph to prove it then maybe the event didn’t exist?
This obsession with literalisation suggests that perhaps we are slowly becoming the replicants that Phillip K. Dick warned us about, unable to process the abstraction of emotions and the immeasurable nuances of existence that we, as humans, take for granted.
Now I’m very aware that in these ‘post-truth’ times we absolutely need these to make sense of the world, to ground ourselves and to enforce a stability and reliability that we require if we are to survive on a day-to-day basis. Our very own subjective reality itself actually depends on that to function. For without truth, belief and certainty then we inevitably unravel. But this abandonment of abstraction, of ambiguity in contemporary mainstream art, is a signal of where we are today as a culture. It is, for me, troubling. ‘Indistinctness’ surely should be protected in situations such as this, otherwise we end up with uninteresting, bland, market-tested products that ‘do the job’ rather than films that can function on a more artistic level. These are the kind of mulch-movies, currently dominating the landscape, that exploitation producer Roger Corman used to refer to as being: “good enough” for an audience (P citing Gary Kurtz, 2011). In that they hit as many marks as they needed to by pandering to an audience rather than raising or surpassing their expectations. Corman realised that if a film became too ambitious or too esoteric for an audience, then they could possibly switch off and then he would lose money.
So for me, it is all-important we are asked to interpret our cultural texts and delve deeper into concepts. To deny this renders us apathetic and creates a film culture that serves no other purpose than as an immediate and surface time filler. There is no reason why we shouldn’t expect more of even our mainstream blockbuster films to demand that we at least participate and be prepared to reject predictability and formula. It is vital that we don’t lose sight of this.
For abstraction and ambiguity, the indefinable, the unmeasurable are where true creativity springs from. The indefinable is often at the beginning of innovation. Remember, idealism, hope and love are all abstracts that can’t be measured in any physical way. Too often in our daily lives we are asked to quantify abstracts like health, education and well-being, often to bring us in line with the hard edges of capitalism, but this can be a nigh on impossible task to perform. For ideas, notions and states of being can often be open-ended, subjective factors in people’s lives. To rationalise them seems contradictory and reductionist. But they are very necessary components, otherwise our existence soon becomes defined by a static, claustrophobic grey hinterland of ‘proveables’. It’s that which can’t be fully defined, it’s very elusiveness that supplies the spark that drives us. So I think you’ll agree that without abstractions then our lives would be, (and in many cases, are), pretty grim. We undoubtedly need both sides of that equation in our life, one side of experience undoubtedly feeds the other. It seems mainstream cinema seems obsessed with eradicating the poetry from itself and in an increasingly quantified world we need this component now more than ever.
Below: pre-production art for Blade Runner 2049.
Anyway, having seen Arrival (2016) only very recently I have actually no doubt that Villeneuve is probably the best placed out of any contemporary director to deliver a film that matches the sweep and tone of the original. His work has already shown that he is incredibly sensitive to ‘feel’ and ‘mood’. But are we, as an audience, up to the job of receiving what he produces? Should a film like this even be attempted in today’s multi-platform entertainment culture? Is Blade Runner the product of a bygone age when audiences were prepared to invest more and to suspend rationality for an emotional and philosophical immersion? When you find out – send me the stats, will you?
Dr. Van Norris is a Senior Lecturer in Film, Media and Animation Studies at the University of Portsmouth.
Cunningham,T. (2015). Why George Clooney’s ‘Tomorrowland’ Risk Could Bring Rewards at Holiday Box Office. Variety, http://www.thewrap.com/why-george-clooneys-tomorrowland-risk-could-bring-rewards-at-holiday-box-office/.
P., K. (2011). An Interview with Gary Kurtz, IGN, http://uk.ign.com/articles/2002/11/11/an-interview-with-gary-kurtz.
Sammon, P. M. (1997). Future Noir – The Making of Blade Runner. US:Orion.
Scott, R. (Director). (1982). Blade Runner [Motion Picture]. US: Warner Brothers/Shaw.
Van Hise, J. (May 1982). ‘The Blade Runner Screenwriters: Hampton Fancher and David Peoples’, Starlog, 58(1), 21-23.