In 1982, director Ridley Scott showed us the future. He called it “Blade Runner.”
The British “Alien” auteur didn’t exactly rule the multiplex with his film, a brooding mash-up of science fiction and neo-noir in which Harrison Ford tempered his Han-and-Indy swagger as a cop hunting renegade androids in 2019 Los Angeles. But despite this cool first-run reception, Scott’s creation would prove enormously influential over time, a grungy, prescient, pre-CG dystopian vision that even now remains the cinematic default for conceptualizing Things to Come. Yeah, we’re looking at you, “Divergent.” And you, “Elysium.” And you especially, “Ghost in the Shell.”
This Friday, 35 years after their initially unremarked landmark, Scott and Ford are back as executive producer and costar, respectively, of “Blade Runner 2049.” (Also again in the mix is co-writer Hampton Fancher, who adapted the original from the novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?,” by “Man in the High Castle” genre icon Philip K. Dick.) The sequel features Ryan Gosling as K, another LAPD detective who’s got the eponymous job of terminating “replicants,” but who finds himself preoccupied by the mysterious disappearance of Rick Deckard (Ford) and lover/replicant Rachael (Sean Young) decades prior.
For cultists who’ve been similarly distracted all this time — was the first movie’s unicorn motif telling them something not just about Rachael, but about Deckard also? — the sequel’s release is huge. But they shouldn’t necessarily expect all to finally be revealed. “I love the way that Ridley approached this world, triggering questions that people would try to answer for years,” says “2049” director Denis Villeneuve, speaking by phone from (pre-apocalyptic) LA.
“The characters don’t explain everything,” says Villeneuve, 49, an Oscar nominee last year for the cerebral, poignant sci-fi drama “Arrival,” with Amy Adams. In a French-Canadian accent that could be a good fit for one of Deckard or K’s multi-culti haunts, he continues, “A lot of that movie is about the power of suggestion and evocation. I really tried to take the same approach.”
This faithfulness notwithstanding, diehards and mainstream moviegoers alike may wonder: What exactly can the R-rated, $150 million “2049” do to top, or at least equal, the original’s far-reaching cultural impact? At a time when artificial intelligence and genetic engineering are fast becoming tangible reality, how might an updated “Blade Runner” keep pace, and colonize our imagination with freshly extrapolated techno-industrial anxieties?
The new story incorporates downward-spiraling ecology that not only feels timely, but affords the filmmakers chances to venture beyond the established environment of teeming streets soaked in grimy rain and the relentless hard sell of digital billboards.
We get a glimpse of “synthetic farming,” a vital but desolate pursuit that’s like the agriculture of “The Martian” come to Earth — work sufficiently miserable that it’s led to the repeal of a replicant prohibition to supply needed labor. We see a forgotten Las Vegas shrouded in toxic yellow haze — “different atmosphere, different light quality,” Villeneuve enthuses — and a forsaken San Diego rezoned as LA’s landfill. (“Blade Runner” watchers have rightly hailed Villeneuve’s “Arrival” cred, as well as his relevantly noir-ish work on “Prisoners” and “Sicario.” But unless you’re arachnophobic, also check out his Jake Gyllenhaal doppelganger thriller “Enemy,” which brims with identity themes and flashes of a spider-enslaved Toronto that aren’t so far removed from his current dystopian gig.)
Meanwhile, as for those mean LA streets from 2019, they’re now just as likely to see gray snow as black showers, Villeneuve’s wintry Quebec upbringing coloring his characters’ bleak surroundings. (Presumably, producer Scott approves. As he recently told Wired magazine, “At first I was amused by the fact that ‘Blade Runner’ was [such] an influence. Then I got fed up with seeing pouring rain onscreen.”)
The replicants populating these settings are conceived to be more-human-than-human than ever. No more stock memories cribbed from the corporate CEO’s niece, less who-am-I existential torment, better results. And, ultimately, yet more material for the franchise’s running meditation on whether AI is — as Deckard would designate it — “a benefit or a hazard,” an innovation to be welcomed or feared.
And what to make of K’s soulmate, Joi (Ana de Armas, “War Dogs”), a mass-produced virtual companion? Holographically projected like a ray of sunshine into his dank apartment and dreary life, she’s a sympathetic, sexy presence, one who figures into the story in surprisingly affecting ways. “It’s a character that I worked on a lot,” says Villeneuve. “We wanted to make sure that she felt like a real partner to K.”
So, a variant case of AI as benefit, then. Or is she? At a moment in history when the Internet, smartphones, and social media have shrunk the globe yet created troubling Great Divides, de Armas’s dreamgirl also plays as the latest, shiniest version of real connection swapped for virtual. There’s a melancholy about the way she functions that goes beyond perhaps even what the filmmakers intend.
Maybe this will be an element of “2049” that endures, and we’ll see an ode to Joi in sci-fi entries that follow. Maybe it will be that poisoned, yellow aesthetic, or the movie’s notion of a tech landscape in which programmers have given way to “memory makers.”
Just don’t ask Villeneuve what he hopes his film’s lasting influence will be. “I’m afraid it would be very arrogant for me to answer that,” he demurs. “The first one was a masterpiece of design, of creating a hybrid of genres. We’re mostly just about respecting that.”Tom Russo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.