“Blade Runner 2049:” a Sequel or a New Creature Entirely?

Still from “Blade Runner 2049”.

At the outset, it bears mentioning herein that the BLADE RUNNER film known and loved by fans was not released in 1982, in fact the picture now considered a part of the American science fiction canon was issued in 1992 as a Director’s Cut following the success of preliminary efforts made by James Cameron (THE ABYSS) and Steven Spielberg (CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND). The supposition otherwise is deeply mistaken because the 1982 version of BLADE RUNNER was actually a terrible piece of junk due to a tacky voice-over narration track and lame ending, both imposed in post-production by studio executives.

I argue this bears mentioning because Ridley Scott’s original vision of the film might not have ended up being exactly what we know and love today as his Final Cut, which was released a decade ago exactly in cinemas for a limited run before being issued on an astounding DVD/Blu Ray set for the Christmas holiday. What we know and revere as the classic BLADE RUNNER is actually a strange synthesis of studio meddling and directorial vision, one which was further complicated by the fact that Scott and star Harrison Ford hate each other. It is a product that is borne of true contradiction.

As such, the 1992 picture ended up being almost like a French New Wave film, a kind of Existentialist meditation on humanity in the early days of the Reagan administration and the implementation of the neoliberal political economy. Strands of Sartre and Camus seem intertwined in a noir picture that just accidentally ended up being Anglophone rather than Francophone. Ridley Scott is without a doubt one of the most sublime Western Marxist film makers of his generation, an artist who puts the clunky retro-Popular Front ethos of Spielberg, Lucas, and Coppola to shame. The picture expressed the angst of a free trade future where hegemony of capital’s ability to move across national borders unhindered, while labor would not be granted the same mobility now is made manifest in the “economic nationalist” xenophobia of the alt-right and their enforcers within the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The ecology, showing a California of 2019 besieged by constant monsoons, was ultimately proven to be the inversion of its current drought. And because the script was written at a time when Japan seemed to be a future economic powerhouse that could never be stopped, the emphasis on LA as an Asian rather than Latino town seems rather tone deaf.

These shortcomings are benchmarks against which the new script works to correct the universe as much as possible. Set 22 years from now, it suggests a time when the polar vortexes caused by an out-of-sync jet stream will remake Los Angeles as a snowscape roughly equivalent to New York in wintertime. The struggles of the undocumented worker are borne out in the plight of Replicants who are camouflaged in contemporary times due to an unseen terrorist attack two decades earlier that obliterated their electronic DACA-like registry, an episode shown in a pre-release 15 minute animated short titled BLADE RUNNER BLACK OUT 2022. In an obvious nod to the fact that the original film was not exactly a feminist praxis on celluloid, the MacGuffin of the film is an outright obsession with female reproduction and fertility, manifested most clearly, not to mention creepily, when the film’s villain, portrayed by Jared Leto, engages in multiple instances of ritualistic female Replicant sacrifice. The protagonist’s primary romantic entanglement is an empathic hologram who has the capacity to emote and (perhaps) even love.

Yet that subplot is the keyhole the audience looks through to see that we are not on the same terrain that the original film occupied. Let’s face it, Philip K. Dick is now an industrial standard of science fiction, with handsome Library of America volumes on sale and multiple adaptations available from mainstream film and television studios. The original film from 1982 was the first adaptation of his work and the studio tampering with the original release demonstrates how much of a gamble they thought Dick’s work was. This was borne out again by the second film adaptation of one his stories, We Can Remember It for You Wholesale, which was thoroughly revised into an action film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger released in 1990 titled TOTAL RECALL. Only after the 1992 Director’s Cut developed a cult fan base in the course of the next decade did Dick become more palatable to Hollywood, perhaps first manifest in 2002 when Spielberg’s MINORITY REPORT, starring Tom Cruise, stayed rather faithful to the source material (at least for the first half of the film). Over the next several years, action films of minor note were produced from short stories by Dick.

Everything changed, however, with the groundbreaking (and heartbreaking) A SCANNER DARKLY in 2006. Directed by Richard Linklater and utilizing the rotoscope technology he had previously created for WAKING LIFE, the screenplay was almost totally loyal to the source novel, the author’s nightmarish mea culpa for the drug culture he watched claim the lives of friends and loved ones at the end of the Age of Aquarius. Starring Keanu Reeves, Winona Rider, Robert Downey, Jr., and Woody Harrelson, it tells the story of a drug cop assigned to go undercover to investigate a drug house whose cartel leader is…himself. The schizophrenia and paranoia created by addiction is made manifest and further complicated by the alienation created in suburbia, the police-industrial complex, and a surveillance system which was eerily predicting the revelations made by Edward Snowden in 2013. After eleven years, the film is more relevant because the notion of mass-addiction in the suburbs, just a dystopian vision back then, is now a genuine contemporary news story we call the opiates epidemic.

From that point onwards, Philip K. Dick ceased to be a subtle flavoring added to productions intended to follow the strictures of typical Hollywood fare and became a brand unto itself. TOTAL RECALL was remade in 2012 with more obvious elemental references to Dick. Three years later, the Amazon web series MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE, adapted from a title considered one of Dick’s best and perhaps one of the finer in the genre, premiered and became a hit. The source novel includes a clever plot device, a sort of riff on postmodern intertextuality that perhaps predicted Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, which the show kept in the storyline. It is by this point that we see Dick developed into a certain science fiction branding device, equivalent to how Alfred Hitchcock branded a different sub-genre of American pulp fictions in another generation with his television series and anthology magazine.

This is where the real difference lies between the original BLADE RUNNER film and the sequel. The beloved Director’s Cut from 1992 is an aberration in Hollywood production history precisely and exactly because Dick was so much of a novelty and outlier. In 1982, Hollywood science fiction was defined by big budget hits like ET, STAR WARS, STAR TREK, ALIEN, and attendant sequels/rip-offs of those films. Scott’s claustrophobic, brooding, and hopeless film mortified studio executives who were looking for Harrison Ford, aka Han Solo, to star in a gritty police procedural action film as opposed to a cyberpunk version of Being and Nothingness.

By contrast, BLADE RUNNER 2049 changes everything that did not need to be changed about the first film and leaves in place everything that was wrong. Jared Leto’s character takes on a near-Miltonian quality as a blind sociopath inventor-capitalist whose motivations are clear and devilish. By contrast, his two predecessors, the elder inventor Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel) and Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) were either benign and indifferent (the chess playing inventor who lives above the masses in his pyramid temple) or alternatively absolutely capable of being empathized with (the Replicant staving off his own approaching death while fighting desperately with his comrades for just one more day of life). Ryan Gosling, the protagonist Blade Runner this time around, is an inversion of the somber, near-catatonic Rick Deckard of the first film, crying constantly and egotistical. The claustrophobic nature of the original, which made one wish for more detail in one of the final films shot with no CGI, is replaced with moving vista shots, equivalent to a John Ford Western or the STAR WAR prequels, that are quite obviously computer generated and look like a video game. While the first soundtrack was a futuristic noir, laced with jazz saxophones and even a crooning Sinatra impersonator, this one has a roaring bass section that seems to rattle the cabinets of the theatrical subwoofers to the brink of explosion. The film effectively is not a continuation of the first, it is a rip-off, flavored to seem like Philip K. Dick but not a genuine Dick story. Instead the most obvious parallel is to be found in either the TERMINATOR or MATRIX franchises.

This is most unfortunate because there actually is a very good sequel, derived from the original Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? source novel, that can and should be made. The first film wildly diverged from even the basic outline of the novel, eschewing an entire subplot where Dick cleverly satirized the nascent televangelist movement and American consumerism. Consumption as religion in America is a very pressing topic to face in our society today. Part of our game show host president’s popular appeal and image over the past 40 years was driven by his ability to tap into and utilize American consumerism as a fuel for his own selfish ends, materializing as a brand on everything from gauche condos to board games to a television broadcast that glorified the contestant who could best tap into that same fuel. Dick’s novel, written in California four years after Marcuse published One-Dimensional Man, is one that has become more relevant in the advent of police militarization and brutality coming to the forefront thanks to #BlackLivesMatter/Movement for Black Lives. The casual, apathetic manner with which Blade Runners retire Replicants, who they even derisively call ‘skin jobs’, is the perfect material for a visual analogy about white cops destroying Black lives, with a casting call that literally writes itself.

We could and should have gotten a film about the moral and social decay of our epoch under neoliberal settler-colonialism. Instead we get a pale (in multiple senses of that word) hodgepodge of five or six different science fiction and action films that have become narrative standards over the past four decades, back when George Lucas started the entire revival of the genre.

Andrew Stewart is a documentary film maker and reporter who lives outside Providence.  His film, AARON BRIGGS AND THE HMS GASPEE, about the historical role of Brown University in the slave trade, is available for purchase on Amazon Instant Video or on DVD.