Released in 1982, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (his follow-up to the first Alien and drawn from the late great Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) was initially a box-office flop.
However, this visionary sci-fi saga never went away, spawning a huge and easily-enraged following with no less than three recut versions over the years, which take out star Harrison Ford’s studio-imposed narration and more heavily imply one much-argued-about plot point (that doesn’t bear mentioning here).
A sequel has been discussed ever since. This long-longtime-coming effort certainly seemed to have everything going for it, with Ford returning (no spoilers necessary), new and improved FX (CG rather than practical and model work), a script co-penned by one of the original writers (Hampton Fancher) and a much-praised Canadian director, Denis Villeneuve, known for a string of darkly impressive outings with ominous one-word-titles (Arrival, Sicario, Enemy, Prisoners, Incendies, Polytechnique and Maelstrom). But it doesn’t quite succeed as a masterpiece, with a too-epic running time (163 minutes), a ponderous first hour, one or two performances that skirt the edges of hamminess and a few infuriatingly head-scratching, spoiler-intensive narrative puzzles that have already been betrayed by some. It frequently looks breathtakingly fantastic – but that’s simply not enough.
Another Blade Runner, usually known by the Kafka-esque name ‘K’, is introduced in an opening scene strikingly similar to a script for a sequel that Scott (now an executive producer only) and others were talking about more than 30 years ago. He’s played by Ryan Gosling, who’s so subdued at times that he’s almost comatose. It’s 2049, three decades after the original, and K lives in a grey, grim and massively overpopulated LA with only his computer-simulation girlfriend (Ana de Armas, sadly sensual) for company.
K ‘retires’ old-school replicants (cyborgs created by the now-defunct Tyrell Corporation to be labourers and lovers that rebelled, wanting more life). We’re also introduced to the staggering, if sterile, realms of blind genius Niander Wallace (Jared Leto, although at one time it might have been David Bowie), who’s creating new and improved replicants, one of which we see born from a plastic sack full of amniotic fluid (a rather bad taste sequence). A series of plot secrets and twists lead K to question his superior, Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright), and travel into the wastelands beyond in search of the first film’s missing protagonist Deckard, and when Harrison Ford finally does show up the film properly grows a real heart.
Ford hated making Blade Runner back in the day but he’s obviously forgiven all into his grumpy dotage (see also his lovely performance in the seventh Star Wars), and he warms everything up here, bringing a wonderfully weary melancholy and offering two or three funny lines in what is otherwise a terminally serious drama.
With more violence than the first film and a stronger emphasis on sex (although it’s free of any real feeling as, for example, a huge, naked, holographic woman struts through the streets), this also lacks the underlying philosophical conundrums that made Blade Runner so lastingly powerful: what is it that makes Deckard, the replicants and all of us human – or not? And can we be truly sure if we are indeed actually just that: human? If it’s spelt out here then there’s significantly less mystery, and instead we’re given more of a sometimes gorgeously flashy neo-noir piece where the characters’ humanity (or lack of it) is spelt out and therefore demystified.
How could a Blade Runner sequel, 35 years after the fact, be so anti-Blade–Runner-ish? Or are we misremembering the original? Or are our memories reliable? Or even genuine?