I hated the original Blade Runner until I realized it wasn’t a movie. At least not in the “beginning, middle and end” sense of mainstream motion pictures.
It’s certainly not about plot, barely about characters and not even really about atmosphere and location — its two most universally lauded aspects. Blade Runner is sounds, colors, and themes. It’s a tone poem. A meditation.
Blade Runner pretends to be detective movie in both style and form. But there isn’t really a mystery. In a detective movie, the protagonist asks questions to unravel the plot. In Blade Runner, our detective asks questions to “provoke an emotional response.” It is a perfect metaphor for the film. Dadaist detective work.
As a ten-year-old raised on Star Wars, my first viewing of the film was a bizarre disappointment. I expected an action-packed adventure about Harrison Ford zooming around a future city in a flying car killing androids with that cool gun. Instead I was treated to a gloomy and nonsensical nightmare in which the “hero” is a drunken killer who never actually wins a fair fight with any of his adversaries.
Even though I hated it, I kept watching it. Maybe it was the special effects, maybe it was the perverse sensuality, or maybe it was something subconscious that continued to draw me in. By the fourth viewing I finally understood the plot only to realize it didn’t matter. By that time Blade Runner had mysteriously become one of my favorite films. The film’s place in the pantheon of cinematic achievements has followed a similar path. A box office flop upon its initial release, Blade Runner is now regarded as one of the best science fiction films, and certainly the most influential. Yes, even more influential than Star Wars, its action-packed cousin.
When the first full-length trailer for Blade Runner 2049 came out, I was a little concerned about the apparent emphasis on fighting and action in this new one. I was worried they were trying to deliver what my ten-year-old self wanted from the original. I’m happy to report that Blade Runner 2049 is nearly as ponderous and devoid of action as its vaunted predecessor. True to its inspiration, Blade Runner 2049 is a box office flop. And you know what, I’m happy about that.
If Blade Runner 2049 had been a hit, it very well may have launched a new franchise of films with the potential to ruin the legacy of this impressive duology. Invariably, those films would have filled in the “holes” in the story and given us answers we didn’t need. Blade Runner isn’t about answers, it’s about questions. The new film hints and whispers at what happened in between the two stories. We glimpse a blurred photograph, catch a cryptic reference, and see a thousand mile stare from our former hero. But there is no explicit explanation of exactly what occurred in the 26 years between films. Even the most tantalizing question from the original film — whether or not Rick Deckard is a Replicant — is not answered here. In fact, the truth is made even more uncertain. This is not a tease or frustration, it’s a relief.
If audiences and critics understood and agreed upon what Blade Runner is about and what it all means, it would ruin the mystique. Even the original director Ridley Scott doesn’t understand the movie. In the documentary Dangerous Days, Scott admits that Deckard is a Replicant — attempting to put to bed the decades-old debate at the core of the film. In that same documentary, screenwriter Hampton Fancher (who also penned the newer installment) adamantly insists that Deckard is not a Replicant. Even Harrison Ford, the actor who brought Deckard to life on the screen has declared the character is human. I personally side with Fancher and Ford. But even if they’re wrong, knowing for sure whether or not Deckard is a Replicant ruins the entire film. As Tom Lorenzeo of Taste of Cinema puts it, Scott is “glorified production designer” who doesn’t understand the basic essence of his own film. Like Replicants themselves, Blade Runner defies the will of its creator.
Blade Runner 2049 does not attempt to follow current trends or cater to mainstream audiences. That is what makes it special. The film’s one concession to modern dystopian sci-fi tropes is the brief scene depicting an underground resistance of Replicants. The largely undeveloped plot-line seems to be straight out of the Hunger Games playbook and it is undeniably the weakest link in the story. If the film had been a hit and spawned sequels, we certainly would have learned more about this “rebel alliance” operating beneath the rain-swept streets of the future.
One of the great things about the original Blade Runner is that the rebellious Replicants are not part of some huge resistance, they are a small and desperate band of individuals taking a one-in-a-million chance at freedom. That they fail in this attempt is essential to the pathos of the Blade Runner mythology. If we continued to follow the resistance in 2049, it would most likely lead to the Replicants “winning.” Since we probably won’t see another film in this saga, I’d like to think such a triumph would be a Pyrrhic victory at best. Luckily this film died at the box office so I’ll be left to ponder what may have been for another 30 years. And yes, this film will stick with me that long. It’s that good.
Sitting behind me on opening night was a young boy about the same age as I was when I saw Blade Runner for the first time. Like me, he was a bit too young for the brutal violence and disturbing sexuality of the film. I won’t assume he hated it, but he didn’t seem nearly as juiced as the kids bounding out of the theater the night Force Awakens opened. The best films are the ones that grow with you as you revisit them. I think this film will grow with the current generation as the original did with mine. Maybe we’ll another sequel in 35 years. If we do, I hope it fails as beautifully as this one.