Hollywood has savaged enough sci-fi classics – let's hope Dick would dig Blade Runner 2049
Early signs might be positive, but this is holy ground for some
1982 was a good year for sci-fi cinema. ET, Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan, Tron, The Thing. All great in their own ways. It was also the year Blade Runner came out.
Ridley Scott's telling of Philip K Dick's 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? didn't make the top 20 of most-grossing films that year – ET was number one. Even Wrath of Khan pulled in more.
But what Blade Runner lacked in earnings it made up in artistic impact. None of the others send reviewers into such rapturous reflection like Blade Runner – to the point that, nearly four decades on, we have a sequel.
Yes, Tron had a successor in 2011, but its impact on pop culture has always been more novel than profound. And there have been many Star Trek films, but that's a franchise with its own unique heritage.
So what does it say about the power of the story that here we are, nearly 40 years on with a sequel, Blade Runner 2049 due October 6, for a film that wasn't a massive commercial hit first time round but whose mental print has echoed down the decades? Is it an ode to Scott's rich cinematic painting and Vangelis score or the power of Dick's ideas and writing?
Is it even possible to make a comparison between Dick's narrative and Scott's revered adaptation. Do they seek to serve the same purpose? It's often pointed out that Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was never intended to be a detective story but more as parable about the inauthenticity of modern society, all vain consumerist one-upmanship and existential dread.
Blade Runner's rain-soaked streets are illuminated by neon lights and haunted by a Vangelis soundtrack; those not willing to move to the colonies live in enormous half-empty buildings. Even as chase scenes dart through bustling, claustrophobic marketplaces there's pointedly nothing authentic on offer.
Blade Runner borrows Dick's uncomfortable exploration of artificiality, imagining dystopian futures to reflect upon contemporary problems and blending it seamlessly with a cyberpunk-noir atmosphere to create a more traditional film narrative that's enlightening in a different way.
Androids is a humorous and insightful discourse on the artificial. It even begins with Deckard and his wife bickering over which setting to have on the Penfield mood organ (it's a patented form of mood alteration). Deckard also worships a tired-out conman messiah through a VR empathy box, connecting him to a collective consciousness of eternal suffering. Even poor Deckard's sheep is fake – biological animals are almost extinct and outrageously expensive, affecting his social standing. The only way he can entertain the possibility of possessing a real animal is by hunting down fake people.
At the end of the story, while trekking through post-apocalyptic Oregon, Deckard discovers what he considers to be a real toad, which would have huge financial value. But on returning home his wife discovers the toad is electric. He is rightfully disappointed but suggests knowing the truth is always preferable. "Electric things have their lives, too," he tells her, "paltry as those lives are."
Blade Runner's rain-soaked streets are illuminated by neon lights and haunted by a Vangelis soundtrack; those not willing to move to the colonies live in enormous half-empty buildings. Even as chase scenes dart through bustling, claustrophobic marketplaces there's pointedly nothing authentic on offer. Deckard's hunt to retire six replicants makes for a sophisticated and compelling movie which, though originally panned by critics and rejected by audiences, has shown insistent longevity. This must be partly due to the closing monologue of Rutger Hauer's Roy Batty in his final moments struggling with an emergent consciousness. "I've watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die."
We have mulled over the significance of Blade Runner for the last 30 years and the absence of a sequel has allowed us to ruminate on and rewatch the film's open-ended denouement with relish.
The imminent release of Blade Runner 2049 with Denis Villeneuve in the director's chair has created a whirlwind of hype and speculation. Villeneuve has promised 2049 will be darker than we expect. He managed to strike an encouraging level of sci-fi pathos with last year's Arrival but the excitement generated by 2049 is bound to be mixed with equal amounts of apprehension as we wonder if any nuance can or will survive a flurry of branching narratives created to feed the attention span of modern Hollywood.
The Alien and Terminator franchises have become victims of their own success, revealing and inventing narratives that bear little resemblance to and even detract from what made the original films unique and authentic. Blade Runner leaves enough important questions unanswered that most fans will at least be intrigued by the prospect of a sequel, but should we be careful what we wish for? Many suggest that the original is a masterpiece at least in part due to its ambiguity. To some, even to consider making a sequel demonstrates ignorance of the subtlety of the main themes, such as the transience of sentient existence and ultimately the nature of humanity. Any sequel needs to have a premise stronger than our need to know whether Deckard really was a replicant and what that might mean.
Dick spent most of his career in relative poverty and obscurity, musing on social control, the nature of higher powers and false realities. He had little faith in any form of progress for profit.
I am intrigued by the series of trailers for the new film in which we finally get an insight into the mechanisms behind the existence and creation of the artificial humans, such as their stomach-churning birth, and their ruthless treatment at the hands of humans. These trailers also hint that Ryan Gosling's Officer K might also have some unique connection to replicants. This alone is enough for any adherent to pay full price at the box office.
If Villeneuve can feed into the psyche of the 1982 original, 2049 could be a success. He has collaborated with three different artists ahead of release to create three shorts that fill in the period between 2019 and 2049, where we learn replicants were made illegal after causing an apocalyptic blackout using a huge EMP weapon against humanity. They also introduce a new type of replicant, the NEXUS 8. The final instalment is by the brilliant Shinichirō Watanabe of Cowboy Bebop fame (fittingly an anime that deals with bounty hunters chasing down criminals).
Somehow these shorts smack of Hollywood trying desperately to prove that it has the ability to create a viable Blade Runner franchise. The week before release, those lucky enough to attend a preview screening of 2049 have lavished it with praise despite its length.
Dick spent most of his career in relative poverty and obscurity, musing on social control, the nature of higher powers and false realities. He had little faith in any form of progress for profit. There are overt references to his feelings in his 1969 novel Ubik, where the protagonist's sentient apartment door won't let him leave because he's behind with the rent.
It would be logical to suspect Dick would be disturbed by many of the cinematic reworking's of his novels, but in 1981, shortly before his death, he caught a TV preview segment promoting the original Blade Runner and in a letter to his friend Jeff Walker expresses how thrilled he was with what he saw and that he believed it would be invincible.
It now lies with us to never lose sight of Blade Runner's brilliance, no matter how many more movies are churned out. We should remember the humorous, cynical genius of Dick's source material. ®