With the Hollywood hype-machine in high gear for the upcoming Blade Runner 2049, I’ve been thinking a lot about the masterpiece that is Blade Runner. Going forward you should know that when I discuss Blade Runner it is the Final Cut version of the film I have in mind. This is, obviously, the best version of the film, and I will broach no dissent on this.
When Blade Runner 2049 was announced I was immediately very skeptical, but the first trailer won me over. The visuals, the music, and the tone seemed spot on to me. Recently I’ve become worried that I may be judging a movie by its trailer, and down that road lies deception. It’s easy to take a two hour movie and make a trailer to fit any mood. (I once saw a fan trailer that cut The Shining into a poppy family bonding flick. It absolutely worked. The narrator said “The Shining” in a way that made it sound like that little piece of love deep in your soul. Ever since I have had very little faith in trailers.) My fear is that the trailer makers are portraying 2049 as similar in tone to its predecessor because they know that’s what people want to see. This fear has led me to wonder if we can get a film equal to Blade Runner at all.
The first time I tried to watch Blade Runner I couldn’t get through it. I was just a kid and the Director’s Cut bored me to death. In my 20s I sat down with the newly released Final Cut and fell in love. The more I think about why I love Blade Runner the more I’ve come to realize a fundamental fact about it. Blade Runner is not a movie. It is a work of art.
To say Blade Runner is a movie is like saying the Sistine Chapel ceiling features a painting; it radically understates the thing. Movies – like any story medium – have characters which undergo some change through a series of motivations and events that we call “plot.” The plot of Blade Runner is fairly simple: androids escape an off-world colony and return to earth to meet their creator in a bid to extend their own lives. Decker (Harrison Ford) is a cop whose job it is to hunt down any androids on earth, where they are illegal. Along the way he is introduced to – and eventually falls in love with – a next generation android that is programmed to think she is human. Ostensibly the film should be about the androids Decker is hunting being every bit as alive as the humans, but in reality the audience never questions that. They are intentionally portrayed as human the entire time. The themes of the movie are more focused on mortality and confronting our own inevitable end in a world where the mystery of death is eliminated and it is possible to literally question one’s creator.
The problem I had watching Blade Runner as a child is that the plot is not particularly engaging. In fact, it’s amazingly straight forward. Decker follows clues that lead him to his quarry while they are plotting to get close to their creator to learn if he can extend their lifespans. The subplot with Rachael could be discounted by a pragmatist as a typical movie love story. I’m not saying that anything about the plot or character development of Blade Runner is bad, in fact it’s very well executed. What I am saying is that this plot is not enough to elevate Blade Runner to the iconic status it possesses in modern cinema.
I contend that its standing relies more on the complete package. Blade Runner is a piece of audio visual art. Much has been written about its music and how Vangelis wove it seamlessly into the film experience, including background sounds as notes in the score. Ridley Scott also framed and shot Blade Runner in a way that highlights the ambiance. There are extended shots of exterior sets, and amazingly these shots are the most iconic of the film. Think of the expansive shots of Asgard in Thor; they do not carry the same weight as functionally identical shots in Blade Runner. This is the masterwork of art. Functionally the same ingredients in one case deliver simple entertainment, whereas in the proper hands at the right time a work of art is born.
The likely outcome for Blade Runner 2049 is that it will not be a work of art in the same class as its predecessor. That in no way means that it has to be a bad film. Based on the trailers, the upcoming film looks to explore human identity and the role of slaves in building a society. These concepts were present as ideas in the original film, but not as themes; they existed in the film’s universe but were not explored in any great depth through the plot. My suspicion is that Blade Runner 2049 looks to explore the themes that its predecessor ostensibly explored, but failed to do in actuality. If it does so with any level of philosophical and metaphorical sophistication, while maintaining the aesthetics of the world already displayed in the trailers, then we could be in for an excellent science fiction film.
Just don’t expect it to be Blade Runner.