If you watch one of Ridley Scott’s early movies with a 2017 brain and 2017 expectations, it feels almost as if Scott deliberately structured them as sequel bait, teasers for expanded universes before the “expanded universe” was even a thing. Almost every scene has some esoteric Easter egg, some choice clearly made but not explained, and these days, leaving a choice unexplained is like leaving money on the table. In 2017, stories guide you by the hand. In the late 70s, they flipped you the bird. In Alien (1979), the human crew of the Nostromo follows a distress beacon to a spacecraft. The craft is an unforgettable set, a vessel that seems to have been designed for gigantic humanoid aliens. Who those aliens are, where they came from, or what they want we never find out — at least not until Alien: Covenant, when the answers are kind of disappointing. At the time it was all just elaborate backdrop.
In the same way, Blade Runner (1982) creates a jam-packed future world full of narrative side streets that Scott leaves largely unexplored. At the time it was so bewilderingly complex that the studio tacked on a voiceover. In what’s now know as the “theatrical cut,” Harrison Ford’s Deckard helpfully explains, among other things, “Cityspeak,” the “guttertalk, a mix of Japanese, Spanish, German, what have you,” spoken by the Edward James Olmos character, Gaff, in the opening scene. Gaff being represented in the form of a heavily Orientalized Mexican-American actor wearing blue contact lenses, who walks with a cane and loves origami.
The voiceover (written by an uncredited Roland Kibbee) sounds like a hostage reading a ransom letter, and it basically was. Harrison Ford hated it. (As recounted in Paul Sammon’s book Future Noir, Ford referred to it as a “f*cking nightmare. I thought that the film had worked without the narration. But now I was stuck recreating that narration. And I was obliged to do the voiceovers for people that did not represent the director’s interests.”) Rumor has it that he tried to tank it on purpose only to see the producers use it anyway. Everyone hates on the voiceover now (it was removed for the Director’s Cut in 1992 and the Final Cut in 2007) and it’s easy to see why. One representative bit is when Deckard tries to “explain” captain Bryant calling replicants “skin jobs”: “In history books, he’s the kind of cop who used to call black men “n*ggers.”
You can tell Kibbee didn’t understand “skin jobs” at first until he related it to the N-word and thought the audience would need that reference. But then he realized he was supposed to be writing in the voice of a guy living in 2019 so he tried to cover it, and in the process ends up sounding like a confused edgelord trying to write a Raymond Chandler novel.
Badly written and coercively performed as the voiceover may be, it is kind of helpful. It elucidates aspects of Blade Runner I almost certainly wouldn’t have picked up on otherwise — the explanation of Cityspeak, another moment when Deckard is switching between two sets of photographs. I end up appreciating it even though I know it makes me slightly less cool. This dorkish impulse to know more than we need to, to be Teddy in Stand By Me asking Gordie “and then what happened” after he’s just heard the Barforama story’s perfect ending is the reason we have movies like Blade Runner 2049 and Alien: Covenant in the first place. We don’t need to know, but we can’t help ourselves. We loved those worlds and we weren’t finished exploring.
Blade Runner‘s is a great big world, and it’s easy to understand the impulse to create an annotated guidebook. Of course, a big part of the reason we’d even care in the first place is that it leaves us wanting more. The movie didn’t need to explain all of it. The world is the backdrop, but the story rests solely on the characters. It’s about Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) and his frantic fight to extend his lifespan. It’s about Deckard trying to think of himself as a good person even as he cold-bloodedly murders an unarmed replicant who’s substantively no different from his girlfriend. (Do we even want to get into the is-Deckard-a-replicant fight here? The point isn’t the answer, it’s the possibility. It’s always great when the end of the story makes its world seem even bigger than you originally thought it was.)
Blade Runner 2049 is, visually, every bit a worthy successor to the original — as you’d expect from a movie shot by Roger Deakins and directed by Denis Villeneuve. Yet Villeneuve continues to be what he always has been: a visionary stylist/scene builder and a very average storyteller. 2016’s Arrival is easily his most well-told story, and even that one traffics in some minor characters whose agency and motivations are entirely defined by the archetypes they represent.
Villeneuve, his production designer Dennis Gassner, and costume designer Renee April, update the world Ridley Scott and company built, and they’re successful on pretty much every level, sometimes even surpassing. The ecological calamities only hinted at in the first (“You think I’d be working here if I could afford a real snake?”) are articulated in the second, with massive solar farms blotting out the landscape and vast areas of denuded wasteland. Villeneuve trades Scott’s constant drizzle for deserts and dust clouds, and if anything, the costumes seem more suited to it. Where Ford basically looked like he was auditioning to play keytar in a new wave trio (which is to say, 1982’s vision of cool), Gosling’s high collars and long jacket actually have a functional purpose. (If you’re trapped in a dust world you might as well wear, you know, a duster).
Other aspects are a lateral move. Blade Runner was a largely Orientalist vision of the future that was never explained as such but seems largely defined by ’80s America’s fear of being overtaken and subsumed by the Japanese. Blade Runner 2049‘s design is equally informed by Russiana, full of Cyrillic alphabet signs and apparent Soviet references. In both cases, the design influence seems to relate less to the story itself than to the respective political climate of the times in which they were made. Japan is taking over the car industry! Russia is hacking our elections!
These aren’t especially brilliant moves, but they don’t hurt the movies either. In fact, Ridley Scott’s chief skill has always been his ability to create thought-provoking cinema despite not being a particularly deep thinker. As evidenced by the fact that Gaff’s Asian coding was so overt that he wore a Fu Manchu and did origami all the time, and that the smartest man in the film was the one with the biggest, thickest glasses. (Mr. Tyrell is a genius! I mean have you seen those glasses?!) Scott famously never read the Philip K. Dick book on which Blade Runner was based.
Villeneuve isn’t as on-the-nose as Ridley Scott, and is at least his equal in terms of composition. But he makes one crucial mistake Scott never did: he confuses the world of Blade Runner for the story of Blade Runner. In the original, Deckard never seemed too bothered nor attempted to answer the question of what makes humans human and replicants… not. Deckard shot replicants down in the street when that was his assignment and sexed them up when they made him horny (basically). He didn’t seem to spend much time pondering the meaning of a soul, and despite being played by a handsome boy we love to love, Deckard’s relationships were universally transactional.
By contrast, Blade Runner 2049 hammers over and over (….and over and over and over) the human-or-replicant question, and hints at the calamity that would befall the world if that philosophical “wall” were to crumble (mostly in the form of Robin Wright monologues). That makes it a distinctly 2017 movie, in which the stakes of the story are once again the whole world. And as always, the whole world is much harder to care about than one person (even if that person is kind of a dick). People love John Wick because he wasn’t trying to save the world, he was just pissed off about his dog.
Even as it sets up the human/replicant question as its central conflict, Blade Runner 2049 constantly (and I suspect deliberately) blurs the line between them. If we tried to diagram who in the story was what, we’d be here all day making charts with straws (to paraphrase Bruce Willis in Looper). Rian Johnson knew that wasn’t the interesting part of his story (hence why he dismissed it with the straw joke), but Denis Villeneuve seems to think it’s profound. And maybe it is, but there’s a reason people don’t make movies where the central conflict is whether a tree falling in the forest really makes a sound. It’s an unanswerable. It should get less screen time, not more.
Conversely, one of the most compelling subplots in Blade Runner was its depiction of lonely men falling in love with their own sexbots — from Deckard and Rachael to J.F. Sebastian and Daryl Hanna’s Pris (is it really the soul we care about here, or are we, like Deckard, essentially transactional?) — and if there’s anything surpassing about Blade Runner 2049 besides the visuals, it’s Ryan Gosling’s heavily Her-influenced relationship with his holographic waifu Siri, who’s like a cross between Google Home and a Real Doll. There’s an entire three-way sex scene between Gosling, his hologram, and her real-life stand in. It’s basically lifted whole cloth from Her, but it’s a deeper exploration of some of the themes from the first film, and culminates in a magnificent moment where Gosling essentially ends up mourning a thumb drive. Gosling’s charmingly pathetic, tragically hilarious forlorn face is about as perfect as Colin Farrell’s criminally undervalued death scene in True Detective season two.
In Blade Runner, Ridley Scott introduced us to this mind-blowing world and then sort of drew a straight line through it. Villeneuve is up to the challenge of blowing minds, but in trying to create that expanded universe that Scott hinted at, he has to try to be both Teddy and Gordie at the same time; the guy who creates the cool world and the guy who asks too many questions about it. Red herrings have been commoditized. So we’re left with a gorgeous and visually compelling nearly three-hour movie where I don’t entirely know what happened. And the overwhelming sense that someone has heavily invested in me wanted to revisit and find out at a later date.