Why Ridley Scott returning to ‘Blade Runner’ really is the beginning of the end

It is easy to get worked up over remakes and prequels and sequels these days, but it’s also not terribly productive.  This is the modern Hollywood film industry in the year 2011, and you can either accept that or you can rail against it, but either way, they’re going to keep on doing business this way until there is a compelling reason for them to not do business this way.

I wrote about my experience at Comic-Con this summer with the “Prometheus” panel, and certainly I hope that film delivers something special when it is released next year.  I am willing to walk into it open-minded, especially since it’s not like the “Alien” franchise is this untouched, pristine thing.  Any time your iconic creation has already been roughed up behind the bleachers by Paul “Show me on the teddy bear where he touched your favorite movie” W.S. Anderson, it’s fair game for anyone.  Besides, having Ridley Scott back in the world that he helped create in the original 1979 film is interesting, no doubt about it.

But that “helped create” is important, and something to consider today as the news breaks that once again, Ridley Scott is planning to revisit one of the SF worlds he was part of with a “follow-up” to “Blade Runner” being announced this morning.  And while I’m a big fan of the 1982 film, I think the notion of any sequel or prequel in that world is a terrible one.  Awful.  Catastrophically bad.

The simple truth is that not all films are franchises, and not every narrative can support a sequel or a prequel.  This disturbing idea that has taken hold that we need to wring every drop of creative juice out of any film that has ever attracted any audience of any size is, quite honestly, death.  This is what the death throes of studio filmmaking look like, folks, and the only real or substantial thing that film fans can do is grab a bag of marshmallows to roast as the whole thing goes up in flames.  People love to point at the occasional fluke like “Inception” as proof that the system isn’t broken beyond repair, but the only reason that film happened was because Christopher Nolan made a remake, which convinced the studio he was responsible enough for them to trust him with a reboot, and then he made a sequel to his reboot that made a billion dollars.  And for that, finally, they “rewarded” him with the opportunity to make something he wrote.  That ended up making the studio some $800 million, which is great, and which guarantees him more freedom.  So far, he’s used that freedom to sign on to direct another sequel while producing, yes, another reboot.  This is the guy film fans love to hold up as an example for how to do it right in Hollywood, but so far, what I see is a very good filmmaker who is still having to navigate the same blood-filled waters as everyone else.  He does it well, certainly, but he’s still stuck in the same box that other filmmakers are, and his work hasn’t changed the system at all.  If anything, he’s given the studios more ammunition to prove that what they are doing is right.  It works.  It’s the correct model to follow.

Ridley Scott may never set foot on a set for a “Blade Runner” follow-up.  Signing a deal is one thing, while making the actual film is something totally different.  There’s a long way to go before that film is a real and tangible thing.  And in that time, they may end up deciding not to ever roll film, something that’s happened with plenty of in-development projects, particularly with things Ridley Scott has been attached to over the years.  After all, I’m not sitting down this summer to a big-screen giant-budget version of “The Forever War,” so just because he says he’s going to direct something, that doesn’t mean it will really get a greenlight.

With “Blade Runner,” though, there is a special level of anxiety that the announcement brings.  I’ve said before that the real problem with filmmakers who go back to continue screwing around with a film after it’s been in release is that filmmakers often have no understanding of what it is that an audience loves about a film.  Once you’ve released it, you have to stop touching it, because further adjustments could well erase the thing that made it important to someone.  You could screw up a character or the timing of a sequence or a thematic point, and the various versions of “Blade Runner” perfectly highlight that problem.  When I first got Internet access in 1994, I was amazed to find people in newsgroups debating ideas like “Was Deckard a replicant in ‘Blade Runner’?,” especially since I know from firsthand experience in 1982 that general audiences totally rejected the film.  That ambiguity, and the way the film left room for interpretation, was one of the reasons it lingered so well.  When Ridley Scott started playing around with the movie and adding new effects and tinkering with it after the brief release of the Workprint version, all of a sudden that ambiguity started getting a lot less ambiguous, and Scott seemed determined to answer the question for us.  I found it infuriating, but at least I knew I still had the original version of the film to go back to.  If Scott’s planning to return to the world of the movie, I’m afraid of him creating something which will not just rob that first movie of any and all ambiguity, but which will make me wonder if what I saw in the original film was ever really there at all.  He can’t erase the original from existence, but he can absolutely destroy my interest in the narrative, and I’m afraid that when it comes to “Blade Runner,” he’s the last person I want to see playing around with that property.

Let’s assume, though, that it will be brilliant and awesome and just as good as the first film.  It still worries me deeply that this is the best job we can find for Sir Ridley Scott at this point in his career.  He’s created iconic images and characters and movies for 30-plus years, and the best Hollywood can come up with is, “Hey, want to do the exact same thing AGAIN?”  It is a failure on every level.  It would be one thing if some young filmmaker who grew up in love with “Blade Runner” managed to get into a position where he had a shot at adding something to that property, something substantial, and took it out of a genuine creative drive to play with this thing that inspired him.  If Duncan Jones was the name attached this morning, my interest level would be higher because I know that Jones holds the first movie sacred and that he’s had years to let it rattle around inside of him.  I’m willing to bet that anything he made in that universe would feel organic and motivated by a genuine desire to tell a new story.  The piece that ran on the LA Times today about how Ridley Scott ended up in the director’s chair again pays lip service to the idea of Ridley as a storyteller, but the word that is the real subtext here is “BRANDING.”  And it doesn’t even matter if “Blade Runner” was a box-office disaster in 1982, which it was.  After all, there’s a prequel to “The Thing” coming out this year, and last Christmas saw a sequel to “TRON” on the bigscreen, so obviously box-office failures in one decade are catnip to studio executives in another, all because of the legwork that real fans did in the decades in-between.

Maybe that’s the real reason this rubs me so wrong.  “Blade Runner” failed by every standard of business measurement.  It was beaten senseless by critics at the time.  But I was twelve years old, and I didn’t care what critics said.  I knew when I sat in that theater and saw that film that I loved it, and for years afterwards, any time it came up in conversation, I would find myself defending it to people who only knew it as a failure.  The film’s long ancillary life was driven by genuine love, by fans who passed it along, by people who refused to have their opinion determined by opening weekend numbers or by toy sales.  And now, because of that love, because we kept the film alive long after even its own studio gave up on it, it has become this asset, a valuable widget, and Hollywood wants to make some money with it.  And they are counting on those of us who love the original to carry the word.  They hired Ridley Scott because they figure that makes them bulletproof.  “You can’t get upset! We got Ridley Scott back!”

But we can.  And we are.  And we don’t want it.  I am fatigued from all of this, and like everyone else, I’ve gotten to the point where I almost don’t notice it.  This past week, I had a meeting at a studio, and they brought up a film that they want to remake, a film I (A) love and (B) acknowledge isn’t as good as I wish it was, and right away, I started thinking about what a great opportunity it is and how much fun it would be to get my hands on it and pull it apart and rebuild it the way I always wanted to see it done.  And I acknowledge that having that meeting and writing this article in the same week makes me a rotten, rotten hypocrite.  I’ll chase that job, too.  I want that job.  And if I get it, I’m sure there will be many editorials about what a sell-out piece of crap I am for doing so.  And you’ll be right.  It is blatantly hypocritical, and I know it.  And even so, I still say I don’t want Ridley Scott to return to “Blade Runner” for a prequel or a sequel or a requel or a reboot or a remagining or, frankly, anything.  I just don’t want him to do it.  I don’t want to see it. I don’t want to cover it.  I don’t want to know it’s out there.

I don’t blame Alcon Entertainment for buying the rights.  I’m sure they were able to produce numbers on a spreadsheet that justify the purchase.  But this craven age is burning down my love of movies in general, and it is starting to get terrifying.  I don’t want to spend the next decade of my life feeling this way, but I don’t get a vote.  All I can do is spend my money to support the things that are genuinely fresh or new or motivated by more than market share, and that’s all you can do, as well.

With that in mind, are you for or against this one?  Would you or would you not happily hand over your ticket price?

Answer wisely, because Hollywood is listening, and they are more than happy to ruin any property you can name.