“Looking for something real”: does Blade Runner 2049 do the original justice?

The 1982 film has survived seven iterations – and endless philosophical speculation.

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Entering a police station in Blade Runner 2049, a woman switches on a light. “Too dark in here,” she complains. It’s a small but knowing jab at the dim nocturnal cityscape conjured in the original movie by Ridley Scott (who jettisoned early footage because it was impossible to tell what was going on) and therefore the first known instance of a joke in a Blade Runner film.

There’s no danger of murkiness from the director Denis Villeneuve, who favoured dazzling brightness in Arrival and saturates the screen here in clean whites, cool blues and glowing ambers. It would be a crime to keep Dennis Gassner’s production design in the dark when it includes a wooden office-cum-spa rippling with watery orange light, where a woman has her nails done while overseeing deadly drone strikes, and an archive that suggests a reasonable representation of infinity.

There’s not much Villeneuve can do about the weather, which has only worsened since 2019, when the original was set. He throws in some snow at the last minute but if you’re a meteorologist in the Blade Runner world, you’re better off diversifying: it’s always rain with a chance of rain.

Blade Runner was not a hit when it opened in 1982, but its audience has increased massively since then, drawn by the allure of a timeless question (what makes us human?) in a tempting science-fiction wrapper. The handsome but superfluous sequel has taken three decades to materialise and seems to last almost that long in the telling.

It follows K (Ryan Gosling), whose job is to hunt down errant replicants. In the course of his investigations, he comes into contact with the hero of the first film, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford). Both men have symbolic names – K, or “Joe” as he is sometimes known, alludes to Joseph K in Kafka’s The Trial, while Deckard is a near-homophone for Descartes – and both are tangled up in a mystery involving the discovery of a female skeleton that has a serial number but appears also to have been damaged in childbirth.

A replicant baby would be a first, and the advantages are clear, not least because it would need its batteries changed instead of its nappies.

Gosling plays K in his usual gently baffled manner, like a man trying mentally to divide a Williamsburg brunch bill seven ways. He has a pleasing rapport with Ford, who delivers the film’s second joke as casually as when he dispatched a swordsman with a cavalier gunshot in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Interrupting a pointless brawl with K, he says: “We could keep at this or we could get a drink.” In a moment straight out of the “Scenes We’d Like to See” section of MAD magazine, the men drop their fists and repair to the bar.

“Is it real?” asks K, contemplating the whiskey in his glass. That’s a typical Blade Runner question. K’s superior (Robin Wright) sighs, “We’re all just lookin’ out for something real.” His hologram companion, Joi (Ana de Armas), refers to him being “a real boy now”, echoing Steven Spielberg’s AI Artificial Intelligence, which similarly invoked Pinocchio as a metaphor for the human/synthetic divide.

Both Blade Runner movies revolve around questions of authenticity, and it’s a problem for Villeneuve that other directors have been pursuing that theme so avidly since Scott’s film that very little in the new one feels new. Whenever inspiration wanes, the screenwriters (Hampton Fancher, who co-wrote the original, and Michael Green) pile on the incidents instead. K meets a tribe of child slaves, who paw him like the lost children from Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, and an underground replicant group that appears just long enough to recall similar rebels in I, Robot and the Channel 4 series Humans.

Parts of California are transformed into vast rubbish dumps (WALL-E did it better) and the encounters between K and Joi are facsimiles of the ones between a man and his computer operating system in Spike Jonze’s Her. One scene, in which Joi hires a prostitute for K so that she can project herself on to the woman and experience intimacy with him, is lifted wholesale from Jonze’s picture.

We know from the first scene of Blade Runner 2049 that K is a replicant; his goal is to discover if his memories are real or implanted and what bearing that has on his soul, if he has one. There have been so many iterations of Blade Runner, each adjusting the emphasis subtly in one direction or the other, that the matter of whether Deckard was a replicant was never conclusively settled. It’s one of the elements that have helped the film to endure.

Certainly no one present in March 1982 at its first US test screenings could have predicted that Blade Runner would run and run – that the initial cut shown to those audiences (whose confusion occasioned an emergency voice-over and a happy ending) would be the first of seven versions, or that the film’s influence would go on to permeate pop culture, advertising, fashion, even architecture.

One person had an inkling, though he was dead just days before the film was completed. Philip K Dick, who died on 2 March 1982 at the age of 53, didn’t have high hopes for this adaptation of his 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? He hated Fancher’s original screenplay (“It had become a fight between androids and a bounty hunter”) and resisted visiting the shoot, fearing the inevitable item in the next day’s newspaper: “Obscure author becomes psychotic on H’wood set; minor damage, mostly to the author.”

His mind was changed by a glimpse of Douglas Trumbull’s shimmering effects work and by reading a new draft of the screenplay by David Webb Peoples, which restored the philosophical thrust of the book. “I did not know that a work of mine or a set of ideas of mine could be escalated into such stunning dimensions,” Dick wrote in October 1981.

If Blade Runner seems to have always been with us, that’s a virtue of Scott’s “retrofitted” visual style. His vision of 21st-century Los Angeles (overcrowded, neon-frazzled, rife with degraded beauty and bad plumbing) followed the lead of Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville, which was shot in an early-1960s Paris manipulated to appear futuristic. In Blade Runner, Scott drew on the known rather than the speculative. He imagined the future by looking over his shoulder.

Its aesthetic took hold almost instantly. Ceiling fans, venetian blinds, exposed pipes, disused-factory chic – they were everywhere, from pop promos to wine bars. “It was irritating when MTV began and every other video seemed to be inspired by it,” Scott admitted. I was three years too young to see the film in 1982 (it was rated AA: no under-14s allowed) but there were disgruntled letters in my science-fiction magazines griping about its absence of dogfights. Why go to all the trouble of putting cars in the air, they argued, if they weren’t going to duke it out? Even that tiny withholding of expectations, though, was a statement of intent. It said: this isn’t Star Wars. This is serious.

The letter-writers can rest easy: they finally get a brief mid-air flying-car battle in Blade Runner 2049. The film is no less sombre than its predecessor, regardless of those two jokes, and the glacial pace at which the characters walk and talk indicates that they know this full well. But the ideas aren’t complex enough to justify the time spent unpicking them. The preference in the new picture is for closure over mystery, for good and bad guys where moral ambiguity once lingered enticingly.

In Villeneuve it has a visual director who deals in awe – a sequence interrupted by malfunctioning holograms of Elvis Presley and a phalanx of Vegas showgirls is spectacular and unsettling – as well as an obedient company man for whom a good idea becomes a great one if it keeps the shareholders happy. One of the few pieces of reliable technology in the film, a video jukebox from which a crooning Sinatra materialises, bears the name Sony, the company behind Blade Runner 2049. Did Villeneuve make that artistic choice himself, I wonder, or was it implanted in him? 

“Blade Runner 2049” is in cinemas now

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 05 October 2017 issue of the New Statesman, How the rich got richer