Film and drama

Screen Themes: Blade Runner vs Blade Runner 2049

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Venture into a dystopian future with entertainment editor John Turnbull, as he checks out a sci-fi classic and its long awaited sequel, while asking the question: do androids dream of electric sheep?

Blade Runner

Directed by Ridley Scott (1982)

When Blade Runner was released at the cinemas in 1982, it defied all expectations, but not necessarily in a good way. Opening to a disappointing $6 million weekend at the box office, the film eventually limped to a lifetime U.S. box office of $32 million, barely covering the film’s reported $28 million production budget. At the same time, fans hoping to see Harrison Ford play a variation of Han Solo in the next sci-fi action blockbuster were treated to a slow, ponderous lamentation on the nature of life and death.

Over time and multiple versions, Blade Runner slowly built a cult following, beginning to appear on Best Film lists and sparking many a late-night university conversation that probably seemed more profound at the time. Harrison Ford went on to be one of the biggest action stars on the planet, before morphing into a mumbly parody of himself; Ridley Scott went on to direct a couple of the best (Gladiator, Black Hawk Down) and quite a lot of the worst (GI Jane, Prometheus, Kingdom of Heaven, A Good Year) movies of all time.

In the dystopian future of 2019, artificial humans are a slave class banned from Earth following a series of massacres. Known as replicants (or skin jobs to the xenophobic), these physically enhanced beings are pursued by hunters known as blade runners. Ford plays Deckard, a cynical and weary Blade Runner who is nonetheless very good at his job. His task is to hunt down a foursome of Replicants who have returned to Earth, all the while dealing with the unstated question of whether Deckard himself is a replicant.

Undeniably stylish, but often painfully slow, Blade Runner only really picks up pace in the final half hour, as head Replicant Roy Batty begins to toy with Deckard. Played by Rutger Hauer in a career-defining performance, Batty is a creature of brutal beauty, elegant and reserved, even as he gouges out the eyes of his creator.

Addressing themes of alienation, disconnection and the overwhelming influence of technology, it could be argued that Blade Runner was years ahead of its time, although the frugal approach to action is at odds with modern flicks like the recent Mad Max reboot.

Blade Runner 2049

Directed by Denis Villeneuve (2017)

Sequels or remakes years after the original are a tricky business. As the handful of people who watched the remake of the 1971 "classic" Wake in Fright would know, simply taking an old story and moving it to the current day doesn’t really cut it, particularly if you double the running time without adding anything interesting.

Clocking in at 164 minutes, Blade Runner 2049 is significantly longer than any version of its prequel, which is not a great start if you’re a fan of tightly edited movies. If, on the other hand, you have no problem with a story playing out at a deliberate pace and allow yourself to be swept up in the dystopian world of 2049 then there’s a good chance you’ll find something to like. Wood, for example, is now more precious than gold as the Judge Dredd-ish mega-cities have expanded to cover all available land. Virtual prostitution is commonplace, and the decline of the environment means that humans are reduced to farming grubs and insects for protein.

Ryan Gosling plays Agent K, a blade runner who also happens to be a replicant. This minor spoiler is revealed in the first five minutes of the movie, as K is subjected to racial taunts from his fellow officers, and displays a near superhuman resistance to pain and injury. Tasked with tracking down a group of escaped replicants that reveals a deeper mystery, K tracks down Deckard to help him fill in the missing pieces of the puzzle.

Director Dennis Villeneuve (Sicario, Prisoners) brings his own signature to the Blade Runner universe, making the neon-washed streets cold and claustrophobic. From a visual and set design standpoint, Blade Runner 2049 is a masterpiece. The film looks stunning and the fine details of this decaying world are subtle yet compelling. Returning as Deckard, Harrison Ford displays more passion than he has in years, although he has the good grace to look confused as the plot meanders its way to its slightly underwhelming conclusion. By comparison, Ryan Gosling is as stoic and reserved as ever, treating emotion like a precious resource not to be wasted.

While visually spectacular and emotionally engaging for most of its long runtime, Blade Runner 2049 falls down a bit from a story and character perspective. The fact that Agent K is basically indestructible takes away much of the dramatic impetus of the movie — when the main character is never really under threat, why should we care? The early scene, where waif-man Gosling easily takes out the most jacked protein farmer in history (former pro wrestler Dave Bautista) illustrates this problem perfectly; when Deckard took out Roy Batty or Pris (Daryl Hannah) the effort almost killed him, while K barely seems to break a sweat. And don’t get me started on the physics of him running straight through a concrete wall…

The Verdict

If you consider yourself a movie buff, the chances that you haven’t seen the original Blade Runner are slim. For my money, the best version is the 2007 Final Cut, the only version where Ridley Scott had complete creative control, although many viewers still nominate the original theatrical cut with the Harrison Ford voiceover as their favourite. Either way, the original is an iconic sci-fi film, well worth a watch for fans of the genre.

I made the decision to watch the original Blade Runner immediately prior to the sequel and I would highly recommend this approach if you have the chance. Blade Runner 2049 relies on viewers having a decent baseline knowledge of the world, so if you haven’t seen the original in a few years you may spend a fair amount of time baffled.

Blade Runner 2049 will go down in history as one of the longest gaps between original and sequel, and seems likely to make a number of "best movie" lists for 2017, but for me it made for a vaguely frustrating viewing experience. If you have three hours to spare, check it out and make up your own mind…

Books by John Turnbull are now available on Amazon and Kindle. There’s supernatural thriller, Damnation’s Flame; action/romance, Reaper; black comedy, City Boy; and travel guidebook, Bar Trek: EuropeDamnation's Flame by John Turnbull is also available in the IA store HERE. (Free postage!)

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