By Rich Morgan
"I hope you don't mind me taking a liberty."
These are the first words spoken in Blade Runner 2049, directed by Denis Villeneuve. Odd words, yet oddly fitting given Hollywood's ostensible inability to take any kind of creative liberty with anything, especially established franchises (unless such a liberty aligns with market trends, appeals to a wide demographic, and receives approval from a production committee). While J.J. Abrams was rehashing the plot of A New Hope and mincing the ethical ruminations of Star Trek into bang-bang pew-pew destruction porn, one film of sci-fi legend remained untouched until this year. Blade Runner - a film that many people I know have heard of but drastically fewer have actually seen.
On the one hand, I find this rather surprising given how its legacy, both visual and thematic, has left an indelible mark on the world of film. On the other hand, it's really not that surprising at all. Butchered by studio interference upon release, summarily disregarded by critics and general audiences alike, Blade Runner survived off the back of its cult following long enough to become one of "those" movies -- the kind of movie that people know is supposed to be important but still can't bring themselves to watch.
Perhaps it's fitting, then, that the film's sequel is following in its footsteps by bombing at the American box office (though doing markedly better overseas). Perhaps it is also fitting that instead of retreading or bastardizing the original, it instead reflects and expands upon its predecessor as a good sequel should -- something clear to me from the opening shot.
The original Blade Runner opens with an iconic shot of flames spewing in plumes above the Los Angeles skyline -- pitch black beyond, aglow with innumerable neon lights beneath, all reflected in the sharp blue of a man's iris. A world on fire.
Blade Runner 2049 also opens on an extreme close-up of a man's eye. And then it cuts to a sea of solar panels -- an incalculable expanse of dead earth beneath, an ashen sky stretching endlessly beyond. A world that has now burned to the ground, straining to suck some light from a deadened sky since there's nothing left to burn. It felt immediately familiar. It also felt completely different. This feeling would persist for the entire film.
While this highlights the differences between Deckard, a man who tries to drown his guilty conscience in bottles of Johnny Black, and K, a man whose emotional interiority is controlled by his employers so thoroughly that he has nary a thought to spare for anything outside of his work, it also serves as a natural progression of the world of Blade Runner. While I was initially disappointed to see that the dense frames of the original had largely departed, I remembered, as I mentioned earlier, that this isn’t a dying world; this is a world that has already died. After 30 years, those who haven’t left Earth for the off-world colonies are there out of necessity - not to mention how many people have likely died off during that time, anyway. The garbage that littered the streets of the original now gathers in mountains outside of Los Angeles - the world has changed.
It makes for a film of rich texture. A film with a unique identity in the 21st century, and a film that preserves, builds upon, and expands the identity of its original, both stylistically and narratively. What higher praise can a sequel receive than that it doesn’t just honor the original - it deepens the original, as well?
Let's compare this to the opening shots of A New Hope and The Force Awakens - another sci-fi franchise (featuring Harrison Ford) that received a sequel in recent years. After the iconic opening text scroll of A New Hope, the camera pans down to an establishing shot of a planet and two of its natural satellites. A rebellion cruiser enters the shot from the top of the frame. One might think it an impressive vessel until the ship firing upon it, an Imperial star destroyer, also enters from the top of the frame. Soon it fills almost the entire shot, its size and length a staggering contrast to the Rebellion cruiser. At once we see the tremendous reach and power of the Empire and how it completely dwarfs the Rebellion and all its territories. Just good fundamental film-making and visual storytelling at work.
The Force Awakens also opens with a text crawl. And then the camera pans down to a planet and its natural satellite. An enormous ship enters the frame from the left. In silhouette, it looks an awful lot like an Imperial star destroyer, and as the ship advances it eventually dwarfs the planet and blocks all light shining therefrom. At once we see the tremendous reach and power of the First Order. It's not an exact carbon copy of A New Hope, but it's about as close as you can get without outright plagiarizing. It felt immediately familiar. It also felt like a simpler, less inspired version of something I had already seen. This feeling would persist for the entire film.
I will admit that I hold some clemency for The Force Awakens. At a time when people were still licking their wounds from the travesties of the prequel trilogy, Star Wars had to redeem itself both to its fans and to the world of film at large. It had to prove that Star Wars could be Star Wars again. And what better way to do that than focusing on the things that people loved about the original, plot structure included? Even Rogue One, a film billed as “A Star Wars Story” rather than an outright sequel, is so inextricably dependent upon A New Hope that for all its unique flair (more Donnie Yen, please), it ultimately amounts to little more than a fun diversion. It does nothing to recontextualize the events of A New Hope in a way that could not have been inferred prior thereto. Even in their attempts to break the mold, the new Star Wars films continue to live in the shadow of the original trilogy.
And while, as I have mentioned, it's perfectly understandable why the new films have taken this road, I can't help but wonder what a new Star Wars sequel would look like if it actually built upon the original trilogy rather than just clinging to it.
Yet I wondered no such thing when I saw Blade Runner 2049 . There are many echoes of the original, but it is a symphony of its own. In addition to the visual and stylistic changes, I noticed upon rewatching that nearly every character in the new film stands in opposition to a character from the original. Consider Eldon Tyrell, character from the first film, a man who becomes a god to further expand his business and commerce; now consider Niander Wallace, a man who, by way of business and commerce, actively strives to become a god. Consider Rachel, the replicant girl brought into the world believing she was born a human; now consider Joi, a hologram AI, not even a being of flesh, designed for the sole purpose of providing companionship, her behavior seemingly so genuine that one might be tempted to think it were more than mere affectation. And one can’t even swing a cat at the parallels between Deckard and K without hitting fifteen beehives worth of spoilers.
There’s a lot to dive into here - a lot that I will have to ignore until a later time since I have decided to keep this piece devoid of spoilers. The point being that while the themes and ideas of the original are preserved and kept intact, 2049 approaches them from entirely new angles with entirely new concerns. All while being a love letter to Blade Runner like The Force Awakens was to A New Hope. It is, in my opinion, an excellent approach to crafting a sequel - one that is infinitely more interesting and more rewarding. And, it is worth noting, more difficult for a major studio to greenlight.
I understand that sequels and prequels and reboots are inevitable in the contemporary cinematic landscape; that does not mean, however, that they have to be the exact same doghouse with a new coat of paint.
So to answer the man’s question, no, I don’t mind you taking a liberty at all. I should hope that many more liberties like this are taken in the future.
A consumer of great film and Romantic poetry, Rich graduated from Albion College with a degree in English Literature. So, naturally, he now works as the Director of Business Development for LightRx Face and Body. Find him on Facebook for angry commentary during the games of most Michigan sports teams, and if you liked this article, let him know so he'll write more.