Before 2049 this week, there was a towering 2019, 35 years ago. The original Blade Runner (1982) set a template that will be a challenge for the sequel to match. It is a template that has inspired generations of subsequent movies, from Dark City (1998) and The Matrix (1999) to Inception (2010). It laid the foundation for a new sub-genre, cyberpunk, which depicts high technology coexisting with low life. Blade Runner also enriched language; it is credited with giving birth to the word “retrofit” while Oscar Pistorius, the knee-amputee athlete, wouldn’t have got his nickname but for the movie. And over the years, Blade Runner has inspired countless video games, led to volumes of research and entered the curricula of various school and university courses.
Although a sequel to a cinema landmark is not always a good idea, the exceptions are notable, including the original Star Wars trilogy and the first three Indiana Jones films (both series, coincidentally, feature Blade Runner’s Harrison Ford). No matter how well or poorly Blade Runner 2049 stands up against the original, there could be at least one welcome fallout. The last Star Wars instalment, in 2015, had sent young viewers looking for copies of the original trilogy (1977-83), as well as the inferior prequels (1999-05). If 2049 can raise new interest in Blade Runner, it can give the original something long overdue. An instant reception.
Back in 1982, Blade Runner had failed to recover its budget as many viewers and most critics found it over the top. Leonard Maltin, who brought out a annual TV and Movie guide, remained critical until the final volume in 2015. Even Roger Ebert panned the film initially, although he would change his mind later.
It was on video-cassette that the film found a niche viewership. This encouraged director Ridley Scott, unhappy with modifications imposed by the producers, to edit and re-edit the movie in seven different “cuts” over the years, culminating in the definitive “Final Cut” of 2007. The succession of cuts and re-cuts fed the growing cult, raising the film to the stature it enjoys today.
What makes the film so special? Many of those who disliked it will never know, the magic having eluded them throughout 35 long, wasted years. For others, it works at various levels: Visual, audial and philosophical.
In a futuristic Los Angeles of 2019, where almost everything happens at night, giant billboards flash commercials while vehicles fly past skyscrapers. On the crowded streets live an underprivileged, multicultural section who couldn’t afford to settle in an “Off World” colony, while on the high floors live the corporate giants. The modern skyscrapers are built on the skeletons of classical buildings, hence the word “retrofit”.
Visual futurist Syd Mead’s dark world is complemented by the sound effects led by the equally dark musical score by Vangelis, a blend of modern synthesiser notes with classical composition. Denis Villeneuve, who directs the sequel, has told online Australian magazine Film Ink that the music of the sequel is even better, though inspired by Vangelis.
The sound effects and written commentaries on the philosophical narrative lifts it above the science fiction. Based on Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Blade Runner is about a hunt for a group of rogue “replicants” by a “blade runner”, a kind of crack cop. Replicants, created to serve humans, look like them but are stronger and at least equally intelligent. Because they can eventually develop feelings and turn rebel, the designers have limited their lifespan to four years. As the story unfolds, it raises questions on themes such as identity (what does being human mean?) and memory, which is implanted to give replicants the impression that they are human.
One question that was best left unanswered, however, has been addressed in the sequel. Scott and Ford had long argued whether Deckard, the blade runner, is a replicant without knowing it. Indeed he is, confirms Scott, now executive producer, in an interview to Den of Geek, an online forum on everything cult.
The bigger question remains whether the sequel will give the original a wider following. Despite its current reputation — voted the best ever sci-fi film by scientists in a Guardian poll in 2004, frequently ranked among the greatest films of all time — it still needs this second chance.
Because so much of modern culture lives and breathes Blade Runner, even if not everyone knows it. And because Blade Runner was part of growing up.