Sean O’Neal: Clayton, today is a day I’ve been both anticipating and dreading possibly more than my own demise. Today we saw the first trailer for Blade Runner 2049—a sequel to the 1982 film that I’ve spent most of my life obsessing over from the moment I first caught the lesser theatrical version with grudging Harrison Ford narration on TV when I was a kid.
My love of Blade Runner initially began as an offshoot of the more all-encompassing Ford fandom that all boys of a certain generation went through, but it blossomed into a more intense appreciation after Ridley Scott released The Director’s Cut in 1992 for a limited theatrical run. I vividly recall the screening I saw in Dallas as a turning point in my love of cinema, as I sat there slack-jawed, my bored-shitless parents softly snoring beside me, finally getting the full scope of the incredible, neon-polluted world that Scott had created. I’ve since counted Blade Runner as one of my all-time favorite movies. I’ve spent countless hours working with Vangelis’ score in my ears; his “End Titles” was my ringtone for many years. I’ve dressed as Rick Deckard for Halloween. I am physically unable to resist a Blade Runner repertory screening whenever one pops up (the most recent being just a few weeks ago at the Music Box). I’ve made pilgrimages to the Bradbury Building. In short, I love this movie.
As such, I’ve viewed the prospect of a sequel with trepidation, and a general get-the-fuck-out-of-here attitude equivalent to Deckard’s at being called away from his noodles. Similarly, I don’t need this: Blade Runner is, in many ways, perfect precisely because it is self-contained. Whatever aspirations Scott may have once had for turning it into another Star Wars or Indiana Jones-style franchise for Ford, much of its lasting appeal is that the story feels like such a dead end. It’s not part of a larger, more heroic arc (Deckard isn’t actually much of a hero). It’s a story whose most interesting chapters seem to have already taken place; Deckard’s mission to eradicate a group of rogue Replicants is ultimately a minor and futile one. The fate of the world doesn’t hang in the balance—the world has already been fucked for years—and, other than the threat they pose to Eldon Tyrell, there’s little reason to root for him to succeed. (As we’re repeatedly told, they’re destined to burn out soon, anyway.) Rather, the film is a bleak, nihilistic meditation on the dispiriting nature of humanity that’s also strangely beautiful. The bones of Blade Runner’s plot can be distilled into a fairly brief summation. Its appeal lies in its singular, engrossing aesthetics. And the replicants it’s inspired over the years have also tended to linger half as long.
And yet, I have to admit that this trailer captures a lot of what I and so many others love about it. For starters, there are the obvious touchstones from the first film: The Spinners flying through cities of jutting skyscrapers emblazoned with glowing corporate logos. (Congrats to Atari for making it to 2049!) That awesome Vangelis soundtrack—though I can’t tell if it’s actually just a reworked version of the original or part of Johann Johannsson’s new score that carries on the motif. Deckard’s blaster, both the one held by Ford and the slightly updated model Ryan Gosling wields. And of course, the incredible cinematography, with Roger Deakins capturing the beautifully decaying gloom of Future Los Angeles, the smoggy amber of its days and the rain-soaked blue of its nights, and the oppressive scale of all those glass architectural marvels—now matched by giant holograms—looming over all the “little people” below. I know that director Denis Villeneuve is also a lifelong Blade Runner fanatic, and his love for this world is evident in every frame of this recreation.
And then there are some things that give me reservations. But before I get too deeply into those, let’s stay positive for a minute. Clayton, I know you’re also a big Blade Runner fan. How have you been feeling about the idea of a sequel so far? What did you like about the trailer?
Clayton Purdom: I’ve also been watching the movie intermittently for as long as I can remember, its rhythms and mood burnt into my brain as an abstract ideal of moody sci-fi. In college, I spent a quarter writing about the movie shot for shot; there are scenes in J. F. Sebastian’s apartment I have committed to memory at this point for their visual evocation of Philip K. Dick’s idea of “kipple.”
But like you, I don’t really give a shit about the plot, which mostly exists as a reason to set Deckard off on a journey through the city Scott designed along with cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth and concept artist Syd Mead. Deckard is tasked with killing some robots; he gets most of them; credits roll. It is, like the best video games, less about any individual character or conflict than it is about exploring a singular space that already tells us a story through its very design. And so I’ve been excited about Blade Runner 2049 from the moment they announced it, in part also because I am also a huge fan of what Denis Villeneuve did with the urban spaces of Sicario and Enemy and the way he collaborated with Deakins to create almost sentient rain-streaks and balls of light in Prisoners. It remains hard for me to imagine two people I’d trust more with returning to moody-ass future Los Angeles.
So I liked the trailer. Those synthesizers are, I’d like to think, more than a nostalgic trigger; at the very least, they’re a powerful piece of film music that hasn’t been repeated so much that it has lost all power, like, say, the Star Wars theme. There’s a precision and sense of cleanliness to the compositions and even the sets in the new trailer that strikes me as slightly off when compared to the original film. With the exception of the golden Tyrell building, everything always looked sort of dusty and smelly, aside from those wonderfully steamy bowls of noodles. But Ryan Gosling cannot stop looking good bathed in purple light, the new sets seem as wonderfully art-directed as in the film’s ostentatious predecessor, and, yeah, those synthesizers are there. They do something to me. My first thought when I watched the trailer was, “I hope this movie is 100 hours long.”
I have two concerns. The first is that they seem to be making The Matrix mistake of following up an elegant plot with more plot. It seems less ambient in its appeal, and much more focused on expanding the lore and introducing new characters, none of which I’m particularly interested in doing. The other concern is that so many of the touchpoints of the original have gone on to serve as fixtures of all cyberpunk fiction that, at this point, it’s hard to tell what they’re doing differently than, say, the Ghost In The Shell remake. Is it fair to even expect Villeneuve, Deakins, and company to do something new with this world—to take it out of the city, or give us something as shocking as the original locale? If not, are we happy with a well-shot return?
Sean O’Neal: I share your second concern less, perhaps because I’m not really as up on cyberpunk as you are, and thus not as at risk at feeling exhausted by its signifiers. So far, this seems very specifically tied to Blade Runner to me, and I have no real issue with that. I’d personally be most disappointed if this were setting up some newer, larger world to explore; I just want to hear about C-beams glittering near the Tannhauser Gate. I don’t need to see them.
I do share your concern about new characters, and some of that is due to who’s playing them. For one, I think I will always have reservations about Jared Leto. The onus is always on him to prove me wrong for doubting him, and I’m not sure that the limited glimpses of him here—wearing some sort of business kimono and making Blade Runner’s class war themes explicit in his prattle—have given me enough yet to set my mind at ease. Similarly, while I have no similar problems with Ryan Gosling, and generally find him to be a fine actor, he’s lately attained that sort of movie star aura where it’s impossible for me to not be constantly aware that I’m watching Ryan Gosling playing a part, which his limited dialogue here doesn’t do much to overcome.
But I’m also hesitant about bringing back Harrison Ford, and not just in how it promises to permanently erase any lingering ambiguity about Deckard’s nature that Scott didn’t already work to erode. Seeing Ford, now in the august of his not giving a shit, emphasizes that this is, first and foremost, an exercise in nostalgia. It’s the same bittersweet feeling I had when seeing Han Solo in Force Awakens—happy to see my old hero, slightly sad that he was rousted out of retirement to please some kids who won’t leave him the hell alone. I worry that it will lend the entire affair that same sort of empty, market-driven air that made it difficult for me to ignore the sense that I was just being pandered to, and allow me to genuinely, emotionally connect with that character again.
As for the redoubled emphasis on plot, absolutely. It’s my biggest qualm with the trailer: There, uh, sure is a lot going on. Gun fights, fistfights, explosions, chase scenes… The thing I love about the original Blade Runner—and something I worry today’s audiences won’t stand for—is that, again, very little happens. It’s a movie with long stretches of silence, where Scott mostly just allows the audience to soak in that incredible atmosphere, as you point out. Outside of a couple of scuffles (laughably small, by today’s standards) between Deckard and the Replicants he’s pursuing, plus that final, prolonged, remarkably patient final showdown with Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty, there’s not a whole lot of action in this supposed sci-fi action film. It’s not for nothing that my parents fell asleep during the screening I dragged them to.
Blade Runner is a movie that confidently immersed its audience in its world; it’s no accident that the things it’s most inspired since aren’t other films, but electronic ambient albums. And I worry that even a fellow super-fan like Villenueve is powerless to resist a modern, Save The Cat-trained filmmaking environment that demands he hit his recognizable plot beats, right on schedule. The hints of some sort of “origin story”—those cryptic dates scratched into that rock certainly portend some sort of historical exposition dump at some point—also give me pause, particularly for a movie that (theatrical version aside) didn’t feel the need to do too much explaining. Hopefully it’s not The Matrix scenario you dare invoke and, by doing so, risk cursing the film, you bastard.
But hey, we’re making all of these judgments based on little more than two minutes of footage! Maybe we just need to relax and soak in a soothing, post-apocalyptic wasteland for a while.
Clayton Purdom: Agreed that it’s always a little crazy to get too worked up over a trailer. But then, Blade Runner means a lot more to me than Star Wars ever did—a fact I utter only today, in the glow of this trailer’s release, and never shall again on the internet—so I don’t mind obsessing. And anyway, I think you can see a lot in those two minutes. There’s already some sense of tension between a more moody, Vangelis-inspired first half, which pivots on the “Chewie, we’re home” moment of Ford’s return to the more traditional action-movie clattering of the second half. It’s fair to expect that that tension will remain in the final movie—but then, Villeneuve was able to wrangle something singular out of a fairly uninteresting script in Prisoners, so we’ll see.
Villeneuve’s track record is part of why I’ll remain optimistic about the movie no matter what a trailer shows me. (Although, to be clear, I like this trailer a lot.) The other reason is that Villeneuve has talked a very little about the world itself changing. “The climate has gone berserk—the ocean, the rain, the snow is all toxic,” he told Entertainment Weekly last year. I like idea that the newer deserts and forests and the more familiar rain-swept cities are all conceived of as part of the same broken ecosystem rather than merely exotic new planets to visit. That all shows an ambient sense toward storytelling that could, in its way, elaborate on the appeal of the original. If they have to do some more fistfights in those locations rather than dourly play piano, and if they had to create a few new characters in order to justify going there, so be it.