Blade Runner 2049

Before Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 was released in theaters a little more than a month ago, Hollywood insiders speculated that the movie could be a rarity: an intellectually rigorous blockbuster that could connect with mainstream audiences and Academy voters. Once 2049 underperformed at the box office it was treated as a misfire, proof that audiences don’t like to be challenged, or that the marketing campaign didn’t try hard enough to appeal to millennials or women, or that the distributor’s overzealous attempt to police spoilers wound up constricting the conversation around the film.

Yet the strongest business case against Blade Runner 2049 is the very thing that makes it folly: it’s a sequel to a film that didn’t connect with a mass audience back in 1982. If success begets success, then Blade Runner 2049 is the rare case of failure eagerly begetting failure.

Even in an age when every studio hopes to successfully market a new interconnected universe, Blade Runner 2049 is unique (and perverse) for the degree to which it presupposes a familiarity with the original. The sequel would be almost incomprehensible without a thorough grounding in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, which is essential not only to decipher 2049‘s plot, but to appreciate the full emotional resonance of certain details: Gaff’s (Edward James Olmos) origami horse perched on the table at the retirement home, or the audio fragments of a 30-year-old conversation between Deckard (Harrison Ford) and Rachael (Sean Young) recovered in a corporate archive. When gratuitous callbacks and improbable cameos pop up in other sequels, they’re usually derided as “fan service.” Yet Blade Runner 2049 isn’t a rejuvenation of atrophied intellectual property. It’s a disarmingly sincere exegesis of the original text, extrapolated from contested lines and deliberate ambiguities.

Of course, Blade Runner isn’t one text, but five (or seven or nine, depending on who’s counting). Previewed to restive test audiences in 1982, Blade Runner was quickly slapped with a lethargic voice-over from Ford and a programmatic happy ending for general release. The international version kept the goofy new additions, but retained a few additional shots of extreme violence cut out of the American version. A revised version of the preview cut—with the happy ending and most of the voice-over excised, plus the addition of a salvaged unicorn-dream outtake that suggests Deckard’s memories are as manufactured as Rachael’s—was rereleased as the director’s cut in 1992, in spite of the director’s misgivings about its hasty assemblage. Scott claims that his 2007 Blade Runner: The Final Director’s Cut represents the fullest expression of his original intent for the project.

Sean Young and Harrison Ford in Blade Runner

The lack of a single authentic source text is at the core of 2049‘s allure. (J. Hoberman, upon reviewing the director’s cut in 1992, celebrated Blade Runner as an exemplar of “postauthorial” cinema.) Despite its futuristic aesthetic, Blade Runner is one of the few movies that becomes more legible when treated like an ancient manuscript; it’s a palimpsest, with each extant version layered atop a previous one. As I once wrote in Cine-File, Blade Runner occasionally suggests the “impossible grandeur of a medieval saga, a lumbering epic embroidered and corrupted by countless textual variants.”

Despite Scott’s insistent ownership of Blade Runner and its mysteries, he is not the film’s only interpreter. The director has long maintained that Ford’s Deckard is a replicant and gradually adjusted the movie to strengthen this framework in each subsequent edition. Ford believes his iconic character is human. In a New York Times roundtable conducted just before the release of 2049, Ford praised the new release for keeping the “options . . . somewhat preserved, for the audience.” To which Scott replied, “Deckard is a [expletive] replicant. Harrison can’t disagree now, because the whole premise of this new plot is based on the fact that he’s a replicant.” (It’s not.)

Villeneuve diplomatically suggested that 2049 is “made from the tension between those two movies [the 1982 version and the final cut],” an obscurantist choice that accounts for much of the emotional heft of the sequel. That approach is rare, especially for a movie that cost more than $155 million to make—but it’s not unprecedented. In 2014, Reader writer Ben Sachs argued that Darren Aronofsky’s Noah was a midrash of its biblical source: it owed as much to the tradition of extratextual commentary and argumentation in Talmudic scholarship as it did to the slim account of the flood in Genesis. In that sense, 2049 emerges as the second improbable midrashic-wannabe blockbuster effort of this decade.

Blade Runner 2049 doesn’t merely keep the question of Deckard’s humanity open—it’s predicated on the intellectual conceits and interpretative leaps that make it a true midrash. At one point late in the movie, blind replicant tycoon Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) taunts Deckard, suggesting that the original blade runner may well have been designed to fulfill a prescribed role in a science experiment. But the designer in question remains ambiguous—perhaps a programmer working under the skin or a god operating beyond the clouds. The movie asks other narrow, seemingly minor questions that only carry weight for those already steeped in Blade Runner‘s mythology: If Deckard was a human and Rachael a replicant, then can a human and a replicant procreate? Can a replicant and a replicant? Would a sterile replicant still have a sex drive?

Blade Runner 2049

The original Blade Runner revolved around a replicant whose implanted memories prevented her from recognizing herself as such—a slave who imagines herself a free woman. Villeneuve’s commentary burrows deeper into the implications of this premise: Would the knowledge that one is indeed a replicant make one more or less docile? Would a replicant ever want to trace an implanted memory to its source? Would a working-stiff robot ever aspire to be head of the household, complete with his own digital domestic slave?

These are more interesting questions than the ones most modern franchises set out to answer. (Significantly, of course, 2049 doesn’t really try to answer them at all but instead suggest and gesture toward new avenues of inquiry.) Rogue One, the most recent entry in the Star Wars saga, looks like a playground debate in comparison, trying to settle questions (“But how did the rebels obtain the Death Star plans?”) no one contemplated in the first place. A similarly bankrupt “Blade Runner II” would be content merely to show the C-beams glittering in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate that replicant Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) described so evocatively and cryptically in the original.

The weightier questions in 2049 percolate more organically: Do we need free will to function, or only its simulacrum? Can someone else’s memory lead us to truth about our own lives? Would learning that our souls are synthetic change anything about our lives? How much of a creator can we glimpse in her creations? Do androids dream of electric sheep?