Looking at the Weird World of Blade Runner Spinoffs

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Hopping from one medium to another. Photo: Warner Bros./Getty Images

Blade Runner 2049 isn’t even out yet, but those whose mouths water for it have already had a few chances to dip into its world. Warner Bros. has released shorts set within the universe first dreamed up by Hampton Fancher, David Peoples, and Ridley Scott 35 years ago — thus continuing a long, weird tradition of Blade Runner spinoff media. Since the 1982 release of the original film — itself an adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? — the marketplace has seen an array of media tied in one way or another to it. Or, in one case, officially just tied to the soundtrack. On the eve of the first major continuation of the Blade Runner narrative, it’s worth revisiting the spotty track record of its related fictional outings.

The film novelization
One of the oddest phenomena in popular culture is the book-movie-book pipeline: A book is adapted into a movie, then the movie is adapted into a separate book version. A sadly defunct Tumblr chronicled and catalogued various examples a few years back, but it missed out on Les Martin’s Blade Runner: A Story of the Future. Though Dick died just a few months before Blade Runner’s release, he was pleased with the script — but no so much with an offer that the powers that be made to him about further use of his services. In his final interview, conducted by John Boonstra, Dick claimed he had been asked to write what he called “the ‘El Cheapo’ novelization” of Blade Runner for at least $400,000. He declined, but another author was found: adaptation master Les Martin. He would go on to be best known for his novelizations of the X-Files and Indiana Jones franchises, and in 1982’s Blade Runner: A Story of the Future, he built out various aspects of the filmic cosmology: We learn about a nuclear holocaust that has left the world miserable and L.A. overpopulated with refugees, about how replicant Leon and blade runner Holden ended up in the initial interrogation scene, and about Deckard and Rachael’s plan to escape off-world at the end. Martin’s still alive at 83, but there’s no word on whether Blade Runner 2049: A Story of a Point Even Farther in the Future is in the works.

The comic book
Marvel, despite having created some of the most recognizable intellectual property in the world, has long embraced licensed work. Perhaps most famous were its Star Wars comics of the 1970s and ’80s (Jaxxon for life, guys), but in that same period, the publisher worked with movie studios to do brief movie and TV adaptations in the pages of Marvel Comics Super Special. The year 1982 brought an issue based on Blade Runner, penned by famed scribe and former editor-in-chief Archie Goodwin. Art duties were handled by Al Williamson, Carlos Garzon, Dan Green, Ralph Reese, and Marie Severin; with a rippin’ cover by the legendary Jim Steranko. You can read the whole thing for yourself in a not-so-legal digitization, but if you want the tl;dr: Julian Darius of Sequart did a long analysis of the tale and concluded that, while “interesting,” the comic is ultimately hobbled by its dense brevity, which kills the moody ambience of the film. Its primary significance is that, unlike the movie, it actually seeks to explain why the replicant-hunters are called “blade runners”: The text at one point reads, “Blade runner. You’re always movin’ on the edge.” A decent try, Archie.

The 1985 video game
Easily the oddest of the spinoffs, the first Blade Runner video game isn’t officially even an adaptation of the film. Its full title is, I kid you not, Blade Runner … A Video Game Interpretation of the Film Score by Vangelis, ellipsis included. It’s hard to track down primary sources for information about the origins of the game, but publisher Computer Rentals Limited — better known as CRL — allegedly didn’t have the licensing rights to make a game based on the movie, but could get the rights to the soundtrack. Given that state of affairs, you’ll understand why the promotional text on the back of the game box talks about “replidroids” instead of replicants and “Stage 6” instead of Nexus 6. The game is enormously repetitive and surprisingly difficult, consisting of a side-scrolling chase between the silhouette representing the player and the one representing the replidroid, in which you’re supposed to try to shoot your prey without hitting civilian silhouettes. As for the promise in the title, well, you’re only really exposed to two melodies, one of which is the end-titles theme from the film and the other of which vaguely resembles “Rachael’s Song.” Not exactly a long set list for a game based on an album, but then again, we can’t be too judgmental of the Commodore 64 era.

The 1997 video game
Substantially more elaborate is the 1997 point-and-click saga developed by Westwood Studios for cyberpunk-hungry users of Microsoft Windows. It eschews direct adaptation in favor of a story set in the same world around the same time. In it, you play a newbie blade runner with the woefully generic name of Ray McCoy (come on, step up to Dick’s level, people). It’s a sprawling narrative that begins with the investigation of an animal murder by a group of replicants and concludes with one of 13 different endings, depending on player actions. If you have a tolerance for slightly overwrought noir voice-over, there’s a fair amount to like in the game, especially when ridiculous non-playable characters pop up (my personal favorite is the old, Yiddish-accented couple who offer Ray information between fighting about whether Herbert Hoover or Richard Nixon gave the Checkers Speech). The visuals are stunning by 1997 standards, and still retain some of their luster 20 years later. Fans of similar adventures like the Monkey Island series, King’s Quest, and Grim Fandango can find plenty to love. What’s more, it co-stars a female blade runner, which is more than can be said for the films in the franchise.

The sequel novels
Blade Runner — at least in its less-compromised Director’s and Final cuts — ends with a fair amount of deliberate ambiguity as to the fates of Deckard and Rachael. Nevertheless, the film’s shepherds were fine with some degree of speculation about what happens to the troubled couple, as evidenced by the three sequel novels of K.W. Jeter. Beginning with 1995’s Blade Runner 2: The Edge of Human, then continuing with 1996’s Replicant Night and 2000’s Eye and Talon, Jeter offers up a radical expansion of the existing film universe that also incorporated selected elements of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? into the ecosystem, such as the veterinary assistant J.R. Isidore. The series goes well beyond the confines of dystopian Los Angeles, throwing the reader from an isolated shack in which Deckard lives with Rachael to Mars, where Deckard consults on a film adaptation of his wacky blade-running adventures (yes, really). Edge of Human was possibly almost a film of its own, apparently: According to a quote allegedly from screenwriter Stuart Hazeldine and published on an old Blade Runner message board, Hazeldine had a script based on Jeter’s novel, titled Blade Runner Down. However, according to the quote, Warner Bros. didn’t “get” what Hazeldine was going for, and the project was dead by early 1999. Perhaps Scott knew he’d be putting out Black Hawk Down and didn’t want to use the same movie-title conceit twice?

Soldier
It’s hard to think of two directors less likely to show up in the same sentence, but Paul W.S. Anderson paid tribute to Ridley Scott by presenting his 1998 Kurt Russell vehicle Soldier as a side-quel to Blade Runner. The story has nothing to do with replicants and blade runners; indeed, it doesn’t even take place on Earth. However, David Peoples, co-writer of Blade Runner, penned the script and tossed in a few references that imply Soldier’s beefcake action is taking place off-world in the universe of Peoples’s earlier masterpiece. A flying police “spinner” vehicle can be seen in a junk heap at one point, and reference is made to Russell’s super-soldier character fighting in the battle of Tannhauser Gate — a riff on Roy Batty’s “tears in rain” speech mentioning “c-beams” that “glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate.” Does Kurt Russell pop up in Blade Runner 2049? No spoilers.

Prometheus
We live in the age of the cinematic universe, and the Ridley Scott extended universe arrived in 2012. Sort of. The Scott-helmed Alien prequel Prometheus dwelled long and hard on questions of artificial intelligence and robot rights, so perhaps it only makes sense that the project might pay homage to the director’s previous effort on those themes. In a Blu-Ray Easter egg, you can read the writings of Guy Pearce’s android-builder Peter Weyland, and one passage is a clear, if not explicit, reference to Blade Runner robot impresario Eldon Tyrell. Ostensibly written in 2090 by an elderly Peter, it references a corporate titan and erstwhile mentor who lived “like a God on top of a pyramid overlooking the city of angels,” but who was felled by his own creations. As a result, according to the passage, Peter opted to steer clear of “genetic abominations” and stick to purely synthetic humanoids. No mention is made of how that influenced the design choices leading to Weyland robots’ ability to make out with one another.

The Weird World of Blade Runner Spinoffs