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A Discussion of Blade Runner 2049 in 2022

What a five-year-old movie can tell us about the future of franchises and whether films are moving backward. Photo: Warner Bros.

Did you open Vulture’s ranking of the 101 best movie sequels of all time and urgently type “Control+F” “Blade Runner 2049,” only to learn that, no, Denis Villeneuve’s 2017 sci-fi sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1982 original is not on the list. Let us explain, and give you a glimpse into the debates that occurred over our two months of arguing about sequels.

Roxana Hadadi: When I sat down to think about what I personally believe are the best movie sequels, among the first I jotted down was Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049, a movie that, before its release, I was convinced would be a failure. A follow-up arriving 35 years after its predecessor, a near-perfect movie from Ridley Scott (once Warner Bros. executives stopped messing with it) that reformed the sci-fi genre in its brutalist–meets–neo-noir image, inspired all kinds of pop culture (from Rob Zombie lyrics to the Netflix adaptation of Altered Carbon), and featured a trio of next-level performances from Harrison Ford, Sean Young, and Rutger Hauer?

There’s no single moment as electrifying as Hauer’s partially improvised “tears in rain” monologue, and Jared Leto is a pretty poor replacement for Joe Turkel. But what Villeneuve does accomplish with Blade Runner 2049 is exactly what sequels have the power to do: reinterpret the original film in a way that honors its themes and vision while also adding to an existing conversation. Blade Runner was consumed with the distinction between authenticity and artificiality, focused on Ford’s Deckard to ask genre-trope questions about what could make someone “more human than human,” and ultimately left it up to the audience to determine whether the so-called purity of our society was worth protecting. Blade Runner 2049 picks up 30 years later in another neon-lit and rain-drenched Los Angeles, pushes those queries further in a society where the replicants have become even more hated and enslaved, and tackles the chosen-one trope with a fantastic lead performance from Ryan Gosling that I think might be the best of his career.

But when Blade Runner 2049 came up in our collective discussions for the ranking, the movie became a bit of a lightning rod, and we ultimately decided not to include it. Let’s unpack that a little.

Bilge Ebiri: The first Blade Runner has endured because it’s a genuinely mysterious, elliptical movie (even more so in its director’s cuts, which is also probably why it has so many different cuts). A moment like Hauer’s speech stands out from the movie is because it’s so evocative — but you can’t be evocative if you leave no room for the imagination. I love Blade Runner because every time I watch Blade Runner I see a different movie. And Blade Runner 2049, for me, was infected with a need to explain everything, bluntly and repeatedly. It effectively re-creates and expands the universe of the original and dutifully touches on pretty much all its themes … while forgetting what it was that made that first film so special. It’s not a bad movie, in the same way that 2010: The Year We Make Contact isn’t a bad movie. It just has no business calling itself Blade Runner, in my opinion.

I said as much in my (mixed) review of Blade Runner 2049. Ignore my swipe at Twitter; the real culprit is probably the TV-ization of everything. It’s that need to explain everything, to never leave us with any real questions, to coddle us to the point of creative asphyxiation, to never let us be baffled and maybe even feel uncomfortable and dissatisfied. We’re often reminded that the first Blade Runner was a flop, but we rarely ask why it was a flop. I like to think it was a flop because it dared to be a flop (though I’m sure Scott would tell me to go fuck myself if he heard that). It’s an alienating film, in the best possible way. Its lack of financial success wasn’t some historical anomaly, a case of square, intellectually inferior ’80s audiences “not getting it” or anything. It’s because Blade Runner is a really strange movie, and it remains so. If you released the first picture today, you’d get hammered at the box office all over again. Whereas Blade Runner 2049 — despite the dazzling technical achievement, despite its visual beauty, and despite Harrison Ford’s surprisingly touching performance — feels to me like a movie made for these days when a movie’s logo is unveiled before a single megabyte of footage is recorded.

Jen Chaney: Like Roxana, I also had Blade Runner 2049 on my initial list of sequels because I genuinely enjoyed getting absorbed into the world Villeneuve created and was less concerned about whether it felt enough like the original Blade Runner. Perhaps I wasn’t expecting it to do that? I don’t know, but as a TV critic, I take exception to the TV-ization of everything as an issue. There is a lot of great TV that does not overexplain, that leaves us with real questions and doesn’t coddle us. I could name a lot, but I won’t since we’re supposed to be talking about movies here and what resurrected IP gets wrong or right.

To do that, I think we have to consider our own relationships to existing IP, which is different for every film or franchise. Personally, I never, ever want to see a sequel to or remake of The Breakfast Club, and were one to be made, I’d have a hard time considering it as objectively as I probably should. Bilge, maybe this is how you feel about Blade Runner, not to discount your objections to Blade Runner 2049 purely on personal grounds. But it’s hard to disentangle one’s personal attachments from what we expect or want sequels to do. It’s all the more challenging because the studios are blatantly aiming for our nostalgia sensory receptors when they decide to revive old franchises.

The sweet spot for me, and it’s admittedly very hard to achieve, is a movie that manages to satisfy our nostalgia and reverence for the previous film or films in a series while also telling a story that feels fresh and new. One of the best examples of this on our list, for me, is Creed, which honors the original Rocky movies while taking them in a new direction for a new generation. That movie is satisfying to people who love the Stallone Rocky movies, but it’s also thrilling to see the franchise pushed forward with a Black protagonist and more contemporary approach to the filmmaking. I was rewatching it while working on this list, and honestly, a lot of it is even more goosebump inducing than I remembered. And at the end of the day, that’s what I want from a sequel. I want goosebumps, because I can see a story coming full circle and also propelling to the next level.

Angelica Jade Bastien: Jen, I’ve got to ask, do sequels have to satisfy our nostalgia?

J.C.: Great question. On the studio’s part, there’s often a desire to commodify nostalgia — “They love this old thing, give them this old thing again” — and that can result in laziness. I think that sequels or reboots that exist solely to capitalize on nostalgia are not satisfying at all and often completely unimaginative. That said, part of the reason, consciously or subconsciously, that people like to watch continuing stories is because they feel fondness for the characters, want to see them again and (possibly) want to again feel some of the feelings they felt when they watched the movies that came before. I’m putting those emotions under a very broad umbrella called “nostalgia.” The extreme and more toxic form of nostalgia comes when fans have a mental checklist that demands that a second or third movie do exactly the same things that a first movie did, otherwise it’s a failure.

Alison Willmore: I’m not sure that what’s at stake here is necessarily the idea of some properties being too sacred or too near and dear to one of our hearts to support a sequel. I find Blade Runner 2049, a movie I’d generally describe as fine, to be a failure as a sequel not because the original Blade Runner is untouchable but because 2049 it so literal about details that were previously allowed to be enigmatic, and so clunky about themes that were already explored so well in the first film. I’ve never thought about it as about questions of the purity of society — there never seemed to be much doubt that the replicants, created to serve as synthetic slave labor while being indistinguishable from the organic population, were subject to grave injustices. What feels more key to me is whether being artificial, and having a constrained time on earth, means that one’s life is somehow less real or valuable — whether there’s any difference between these experiences of the world. The original movie allows us to contemplate this theme from within by suggesting that Deckard, who spends his days as an enforcer of this order, may be a replicant himself who is unaware of his true nature, something that’s delicately hinted at without a firm answer ever being given.

Well, until 2049, of course, where Deckard is revealed to be human because Harrison Ford came back, and there was no hiding the fact that several decades had passed between films, and all the philosophical questions about the validity of replicant existence get ploddingly reduced to the issue of their deserving that consideration because they’re able to reproduce. 2049 is beautiful to look at and atmospheric, and Ryan Gosling puts his sad eyes to great use, but if a good sequel expands on the original in some way, 2049 actually manages to make the fictional world in which it takes place smaller. It plays like bad fan fiction.

And the age of IP has essentially made everyone into well-compensated writers of fan fiction. I don’t mean this as a slight to transformative works — more than anything, I think the rise of the franchises has made it clear that fanfic is its own skill, requiring a deep understanding of the source material without being paralyzed by reverence for it. You mentioned Creed, Jen, which is a terrific movie, but also one that tempers its affection for the Rocky films with a gentle but unmistakable critique about Rocky as the oblivious recipient of “great white hope” sentiments. I’m not especially interested in nostalgia, or at least I’d prefer it to be deployed very sparingly (remember how long Ryan Coogler waits to use “Gonna Fly Now”?). What I want is a feeling that whoever’s making a sequel really understands the work they’re continuing.

One of the most maddening things about, for instance, the Ghostbuster battles of the past few years have been the ugly skirmishes over what an authentic sequel to that movie entails. Paul Feig’s much-maligned all-female Ghostbusters was by no means a great movie, but it was, like the original, a shaggy dirtbag comedy about mismatched co-workers catching ghosts. Jason Reitman’s Ghostbusters: Afterlife, meanwhile, barely tried for laughs; shifted the action to a small Middle America town; and turned itself into a coming-of-age movie. What was shocking about it wasn’t just that it reached toxic levels of pandering, but that it accepted that the original movie mattered less than whatever warped version lived in the heads of its most vocal fans.

J.C.: Alison, I agree. I am among those who actually enjoyed the all-female Ghostbusters for what it was (and my son loved it). I think there’s a distinction between pandering and building off of the warm feelings that a well-known film or franchise engenders to create something new that isn’t pure fan service. It requires a nuanced, smart approach to fall on the right side of that line.

AJ.B.: I was more intrigued by Blade Runner 2049 when I first saw it at a press screening (and soon after, wrote about it). But I’ve since cooled, finding it a beautiful and empty object that, yes, makes a previously expansive world seem claustrophobic. I’m still interested in the forces behind the need for franchises to continue in perpetuity. To play off what Alison said, I think we are seeing toxic levels of pandering in so much of Hollywood filmmaking these days, obsessed as it is with its own past — but a murky, illegitimate version of it. (Think of how Netflix sees itself as a cottage industry of Marilyn Monroe content, yet its forthcoming documentary and Blonde threaten to spread more of a skewed view.) Last year’s The Matrix Resurrections and Spider-Man No Way Home stand out as examples to me of what Hollywood thinks sequels should do right now: The former managed to interrogate our dependence on nostalgia, while the latter simply exploited it. What do y’all think?

B.E.: It’s true that Hollywood (and mass media in general) has weaponized nostalgia in not-always-tasteful ways. And our current tyranny of sequels is, of course, both a symptom and a cause of this weaponization. Once the studios ran out of new franchises to mine, they turned to the older ones — to Star Wars and Blade Runner and Mad Max and Rocky and others. As you guys have noted, what’s interesting is how we ourselves respond to individual movies as movies in and of themselves, freed from the shackles of the past. Can we? It’s not so much that I needed Blade Runner 2049 to do exactly what Blade Runner did. It’s just that the film so constantly refers to the earlier movie that it’s hard to shake the ghost of Ridley Scott’s original; the film invites the comparison (unwisely, if you ask me). I think what Fury Road did was more interesting, and successful, keeping Max’s backstory to the level of inchoate dream images that didn’t entirely match the previous films. He might as well have been an entirely new character. (Though would I have liked the movie less if it had come with dollops of backstory and montages from the previous films? I don’t know. The Road Warrior did that with the first Mad Max and it kind of worked perfectly. Maybe George Miller is Just Really Good at This.)

A fondness for earlier movies absolutely colors our opinions of the new ones. One of the reasons why I didn’t much like the most recent Scream movie is because I just generally haven’t liked any of the Scream sequels. I know they have their devotees, but to me the increasingly meta nature of those films have felt like hat-on-a-hat-on-a-hat syndrome, an annoyance that is rooted in my love for the original. What if I didn’t put the first Scream up on a pedestal? Would these movies be more fun for me? Similarly, every Conjuring movie made after the original Conjuring just serves to remind me why the first movie was so good. Would I have liked the second movie more had I never seen the first? Who knows? You guys mentioned Creed, a very good entry in a Rocky franchise I mostly detest. But what about my beloved Tron: Legacy? I never liked Tron. Maybe, if I adored the original, the new one would have felt like a betrayal, as it did to some.

To get to our broader question, but not necessarily to answer it: A few years ago, Mohsin Hamid wrote a beautiful essay about all the ways that nostalgia had infiltrated our politics and our culture, and he tied everything together — from Mad Men and Downton Abbey and Marvel superheroes to ISIS and Brexit and Donald Trump, and even the technologically enabled “carefully curated pasts” of social media. In other words, even our new things were just old things remixed. His overall point was about how we cling to the past because our world is changing so rapidly. Hollywood executives and filmmakers aren’t immune to this phenomenon. They cling to the past just like we do, because they themselves feel powerless in this world. The most nostalgic movie of 2021 wasn’t Spider-Man: No Way Home, if you ask me. It was Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza. And I suspect that, moving forward, given that nobody really wants to make movies set in the world of COVID, we’re probably going to get even more forays into the past than ever before.

R.H.: Hamid’s line about how we might merge with computers in the future (“reprogramming our cells”) makes me think fondly of Blade Runner 2049’s use of the phrase “cells interlinked” from Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire. I do think a lot of this comes down to — and I apologize for the obviousness of this — personal taste, and whatever mélange of factors contribute to that in each of us. Why did the return of the original Ghostbusters crew in Ghostbusters: Afterlife, complete with a CGI rendition of Harold Ramis, make me roll my eyes, but the way Doctor Sleep repositioned Henry Thomas as Jack Nicholson’s Jack Torrance make me clap? Everyone’s individual capacity for this kind of thing varies in terms of what you’ll tolerate and what you immediately kick against.

But when the approach of Look at this thing you recognize from another thing, and the only aspect of this we are asking you to engage with is that very recognition becomes seemingly the only way that sequels are conceived and developed, we lose the combination of homage and challenge and boldness coursing through, by our consensus vote, the 101 films we did place on this list. It’s brand maintenance rather than creativity. Looking ahead this year, on deck are Downton Abbey: A New Era, Top Gun: Maverick, Jurassic World: Dominion, Legally Blonde 3, Halloween Ends, and allegedly Avatar 2, and that’s not even listing any Marvel Cinematic Universe offerings. I’m holding out hope for Top Gun: Maverick, because Tom Cruise in franchise mode is basically the only person I’m willing to suspend my skepticism for. (I like our Mission: Impossible sequel choice very much, but I would have gladly put any of them on our list.) And I think it’s only when a number of these nostalgia-driven sequels fail so disastrously at the box office that studios will have to reassess their strategies.

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A Discussion of Blade Runner 2049 in 2022