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A still from Blade Runner.
A still from Blade Runner.

Do we need Blade Runner part II?

Some films are so good, that a sequel is bound to be an unnecessary cinematic venture

Blade Runner will now have a sequel. Ryan Gosling will star alongside Harrison Ford from the original film. We need a sense of history here, and context, and, well, what this whole Blade Runner thing is about. Why should I—and millions of other people around the globe—get agitated about a sequel?

When studio executives saw Ridley Scott’s first cut of Blade Runner—the year was 1982—they broke out in a cold sweat. Thirty million dollars had been spent on the film (around 473 crore today, adjusted for inflation), and the “suits" couldn’t understand the story. The only way out, they decided, was to take away Scott’s artistic rights (some small print in the contract that Scott may not have noticed), and edit it themselves. Scott, and the film’s star Harrison Ford, protested vehemently, but the small print won. Ford was forced, against his will (he has spoken about this in several interviews over the years), to do a voice-over narration that supposedly explained what the hell was going on in the movie.

The suits edited the film and released it. It bombed, because the hasty re-editing had ended up making the film more incomprehensible. When it was released in India in the mid-1980s, I watched it with a friend in a theatre in Calcutta that was so empty that we moved to the last row, put our feet up on the seat backs before us, and smoked. Visually, the film was overpowering, the themes that the film seemed to be tackling—God, the meaning of being human, mortality—were so big, the questions that it asked but did not answer so intriguing, that we went home with a very rare feeling: an ecstatic WTF!

The sequel will have Scott as producer, and it’s us—the original “Bladeheads"—who are breaking into a cold sweat.

How did this flop film become so iconic? Dozens of science fiction films that have come later have doffed their hats to it. As the late great film critic Roger Ebert wrote: “Look at Dark City, Total Recall, Brazil, 12 Monkeys or Gattaca, and you will see its progeny." The film’s fans are legion—just search the Net. There are as many as five versions of the film, from the “workprint" which Scott showed the studio executives, to the 2007 one, the first time Scott had complete artistic control over his film—Blade Runner: The Final Cut.

So what was Blade Runner about? (Before I get into that, I must warn readers that in terms of scope, vision and philosophical depth, Blade Runner barely scratches the surface of the Philip K. Dick novel it is based on, Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? In fact, it is very likely that Scott and his scriptwriters intentionally avoided the really tough parts of the novel. But I am writing here only about the film, and the novel can be kept aside—Do read it but. That will be another trip.) The film is set in 2019—in 1982, that must have seemed far enough away—in an overcrowded Los Angeles, where it’s always raining (David Fincher may have got his vision of New York in Se7en from here), gargantuan neon billboards peddle stuff from Atari to Coca-Cola, and buildings of unimaginable size belch fire into the sky (why? There is no explanation. But it looks awesome).

The Tyrell Corporation makes “replicants", androids that look absolutely human, who are shipped off to “off-world colonies" as slave labour. They have a life span of four-five years—they are created as mid-20s “humans" and are programmed to “die" when they reach 30. If they escape and return to Earth, they are “retired"—killed. The operatives assigned to “retire" replicants are called “blade runners". Ford/ Deckard is one such.

Four replicants have come back to Earth, and led by the fearsomely charismatic Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer, who stole the movie from right under Ford’s nose), they are seeking a longer life than they were hardwired for. They visit Tyrell, the scientist who has created them, their “father" (read God). It is important to note that most replicants do not know that they are not human—childhood memories, in fact a whole life story, are implanted in their heads when they come off the factory belt as fully grown men and women. But Batty and his compatriots have evolved, they know what they are, and are aware of the guillotine that awaits them, an inescapable destiny. They want to be human.

But in spite of their intelligence and self-awareness, they remain infantile in many ways, devoid of the “human" qualities that we develop/absorb as we grow up—empathy, an aversion to cruelty as joy, and so on. These are nuances that may escape the first-time viewer, but are deeply important themes that Scott embedded in his film (and from the novel).

In fact, one of the essential features that makes some films “great" and separates them from the mob is that however many times you watch them, you discover something new every time, something that you hadn’t noticed before. To use a very simple example, a Gone With The Wind or a Titanic fails on that score, while a Blade Runner or an Apocalypse Now never disappoints. Watch Blade Runner once more, and there’s always something happening that you didn’t spot the last time—maybe just a figure at the edge of the screen, or a momentous philosophical question that it’s asking but you hadn’t caught before.

Batty is not a nice person to know, if “person" is at all the correct terminology. But by the end of the film, when he dies, he has become a mythical figure, and his death scene has pretty direct visual allusions to crucifixion. As he falls, a white pigeon flutters away into the wet sky.

But a recounting of the story and a little bit of analysis about its semiotics are inadequate to explain the “feel" of watching Blade Runner. It was made at a time when mainframe computers only managed to pack a thousandth of the power that, say, an iPhone does today. Computer-generated imagery was still in its baby stages, and the special effects that would have stunned audiences in 1982 would not raise a single viewer’s eyebrow in 2015.

But Scott, his production designer, art director and cinematographer made a film which is certainly one of the richest visual experiences in the history of cinema. Yes, that includes The Matrix, The Terminator and The Lord Of The Rings series. Blade Runner is better. I watched The Final Cut last week, and 33 years have not in any way dated the quirky—and often epic—beauty of every single shot.

Blade Runner created a world that is whole in every aspect, but jaw-droppingly original and near-hallucinatory. It’s a wholly weird world, and a dark world, but every detail is in place, from the Chinese food vendor to the retro ceiling fans and exhausts and the “hovercars" that keep watch on the mean streets. Much jargon has been employed over the years to describe a genre that Blade Runner birthed and still rules, but the most common term is “neo-noir". But these terms have merely categorizational value—their usefulness ends at convenient slotting and is of purely academic interest.

Sir Ridley Scott is a very fine director, though ironically, the only movie of his that has won a Best Film Oscar is Gladiator, a rather mediocre outing for him compared to some of his other films. His next-best work, after Blade Runner and Alien, is probably still the 1984 TV commercial for the Apple Macintosh. His 2013 film, The Counselor, comes close, but that’s also because it is so different from his established body of work. In 2012, he essentially remade his first big success, Alien, as Prometheus, and not only was it a very puzzling film, but also wholly unnecessary.

Just like the sequel being planned by him now for Blade Runner. Some works of art demand that they should be just allowed to be. Blade Runner is one of them. It’s all the more worrying because the creator of that piece of art is himself driving the agenda for an addendum. Would you want Paul McCartney to write and perform a follow-up to Yesterday? Or, to bring the analogy several steps down the ladder, Manmohan Desai to have made a film on the further adventures of Amar, Akbar and Anthony?

Of course, I will have to go and watch the sequel when it releases in 2017. But I shall go with high tension, a pre-judged mindset, and a heavy heart.

Sandipan Deb is the editorial director of Swarajyamag.com.

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