Blade Runner 2 and the 'Awkwardly Late Sequel' Problem
34 years after Blade Runner blew our collective minds, has the magic worn off?
Early this year, it was announced that Ridley Scott’s sci-fi classic, Blade Runner 2 would begin shooting in July for a 2018 release – with Sicario’s Dennis Villeneuve directing, Ryan Gosling starring, and Harrison Ford returning to reprise his role as Rick Deckard. The incredible lineup of talent aside, the news was not exactly well received by fans of the 1982 original.
Why? Well for starters, Blade Runner is more than just a fiercely celebrated cult classic – the kind of film that a small niche of agro film buffs hyperbolically deem “sacred” and “untouchable” while peering through the lens of nostalgia (you know, like Labyrinth). Blade Runner is a collegiately taught staple of filmmaking, a work of art, and as of 1993, an American artifact, having been selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the United States National Film Registry for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."
The accolades don’t end there; in 2007, Blade Runner was declared the “2nd Most Visually Influential Film of All Time” by the Visual Effects Society, placing second only to George Lucas’ Star Wars. From a aesthetic standpoint, Blade Runner stands as a benchmark of both neo-noir and science fiction filmmaking. The neon-infused, metallic, advertisement-filled cityscapes depicted in the film have practically become synonymous with how most of us view “the future,” and the influence of the film’s production can design can be seen in everything from Battlestar Galactica to the Super Mario Bros. movie.
This is all to say that Blade Runner holds a truly special place in our cultural minutiae, which makes the Roman DeBeers’ of the world a bit nervous that an underwhelming sequel will “desecrate the legacy of a classic” or something to that effect. Said Romans then take to the Twitters and the forums, and before you know it, Blade Runner 2: Electric (Sheep) Boogaloo is being boycotted by the thousands before a single still image from the film has even been released. Like with Star Wars, the original Blade Runner simply set the bar too high for any expectations to ever be met, which is why we’re starting to see videos and quote unquote “thinkpieces” declaring the former “the worst Star Wars ever” flood in by the hundreds, despite the film being the record-breaking success that it was.
The truth is, releasing a sequel to a film 10 or more years after the original sets off a certain alarm in most moviegoer’s heads. If it’s a sequel to a box office success, it comes off as a blatant cash grab (Jurassic World, for instance). If it’s a sequel to a lesser known “cult” film, it comes across as insincere – a studio’s attempt to make a quick buck by mining our nostalgia, or from a recent headline (which coincidentally enough, seems to be the main source of backlash aimed at the rumored Labyrinth “continuation”). In either case, “awkwardly late sequels” always relate back to one thing: a lack of ideas. It’s like when an old rock band goes on “oldies” tour, or the current careers of Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone. The studio/band/actor has clearly run out of new ideas, so they’ve instead decided to just recycle what we already now, and in the case of many films, pass it off as something new.
But aside from the mostly subjective reasons listed above as to why a Blade Runner sequel won’t work, there are actual past examples of these “awkwardly late sequels” to mine hard data from as well.
Take a look over Wikipedia’s list of the longest gaps between film sequels. Do you notice a pattern at all? The vast majority of these awkwardly late sequels are not only unrecognizable by name, but inferior to the originals in almost every way. For every Carlito’s Way (currently holding an 80% on Rotten Tomatoes), there is a Carlito’s Way: Rise to Power (33%). For every Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade or Dumb and Dumber there is a (*holds back vomit*) Kingdom of the Crystal Skull or Dumb and Dumber To. Most of these not only failed to connect with critics, they failed to connect with audiences as well; look no further than Basic Instinct 2’s paltry $38 million gross compared to the original’s $352 million as a prime example. (Of course, it doesn’t help that most of these late sequels came in the form of straight-to-video knockoffs, perhaps the most blatant move to profit off a movie’s name value of them all.)
The facts are especially disheartening when it comes to the realm of sci-fi. With the exceptions of The Force Awakens and Jurassic World – both of which followed the arguably weakest entries in their respective series – there have been very few sci-fi sequels that could be held in the same light as the original. Is there anyone who can honestly say that they enjoyed the The Thing prequel more than the original, or even remember it for that matter? How about what Terminator 3 did to expand/ruin the near perfect sequel that was T2? Has anyone even dared see Scanners 2? That’s what I thought...
While not without its exceptions (Toy Story 3, SpongeBob: Sponge Out of Water, other presumably non-animated movies), the overwhelming failure of “awkwardly” late sequels comes down to two basic things:
- The ideas perpetuated by the original have become stale.
- The talent behind the original are not involved.
Now, the first one is the one you will find most often with science fiction fare -- if only because our understanding of the capabilities of technology is so rapidly evolving. This is both “not an issue” and “kind of an issue” when it comes to Blade Runner. Ridley Scott’s film, for those of you who haven’t seen it, deals primarily with the notion of what it means to be human, by being set in a world where human-looking androids (or Replicants) have begun to develop human-like characteristics; emotions, (falsely-implanted) memories, and so forth. While undoubtedly a metaphor that could connect to today’s technologically-crutched society, it’s also an idea that’s become a bit of a cliché by this point – ironically enough because of the far-reaching influence that Blade Runner had on the sci-fi genre. Films like I, Robot, Bicentennial Man, and most recently, Ex Machina, have all tackled the notions of androids becoming sentient, man’s reach exceeding his grasp, etc. using the very same analogies depicted in Blade Runner, therefore making the need for a Blade Runner sequel to drive this notion home both cliché and unnecessary.
The second issue, on the other hand, is a very real issue facing Blade Runner’s upcoming sequel. Dennis Villeneuve is an incredibly talented director, no doubt, and Ryan Gosling shouldn’t have a hard time slipping into the stoic, mostly silent role of a Frank Deckard type. But Villeneuve is no Ridley Scott (hell, it’s hard to tell if Ridley Scott is Ridley Scott these days), and though his presence behind the camera does open up for some fresh ideas on an old story, it also opens up the possibility for a sequel that doesn’t fit in line thematically or aesthetically with its predecessor. Just as I could read 5 different people a story and hear back 5 perspectives on what it was about, a story as complex as Philip K. Dick’s "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" lends itself to a variety of different interpretations. To fans of Scott’s interpretation (pretty much everyone), it would be nothing short of blasphemic to continue on without the original’s visionary.
To use the band analogy again, it would be like if every member of Aerosmith left Aerosmith, save Duff McKagan, and McKagan simply hired a bunch of studio musicians and continued booking gigs as if nothing had happened. No offense to Duff McKagan, but that would terrible. A successfully genre picture – whether sci-fi, comedy, or otherwise -- is very much a “lightning-in-a-bottle” scenario where everything was clicking between the creative powers involved, so when those same creative powers are relegated to bit parts or lost in the shuffle completely, the likelihood of recapturing the same magic again decreases exponentially.
Look no further than The Walking Dead, the most inconsistently-executed yet consistently-popular program currently on television, compared to a show like Breaking Bad. After a record-breaking first season – one which remains the show’s finest hour in many fans eyes -- AMC heads decided to slash the show’s budget in half and fire the original crew of writers in favor of a massive team of freelancers, leading to the show’s visionary, Frank Darabont, to bitterly part ways with the production. The result? Five seasons of conflicting character moments, muddled, soap-opera-y monologues, and entire half seasons of filler. The Walking Dead has seen no less than 3 show runners, 30 directors (!), and 23 writers in the time since Darabont left, and it’s a wonder how they’ve even been able to remain focused at all with so many cooks in the kitchen. Breaking Bad, on the other hand, has had just 10 writers and 1 creative vision behind it for the entirety of its run: Vince Gilligan. The result? A show with a consistently focused narrative, consistently beautiful cinematography (something The Walking Dead has struggled with since bidding Darabont adieu), and a placement among the most critically-lauded shows of all time.
It’s like comparing zombies to drug dealers, I know, but the point is that Blade Runner 2 will be facing an uphill battle with its sequel, thanks in no small part to both the success of its predecessor, the story from which it will be attempting to mine new ideas, and the current talent involved. That being said, the only thing more ignorant than attempting to one up an all-time classic would be to write off that attempt before the first reel is shot.
BEFORE THEY WERE FAMOUS!
Blade Runner 2 will be in theaters on January 12, 2018.
Thoughts? Disagreements? Reach out to me @JJWritesStuff