Blade Runner

Last night I decided to enjoy a special double feature: Blade Runner (1982), the Ridley Scott classic (final cut), followed by Blade Runner 2049 (2017), the Denis Villeneuve sequel. I’ve seen the original many times, although not in years, so it was great to see it once again. For a 40-year-old science fiction movie, it’s stood the test of time well and is rightfully considered a modern classic.

The Villeneuve sequel, I think, will never be more than a forgotten footnote. It comes out the gate suffering from being an attempt to ride the coattails of an original work by another (better) artist. Stir in Villeneuve’s self-indulgent excessively languid pacing and tendency to put image over substance, and the result is (at least to me) unmemorable.

I started fast-forwarding scenes and ultimately turned it off 45 minutes from the end. I only lasted that long because I wanted to see the part with Harrison Ford.

Two marks of a great story: the test of time; the ability to enjoy it again and again.

As I mentioned, I’ve seen Scott’s Blade Runner many times, but I was as engaged seeing again as in any of the previous times. In some regards perhaps even more due to a deeper understanding each time. Good stories never give up all their goodness the first time around. The great ones have enough substance and depth to provide a rich experience on repeated viewings (or readings).

In contrast, I found myself bored watching Blade Runner 2049, and it was only the second time I’d watched it. Or tried to watch it. As I said, I began fast-forwarding and then more and more. At first it was just to skip Villeneuve’s slow, slow, slow pacing (which also made me restless watching his adaptation of Dune, which I’ve renamed Endless Long Shots of People Walking).

Then I began fast-forwarding through bits with dialog because, again, major boredom and lack of substance. I hung around long enough to see Harrison Ford’s appearance, but when I began fast-forwarding through those scenes, I realized there was no point in watching any further and turned it off (with 45 minutes remaining).

Considering how thin the actual plot is, the 163-minute runtime of the sequel says a lot. Compare that with the rich story of the original and its runtime of only 117 minutes.

I think I’m not much a fan of Villeneuve’s work, although in truth I don’t have that many data points to base it on. I recall thinking Blade Runner 2049 was (just) okay the first time I saw it, but I couldn’t say it really grabbed me. Another fairly forgettable modern science fiction movie. Pretty to look at but lacking in substance or character. I wasn’t impressed at all by his 2021 adaptation of Dune (and don’t have much interest in seeing Part Two in 2023).

I did like Arrival (2016), his adaptation of Story of Your Life, the 1998 Ted Chiang novella, although I do recall some of the same pacing and editing issues that bother me in Blade Runner 2049 and Dune. On the other hand, Chiang’s story is extraordinary and insightful in the ideas it presents (it’s one of my favorite SF stories), so Villeneuve had excellent source material there.

I think, too, that short stories (or even novellas) may make for better adaptations because they tend to focus on a single idea. Even so, Villeneuve glossed over some of the best aspects of Chiang’s story. And Villeneuve’s love of image is certainly on full display. (It’s great that a director has that skill with images, but I’ll take a great storyteller over a great painter any day. That, to me, is the real difference between Scott and Villeneuve.)

§

Just one example of Villeneuve’s self-indulgent pacing: the scene where “K” (Ryan Gosling) discovers his childhood horse in the ashes. We know what’s bound to happen the moment he sees that familiar setting, and what we’ve seen of his memories has already framed the discovery.

But Villeneuve spends forever getting us there (I fast-forwarded through the whole thing). Why does he like showing us people walking so much?

And the thing is, by that point I’d had a couple beers and was feeling it, so — if anything — I should have had warm and fuzzy feelings about the movie (I’m invariably a happy friendly (even sentimental) drunk, which I take as a positive statement about my fundamental character despite my usual sober irascibility).

§

The special and practical effects of the original Blade Runner certainly show their age. Some of the video displays, in particular, are almost funny in how retro they feel, but we’re talking about a film from 1982 — seven years before the world-wide web was even a gleam in the eye of Tim Berners-Lee (and a full decade before most of us learned of it).

But the story, ah, the story prevails, and it’s always the story that matters.

Why has Shakespeare endured for almost 500 years? Why are his stories told and re-told, adapted and riffed on over and over? Or one of my favorite stories ever, A Christmas Carol (1843), by Charles Dickens? Or the works of A.C. Doyle or Agatha Christie? What makes these such enduring classics?

It ain’t the pretty CGI or action scenes or explosions. It’s the ability to tell a great story, and those people were all storytelling geniuses. Ridley Scott seems in that class, but Villeneuve maybe not so much.

We’ve become, I think, besotted with the empty calorie eye-candy of CGI. I tend to put that in contrast to a stage play with, at best, suggestive special effects, and more typically none at all. Stage plays often lack realism in terms of sets, costumes, lighting, and pretty much everything except the story. They require the imagination of the audience, the willingness to suspend disbelief and accept the context being suggested.

The written word, of course, begs even more from our imagination, which is why books are still the best form of storytelling available.

§

I know I’m not alone in seeing the ending of (the original) Blade Runner as one of the best endings put to film. I’ve seen that scene between Deckard and Roy Batty even more times than I’ve seen the entire film (because clips of it are often used as examples of great cinema).

I am grabbed and enthralled every time; it’s a great performance by Rutger Hauer.

Consider two key differences from the usual Hollywood ending. Firstly, we’re given a heart-breaking insight into the supposed “bad guy” — you can’t not be sympathetic to his plight. Secondly, Deckard doesn’t win “against all odds” — there’s no Rocky syndrome here, there’s no “you just have to really want it” last ditch effort where the good guy prevails (because script).

Deckard lost. He was a dead man. He lives only because, in one of the final acts of his life, Roy saves him. (The bit with the pigeon gets me every time.)

Another thing: In my mind, Roy’s final speech was longer. Blade Runner has several versions. The one I watched was Scott’s The Final Cut version, and it’s possible he trimmed something from that speech. Alternately, I recall it as longer because it has such a heavy impact. In any event, I noted and was impressed by its relative brevity. Scott gives us just what we need and no more.

§

My mistake might have been watching both as a double feature. The sequel comes off pretty badly in comparison. As is often the case, had it been an original story rather than a coattail ride, it might have stood alone better.

I do think the two offer a great example of what film used to be and what it is now. Modern films generally suck because they lack storytelling vision and are often little more than shallow amusement park rides. They’re as memorable as fast-food burgers (and just as bad for your mind as those are for your body — safe on occasion, but don’t consume that crap regularly).

Look at it this way: the original spawned a sequel, some short films, and an anime (Blade Runner: Black Lotus). All that imitation is a testament to its greatness (and to the creative emptiness of its imitators). It’s also a testament to what I see as a strange willingness to keep returning to the same well. I’ve never really understood the love of sequels and remakes. I’m more of a “what’s new?” kinda guy.

And I’m more than happy to allow Deckard and Rachel to vanish into an unknown future. That was a compete story arc to me.

§ §

Ah, well, so it goes. I really did enjoy seeing the original again and could easily watch it again someday.

“The classics endure. The rest is manure.”

Not that manure is a bad thing; plants grow great in it! Just don’t ever forget that it’s bullshit.

Stay running, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

31 responses to “Blade Runner

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Put it this way: The original carries forward the interesting questions about humanity from the 1968 Philip K. Dick story Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. There is a compelling discussion to be had about Roy and the other replicants (not to mention the question of whether Deckard is one).

    The sequel is just another Hollywood movie. Another bag of chips.

    One has endured for 40 years. The other is already a fading memory.

  • Mark Edward Jabbour

    “The written word, of course, begs even more from our imagination, which is why books are still the best form of storytelling available.”

    I agree with your analysis of “Sequels”; but slightly disagree with books as best. The original story, told around the campfire is unequaled. See ‘Dances with Wolves”. 🙂

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Ha, great point! After all, such stories are the origin of books (and plays and, ultimately, movies). Maybe I should revise my statement to books being the best form of storytelling most of us have easily available.

      That said, I do love the ability to lose myself in the complexity and arc of a really good book.

      • Mark Edward Jabbour

        Yes, for sure. (As my ability to read fades. As well as my inclination for adventure.) It (life) becomes tedious. And yet … DAMN, the campfire and storytelling endures. Cheers.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Indeed. Those stories aren’t just the origin of books (et cetera), they’re the origin of us. I’ve read that many linguists see the origin of language in storytelling (one I read thought it was so we could tell jokes). And the origin of language is widely thought to, at least, parallel, if not lead, the development of human intelligence.

        Totally with ya on aging. Sucks all the balls. Damn floaters in my eyeballs interfere with reading… 🤬

  • Anonymole

    I’ve watched a few of the Blade Runner anime episodes. I’ll prolly try and watch some, if that says anything.

    Phillip K. Dick, what a crazy dude. I actually lived down the street from the home in San Rafael where he says it was burglarized, safe blown open (me 10 years later of course). I wonder how much his delusions impacted/enabled his writing.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      That’s kinda cool. No doubt his, shall we say “unusual”, mind was the source of at least some of his creativity.

      I haven’t checked into the Blade Runner anime at all. If you do, let me know what you think.

  • Wyrd Smythe

    BTW, speaking of surprisingly good performances from actors many might see as only muscle-bound action heroes, check out the movie JCVD, starring Jean-Claude van Damme playing a (fictional) version of himself.

    If you doubt me, check out this video from The Critical Drinker:

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    Strangely enough, I didn’t really like the original Blade Runner when I first saw it. Of course, I was a teenager and judged it from a teenager’s perspective. I didn’t really find Deckard sympathetic or any of the other characters. It was several years before it grew on me to some extent, and then only really after I read the Philip K. Dick book. Today I can recognize its existentialist exploration, but really don’t feel much when watching it.

    But I enjoyed 2049 on the first viewing. The pacing is definitely stately, but that seemed true of the original too, and it mostly ended up working for me. I was drawn into K’s world, pain, and challenges. But then I’m a Villeneuve fan. So far all of his stuff has worked for me, at least since Sicario. (I don’t think I’ve seen any of his older material.) I wouldn’t say it’s the best stuff around, but I’m usually drawn in to his movies.

    Unfortunately the Black Lotus anime was, at best, tolerable. It had some compelling aspects, but in the end it took effort to finish watching it.

    But this is fiction, and tastes will definitely vary.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Yeah, taste is always a factor in any form of art. I don’t think it’s that strange that a teenager wouldn’t be engaged by Blade Runner. There are lots of books and movies I didn’t much out when I was that young — as you say, different perspective. In 1982, I was many years out of college (where I’d studied filmmaking), plus I’d been a science fiction fan for at least two decades by then. Quite a different perspective!

      I only ever saw promotional stuff for the anime, but none of it grabbed me much. I’d even forgotten there was an anime until I noticed it mentioned on the Blade Runner Wiki page.

      Unrelated (other than being SF), but the topic of a coming Sci-Fi Saturday post, have you ever read any Robert J. Sawyer? One never knows when it comes to taste, but I have a sense that, if you’re not familiar with him, you might want to put him at the top of your list of authors to try. I consumed — devoured! — Quantum Night and I’m just about through The Terminal Experiment. I’m hooked on the guy.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        I had been a sci-fan for a long time before I saw Blade Runner. I fully expected to like it. But yeah, it was too slow and sophisticated for my tastes at the time.

        I’ve heard of Sawyer, and read some of his advice on writing, but I don’t think I’ve read any of his actual fiction. Someone warned me off of his writing several years ago, and the book descriptions haven’t historically drawn me in. But I’ll be interested to see your take.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        True that the original also had some languid parts. If I hadn’t seen Villeneuve’s Arrival and Dune I’d have been tempted to think the pacing in his 2049 was channeling that original pacing, but it’s notable that it didn’t bother me in the original but drove me crazy with Villeneuve (in all three cases).

        Why did someone warn you off Sawyer? For writing style reasons or content reasons? His writing style has been compared to Asimov’s in clarity (and I’d agree), so I’m guessing it was a content thing?

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        It’s been several years, although it was a conversation on one of our blogs, I think. But I recall the quality of the writing was what they were criticizing. That said, if any of the book descriptions had been captivating, concerns about writing quality wouldn’t have stopped me from at least sampling them. I read a lot of writers in spite of their writing style.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Intriguing. I can’t recall any such discussion on my blog (and I’d like to think I would but… 🤷🏼‍♂️), so it probably was on yours. I wonder what the complaint was. His Wiki page says, “Sawyer’s prose has been described by Orson Scott Card as near Isaac Asimovian in its clarity.” I know some find Asimov’s writing stolid and lacking in character differentiation, but it certainly is clear, which is a trait I value. (I have noticed that his major characters can sound somewhat similar but haven’t been much bothered by it. After reading 1.75 of his novels — 2.00 by end of day — no complaints from me about style so far.)

        Content-wise, Sawyer has a strong interest in consciousness, QM, and social issues. Quantum Night is about how roughly 60% of humans (4/7) are, in fact, philosopher’s zombies — there is “nothing it is like” to be them (which, holy cow, would explain a lot). Another 30% (2/7) are conscious but psychopathic — without conscience. The remaining 15% (1/7) have consciousness with conscience (CWC or “quick”). The reason is basically the Hameroff-Penrose notion of quantum states in the microtubules of brain cells. Turns out (in this SF context) there are four states: collapsed to classical (mental state: coma or complete unconsciousness); “Q1” (p-zombie); “Q2” (psychopath); and “Q3” (CWC). The quantum states in the population have a 4:2:1 ratio, respectively. So, the argument you’ve been making all these years turns out to be correct for just under 60% of the population — their consciousness is an illusion. I totally love the idea. As I say, if it was true, it would explain a great deal (and Sawyer makes a convincing argument that it appears true).

        The Terminal Experiment is, in part, about brain scanning and uploading the scan to a computer to be run. In the book it’s resource-intensive new technology, but the protagonist is scanned, and two copies of the scan are made (for a total of three). One is the control, which is unmodified; one has all physical mental concerns removed so it’s pure intellect; the last has all concerns of death removed so it sees itself as “immortal” (for plot reasons). Driving this is the protagonist’s discovery of an electrical correlate for the “soul” (for lack of a better word). It’s observed to exit the brain upon death and it forms around the tenth week of gestation. Cows don’t have one, but chimps do. Also, one of the uploads (but we don’t know which, yet) is a murder.

        I’m planning a post about Sawyer this Saturday. Might even have read a third book of his by then. I’m really liking him so far. We seem to have both common interests and common sensibilities.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        I always forget about the search feature in the classic admin UI. I think this might be the conversation I’m remembering.

        Those are some wild premises, albeit maybe a bit too spiritual leaning for my tastes. I’m also not sure how I feel about a story that seems like it would be dismissing the sentience of most of humanity.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I have to say, I don’t have any problem with the opening describing Lloyd Simcoe. I see it as almost cinematic in describing an opening scene with the guy sitting at his console. Visually, we’d see that he’s tall and clean shaven with blue eyes and a crewcut. The author is simply acting as the camera (apparently for just a couple of sentences).

        “Spiritual” is interesting, and I think I understand what motivates the perception, but let me quote from his Wiki page again: “Sawyer’s work frequently explores the intersection between science and religion, with rationalism frequently winning out over mysticism.” In The Terminal Experiment, the “soul” is an electrical standing wave with (so far) unknown information content or purpose, but Sawyer’s stance here seems entirely within the bounds of physicalism. FWIW.

        I’m having trouble connecting some dots here. Haven’t you argued that consciousness is an “illusion” created by a purely functional mechanism? And I know you don’t like Nagel’s phrase “something it is like” (to be a human or a bat or whatever). In Quantum Night Sawyer is suggesting that you’re exactly right (at least for 4/7 of the human race). They are sentient and self-aware, but strictly functional. (What they aren’t is sapient.)

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Yeah, as I noted in that conversation, that intro wouldn’t have stopped me from reading.

        It is true that I’m a functionalist and illusionist. My discomfort isn’t that. Or even with the speculation involving a view of consciousness I think is mistaken. The Expanse goes to a similar place. Reynolds had IIT play a role in one of his stories, another theory I’m less than enthusiastic about. I’m fine with that kind of thing as part of the story.

        It’s the fact that people love finding reasons to discount the humanity of others that are different from them, and this feels a bit too close to fantasizing about a scientific reason to do just that. Of course, I’m judging it purely based on the brief description here, so I’m totally open that there could be mitigating nuances.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Ah, now I understand. Another interest of Sawyer’s is moral philosophy, and the scientists who make the 4:2:1 discovery (in Quantum Night) not only share your concerns but determine to keep the discovery a secret for exactly the reasons you cite.

        In contrast, the discovery of the “soulwave” in The Terminal Experiment (which I just finished) results in chimps being legally declared a species of human and all experimentation and captivity is banned.

      • Mark Edward Jabbour

        Very interesting discussion. “blade runner” just popped up on one of my feeds, never watched it, but will. Regarding 4:2:1 etc. reminds me of a chapter in my book, “election 2016” titled “The peopled-world map”. I have a somewhat different take – from a personality and evolutionary perspective.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Sounds intriguing. Can you summarize your take? (Lord knows, I posted enough about all that to have written my own book, but the idea never occurred to me. To channel Dr. McCoy, “I’m a blogger, damnit, not an author!” 😁)

        Back in high school I came up with the label “The Death of a Liberal Arts Education” to describe what I perceived as a dumbing down in USAnian culture. This was back in the 1960s, and the rejection of intellect, education, and science, has only gotten worse since. I’ve had many arguments about this with people, but 2016 proved my point beautifully and horrifically. It was literally a “trump” card.

        Thing is, I can wrap my head around why people voted for him in 2016. Many in this country rightly perceive themselves as playing a key role in building this country, our buildings, bridges, roads, TVs, washing machines, cars, railways, and much, much more. Then not only did globalization massively disenfranchise them, taking away their lives, but they were disdained by liberals, consigned to “flyover land” and “redneck country”. I can fully appreciate the frustration, rage, and desire to twist the knife.

        Minnesota is a microcosm of that divide. The Minneapolis/St. Paul Twin Cities are strongly liberal and Democrat (we’re the only state in the area to have nominated Bernie). Duluth is a college town, so it’s fairly liberal as well. But the rest of the state is solidly conservative and Republican. But sparsely spread, so the Twin Cities and Duluth usually carry the state. Much to the frustration of everyone else in the state. They call us “citidiots”.

        What I find much harder to fathom is voting for P45 in 2020 after seeing four years of his antics. How any USAnian of any leaning could stand for that is beyond me. I see 2016 as shooting off one’s nose to spite one’s face, but I see 2020 as a death knell for the human race and one possible answer to the Fermi Paradox.

        I don’t know how much truth there might be to Sawyer’s 4:2:1 idea, but as a description or metaphor it really speaks to me. I’ve spent most of my life feeling like an alien visiting a planet of barely evolved apes (see: BB #10: Observing Primates for a humorous take), and if there was any truth to Sawyer’s idea, it would explain… well, everything.

      • Mark Edward Jabbour

        Couched within the framework of Sawyer’s 4:2:1 idea, briefly: In “the peopled-world map” (chap. 2) I suggest that extreme personalities (Equal to Sawyer’s 42%.) determine outcomes. The psychopaths 27% plus the good guys with guns 15%. I posit, of the planet’s human population these account for 30%. The other 70% could be “rats in a Skinner box”. Equal to Sawyer’s 58%. The “map” has four quadrants (there is a visual aid): hostile/differentiated (upper left. consists of hostile, suicidal artists, etc.); friendly/differentiated (consists of friendly detached gurus, etc.); friendly/enmeshed (consists of benevolent kings, etc.); hostile/enmeshed (consists of violent criminals,etc.)

        Each quad has 25% of the population with 7.5% being of the extreme (Such as the examples given above.) type. All persons (personalities/souls/characters) can be mapped somewhere in that matrix. The 30% (artists, gurus, kings, thieves and murderers) are in competition for influence (conscious and unconscious) on the “rats”.

        So that’s it in a nutshell; but only the beginning. That chapter has references to many theories that ground the book’s argument.

        w/r/t to “blade runner” – I tried but had to DNF it. Too slow w/bad acting.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Very interesting how your percentages come so close to Sawyer’s! Great minds, etc. (I’ve been promoting configuration space thinking since the mid-1980s, so I’m always delighted to see someone using it effectively.)

        Are you familiar with Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s theory of stupidity? He sees the stupid as more of a detriment to society than criminals (who are predictable and who can potentially reform and who aren’t always engaged in criminal activity). I watched a video recently where the guy keys off Bonhoeffer to create a two-axis configuration space with some parallels to yours.

        His horizontal axis is loss/benefit to self, and his vertical axis is loss/benefit to society (with benefit to the right and top). So, the upper right is intelligent people (they benefit themselves and society), and the upper left is helpless people (aka fools who get taken, which benefits others but not themselves). The lower right is bandits (criminals out for the own benefit at the expense of others), and the lower left is stupid people (who are a detriment to both themselves and society).

        It somehow reminds me of Hanlon’s Razor, which says we should never attribute to maliciousness what can be easily explained by incompetence.

        And as I’ve said many times, I tend not to appreciate Idiot Clown comedy because I agree with Bonhoeffer that stupid people are the source of the bulk of social misery.

      • Mark Edward Jabbour

        Yes to your points, and questions.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Grrr. I hate that WordPress “feature”. Feel free to put a period before the link to kill the stupid embed.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Yeah, I hate that, too. I made the preceding sentence a link to defeat the embed.

  • Katherine Wikoff

    Love the original “Blade Runner”!

  • Tom Crossley

    I didn’t think the new one was too bad, but I completely get what you mean by the overdrawn scenes and too much emphasis on the visual. Yet to read the book haha! Nice blog btw 🙂

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Thanks! Yeah, as I mentioned in the post, I thought 2049 was mostly okay the first time I saw it, but it really suffered in direct side-by-side comparison with the original.

  • headbirths

    Hi there,
    Checking back in after a while – looks like you’ve been busy!

    I have to say I really liked ‘2049 – including its slowness.

    BTW: something you might like to know…
    One of the things I felt most absurd about BR was the Voigt-Kampff test – as if you could test for consciousness with a glorified overhead projector!
    It turns out I was wrong. Armed with a standard “International Affective Picture System” (IAPS) library of pictures and a means of measuring pupillary response, you *can* measure emotion (emotion being a proxy for consciousness).
    Even better, it turns out you can detect consciousness *directly* by the same means! See https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/2021.09.02.457617v1.full.pdf
    and
    https://neurosciencenews.com/pupillary-response-aphantasia-20423/

    – Neil

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Hi Neil-

      Oops! I’m doing these in reverse. I answered your later comment first. As I said, yeah, been a minute or so. I’ve been blogging and enjoying idle retired life.

      I just started reading SF author Robert J. Sawyer, and he’s got a novel, Quantum Night (2016), where the main character has an eye-scanner hooked to a laptop. He scans for the involuntary saccadic motion of the eye. In the book, psychopaths have significantly reduced saccadic motion. (The “reptilian stare” of the psychopath.) His test is 100% reliable because the motions can be faked (if lacking) or suppressed.

      I didn’t read the paper, just skimmed over it. That there is a “a physiological index of aphantasia” is cool! One more puzzle piece.

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