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.