Why good sequels are bad sequels: Blade Runner 2049 and the building of worlds

Blade Runner 2049After recently watching Blade Runner 2049, I found myself in a conflicted state. On the one hand, I felt that Denis Villeneuve had done an outstanding job of embracing the spirit of Ridley Scott’s original whilst finding a way to express his own unique vision – one that was undoubtedly beautiful, intelligent and often awe inspiring. Villeneuve had made what I consider to be an excellent science fiction film in its own right. But on the other hand, in the construction of his vision, something fundamentally negative had happened to the holistic value of the words “Blade Runner” for me. There had been a degeneration of meaning or worth. And then it occurred to me… the original film had now entered a state of entropy in my mind.

How had this happened? How could the addition of an exceptional sequel have subtracted rather than added to the value that this film has had for me throughout my life? I can only answer this from my own personal perspective, and hope that it might ring true for others.

If I think about the kinds of films that I’ve always championed as examples of brilliant filmmaking, the vast majority have been those that raise questions or proffer ambiguity rather than provide cohesive and reductive answers or conclusions. Films like Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972) and Stalker (1979), Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), Kurosawa’s Ikiru (1952), and Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s World on a Wire (1973) are all radically different, but they have one comment trait…. they are cinematic questions rather than answers. They ask us to reflect. The same can be said of the original Blade Runner (1982), it’s ambiguous suggestion that Deckard may either be human or replicant destabilises our ability to draw moral or intellectual conclusions about the film’s meaning as a whole. As a result, we are forced into a state of contemplation, pushed to meditate on the text’s meaning for longer than we otherwise would. In the case of Blade Runner, we quietly deliberated for almost 35 years, so much so that over several decades we have eagerly swallowed up various iterations and re-edits of the original, hoping to find something in the differing versions that will give us clues, or enhance our understanding. Thousands of reviews, retrospectives, academic articles and countless blogs have pondered away. For a film that did not commercially or critically rock the world upon its initial release, it’s hard to imagine a greater example of a film’s ambiguous text becoming a stimulant for contemplation. Whatever a sequel might deliver – it should not interfere with this contemplation, and Blade Runner 2049 seems to have been made with enough care to avoid that kind of mistake.

But what Blade Runner 2049 did do was open up the world of the original, taking us outside the boundaries of future Los Angeles into the wastelands that surround, at times over-enthusiastically signposting where the action is taking place so that contemporary viewers might understand… “Oh… I think that’s probably Vegas.” These scenes open up the universe of the original, revealing that it is a place of significant history… the history that lies between the original and the sequel, and that which lies between the original and the real world. It was with this observation that I realised I had made the same assumption that Villeneuve had made when making Blade Runner 2049… that the original film’s rich ambiguity lay solely in the riddle of Deckard’s humanity. But herein lies the true problem of his sequel: there is a very popular misconception that cinematic world’s are made to be expanded upon and explored to assuage the curiosity of the filmmaker and the viewer alike.

Ridley Scott’s vision for the original Blade Runner was that of a dark, wet, dirty and claustrophobic concrete jungle, its narrative form that of a 1940s work of pulp-noir, and it’s residents overwhelmed with advertising messaging and a strong infusion of Japanese culture, a consequence of the increasing influence of that nation’s corporations at the time of production. Blade Runner was an aesthetic… and the viewer understood it be such. When the off-world replicant Roy Batty opined on his deathbed about how he had “seen things you people wouldn’t believe” we knew that this was true, and would always be true. We knew there was nothing beyond the boundaries of this dying Los Angeles that we would ever be privy to. We wanted to see beyond the frame of course… but we knew its absence was part of the appeal. And by not showing us these things, instead focusing on the particular microcosm of Deckard’s existence, the value of what we observed was enhanced. This was a complete work in of itself, created not just by what was included in the frame, but by what was excluded by it.

Blade RunnerFast-forward several decades, and this is far from the philosophy of modern film studios, at least those within the United States. In the world of the big-budget television program and the comic book film, the purpose of all films is to be successful enough that a sequel can be created. One of the most popular ways to do this is create cinematic worlds that can be endlessly explored, which by sheer definition, sounds like it should only further enhance the value of any previous entry to a series. No longer is there any conception of an individual work (at least a genre film) as a piece of art in of itself, complete and impervious to future entries. No longer can a film be a closed text. Big budget series like the Marvel and DC comics movies, the Fast and the Furious series, or the Transformers series are built for world expansion and little is lost in the process. But these films didn’t require the kind of retro-engineering of purpose that Blade Runner required, even if this never occurred to Villeneuve.

And so, no doubt influenced either consciously or unconsciously by modern cinema, Villeneuve chose to expand the Blade Runner universe. He created a social and political narrative that sat between the two films. He commissioned the creation of multiple short films outlining this history, shared on the DVD. He created a beautiful and powerful film that cast-aside the restrictive lens of the original, indulging his (and our) desire to look beyond the boundaries of greater Los Angeles to the world that lay beyond. And, having satisfied our desire, we were left wanting. Because from now on, when we observe Ridley Scott’s early vision, we’ll know what lies beyond the boundaries of Scott’s tight lens. We’ll know there is more, and we’ll have seen it. It’s Christmas Day but we’ve already gone through mum and dad’s closet and found out what we’re getting. And the magic has been lessened. Not gone, but lessened.

I’ve tried to articulate whatever I’ve articulated here in order to explore something that has bothered me for some time. Blade Runner is hardly an exceptional example of this entropy of value brought about by Hollywood’s proclivity for world-building big budget sequels. Star Wars, which had once been beautifully crafted into a cohesive and mythic three film structure worthy of Joseph Campbell, has been absorbed by Disney, who will no doubt continue to expand upon the Star Wars universe indefinitely, and with every competent world-building entry they release I find myself less interested in the thinning universe that eventuates. Ridley Scott continues to expand upon the Alien franchise with his Prometheus films, all in his quest to answer the question “Where did the aliens come from?” So far as I know, it’s not a question that ever seemed particularly germane to any fan of the series, and having seen the Prometheus film, I fear I’m less rather than more likely to sit down and watch Aliens again. So if I have one key point – and I think I may have rambled my way through a few – it’s that sometimes, less is more.

James Curnow is an obsessive cinephile and the owner and head editor of CURNBLOG. His work as a film journalist has been published in a range of print and digital publications, including The Guardian, Broadsheet and Screening the Past. James is currently working through a PhD in Film Studies, focused primarily on issues of historical representation in Contemporary Hollywood cinema.

12 thoughts on “Why good sequels are bad sequels: Blade Runner 2049 and the building of worlds

  1. Yes, less is more, at least more meaningful. Hollywood and big publishing used to want the same but different but now they just want the same only bigger, louder and shallow. I don’t bother with movies anymore, not since they ruined the Hobbit.

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  3. Great point. They can never leave well enough alone.

    The new movie was a great movie…but the original really should not have had a sequel.

    It’s easy to find bad sequels, but a good sequel make a deeper point.

  4. Wow, James. You’ve started quite the lively argument over on Facebook. I’ll stick to the relatively tame waters of the site. This reminds me more of Michael Jordan returning to the Washington Wizards than anything else. I don’t think any legacies were damaged, but it all felt so unnecessary. I don’t know anyone who was dying yo check in on Deckard 35 years later. I felt Michael Corleone did indeed have unfinished business so even if GF3 was a shell of the first two Godfathers, it by no means damaged those earlier movies. I think sometimes there is more to say and sometimes (probably most of the time) there isn’t. I’m finding this coming up more in the land of television, where a program like Broadchurch presented and solved a quality murder mystery in its initial series, then returned to build on it two years later. I’m still not sure how I feel about that.

    • Yes, it’s kind of exploded on FB. 🙂

      I don’t know about legacies being tarnished – new audiences introduced to these films as a pair will have their own take. But I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to view the original in quite the same way. And agreed – there was no unfinished business.

  5. I really liked reading this, it was great. Villeneuve did an amazing job living up to the original. It was certainly less claustrophobic but I was happy that they traveled outside of the city. Something had to be out there. For the same reasons you have mentioned I was more worried that they were going to take the story into space. To me, Roy’s experience was always much more interesting being left untold.

    • Thanks, Lance. You may be interested to know there WAS once a sequel drafted that was set in space. Eventually the idea was aborted, and the script was rewritten as Soldier, a forgettable action movie starring Kurt Russell.

  6. Nice to see you writing on here again, James. And with a thought-provoking piece about my current favourite film of all-time, the original Blade Runner, too.
    I hold that film in such high esteem, I have not seen the sequel as yet, and I am not sure I really want to. So many rave reviews have enticed me, but something niggles in the back of my mind. Something that you have put across very well in this piece.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    • Much appreciated, Pete. It’s a tough call. As mentioned above, it is a great film in its own right, but it (inevitably) took something away from the original.

      I might have preferred it to be rubbish, like the Robocop remake, so I could have cast it aside and continued on my way.

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