Denis Villeneuve on ‘Blade Runner 2049,’ the Replicant Debate, and Why Both Movies Benefit from Ambiguity

For Denis Villeneuve, there are two versions of the original “Blade Runner,” despite the seven that have circulated since its 1982 release. “The original [cut] is the story of a human being that is falling in love with a replicant,” Villeneuve said. “And the [final cut] is a story of a replicant that discovers its true identity.”

So where does Villeneuve’s sequel, “Blade Runner 2049,” fall in that equation? He’s not saying — not exactly. “I will say that this movie is made from the tension between those two movies,” he said, during an interview with IndieWire earlier this year.

But that doesn’t quite give credit to the feverish, decades-long discourse surrounding the film. Not only have its creators fought over how it’s best interpreted — specifically whether Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is a human or a replicant — but the movie has been reworked, re-edited, and re-released multiple times since its 1982 debut.

Like tears in rain dripping from a bloodied Rutger Hauer, “Blade Runner” is both one film and many. Because audiences are familiar with different cuts, forming a sequel fit for everyone posed quite a challenge to Villeneuve: How can he craft an authentic follow-up that honors multiple versions? Does he need to? How did Ridley Scott, a producer on “2049” with adamant opinions about the original, affect the new story? Which cut informed Villeneuve while working on the sequel?

Below, the director digs into all of these questions to help prepare fans for the upcoming Warner Bros. picture — including his preferred vision of Deckard in the original film — but be warned: He thinks it’s better not to know.

The Cuts

“Blade Runner 2049”

Warner Bros.

Various versions of Ridley Scott’s cult classic have been released since its inauspicious start in 1982. The theatrical cut featured the infamous “happy ending” insisted upon by its studio, which indicated exactly what Villeneuve said: that Deckard was a human in love with a replicant. (This ending likely also contributed to mixed initial reviews).

Later versions, including director’s cuts, international cuts, and broadcast cuts, all tweaked the formula to different extremes. The 1992 director’s cut, which Scott provided notes for — but did not personally edit — introduced the most notable addition: a unicorn dream sequence hinting that Deckard was, in fact, a replicant.

Scott finally got his hands back on “Blade Runner” in 2007, and when his “Final Cut” was released, he laid to rest the great debate surrounding his lead protagonist: Scott said Deckard was a replicant who thought he was a human, contradicting co-screenwriter Hampton Fancher, Ford’s interpretation, and the original intentions of Phillip K. Dick, whose 1968 novel, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” inspired the film.

For his part, Villeneuve — who said he typically “becomes autistic” when making a movie, focusing on just the project at hand — did go back and watch “Blade Runner” both before production and during the shoot.

“I don’t know how many times I watched it, through the years,” Villeneuve said. “It’s one of the movies I’ve watched the most, but I will say that one could have decided to stay away from the original one, but I decided the opposite.”

Instead, “it was like my Bible in some ways,” he said. “I screened it a few times when I was in prep, or even in production. There was a tone, a rhythm, a sensation that I wanted to disclose in each decision I was making. I knew that because I’m a very different human being and director than Ridley Scott, [our films] would be quite different. But still, I wanted to stay in contact with the spirit of the first one.”

Villeneuve said he was raised on the theatrical cut, which he considered a “masterpiece,” even when critics were dismissing it. “I thought that was ‘Blade Runner,'” he said, noting how he even liked Ford’s controversial opening voiceover, which was later removed for the “Final Cut.”

“The way Harrison did the delivery, there was something… in French, we say nonchalant — it means bored a bit. I felt it was like a very film noir aesthetic, and there was a kind of sadness to all this. And I discovered later it was just because [Ford] was pissed off and didn’t want to do it. But at the time, I embraced it.”

Villeneuve remembered the first time he watched the “Final Cut,” and said, “It was strange to watch the movie without voiceover,” but he “understood what Ridley was trying to do and what his initial dream was…I respected it.”

Honoring Ridley Scott’s Dream

“Blade Runner 2049”

Warner Bros

Scott’s vision is arguably the driving force behind the ongoing debate, and it’s hard to blame him. After losing the initial battle to release his cut of “Blade Runner” in 1982, he’s been increasingly adamant over how he wanted the film to be seen, even if others don’t agree with him.

In another interview, Villeneuve noted how Ford and Scott are still arguing over the better interpretation, duking it out during a dinner with Villeneuve and digging in on their respective positions.

Much like the dinner, Villeneuve found himself in between two somewhat contrasting views. With Ford starring in the new film and Scott on board as an executive producer, Villeneuve had to serve as the ultimate decider on how the new story played out.

“Basically, the conversation [Ridley and I] had was more about the original ‘Blade Runner,'” Villeneuve said. “His aesthetic influences, what he was trying to do, how the movie was born, and why did you shoot this way instead of this way. And after that, he let me free to do the movie. He said, ‘Soon it’s going to be your movie. It’s going to be your responsibility. If you need me, I’m there. But otherwise, I’ll be away — not in your way.’ And that was the best thing he did. I would have not been able to shoot with him behind me.”

That’s not to say certain elements weren’t important to Scott.

“I felt that the most important thing for him was not what I was about to show, but what I will not be showing,” Villeneuve said. “Meaning that the first ‘Blade Runner’ is dealing with a fair amount of unseen things — like how the replicants are made. We are not seeing the off-world. [..] We don’t see it, and that creates a beautiful mystery. I felt he wanted me to protect that mystery, and I honored that, I hope.”

Connecting the Past and Present

Harrison Ford in “Blade Runner 2049”

Warner Bros.

In preparing for “Blade Runner 2049,” Villeneuve also referenced Dick’s novel, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”, noting key issues of identity within the book’s characters.

“I loved that some of the characters are doubting about their identity,” he said. “Some cops are asking to be given the Voight-Kampff test because they aren’t sure if they are replicants or not. If someone played with your memory, you don’t know if you might be a replicant, so I like the idea that the characters are doubting about themselves; that kind of inner paranoia about your own identity. I thought it was quite interesting and relevant in the ‘2049’ project.”

When asked if he preferred the ambiguity such questions invited, Villeneuve was emphatic.

“Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes,” he said. “I think it’s more interesting to have an unanswered . I think it’s better to not know. For me, it’s more interesting if Deckard is not sure if he [is a replicant]. I like the ambiguity. I liked it because it created a vertigo. That’s the beauty of sci-fi: that it’s lore outside of our zone of comfort, of knowledge, and goes into the unknown. And that when you cross there, it’s a beautiful sensation.”

As for the crossover between “Blade Runner” and “Blade Runner 2049,” Villeneuve said the sequel is “in between” the theatrical and final cuts of the original.

“I know looking at both movies that there’s like a connection,” he said, “but in the same time, they are different, you know? Very different.” Audiences may need to answer that one for themselves.

“Blade Runner 2049” hits theaters Friday, October 6.