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What ‘Blade Runner 2’ Can Learn From Successful Sci-Fi Sequels

What 'Blade Runner 2' Can Learn From Successful Sci-Fi Sequels

In case there was any doubt as to whether anything in this whole goddamn world was sacred, news that the long-mooted sequel to Ridley Scotts 1982 sci-fi touchpoint “Blade Runner” was actually moving ahead emerged last week to answer that with a resounding, “Yeah, no.” In the days since, we have gone back and forth — hope is trying valiantly to trump experience — in regards whether this can possibly amount to anything good.

First, we have the major boon that the directing reins have been handed to Denis Villeneuve, a truly original filmmaker whose last film, the eerie “Enemy,” indicates his comfort with ambiguity, while the rain-washed aesthetic of his previous thriller, “Prisoners,” and its tone of dread and fatalism are reminiscent of the original “Blade Runner” on a more surface level.  Moreover, we’ll mostly glad it’s anyone but Scott whose recent efforts — “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” “The Counselor,” “Robin Hood,” and “Body of Lies” — make it clear he’s been off the boil for quite some time, and we’re not alone in considering “Prometheusa mess and a waste.

And so on to the “great news that gets a little less great the more you look at it” category: original “Blade Runner” screenwriter Hampton Fancher turned in the first draft for the sequel, so that’s gotta be a good thing, right? Hey, at least it’s not Damon Lindelof. Well, yes, as far as that goes. First time round, Fancher shared credit with David Webb Peoples, who’d go on to be Oscar-nominated for “Unforgiven,” and also wrote “12 Monkeys” for Terry Gilliam. This time out, Fancher will be co-credited as writer with Michael Green. And while he has been prolific on some decent shows like “Smallville” and “Heroes“, the most hurtful blow to our anticipation for Green’s input is that his only feature screenwriting credit to date is for the reviled “Green Lantern.” And the icing on this dubious cake? Green’s most recent credit is as a writer on the 2015 Oscars telecast, which we dubbed “the worst-written Oscar show in memory.” Yeouch. (But Scott clearly likes the guy, also tasking him with penning “Prometheus 2“).

Now for “news that seems good on the surface but then turns out to be kind of worrying.” We don’t know a lot about the plot Fancher and Green are cooking up, but the few tidbits we’ve managed to glean sound innocuous or well-intentioned enough, initially. Scott himself laid fears of a “Prometheus”-style prequel to rest saying “It’s a sequel – it’s what happens next,” which was confirmed in a press release recently which stated: “The story takes place several decades after the conclusion of the 1982 original.” And, of course, Harrison Ford has been confirmed with Scott saying “Harrison is very much part of this one, but really it’s about finding him; he comes in in the third act.” So all good, then, as the sequel looks set to feature the most iconic survivor of the first film, but is set in a time frame that can account for the actor’s current age without resorting to too much CG or makeup?

Well maybe, if this were any other film. But “Blade Runner,” as is argued in this rant from io9’s Rob Bricken, is not just any film in terms of its sequel-ability. At least a portion of its power lies in its ambiguity as typified by the enduring “is Deckard a replicant?” debate. While fans have argued about that for decades, it seems obvious to us that it was Scott’s intention (not necessarily that of the screenwriter, and certainly not that of Philip K Dick) to leave it ambiguous. (Read any comments list about this, though, and it’s hilarious how much people seem to want to believe that there is an untouchable truth out there one way or the other, as though Rick Deckard were a real entity).

But it seems unlikely that Deckard’s perfectly poised ambivalence between man and replicant can be preserved in a sequel. If Ford shows up and is playing the same character, only older, then Deckard is surely a human. If he is CG-ed to hell to look like is younger self, we’ll know he was a replicant. And since we should remember an early idea for “Blade Runner” was that there were two Tyrells, it’s possible he could be something else entirely, but definitively something. No matter what, by simply being a few decades into the future we will be given new information about a character who exerts such a pull on our imaginations precisely because none of us have enough information on him now. Knowing more can only make him less. Bricken further argues that this makes “Blade Runner 2” potentially one of the rare sequels that could really impact on your feelings toward the original.

Whether the bad outweighs the good it hardly matters: this thing is happening. Decent sci-fi sequels are not impossible, just rare. So in the spirit of looking (a tad desperately) for a silver lining, we’ve looked at a few things that have made good sci-fi sequels work in the past, and asked whether those learnings can be applied to “Blade Runner 2.”

Some of the best sci-fi sequels switch genres to some extent

Also known as the “Cameron effect,” the holy grail of this phenomenon was the first sequel to another Ridley Scott classic, “Alien.” In coming to the sequel seven years later, James Cameron audaciously jettisoned a fair bit of what made the first film so great, retaining characters and storyline, but changing the mood and the pace entirely. So the terrific “Aliens” becomes its own thing, an action/adventure/sci-fi sequel to a horror/sci-fi original. It’s no wonder that the new reboot of the “Alien” franchise, to be directed by Neill Blomkamp, is reportedly canning/ignoring everything that came after “Aliens.”

Similarly, Cameron’s “Terminator 2: Judgement Day” changed up the foreboding, downbeat vibe of his original and delivered a sprawling, adrenaline-soaked, complex chase movie instead, again moving into action/adventure territory from a more thrillerish, horror-inflected first film. For a non-Cameron example, there’s George Romero, who brought consumerist satire to “Dawn of the Dead” where “Night of the Living Dead” was straight-up (and now pretty creaky) horror.

Could/should “Blade Runner 2” do the same? It’s not impossible, but given quotes like “a uniquely potent and faithful sequel” from the press release, it seems unlikely “Blade Runner 2” will venture too far from the original’s territory. Villeneuve is a director whose work tends to mine a similar kind of psychological thriller/existential mystery vein to that the original “Blade Runner” worked in.

When in doubt, go bigger, bolder, and more spectacular

A bugbear of ours in general when it comes to sequels, this tendency also exists among some good ones, so it’s not without possibilities. Both “Aliens” and “Terminator 2” qualify, of course, but there’s also “X2: X-Men United,” which gave bigger spectacle than the first “X-Men” movie, but, while overstuffed, still managed to satisfy on a character level (mostly.) “Mad Max 2” is a good example, in which George Miller basically reset “Mad Max,” but kept the plot and dialogue superlatively lean, the better to stage the action and the many chase scenes for even more breathtaking impact. Of course these are the exceptions — “Robocop 2” is undoubtedly brasher and more violent than its predecessor, but Lord, does it become tedious, while every sequel that Michael Bay has made to his clunking “Transformers” series proves that doubling the mayhem is more likely to lead to a halving of engagement.

Could/should “Blade Runner 2” do the same? Again, it feels unlikely that Villeneuve’s interests will suddenly switch to making shit blow up, and it would undoubtedly be a major betrayal of the brainy, downbeat vibe of the original to flatten the grays of the “Blade Runner” world into moral blacks and whites, which is what this sort of approach tends to require.

Introduce young blood, possibly a child.

While we cringe at the Screenwriting 101 feel of this idea, it has worked on a few occasions, as a means of upping the stakes for the hero. Again, “Terminator 2” added young John Connor and fits the bill here, with the quasi-messiah cleverly pitched at an age not very far from that of the bullseye target market. “Aliens” brought in Newt to humanize Ripley, and thanks to some clever scripting that makes her a character and not just a narrative device, it worked very well. “X2” had an inexhaustible supply of kids by being set largely in Xavier’s school. And “Mad Max 2” brought in the boomerang-wielding Feral Child character, following the murder of Max’s infant son in the first film, creating a pivotal figure for both the plot and for Max’s taciturn psychology.

Could/should “Blade Runner 2” do the same? Oh God, we hope not. The film is going to have to introduce a younger lead, as we know from Scott that Ford is not the anchor of the first two acts, but we trust Villeneuve enough to believe he won’t go the “Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull” route of casting a teenager. And if the lead is going to be a new character, presumably be in their 20s or 30s (make it Jake Gyllenhaal, and I’ll be interested…), it may well preclude introducing a younger kid into the mix as well.

Get newer, better, more conflicted, more rounded villains

The few sci-fi sequels that are regarded as an improvement on their originals in general boast a better villain than the first time out — take Khan in “Star Trek II,” or T-1000 in “T2.” This is especially true when we go into the is-it-strictly-sci-fi-or-not territory of the superhero film: “The Dark Knight” brought in the scorchingly anarchist Joker; “Spider-man 2” had the evil-yet-tragic Doc Ock; “Superman II” gave us vengeful, superpowered escapee General Zod & co.

Could/should “Blade Runner 2” do the same? It’s difficult to apply comic book character/superhero logic to “Blade Runner,” but then again, “The Dark Knight” universe is maybe the closest anyone’s come tonally to replicating the rain-slicked dystopian cityscapes of Scott’s film. With Tyrell dead and Roy Batty gone like tears in the rain, the original film’s antagonists are pretty much done (unless, again, Tyrell was a clone), so new bad guys are going to have to materialize or Edward James Olmos’ Gaff is going to be doing a lot of heavy lifting. As to how they’ll stack up against the original, though? It’s awfully hard to see how anyone could better the moral ambivalence, iron physicality, and steel-trap mind evoked by Rutger Hauer.

But perhaps the biggest issue with villainy in “Blade Runner 2” is one that actually cuts to the heart of why I, personally, just can’t get with the idea of the sequel at all, despite my admiration for Villeneuve and the kind of undying love for the original film that means I’d love to revisit that universe for a little while, whatever the reason. The thing that makes “Blade Runner” maybe my favorite science fiction film ever is that it is just as much film noir. And in noir there are bad guys and good guys (and the good guys usually behave a lot like the bad guys for a lot of the time), but the real antagonist is fate.

Dumb luck, fatal destiny, doom — whatever you want to call it, it pervades every frame of “Blade Runner” as surely as it does “Chinatown” or “Double Indemnity” or “Kiss Me Deadly.” Noir films simply do not lend themselves to sequelization (“The Two Jakes“), because when they work they end on a knife-edge note of irony and conflicting emotion that only a cut to black can preserve. The ending of “Blade Runner” (the proper one, not the daft theatrical cut version) manages just that trick: Deckard wins the day, and gets to leave with Rachael, but all of that is tainted with panic, at the nearness of their escape, at the knowledge of her limited lifespan, and finally, with knowing that Gaff has let them both live, for motives that are less than comfortable for Deckard to contemplate. For what is technically a happy ending, the finale is soaked in romantic, ironic, noirish doom, and just as I fear concrete proof either way of Deckard’s humanity, I fear knowing whether happiness or despair overtakes them when they leave that elevator. Was ever there a question so meant to have remained rhetorical and unanswered as, “It’s too bad she won’t live, but then again, who does?”

Tell us your thoughts in the comments below, especially if you can see a way that the “Untitled Blade Runner Sequel” might live up to its forbear: I would honestly love to believe.

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