In 1982, director Ridley Scott released Blade Runner, his adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s classic sci-fi novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. It starred Harrison Ford as Rick Deckard, a "blade runner," an android-hunting police officer. While the film fared poorly at the box office initially and garnered mixed reviews, it built a cult following on video over the years. Scott’s adaptation is now seen as a neo-noir masterpiece, which examines human nature in an ever-mechanizing world.
For its long-awaited sequel, Blade Runner 2049, French Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (Arrival) seeks to add to the rich storyline and vibrant, dystopian landscape of futuristic Los Angeles. His tale follows K (Ryan Gosling), another blade runner, who tracks down a missing-in-action Deckard for the LAPD and mysterious corporate head/cyber-guru Niander Wallace (Jared Leto). The follow-up will cover the aftermath of Deckard’s exile, but understanding the significant events of the previous film will clue audiences in on the deeper nuances of the saga, as well as 2049.
Here's everything you need to know about the original Blade Runner, as well as a brief recap of recent supplemental short features.
The Future is Striking but Bleak
In the alternative future of 2019, an unspecified disaster has thrust Los Angeles into a state of near-perpetual gloom. Towering skyscrapers dominate the landscape, which is also covered in massive, holographic advertisements. The police force hovers, ever-present, in their gravity-defying cars (or spinners), probing the darkness for criminal activity and keeping the unruly city in line. The cataclysmic event – which in Dick's novel was a nuclear war – also killed off most organic life. Only the extremely wealthy can afford real animals, and most make do with synthetic ones.
However, by 2019, many of the wealthy and powerful already migrated to the “off-world” colonies, where humans are served and protected by synthetic life forms created by the Tyrell Corporation.
Tyrell Corp and the Nexus-6
Roughly four years before the film, robotics visionary Dr. Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel) and geneticist J. F. Sebastian Shaw (William Sanderson) “gave birth” to their most advanced synthetic lifeform yet, the Nexus-6 replicant. Tyrell Corporation then shipped their replicants to the “off-world” colonies, where they work as slaves in dangerous or exploitative jobs.
There's a hitch, though: the Nexus-6 units only live for four years. Seeking more time, several replicants, including Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), Pris Stratton (Daryl Hannah), Zhora Salome (Joanna Cassidy), and Leon Kowalski (Brion James), buck their programming and steal a shuttle headed for Los Angeles. However, replicants are illegal on Earth. Once the rogue synthetics return, they pose a threat to anyone who gets in their way. For that reason, the Los Angeles Police Department calls in a retired specialist.
Deckard Returns to Duty
With a rogue batch of Nexus-6s in town, asking the wrong questions and wreaking havoc, the LAPD needs one of their best and brightest officers, Rick Deckard, out of retirement. Fellow officer, Gaff (Edward James Olmos, who'll return for 2049), arrests the former blade runner and brings him to his old boss, Captain Harry Bryant (M. Emmet Walsh). Bryant apprises him of the situation, tasking him with "retiring" the four "skin-jobs."
Deckard tracks them through the seedy and surreal world of LA. Along the way, the reluctant bounty hunter stumbles across all manner of peculiar individuals and is forced to lethally dispatch several of the rogue replicants, and most importantly, meets Rachel (Sean Young).
One of Tyrell's "prototypes," she's implanted with his niece's memories, something he believes will make his synthetic lifeforms more docile. When he puts her through a rigorous series of questions (known as the Voight-Kampff test), designed to elicit emotional responses and determine android from human, she requires over a hundred before she "fails."
Rachel and Deckard's relationship grows complex over the film: she saves his life by killing Leon, one of the escaped replicants. She also runs away from Tyrell, seeking solace with Deckard, which makes her a fugitive android. As a result, the LAPD also tasks Deckard with killing her, which grates against his ethics and his romantic feelings for her. Their budding relationship is further challenged when the sole surviving replicants, Roy and Pris, finally meet their maker.
“Time to Die”
In their quest to meet Tyrell, Pris and Batty befriend lonesome, brilliant genetic engineer J. F. Sebastian. He identifies with their position since he himself has Methuselah Syndrome, a condition which stunts his own lifespan. They wear him down, and he accompanies Roy to Tyrell’s secure penthouse.
Once inside, Batty confronts his creator about their extending their "expiration date." The magnate tells his “prodigal son” that the unstable nature of their replicated bodies makes it impossible to prolong their lives. Still, Tyrell urges him to relish his little remaining time and the astonishing things he’s seen and done. Frustrated with his irreversible existential crisis, he kills his creator, and later Sebastian (offscreen), before returning to the engineer’s apartment.
Meanwhile, Deckard discovers their hiding spot, but he’s assaulted by Pris. He kills her just as Batty returns. Crushed by the death of his lover, Batty chases Deckard onto the roof. While fleeing, Deckard leaps between two rooftops but misses his jump. Before he falls to his death, though, Batty pulls him to safety. The final moments of the film witness the replicant’s transfiguration, as he breaks his warlike programming and waxes philosophical about his fate. Mourning his soon-to-be-lost memories ("tears in rain"), he admits it's "time to die" and his body shuts down.
Before Deckard can return home, though, Gaff calls out to him, warning him that his own lover, Rachel, won’t live long either ("but then again, who does?"). Despite the foreboding warning, they leave his residence as the credits roll... at least in the director's cut. The theatrical cut of the film reveals a happy ending, where they reach a lush field in the middle of nowhere. What truly happened to Rachel and Deckard will likely feature briefly in Blade Runner 2049.
The twisting science fiction story has also been fleshed out, to a degree, by supplemental films.
Los Angeles Goes Dark
As a prelude to Blade Runner 2049, Cowboy Bebop director Shinichiro Watanabe explores later events in the tale in Blade Runner: Black Out 2022. The anime deals with the fallout from the original film when human-replicant relations turn ugly. A year later, Tyrell Corporation introduces the Nexus-8, with a “natural” lifespan and an easy-to-identify serial number on the eyeball. However, humans are fed up with android life and eventually construct a database to catalog, track, and destroy all replicated life on Earth.
Black Out reveals a daring plot by (at least) two protagonists, Iggy and Trixie, to disable the database, its backup, and secure anonymity, and, hence, relative freedom. A sympathetic military officer redirects a warhead towards Los Angeles, unleashing its electromagnetic pulse (or EMP) on the city, while the two replicants destroy the database. Unfortunately, the systematic collapse has an unintended side effect. It causes a widespread food shortage, at least until geneticist Niander Wallace solves it. He later uses his massive fortune, built on his genetically modified foodstuffs, to purchase the bankrupt Tyrell Corporation.
The animated film also introduces replicant Sapper Morton (played by Dave Bautista in the sequel), who features in another prequel short 2048: Nowhere to Run) as a rogue Nexus-8. Another short, 2036: Nexus Dawn, details the great (and disturbing) lengths to which Wallace goes to convince the world governments that his replicants are safe and loyal.
The true takeaway from Blade Runner, 2049, and shorts like Black Out 2022 is the ambiguity of human and artificial life. The lasting mystery is Deckard himself. Once a begrudging killer of synthetic life forms, he finds love in the arms of a synthetic woman and redemption at the hands of a programmed killer. Audiences are also left wondering if the hunter of replicants is truly human himself.
The loving attention to detail shown to Dick and Scott’s dark yet imaginative world is evident in each new undertaking. Hopefully, Blade Runner 2049 will be the culmination of Scott’s sci-fi masterpiece, as well as a further exploration and celebration of life.
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