Ridley Scott’s original #BladeRunner was a visual tour-de-force, so it only makes sense that Denis Villeneuve’s sequel should push that cinematic letter. Trailers for #BladeRunner2049 teased a gothic dystopia, a desert irradiated to the color of futuristic sherbet, and neo-noir trappings that might just surpass the original’s flair for moody sci-fi locales. Blade Runner 2049 opens in October, and in the absence of full-fleshed reviews comes a wave of first reactions proclaiming the sequel "a masterpiece." But could it better than the original?
'Blade Runner 2049': A Worthy Successor
The critical consensus is that Blade Runner 2049 is at least a worthy successor to Scott’s 1982 original, but some have made much bolder claims. Fandango’s Erik Davis has stated that the sequel is not only better, but that Villeneuve is the most exciting director currently at work.
That claim implies that Villeneuve's prestige may even surpass Ridley Scott's legacy. The Alien: Covenant director suffered at the hands of critics and the box office alike this year after a lacklustre return to his other cult saga left him without an out-and-out success to his expansive name since 2015’s The Martian.
On the other hand, Denis Villeneuve has been building his filmography with success stories and big-budget science fiction Oscar winners. His breakout success, Prisoners, was a murky crime thriller featuring Jake Gyllenhaal and Hugh Jackman that paved the way for his A-list action thriller Sicario. Without missing a step, Villeneuve moved on to the cerebral science fiction movie Arrival, which took home an Academy Award and a BAFTA.
Through intelligent editing, understated VFX and a career-best performance from Amy Adams, Arrival staked a claim as arguably the best science fiction film of the 21st century. Now Villeneuve has made waves once more with Blade Runner 2049, with critics already heaping praise on this "visually mind-blowing” movie. People are already asking if the sequel is better than the original, so it's only a matter of time before fans question whether Villeneuve has surpassed Ridley Scott as the better director.
Of course, it's worth highlighting that Villeneuve’s latest achievement is firmly built on the incredible world that Ridley Scott first put forth in 1982 — a cinematic masterpiece that didn’t universally woo critics when it released, but still changed the landscape of science fiction cinema. Blade Runner ingrained itself into popular culture, just like Ridley Scott’s earlier success, Alien.
Between those two iconic movies, Scott grafted the modern, gritty sci-fi landscape as we know it. His influence is recognizable in just about every culturally significant alien, robot, or futuristic skyline ever realized on screen, Star Wars notwithstanding. Yet, even Scott was perched on the shoulders of giants back in the early ‘80s.
In fact, Blade Runner is a visual successor to another historically significant sci-fi film. Fritz Lang’s Metropolis is unanimously cited by cinephiles as one of the best films of all time, but it’s been buried by decades of subsequent sci-fi smash-hits with more contemporary effects and mainstream appeal. While it still retains its charm as a cultural landmark in the sci-fi genre, it’s no longer the pinnacle of cinematic possibility. Instead, it remains a fond memory for genre fans — a thing from a glorious past, like one of the statues that Ryan Gosling's character, K, passes by in the desert during Blade Runner 2049's trailers. With that in mind, it's only natural that a saga focused so heavily on visuals will surpass itself with each new iteration as technology improves. Isn't that what Blade Runner is about?
The misunderstood antagonists of Blade Runner, the Replicants, are designed as a disposable workforce. Each new installment of these androids is better than the last, steadily closing the Voight Kampff gap until they appear inseparable from humanity. The old androids twitch and fail, while the new ones hunt them down under the pretense that they aren't androids at all.
Which Is Better, And Does It Even Matter?
Silver unicorns aside, Blade Runner is hardly a juddering old android (nor is Ridley Scott) but the comparison remains. Blade Runner 2049 stands on the shoulders of the original, it reaches higher and — if critics are to be believed — it achieves more. When Blade Runner was first released it was criticized for putting style over substance, despite retaining poetic layers of meaning in the dialogue and plot. By comparison, Blade Runner 2049 has been hailed as “emotionally engaging," "phenomenal," and the kind of "deep-cut genre film we do not see anymore."
Denouncing Blade Runner when measured against its newer, glitzy sequel purely based on a 140-character review would be nonsensical, and it'd be impossible to declare either film better without having seen Villeneuve’s take on Phillip K. Dick’s neo-noir world. In fact, the inevitable comparison is something Denis Villeneuve has previously discussed with The Hollywood Reporter:
“I made peace with the idea that the chances of success were very narrow…no matter what you do, no matter how good what you’re doing is, the film will always be compared to the first, which is a masterpiece. So I made peace with that. And when you make peace with that, you are free.”
Of course, Ridley Scott probably wouldn’t buy into the debate either. According to Villeneuve, Scott was fully on board with the idea of him taking the universe established in the original Blade Runner and fully making it his own:
“He said, it’s your movie. I’ll be there if you need me, otherwise I’ll be away. And I must say he was not there physically, but I felt his presence all the time, because I was dealing with his universe all the time.”
In fact, whenever Denis Villeneuve spoke about the production of Blade Runner 2049, he did so with reverences to the original's legacy. That same sense of loyalty has clearly translated to the sequel, with trailers offering tantalizing glimpses of the wider world organically expanding on that which was introduced in 1982. His modest suggestion that success was a pipe dream merely compounds the stunning achievement that is Blade Runner 2049. Suggesting that it’s better than the original does nothing to reduce Ridley Scott’s iconic sci-fi thriller. It simply raises the bar for everyone else — and that bar was already set perilously high.
Comparing Denis Villeneuve’s track record against Ridley Scott’s recent offerings is unfair, but it does put to bed the debate about which of the two directors is currently creating better movies. It’s when you come to comparing these two monolithic achievements that sit 35-years apart, things get tricky.
Like Metropolis before it, Blade Runner features the wear and tear of a decaying city. Blade Runner 2049 might be destined to steamroll the original in the eyes of the mainstream audience, purely because mind-blowing VFX have become increasingly important to audiences, while unique stories seem to be few and far between.
However, the trailers for Blade Runner 2049 paint a different picture:
“I had your job once,” Rick Deckard tells K. “Things were simpler then.” The decrepit strip malls and towering statues where Deckard hides coexist in the world of perpetually dark metropolises where the new threat rises. There’s a sense that this isn’t just another knee-jerk reboot or a soft remake. Like The Force Awakens before it, it's been created with the sort of nostalgic tone that only a fan could truly maintain. It's enough to reawaken interests in an Alien project where Scott offers his guidance, but doesn't take the reins.
Like Rick Deckard tackling replicants, Villeneuve has tackled the Blade Runner sequel as both a technical expert and an emotional participant. In a way, he's the next-generation android. Blade Runner 2049 is more than the sum of its parts. It's more than a critical success and a visual triumph. It's a changing of the guard. All that’s left to test Blade Runner 2049 and Denis Villeneuve against is time.
Denis Villeneuve's Blade Runner 2049 hits theaters October 6.