It was a flop. In the summer of 1982, and despite the credentials of its director, star and inspiration, a hard-edged noir set deep in the neon miasma of smog and rain of the near future was never going to play nice with the likes of E. T., Star Trek II and Poltergeist.
Over the years the cult of Blade Runner grew as successive ‘final’ cuts were released, and all the while the creators refused to be drawn on veracity of the many theories which spun around the film. But it was a closed book, a lost future – or so we all thought.
It was just shy of the film’s thirtieth anniversary when Ridley Scott announced a sequel to Blade Runner was in production. Five years later we were treated to Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049, produced by Scott, and starring Ryan Gosling and a returning Harrison Ford. To say we liked it is an understatement, and it is a thrill to see it make its Freeview debut today.
Sony Movies will air the FREEVIEW PREMIERE of Denis Villeneuve’s BLADE RUNNER 2049 starring Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford on FRIDAY 20 MARCH at 9pm as part of Sony Movies Friday Night Film Club.
To celebrate the Freeview Premiere of Blade Runner 2049, Adam Solomons unpacks what makes Denis Villeneuve’s long-awaited sequel such a winning success — and what it tells us about how follow-up films can go so wrong
1. Bring in a new director
What do The Empire Strikes Back, The Last Jedi and Blade Runner 2049 have in common? Aside from being brilliant follow-ups within iconic space-set franchises, each of them was notably not directed by the person who helmed the first entry in the series. George Lucas stepped away from behind the Star Wars camera after the first film’s runaway success — a decision he unwisely forgot to repeat after The Phantom Menace — opting to allow Irvin Kershner to take control. A surprise move, Lucas is thought to have told the old hand Kershner, “You know everything a director is supposed to know, but you’re not Hollywood.” Lucas was famously vindicated in his choice, with Empire still broadly seen as the franchise highlight.
And after The Force Awakens became the second-highest grossing film in history, JJ Abrams relinquished the most recent sequels in the galaxy far, far away to the up-and-coming Looper director Rian Johnson, whose The Last Jedi was controversial to some longtime fans, but ultimately proved an artistic achievement of great merit. (Abrams returned for the anticlimactic The Rise of Skywalker, proving the rule once again.) Bringing in a new director to take over the franchise can prevent filmmakers developing a siege mentality toward their work and allow an aligned, although independent, artistic voice to lend their own commentary on what made the first iteration work. Villeneuve was an inspired choice to succeed Ridley Scott in the case of 2049 — a move that Villenueve once again made in the case of David Lynch and Dune — with his unique visual perspective giving the Blade Runner universe the new lease of life it needed. If you can find an ingenious new voice to take on the project, sequels don’t have to be reheats.
2. Subvert expectations
Much of what made the above sequels such critical hits were the unexpected shifts in direction they famously took. Whether that’s the shock reveal of Rey’s lineage in The Last Jedi or the, erm, shock reveal of Officer K’s lineage in Blade Runner 2049, swift switches in narrative can work wonders for sequels attempting to define themselves as eminently original, and in new territory to the previous entry. Another film which famously worked to upturn expectations is Terminator: Judgment Day, which delved much deeper into the human element of its story rather than recreate the action-packed first Terminator film. 2049 cleverly did the same, combining sporadic, memorable action scenes with long, intense vibe checks between its well-rounded characters.
3. Go deeper into the lore
The Godfather Part II is often cited as the greatest sequel — heck, the greatest film — ever made. Much of the reason it garnered such audience and critical acclaim was because of the memorable prequel flashbacks involving Robert De Niro as a young Vito Corleone. Rather than simply impersonating Marlon Brando’s memorable turn as the Don, De Niro’s subplot is a deeper look at why the Five Families became so powerful and the grave injustice — both in Sicily and the United States — that they fought against. Blade Runner 2049 similarly chose to explore the big ideas underpinning much of the original film’s genius, rather than simply take us on another adventure with another blade runner, to create a more nuanced and thorough setting. World building doesn’t have to happen in the first act of the first film in a longer series — sometimes the best scene-setting can happen 30 years after the original release.
The disappointing sequel has developed its reputation for a simple if powerful reason. After the financial impact of a first film in a series, producers might suspend original projects to get the director and cast back together as swiftly as possible. This opportunism can result in the sort of cash-grab duds that audiences don’t forget but perhaps ought to, such Men in Black 2, Evan Almighty, Home Alone 3 and Analyze That.
In the cases of the recent Incredibles 2, The Dark Knight and Paddington 2, audiences were forced to wait a little longer than expected as pre-production dragged on and scripts were carefully written and rewritten. An immediate sequel to Blade Runner in the mid or late-eighties could’ve resulted in an Arthur 2: On the Rocks-sized flop, but Ridley Scott wisely chose to take on original projects before returning to the franchise as executive producer. 2049 was ultimately worth the wait in extraordinary fashion, utilising the original film’s long legacy, its by-now iconic characters, and bringing in a new audience altogether. Sequels needn’t be soulless cash-grabs, if they’re made with soul and patience.
5. Cast Harrison Ford
With sequels under his belt including Empire, Indiana Jones: The Last Crusade and more recently 2049, the screen acting legend has the right instincts about when to come back for one more. Enough said.
Blade Runner 2049 airs on Sony Movies Friday 20th March at 9pm (Sony Movies is available on Freeview 32, Sky 321, Freesat 302 and Virgin 425)