Blade Runner Sequels, Cult Films, Commodity Culture

Blade Runne starring Harrison FordGuest blogger Chuck Tryon writes:

I’ve been fascinated by the response to the news that Alcon Entertainment, best known for bringing us The Blind Side, has secured TV and film rights to Blade Runner, a move that would allow them to do “anything” with the original movie. While executives from Alcon have wisely ruled out the possibility of remaking Blade Runner, they have stated their intentions of making sequels and possibly a prequel to the 1982 film, which has become a cult favorite (and film studies staple) after starting out as a box office failure. Like many of my film studies colleagues, I expressed my share of righteous indignation about Alcon’s plans – I think I compared the idea to Highlander 2 – but, upon further reflection, I think it’s worth asking why announcements about possible sequels for Blade Runner could arouse such immediate and vitriolic opposition.  I’m not defending Alcon, much less suggesting that a sequel or a prequel would be a good thing, but I wonder if the reaction to the news tells us something about our engagement with movies, and particularly a text that has such a thorny production and reception history as Blade Runner.

First, there are some interesting chronological aspects that introduce a number of logistical problems when it comes to adding to the Blade Runner universe. I’ve taught Blade Runner for years, and as the 2019 date of the film’s setting fast approaches, my students have become increasingly bemused by the distinction between the world of the film and the “actual” 2019  they envision. No flying cars yet, and no replicants, though robots are becoming increasingly realistic. No “uncanny valley” to unsettle our definitions of what it means to be human. Any prequel would have to reach theaters quickly, unless it was to be set in the past. But that’s a relatively trivial concern, and given some of the effects in Tron: Legacy, it would likely be possible for some of the original actors to reprise their roles, playing characters even younger than those that appeared in the original 1982 film (I imagine Sean Young is calling her agent now).

More crucially, a sequel to Blade Runner potentially changes its status as a “cult” text and threatens to turn the film into what Cinematical’s Jacob Hall calls, “just another popular commodity, ready to be used and abused by the powers that be.” The film is transformed, Hall and others imply, from a work of art into something that can be damaged by being relaunched as a transmedia franchise. Sean O’Neil at the Onion AV Club echoes this thesis when he points out that Blade Runner sequels were “inevitable” once another sequel to an ’80s cult film, Tron: Legacy, reached $100 million at the box office. Of course, despite Blade Runner’s box office failure, the film is, without doubt, already an aggressively commodified media product. There are at least two video games (though none of them appear to be recent) that retell aspects of the movie and several different DVD versions of the film, including the original theatrical release, the director’s cut (which, when it appeared on VHS in the 1980s, helped to revive the film’s critical reputation), two different Collector’s Editions, and the two-disc “Final Cut.” Although the film failed as a theatrical franchise, it is a powerful domestic media franchise, one that has been aggressively marketed, in part through the ability of DVD to make multiple editions of the film easily accessible.

These multiple editions of Blade Runner–one of the collector’s editions of contains at least five different versions of the film–introduce multiple problems when it comes to any sequel. These different editions of the film, although they only contain slight variations, have profoundly different implications for some of Blade Runner’s thorniest questions. What is the fate of Rachael, the benign replicant, and Rick Deckard at the end of the film? Is Deckard a replicant? It depends, in part, on what version of the film you’re watching. A similar, though only mildly relevant problem (raised by The Guardian’s Ben Child), is the fact that Philip K. Dick never wrote a sequel to the original novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, on which Blade Runner is based. Of course, given the degree to which Blade Runner departs from Dick’s novel, that’s probably not a major concern. As it stands, Blade Runner reveals much about the collaborative nature of film production. It builds on Dick’s novel, sure, but it’s also the product of Ridley Scott’s direction and, just as importantly, the visual effects of Syd Mead, complicating any efforts to remain faithful to any artist’s “vision” for the text. For some good discussion of these issues, check out the collection of essays on Blade Runner edited by Will Brooker, including Jonathan Gray’s discussion of Blade Runner as a “replicant text.”

To be fair, it is difficult to underestimate what gets lost when a sequel “answers” many of the film’s unanswered questions, and I am sympathetic to the critics who have worried that a sequel will force us to re-evaluate our perception of the original film. My students have spent entire class periods debating Deckard’s status, citingBlade Runner Sequels, Cult Films, Commodity Culture key scenes to underscore their interpretations. Any answer to these questions risks undermining some of these strategic ambiguities. Of course, if the film sucks, we can try to pretend it never happened and continue to study and appreciate the original, but in a way, I think that risks suffocating the original, putting it in a plastic case where it turns into a mere object of contemplation, not a living text that continues to evolve as our own histories change. I think it also risks idealizing what is, in many ways, a flawed film, especially in its phobic depiction of Asians and other diverse cultures. In fact, given the trend toward more antiseptic depictions of a future devoid of racial and ethnic conflict, it will be interesting to see how a sequel handles those more problematic aspects of the original.

To be sure, the response to this news is, to some extent, a naturalized response to any announcement of a sequel to or remake of a film that is regarded as a classic. We are all protective of the films we love, as evidenced by my unwillingness to acknowledge the Karate Kid remake. But given Blade Runner’s incredibly convoluted textual history, I’ll be fascinated to see how the efforts to expand the text play out.

Chuck Tryon is an assistant professor in the Department of English at Fayetteville State University, where his teaching and research has focused on various aspects of film, television, and convergent media, including digital cinema, documentary studies, political video, and on using technology in the language arts classroom.  He is the author of Reinventing Cinema: Movies in the Age of  Media Convergence (Rutgers UP, 2009).  He has also written essays for The Journal of Film and Video, Popular Communication, The Essential Science Fiction Television Reader, and (with Richard L. Edwards) First Monday. He is currently working on a new book focusing on the shifting terrain of digital movie distribution.