A film sequel, decades in the making? Increasingly this seems to be the done thing. Whether for creative reasons, financial ones, or a combination of the two, there are certain stories Hollywood isn’t willing to leave alone.
Perhaps this year’s most intriguing sequel proposition is Blade Runner 2049, in cinemas on 6 October. The original Blade Runner (1982) cemented the reputation of director Ridley Scott, and is now widely viewed as a sci-fi classic. The tale of a world-weary police operative (Harrison Ford) who must hunt down a group of synthetic humans, or ‘replicants,’ the film broke new ground with its haunting vision of a future Los Angeles – and tapped into a sense of unease around what separates man from machine.
‘Where did I come from? Where am I going? How long have I got?’-Blade Runner
Like much great cinematic sci-fi, Blade Runner is based on a story by Philip K Dick: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, which was published in 1968. Before mobile phones or the internet, let alone Artificial Intelligences of the kind being developed today, Dick was concerned with existential questions around how technology encroaches on our humanity. It’s no wonder that his ideas continue to find new relevance nearly five decades later.
Blade Runner has famously been released in seven different versions since it was first screened, partly due to studio concerns over whether audiences would understand the film. This means that we now have contradictory answers to one crucial question: is Deckard himself actually a replicant? While early versions seem to make it clear that he is not, later cuts strongly imply that he is. Ridley Scott himself has confirmed that he intended the latter interpretation.
Why does this question matter? The meaning of the story seems to hang on it. If Deckard isn’t human, then the line between human beings and their supposedly soulless, disposable robotic creations becomes meaningless. And this leads into one of the most profound anxieties of human life: what if we aren’t special? What if we’re just machines made of biological matter, here only to run our course and die?
‘There is nothing.’ - Alien: Covenant
This is the view put forward by Alien: Covenant – another long-gestating sequel, and another Ridley Scott film, which arrived in cinemas earlier this year. Concerned with creators and their creations, with fragile human beings and the alien (and android) life forms who threaten their existence, Covenant and its antecedent Prometheus (2012) offer an oppressively bleak vision of what it means to be human.
We might be bold enough to ask the big questions, these films say; we might even venture to distant planets looking for our answers; but there’s nothing out there for us. Even if we get so far as to meet our makers, we’ll only find that they hate us. Questions of faith are toyed with – the lead character in Prometheus wore a cross around her neck – but any light is extinguished by an underpinning emptiness and hopelessness. In a universe without God, is this all that we are?
‘You're special. Your history isn't over yet. There's still a page left.’- Blade Runner 2049
Blade Runner 2049 introduces Ryan Gosling as K, an LAPD officer who discovers a dark secret connected to the replicants and the future of humanity. Interestingly, this film is directed not by Scott, but by Denis Villeneuve, who made last year’s Arrival – a sci-fi tale which struck a bittersweet note of hope, connection, and faith in humanity. This suggests the possibility of a sequel that might find something other than despair as an answer to our most profound questions.
Deep down, all of us need to know that we’ve come from somewhere, and that we’re going somewhere. We need to know that we are created with love and for a purpose: that to be human is somehow a transcendent thing. The whole meaning of our story hangs on it.
Film club: questions to ask
How is technology presented in the film? Is it portrayed as benefiting human life, or as threatening it? How might this reflect views of technology in our culture?
Does the film imply that there is anything special about human beings, in comparison to technology or other life forms? Were you left feeling hopeful or despairing about the ultimate value of human life?
How does the film try to answer our deepest questions about who we are, and what we’re made for? What answers can the Christian story offer to these questions?
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