I have seen things you wouldn’t believe.
The original Blade Runner movie really meant something. Filmed in 1982 but set in 2019, it held a conservative and melancholy core now recognisable to those of the hard right and hard left alike: the civil order is sliding down the pyramidic sides of all-powerful corporations, the law and its enforcement is emptied of all but commercial imperatives, and life is a cruel and joyless struggle at ground level. The metropolis has chopped whole languages into crude Esperanto. The setting showed our entire realm never seeing daylight inside ceaseless misty rain.
It was a production that changed whole subsequent classes of film. It was so studied in liberal arts courses in the 1980s and 1990s that the name was shorthand for high modernist decline. Our entire signifying order held in one rotting, clotted, nostalgic word: decay.
We can look back now and revel in its pessimism. Older orders are indeed declining, but at no great speed. Languages are altering in dominance, but calmly. Commodified organ exchanges and android robotics exist, but we’re a ways from cheaply manufacturing spare parts or spare slaves. In the new version it is conspiracy, rather than weakened juridical order, which undercuts and trips any remnant government. It didn’t work as a profound political critique of the world, and it doesn’t now.
There are some important shifts between the two films. Masculinity is shifting, from where risk and physical damage can be redeemed through valour to redemption within darkly constrained choices, to one where secret knowledges are passed from old man to young, women run the police force, and romance is less brutalized.
But let’s not mistake the formal power of either of them. Both the first and new versions are two of the best-ever artworks in cinematic history.
You should see the first one first, since the new one expands on all points from there and its visual and thematic homage is as dependent as it is deep.
The earth itself has turned, as we are brought away from the city limits to great deserts scattered with peripheral human detritus. The cracked leather jackets of film noir detectives turn into philosophers warning us of where we are headed, and there’s not much place for ordinary human kindness to be seen.
You will want more from it because it implores your imagination to conceive of an entire moral universe and to recognize ourselves and our foibles without mockery. It takes us seriously and grandly as a species. Both films tell us that the best of what we were is gone, there is little common will or capacity left to redeem what is left, and perhaps all there is left is to allow us to live longer as an entire species by expanding who is defined as human.
Revel in them all. See it at the biggest, widest screen you can.
This is mastery of the form like David Lean did them, and has more formal beauty, audacity, and wit than Christopher Nolan’s best. Villeaneuve’s realm orchestrates by kaleidascope thousands of our cultural tropes and then stabilises them in scene after scene inside a moral core: to test the deep value of defining what are human lives, and why in this universe we alone have such complex imaginative consciousness of which we are justifiably proud, so jealous, so destructive.