You won't see iPhones in 'Blade Runner 2049', director says
Denis Villeneuve explains why the sequel to the 1982 science fiction classic conjures an alternative future that doesn't depend on digital data the way we do.
Richard TrenholmFormer Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
When you're re-creating one of sci-fi's most influential visions of the future, the first thing you've got to ask is: How do you deal with the stuff it got wrong?
That was the question facing director Denis Villeneuve and the team behind "Blade Runner 2049", a belated sequel to the 1982 classic directed by Ridley Scott and designed by Syd Mead. The original film conjured a high-tech future of biomechanical androids, space travel and flying cars. But it also saw people calling each other on payphones, with not a smartphone in sight.
In the future world of "Blade Runner", "there was no
", smiles Villeneuve when we meet in a London hotel suite to discuss the new film. "
didn't exist in the first movie. People didn't have cell phones."
Villeneuve, the Oscar-winning French-Canadian director of "Arrival" and "Sicario", is a thoughtful man, considering each question carefully before replying in his slightly gravelly, French-accented voice.
He describes how he decided to turn into a virtue the first film's failure to foresee the information age. "The virtual world is a very powerful universe but is not necessarily very cinematic," he says. "There's nothing more boring than a detective behind the keyboard looking at Google."
Without going into spoilers, the sequel reveals why the "Blade Runner" world doesn't depend on iPhones and digital data the same way ours does. "That allowed me to put my [detective's] hands in the mud," Villeneuve says. "We need a man to travel in the world, identifying clues."
The guy with his hands in the mud is Ryan Gosling, playing a new android-hunting Blade Runner. Investigating a deadly conspiracy, he goes in search of
's character from the first movie. Set 30 years after the first film, the sequel extrapolates from the nightmarish future imagined by Ridley Scott and his team, and that posed some challenges now that modern technology has changed what the future will look like.
Villeneuve describes how he and screenwriter Hampton Fancher, who also co-wrote the first film, decided to "dream from the dream" rather than from reality. So the sequel is set in "an alternative future", but does address modern concerns.
"2049" takes place in a reality Villeneuve describes as "a parallel universe linked with the first movie but driven by questions of the world today." For example, the sequel touches on ecological themes found in the original Philip K Dick novel "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" but largely ignored by the first film.
The divergence into a parallel world gives the sequel a timeless quality, and an unsettling detachment from reality. Rapturous early reviews use words like "hallucinatory" and "mesmerizing".
"Sometimes I had a strange feeling that I was more doing a period movie than a sci-fi movie," Villeneuve says. "For me, 'Blade Runner 2049' was like an edgy old sci-fi movie. It's a movie that has the romanticism of old sci-fi."
Apple shouldn't be too miffed about the iPhone missing out on being part of the "Blade Runner" world. Infamously, many of the brands seen in the first film became obsolete long before 2019, when the film was set. But those now long-lost brands, like Pan Am and Atari, are glimpsed again in the sequel's alternate universe, like ghosts of an imagined future. "I insisted to add that," says Villeneuve, "so it will really create a distance with the world."
Ridley Scott's original film is famous for its ambiguity, igniting debate among fans about whether Deckard is a replicant, among other questions. Villeneuve embraced that ambiguity, following Scott's advice to imbue the sequel with the same sense of mystery. "I deeply love doubt; I love questions; I don't like answers," Villeneuve says. "I think it's more interesting to be in a relationship with the unknown than to have certainty. I don't like when the filmmakers are giving answers or showing too much things."
I end the interview asking Villeneuve if he has a favourite sequel, a question he answers with a long intake of breath and a longer pause. "Listen, apart from 'The Godfather'..." he begins, before changing his mind. "No, it's not true. There's another one that I think is pretty powerful: 'The Empire Strikes Back'. Apart from that," he admits, "I'm not a big fan of sequels."