I've told this story a number of times now, but: When I was growing up, my father took it as one of his duties as a parent to introduce me to "classic" films. The best, most important thing that I learned from this process is that "classic" is a broad and deeply subjective category, one that reflects both cultural impact and personal taste.
My father's list—which seemed to grow with every Sunday visit I spent with him—included his personal favorites (The Sting, Do the Right Thing), but also films that he felt did something important in the history of film even if they weren't movies he'd go back to regularly. This is why the list ranged from The African Queen to Boyz in the Hood, from Bridge Over the River Kwai to Dr. Zhivago, Sneakers to The Conversation.
Every week, without fail—and this was true to trips to the theater too—we'd finish our films and turn towards the yellow legal pad, turning ideas we'd had in our heads into makeshift, shortform reviews. Nothing made me happier than co-inducting a classic into the list alongside him, either something brand new—like when we left the Coens' A Serious Man near-speechless—or something older that we'd heard was good—trying to wrap our heads around the alternating lushness and sparsity of Fanny and Alexander's interiors.
A close second though, was when I got to add something new to my own personal list (either something that was already on his, or else something that he didn't feel as strongly about as me). Blade Runner was probably the first of those. If it wasn't the first, it was certainly the one I was most forceful about. A sci-fi film that explored ethics? Flying cars? Those cityscapes? A twist ending? Now here was a classic.
I don't think I had an original take about Blade Runner or anything , but it is one of the first films to make me look for one at all (maybe predated only by 1994's Stargate, which blew 9 year old Austin's mind with its message that controlling language meant controlling people.) What matters isn't what I wrote down about Blade Runner as a young teen, what matters is that it stuck with me, demanded re-watching, analysis, thought.
And over time, I kept returning to Blade Runner, writing more again every few years. Sometimes just for myself, or in conversation with friends. Other times, well.
On a short lived (and now dead) blog I ran immediately after finishing undergrad, this is how I started a post about Blade Runner: "In my life, I've heard many films called "an uncompromising vision of the future," and it is after some thought that I'm willing to make the leap and say that most of the other films that garnered this label simply don't deserve it. Blade Runner does."
It's a terrible post. It's a lot of me showing off my degree, namedropping philosophers, artists, and writers that a much younger and more naive Austin (falsely) believed were obscure and impressive. Actually, "namedropping" is wrong—I was aligning them, as if some perfect arrangement of "Albert Camus," "Raymond Chandler," and "Miles Davis" would unlock Blade Runner for the reader.
But there are small parts of this post which (while still filled with bad prose) do suggest the importance Blade Runner had for me as a burgeoning media critic. For years, I'd really only thought about movies as a vehicle for stories, characters, and ideas. But in this old post, I write that the films strength is its "ability to show us empty spaces and thoroughly hollow time," framing its questions about personhood in spaces where creative work happens: the toy maker's workroom, an eye-farm, the detective's desk. It comes to a head above the meditative chess board of the film's antagonist:
[It] is in the killing of his maker, Tyrell, in his plush, sky-high suite that Roy summarizes a core motif of cyberpunk as he asks if "the maker can repair what he makes": That this world is beyond saving, and god, if there is one, isn't coming to the rescue.
I went most of my life without thinking about film as a visual or temporal medium. But in closely studying this one movie I loved (largely because of the window dressing), I was able to start thinking about more than just character motivation and narrative themes. Showing friends Blade Runner and watching them doze off didn't upset me, it taught me what "pacing" meant.
I'd continue to revisit the film year after year in conversations with friends, which would in turn inspire improved writing, which would then go on to help me work through ideas for my own cyberpunk stories. It's not a perfect film, but it's a movie that did work for me.
All of that is to help explain why, when rumors of a sequel first started showing up in the late aughts, I was defensive the way only a True Fan can be. I didn't even want director Ridley Scott doing anything like Blade Runner again. Here is the first time I ever said the words "Blade Runner" on Twitter:
(Speaking of big influences, shout outs to N'Gai the God.)
I spent years dreading a Blade Runner followup. I watched Scott's own filmmaking take a nose dive—the only movie I've ever come close to walking out of was his 2010 tea party adjacent Robin Hood. I'd also seen cyberpunk become diluted as a genre (even as many of the genres metaphorical technologies became more and more real), and worried about what a Blade Runner that cared more about the flying cars than the oil flames might look like.
Then time passed, and that movie kept not getting made. And bit by bit I eased up. It probably won't be as good as the original, but maybe it won't be a train wreck. Or even if it was, I bet it'd be interesting. As I entered my late 20s, I'd come to understand my own affection for the original as being personal and subjective, which meant that there was suddenly less at stake. It wasn't a great moral monument at risk of defacing. It was a film that I loved, that shaped me, and that would endure in me and my work.
So I spent the last five years or so without expectations. At ease. Sure, a Blade Runner follow up might come out. And yeah, it could be bad. But whatever, no sweat off my back. I'll see it. Maybe it'll be bad. Maybe it'll lead a lot of people will revisit the original and think that's bad too. That's okay, too. I'll live. Let me tell you: It is fantastic to live with low expectations.
But then good things started happening. Scott stepped back, and Dennis Villeneuve—a filmmaker whose career I'm increasing excited about—was attached. Then Gosling showed up, carrying a range of performances, from Drive's affectless protagonist to his bumbling scheming in The Nice Guys. Then reviews started dropping—good ones. And then, yesterday, I got around to watching the short films (including one by Cowboy Bebop director Shinichiro Watanabe) dropped, and while none of them are fantastic, each proved to me that there was space to tell more stories in this world.
And now I'm totally, absolutely in my feelings, y'all.
I've done my best to avoid information about Blade Runner 2049. I learned today that the protagonist's name is K, and I immediately felt 22 year old Austin reaching for the Kafka reference. I passed by a movie theater earlier today and wondered if they have midnight tickets still available, certain my friends would be okay with me seeing it the second time with them this weekend.
Even now my stomach is churning at the thought of… I'm not sure what really. There is little in the world that makes me anxious like this—social occasions with strange expectations; people and the things that affect them; whether or not I'm doing my job well. But I don't get nervous at season finales of shows I love. I don't tense up (anymore) when my favorite teams make it to the finals. After years of being an awkward nerd, I've gotten way better at speaking to crowds. But I'm going to fucking lose sleep over this movie tonight.
I think, all said, that's a good thing. I'm a better person for letting myself hope that this thing is going to transcend my expectations. It was easier to shut myself down for years over this, and I'm relieved (for once) that they hype cycle has pulled me out of that torpid repose. I'm not 22 anymore, and I don't need or want to dig for some quote to back this feeling up: I believe it is a good thing to risk ourselves emotionally over art.
Emotion is the fuel for the critical engine, but it's also a worthy end in itself. It is good to have expectations about art. It is good to be frustrated, let down. It is even better to, when we are incredibly lucky, have those expectations surpassed. To shake your head wordlessly as you leave the theater, to text endlessly about the experience for days, to turn to someone sitting next to you on the couch and say "Shit. That movie is a classic."
What movie, game, book, or other piece of art has helped you grow as a critic or savvy media consumer? Have specific Blade Runner or 2049 thoughts? Let us know over in the forums!