Blade Runner Moves toward an Expanded Universe

With comics and anime on the way, the franchise is coming back.

Movies Features Blade Runner
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<i>Blade Runner</i> Moves toward an Expanded Universe

The funny thing about Blade Runner is that it’s a major work of genre fiction in film that has never felt like it really wants a franchise. It’s not merely the darkness and seriousness and complete lack of camp that set it apart from something like your Star Wars or Star Trek or even Ghostbusters (which already has a sequel a reboot, and at least two cartoon shows I know of). It’s the speculative and contemplative nature of the story. Thus far, the two films, 1982’s Blade Runner and 2017’s Blade Runner 2049 are both the sorts of stories that end in question marks rather than exclamation points.

Yet, we’ve got two major projects on the horizon in the year since 2049 came out. In July, word came out that a new comic series based in the world of Blade Runner 2049, and in November, an anime series was announced. As Paste’s Stephan Cho reported, the series will be entitled Blade Runner: Black Lotus, to be produced by Crunchyroll and Adult Swim. Besides being set in 2032 (17 years before 2049, according to math), no other plot details have yet been revealed, but it’s encouraging that it’s being brought to us by some of the names associated with the Appleseed films and rockin’ shows like Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, Cowboy Bebop and Wolf’s Rain.

That seems like a lot of Blade Runner stuff in quick succession after a long time without anything new for the franchise, but the truth is, there was a brief boom in fictional works surrounding it in the wake of the original, ground-breaking first film. A history of various, formerly-hard-to-find cuts of the film and the expansive history of works tangentially related to the original movie have bred a fan base who love to obsess over minutiae. For those interested in diving deeper into those materials, here’s a look at the world of Blade Runner beyond the films.

The Works that Gave Us Blade Runner
No deeper dive into the history of Blade Runner can be complete without reading Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. The novel contains all the bones of Blade Runner, including the wrecked planet Earth, synthetic animals, renegade androids, and the deeply discomfiting empathy testing to weed out fake humans from real ones.

For an interesting look at the origins of the random-seeming title itself, you can read The Bladerunner, a book by Alan E. Nourse. Set in a dystopian future New York where any medical treatment comes with a requirement to be sterilized (since, logically, anybody who needs help must be weak), it follows the exploits of individuals called “bladerunners,” the young criminals who fence pills, syringes and blades to the expansive underground hospital system that illegally treats those in need. A scriptwriter on the film liked the title and obtained permission to use it from none other than William S. Burroughs (author of Naked Lunch), who had acquired the film rights to the novel but never managed to get the adaptation off the ground.

David Peoples, co-writer of better-than-you-remember Kurt Russell actioner Soldier (1998) has said the movie is set in the same fictional world as Blade Runner. And while it’s not explicitly stated, some ancillary material in the Prometheus DVD release seems to strongly suggest that this other Ridley Scott-directed property is related to Blade Runner, cheekily implying that Guy Pearce’s industrialist character was mentored by the megalomaniacal Eldon Tyrell.

Blade Runner was adapted into a novel, Blade Runner: A Story of the Future as part of the promotional push for the movie’s release, famous in part because Dick was offered money to write it and turned it down. In an interview later that year, he said he refused to write the “cheapo novelization.”

“…for me to derail myself and do that cheapo novelization of Blade Runner—a completely commercialized thing aimed at twelve-year-olds—would have probably been disastrous to me artistically,” he said in the interview. “Although financially, as my agent explained it, I would literally be set up for life. I don’t think my agent figures I’m going to live much longer.”

(Morbidly, it was Dick’s last interview, published posthumously.)

Les Martin wrote it instead, and no fewer than three sequels rolled out in subsequent years, starting with K.W. Jeter’s Blade Runner 2: The Edge of Human in 1995. The most notable part about this series of novels is that the works are based on director Ridley Scott’s original ending, rather than the sanitized version studios demanded be released in theaters. Blade Runner 2 opens with Deckard trying to escape Earth with the replicant Rachael on ice. Old characters show up (including the factory template, or “templant,” of Roy Batty, the existentialist rogue replicant played by Rutger Hauer in the movie). The novels continued under Jeter, with Replicant Night taking place on Mars and Eye and Talon featuring a completely unrelated character chasing after, I’m serious about this, the robo-owl in the Tyrell Corporation, and featuring little more than a cameo from Deckard.

The upcoming graphic novel will be an interesting addition to a corner of the fandom that has not gotten much development at all. Completionists do have one collector’s item they can hunt down: A 1982 adaptation of the film that was part of Marvel’s “Super Special” line.

Thus far, there have only been two Blade Runner games, and like their source material, they are odd. 1985’s Blade Runner, available on home computer consoles like the ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64, actually couldn’t get the rights to the film, but somehow could for the film’s soundtrack…? Accordingly, it was “based on the soundtrack by Vangelis,” and featured gameplay that was basically what you’d expect an 8-bit Blade Runner game to be like: Flying around in your flying car to get to replicants and then engaging in side-scrolling gameplay to try to retire said replicants.

The 1997 game, Blade Runner from Westwood Studios (the folks responsible for some interesting adventure games like The Journeyman Project and its sequels) was odd in that it looks unlike almost anything else that came out at the time and was actually quite good. Putting players in the shoes of McCoy, another Blade Runner in L.A. in 2019, the point-and-click adventure game tasks players with playing the role of the detective as he travels the city to solve replicant-related crimes. Employing atmospheric 3D graphics and full-motion video designed to evoke scenes from the film, it also sets the story during the events of the movie, with characters from the film—many voiced by their original actors—showing up and driving the plot.

That alone would have been impressive, but its clear there’s some genuine love for the film in the DNA of this game. You get to conduct interrogations, sift through crime scenes for clues, bark orders to “ENHANCE!” at the photo machine, and even conduct the weird Voight-Kampff testing to try to figure out if individual characters are humans or replicants.

One major element tying all of these adaptations and spinoffs together that has always jumped out at me is how they seek to so faithfully recreate such specific scenes or feelings from the original film. The books revisit scenes obsessively, to the point they seem to be trying to correct the little flubs or inconsistencies from the movie or just completely reenacting them: In Replicant Night, Deckard is a consultant on a movie about the plot of the original movie. The shot-for-shot theft of tableau from the movie in the 1997 video game reflects this desire to stay and linger in the world of the movie. It’ll be interesting, now that there’s finally been an official, undisputed continuation of the story in theaters, to see whether these spinoffs start to go into truly new and speculative territory.

Kenneth Lowe is more human than human. You can follow him on Twitter or read more at his blog.