It’s been a few years since Ridley Scott dropped Blade Runner in 1982. By the time Blade Runner 2049 hits in October, that’s 35 years. The first film takes place in the still-distant future of 2019, while the long-gestating sequel follows a similar timeline to reality, and occurs 30 later, hence the numerical title. Obviously, that leaves a lot of ground to cover in between the two. To fill in some gaps, check out a short new prequel, Nexus: 2036.
Directed by Luke “Son of Ridley” Scott (Morgan, Loom), a promising sci-fi filmmaker in his own right, this video that debuted at Collider centers around Jared Leto’s Niander Wallace, a reclusive inventor/businessman with a messiah complex. Taking place in 2036, it sets the stage for Blade Runner 2049.
After the events of the first film, in 2023, the government enacts a prohibition on Replicants. A year after that, an EMP goes off and causes a blackout, an act blamed on rogue Replicants. (My guess is that proves to be a false flag operation.) This short film obviously picks up with a renewed debate over the ban, and as trailers have shown, that embargo appears to have been lifted by the time 2049 rolls around.
Moody and cool, creating a nice tone and vibe, I’m into this short. But I also worry it’s part of a larger marketing trend I’m not a fan of.
I have friends who entirely eschew trailers and other promo material, but I’m a person who likes to dig into films ahead of time. Potential spoilers don’t bother me anymore, as long as the filmmakers tell the story well—it was my day job for years to root around in the most spoiler-heavy corners of the internet, so I almost never had the chance to go into a movie cold. But I hope Blade Runner 2049 doesn’t fall into a pit that Alien: Covenant, another recent Ridley Scott sequel, belly-flopped into.
Alien: Covenant released a similar prologue. It introduced the crew of the titular ship, established the dynamics, and generally provided a significant amount of insight to the characters, their mission, and their motivations. That’s fine, but the problem is that while that information is necessary to the story, it’s all absent from film itself. Which is one of it’s biggest issues.
I’ve encountered people saying, “Well, just watch the prologue and it all makes sense and is way better.” That’s true. But most people aren’t going to do that, or didn’t know they need to do that, or that it’s even an option. If you need to consume additional material in order to enjoy or comprehend a movie, something’s wrong.
It’s one thing to release additional resources that enhance a movie, that engaged fans can seek out if they so desire. But problems arise when the audience has to do homework ahead of time. (In the case of sequels, I’m not talking about expecting the audience to have seen the earlier film or films. I feel like that should go without saying, but here we are.)
Star Wars has been tight-roping this line recently with the swirling mass of in-cannon stories hitting the open market. Rogue One is a prime example. It briefly touches on the relationships between Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) and Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker). While there’s obviously history there, as it plays in the movie, it carries relatively little weight. Seriously, who cares when Saw dies?
However, if you read Beth Revis’ young adult novel Rebel Rising, it provides that background, which infuses the movie with emotion and depth. But only if you’re familiar with their earlier story. That brief interaction carries exponentially more weight after reading the book.
The same argument can be made for Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen) and Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) with Greg Rucka’s novel Guardians of the Whills, which digs into their lives on Jedha. Or Ben Mendelson’s Orson Krennic and Jyn’s father, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), in Catalyst by James Luceno. The Last Jedi, which doesn’t hit theaters until December, follows a similar pattern. The upcoming Phasma novel promises to explore the backstory of Gwendoline Christie’s stormtrooper Captain Phasma in ways we’ve explicitly been told the film won’t.
Part of the fun of Star Wars has always been the sprawling mythology, and I know there’s not room in every movie to tell every story. And in reality, audiences don’t need to know the complete history of characters like Captain Phasma. She’s like Boba Fett, all we really need to know is that she’s a badass villain with a killer costume; that’s her role and function in the larger narrative sense. If fans want to explore more about a cool side character, great, it’ll be fun and add layers, but it’s not vital in a big-picture sense.
And though all the extra stuff with Jyn and Chirrut and Galen and Krennic isn’t 100% necessary, watching the movie, they all lack something. You sense that there’s much more to them, that they’re deeper, more well-rounded characters than they appear on screen. And they are. The Lucasfilm story group has obviously fleshed out all of their backstories.
Maybe Rogue One’s much-ballyhooed reshoot and re-edits are to blame for this shallowness. That’s entirely possible and it wouldn’t surprise me at all. But it’s frustrating to know there’s so much more to these characters that would enhance the viewing experience—I do really like Rogue One, but the characters could be so much better.
Like I said, Star Wars toes the line. There’s a limited space to tell a big story, you have to leave certain things out to make that happen. That’s just a fact of life. And it’s wonderful that they want to tell those stories and use TV shows, books, comics, and other mediums to do so. Again, that’s part of why fans love the Star Wars universe so much, because everyone has a story.
But it also feels like they’re holding back, to the detriment of the movies. It’s fine to leave out Captain Phasma’s childhood. Jyn, however, is the protagonist, one with a much deeper, much more interesting connection to the burgeoning Rebellion than Rogue One ever lets on. I don’t know why that’s left out—it could be an editing choice, or perhaps Lucasfilm wanted to tell that story elsewhere.
Right now, you don’t have to absorb anything outside of the films. You can if you want, and it generally serves to increase engagement and enjoyment and delight hardcore fans. But it’s creeping dangerously close to that precipice.
Watching this Blade Runner 2049 prequel—reportedly the first of three—my guess is that it’s not going to fall into the Alien: Covenant trap. It probably provides some backstory and context, and the film may allude to these events, but by and large, we likely won’t need to watch them. From what we know of Denis Villeneuve, who took over directing duties, that doesn’t seem like his style. And the Covenant prologue immediately precedes the movie, where as this gives a 13-year buffer.
I obviously have mixed feelings about this approach. On one hand, I admittedly enjoy promotional material like this short (and I do have some new theories based on the content). It’s way more fun and interesting that your standard trailer, and it provides additional value for those willing to seek it out. But I can’t help but worry we’re getting to a point where it distracts, or is going to, from the movies themselves.
For my part, I often delight in rooting around in these worlds. But I don’t want to have to. I’m far more willing to do so than most, but when it becomes necessary, that’s going to turn average moviegoers off, something the flailing theatrical industry can’t afford.