More of the same, yet different. That’s the hurdle facing screenwriters with sequels. Bring back enough of what audiences liked—the characters, the themes, the tone—yet give them something new that makes another film worthwhile.
A sequel set years after the original seems to have additional obstacles. Depending on the length of time between films, there might be a whole generation who hasn’t seen the original while those who have are at divergent points in their lives. What would appeal to newcomers about this universe, and who’s to say the people who once loved it want to spend roughly another two hours there?
Yet Blade Runner 2049 pulls off this feat because it does what other successful sequels with several years between them have done: let the characters dictate the story. They reference the earlier films but vary significantly, with changes not for the sake of change but that feel organic, connected to—even embracing—the passage of time. They’re expansions and explorations instead of retreads.
It’s a balance that writer-director J.J. Abrams accomplished with 2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens, rebooting the film franchise last seen in 1983’s Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi by introducing new characters and showing the beloved originals with gray, wrinkles, and regrets.
Likewise, T2 Trainspotting screenwriter John Hodge managed to craft a poignant character study with a plot that, like 1996’s Trainspotting, was beside the point. Hodge, who earned an Oscar nomination for writing the original, based on Irvine Welsh’s novel, wasn’t sure he could revisit this world so many years later, let alone recreate it to satisfy director Danny Boyle, the cast, and audiences alike. Welsh had depicted the same group of heroin addicts and miscreants in the 2002 novel Porno, but Hodge found that book had “no real progression” from the original.
So instead of trying to recreate the characters’ jittery exuberance and energy, Hodge leaned into the twenty-year gap between films. He watched Trainspotting to hear the characters’ voices again, then thought about what they might have been doing for twenty years. “In what ways have they not changed a bit? In what ways have they changed? That’s a lovely thing for a writer to have at his disposal, to play with and explore,” he’s said.
Hodge included nods at the original, such as another rapid-fire monologue from Mark “Rent Boy” Renton (Ewan McGregor), only this time instead of thumbing his nose at all his choices in life, he’s full of melancholy. Hodge thought the audience could relate. “That’s the thing between twenty-five and forty-five. It’s growing older. And you’re now kind of nearer the end than the beginning.”
Last year, director George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) won six Oscars and was nominated for Best Picture thirty years after the previous film in the post-apocalyptic franchise, 1985’s Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. Miller hadn’t planned on doing another Mad Max film. Rather, he was on a long flight when he imagined a chase involving “five wives escaping a tyrannical warlord” with a female warrior leading the way.
That idea evolved into Fury Road, with a script co-written by Miller, Brendan McCarthy, and Nick Lathouris. “Things develop organically,” Miller has said. “You create the architecture for the story once. The characters almost guide you one way or the other.”
The Mad Max stories have always been allegories like classic Westerns, with Max as a “wanderer in the wasteland, looking for some sense of meaning in a very stark world, and he gets caught up in their [the other characters’] story,” Miller has said.
Where the earlier films cast gasoline or vehicles as commodities, Fury Road placed a high value on blood, with Max (Tom Hardy) a donor chained to one of the warlord’s minions, and women, who can produce milk, children, and a legacy. Max at first just wants to be free, but he later supports Furiosa (Charlize Theron) in her quest to free the wives because “he’s manacled to some sense of honor or obligation, and maybe a little flicker of humanity that draws him in,” Miller said.
Writer-director James Cameron, now filming several sequels to his 2009 film Avatar, first told a story at a remove from its predecessor with 1986’s Aliens. Cameron was fresh off the success of 1984’s The Terminator when a producer suggested he take a crack at writing a sequel to the popular 1979 horror flick Alien.
Cameron wanted to start with that film’s survivor, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), but he struggled with how to enter the story. “How is the audience going to relate to this person if they put themselves needlessly into jeopardy again when any sensible, thinking person would not go back anywhere near that alien if they had a choice?” he said in an interview on the Aliens Special Edition DVD.
The answer came when he realized that because of post-traumatic stress, Ripley “didn’t survive mentally. Psychologically, she’s a basket case.” She accompanies the colonial Marines as an adviser in Aliens because of a “cathartic, psychological reason”: facing the creatures that haunt her nightmares.
Cameron employed a similar tactic of exploring the protagonist’s psychology in 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Instead of the naïve young waitress saved in the original Terminator film, the sequel’s Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) was now a hardened soldier, considered insane for her talk of the future and incapable of showering her son with affection because her guerrilla skills keep him alive.
Blade Runner 2049 appears thirty-five years after the 1982 original, based on Philip K. Dick’s story “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” The sequel has won critical acclaim—it holds an 89 percent “fresh” rating on RottenTomatoes.com—even though it’s doing a slow burn at the box office, earning $81 million worldwide (just over half its $150 million budget) since its Oct. 6 release. Blade Runner similarly wobbled during its initial release, winning fans over time through different cuts on home video.
The original film introduced Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), a “blade runner,” or bounty hunter, tracking and killing artificial beings who had gone rogue in search of extending their preprogrammed lifespans. Deckard is an existential future noir detective with nothing to live for until he falls in love with Rachel (Sean Young), a “replicant,” or artificial human, who didn’t realize she was one.
Michael Green co-wrote the sequel with original screenwriter Hampton Fancher, who for inspiration wrote a short story describing what might have happened to the characters. There are plenty of visual nods to the first film, such as the opening close-up of an eye. In Blade Runner, flames arced over the night skyline of Los Angeles, reflected in the iris. Here, the eye gazes at the open daytime landscape of farms dotting the ground like giant eyes themselves.
Deckard becomes the quarry this time around, although Ryan Gosling’s Officer K doesn’t even know Deckard exists at first. K is another hunter of rogue replicants—and one himself, facing discrimination on and off the job. His only solace is his girlfriend, Joi, a hologram played by Ana de Armas with compassion, innocent delight, and more dimensions than just two.
“Four symbols make a man: A, T, G, and C,” she marvels at one point as K scrolls through DNA records. “I am only two: one and zero.”
But is she, really? Where the original film’s replicants held on to photographs and other objects to show their individuality, K latches on to a memory, then feelings. The film still asks, “What is human?” but pushes the issue even farther, challenging the audience with Joi, K’s soulful yearning, and the overarching mystery that brings Deckard out of hiding.
“I have memories,” K says, “but I can’t tell if they’re real.”
By the graceful denouement, he’s as real as he feels.
Valerie Kalfrin is an award-winning veteran crime journalist turned entertainment writer. A member of the Florida Film Network, she writes reviews and analysis for The Script Lab, Signature Reads (formerly known as Word and Film), and The Tampa Bay Times, among other publications. She’s also an emerging screenwriter and script consultant. She lives in Florida.