Blade Runner 2049 was unquestionably one of the movies of the year. After thirty-five years of speculation on how and when this most enigmatic of sci-fi franchises would revive itself, Denis Villeneuve’s sequel justified the wait - not only expanding its iconic vision of a dystopian Los Angeles, but also reminding us why it was so captivating in the first place. Warner Bros. also seemed confident of the movie’s critical success too, given the amount of additional promotional material they sanctioned for it. If a themed bar at this year’s San Diego Comic Con wasn’t enough, there were also plenty of other bits n’ bobs - posters, Snapchat filters, even umbrellas. But the biggest component of 2049’s juggernaut of a hype machine (beside its rather glorious trailers) were a collection of three short films put up on YouTube in the weeks leading up to the film’s general release.
Aside from bigging up Blade Runner’s return to the big screen, these three movies serve an extra, shared purpose, and that’s to fill us in on all the major happenings that have occurred in the franchise’s storyline over the three decades we’ve had to wait for another expose. Turns out, there’s been quite a lot - with a massive data blackout leading not only to replicant freedom, but also the fall of one particular, all-encompassing business empire in the midst of another rising to take its place.
Each of these shorts add their own perspective on these events, and are definitely succinct enough to get their various messages across - even if the stories themselves lack depth due to their fleeting durations. There’s definitely a difference in quality among them though, so what else can a budding review web site do than judge them on their relative merits?
Judge them, we shall - in narratively chronological order, no less!
Blade Runner 2022: Black Out
The longest and most ambitious of these shorts comes under the guise of Black Out, a 15-minute anime vignette depicting the events surrounding an attack by a replicant freedom-fighter cell on the Tyrell Corporation’s headquarters, three years after the end of the first Blade Runner movie. It’s a pretty significant event too - detailing the actions of Iggy (voiced by Jovan Jackson), accompanied by fellow replicant Trixie (Luci Christian) and assisted by sympathetic human Ren (Bryson Baugas), as they engage in a near-suicide mission to EMP-bomb Tyrell’s main compound and destroy its replicant identity register. Destroying such a database would leave replicants able to live lives free from their label as manufactured androids, and thus no longer suffer from the violent persecution human society has wrought upon them. For any replicant dreaming of a life on equal terms with humanity, it’s a mission worth dying for - and one that plays out on screen with some impressively-animated action sequences and a few flashbacks to help give the short’s protagonists a necessary bit of soul.
Shinichiro Watanabe, a man who’ll need no introduction to the average anime nut (Cowboy Bebop, Samurai Champloo, Space Dandy), is the director behind this effort, so it’s no major surprise that the artwork involved looks jaw-droppingly stunning. Blackout succeeds primarily on the almost religious attention to detail it puts into its visuals - the familiar geisha billboards are but one highlight, but the depiction and depth of Tyrell Corp’s sprawling pyramid dominion under daylight is another delight entirely. And that’s not to say it’s all fancy backdrops, either - a few sequences of sketch animation during Iggy’s flashbacks to his time as an off-world soldier also add a bit of dramatic flair to its more violent moments. And while there are a few rough spots within the animation itself - both mouth and body movements appearing a little rushed - Blackout overall captures the Blade Runner world in a way never quite seen before, and in a way that perhaps only animation can.
Still, it is ultimately a victory for style over substance. The attack on Tyrell’s building may in itself be a worthy, thundering engagement, but it’s sadly all too brief. The consistently unexcited voice acting also fails to elicit the emotion that’s present in the script. We get replicants telling us of their hopeful dreams for freedom with some rather poetic lexis, but the delivery often feels like they’d be spending that freedom watching paint dry. All the same, this is still a solid side-story that adds colour to a now key event in the Blade Runner timeline - one that will wow you with its art, and still pack enough punches to be worth its 15-minute length. 7/10
Blade Runner 2036: Nexus Dawn
Fast forward fourteen years from the events of Blackout, and you then have Nexus Dawn - an even briefer take on the rise of the Wallace Corporation, the main antagonists of 2049. Jared Leto appears in this short, offering a first glimpse in his role as Niander Wallace, the blind, mysterious owner of Wallace Corp whose penchant for ramblings about life and creation are just as clear to see here as they are in the feature film.
Fresh off from acquiring the assets of the now-dead Tyrell Corp, Wallace’s goal for corporate dominance is straightforward - resurrect the production of replicants that made Tyrell such an all-encompassing business entity in the first place. There’s just one problem. In the fallout over the 2022 data blackout, creation of replicants has become a banned practice. How does a shady corporation prove to corporate lawmakers that lifting such a restriction would be in their best interest? They prove that the replicants they’ve been secretly creating are unyieldingly loyal to humanity’s whims, of course. That’s essentially the plot of this remarkably brief piece - which is entirely comprised of a single conversation between Wallace and said lawmakers - and it makes for a pretty ineffectual one in the grander scheme of things.
Although the appearance of Benedict Wong (Marco Polo, Dr. Strange, Black Mirror) is of note, this piece is the weakest of the three. It focuses on merely re-telling an epithet of the Blade Runner story (the self-certainty that humanity can keep its creations subservient, even when we know it can’t) without expanding at all on the idea. The second issue is that it’s a skit that centers entirely around Wallace himself - a character who, thanks to Leto’s unusual, frequently confused delivery, alienates rather than articulates. While he definitely looks the part as the head of a corporate giant with world-changing ambitions, Leto’s Wallace comes off as less of a cryptic magnate with a grand plan, and more as a failed cult figurehead - all creepy mannerisms and ethereal monologues, but none of the charisma. Ultimately it’s the weakness of its central character that leaves this short feeling like a bit of a waste - and not even its mildly grisly ending can prove it to be otherwise. 5/10
Blade Runner 2048: Nowhere To Run
The final Blade Runner 2049 short turns our gaze away from corporate power shifts and back to the gritty underbelly of Los Angeles itself. Although the city still has its Blade Runners doing the job of retiring fugitive replicants, the job has been made significantly harder since the events of 2022, with no database to profile potential candidates against. That means that most who would be between the crosshairs of the LAPD are able to live their lives in relative peace - so long as they don’t do anything to draw attention to themselves.
The short puts a focus on Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista), one of the replicants of 2049, living out his days under a cover of anonymity within L.A’s underclass. Within the overcrowded markets and hole-in-the-wall vendors of the city’s underworld, he’s befriended a mother and her daughter, Ella (Gaia Ottman), whom he stops by to chat with and lend books from time to time. Unfortunately when a gang of thugs decide to bring trouble to them, Morton is forced to protect them from harm - potentially exposing his status as a replicant in the process.
As another five-minute story, there really isn’t much new to glean in terms of new commentary on the Blade Runner universe. It’s still fun to return to the darker side of its future L.A however, with throngs of sneering punks and gabbling market stall owners left, right and center of the whole short. It also gives Dave Bautista a chance to add a bit more emotive detail to his character Morton, who appeared all too briefly in the main film. With both his performances in Guardians of the Galaxy and within Blade Runner as a gentle, thoughtful replicant, Bautista is slowly but surely gaining a solid reputation for himself as a character actor. He delivers again here, albeit briefly. The storyline itself is remarkably thin and doesn’t really give us anything more than the adage that replicants are ‘more human than human’, something most fans of the franchise were already aware of. But it’s decent enough viewing for a quick five minutes, and serves a nice glimpse into a character who perhaps never got the chance of a deeper, more deserving focus on his own tale. 6/10