The first two episodes of Blade Runner: Black Lotus premiere on Adult Swim Nov. 14, 2021.
Blade Runner: Black Lotus represents the continuing saga of the Blade Runner universe which was reignited with Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 (2017). If you’re only aware of that and Ridley Scott’s 1982 film, know that the stories in the universe have since continued with anime short films, video games, and comics. The two-episode premiere does set up some intrigue worth sticking around for, although it’s brought down by some unimpressive animation and voice acting.
In this CG-animated series, the story is still replicant-centric, this universe’s terminology for biorobotic androids. The two films were noir stories told from male “blade runner” perspectives (Harrison Ford’s Deckard and Ryan Gosling’s K), but Black Lotus shakes it up by framing the series from the perspective of Elle (Jessica Henwick), a young female replicant who has amnesia.
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Who and what Elle is are in question right from the opening moments of the pilot, “City of Angels,” as she wakes in an abandoned building in the middle of an arid wasteland. Exploring the facility, she wanders outside to find a small group of seemingly average people who are just as confused as they’re suddenly all locked out of the protection of the building. Cars come across the horizon carrying some extremely enthusiastic gun nuts and everything snaps into a Mad Max-skinned version of The Most Dangerous Game (1932) or The Hunt (2019).
A brutal chase ensues where Elle (and we) figure out she’s got some serious combat and strategy skills that keep her and another young woman, Meu, stay alive. Her abject terror sparks a glow within that practically screams “replicant,” but just what she’s been used for, or who has been her keeper, remain unclear. Meanwhile in the city, the LAPD is investigating a “Black Lotus” murder of a senator that points to a replicant behind the job, so now the mystery is truly afoot.
Black Lotus is co-directed by Japanese anime legends Shinji Aramaki (Ultraman) and Kenji Kamiyama (Star Wars: Visions) and they are clearly deeply reverent of the rainy, neon-drenched environments that aesthetically define the Blade Runner films. They and their animators capture that futuristic urban, dank, melancholic vibe to a tee. But outside of the environments, the human animation is disappointingly underwhelming. Obviously, budgets make all the difference, but in this case there’s a very vacant-eyed, plastic look to everyone, from the hair down to the clothes. It prevents us from getting immersed in the animation because the performances are stilted by the technology.
The voice work doesn’t always help either. Henwick is clearly working hard to make Elle vulnerable, sympathetic, and at times ruthless, but the bad guys she encounters are vocally one-note right through the second episode, “All We Are Not.” In the English dub, some acting heavy hitters like Brian Cox and Wes Bentley come into the story as the Wallace’s of the Wallace Corporation, who will take over replicant manufacturing from the defunct Tyrell Corporation. They’re sure to add some texture and gravitas to the proceedings, but it’s not there to open the series and that impacts the overall engagement and stakes.
As for the action, Elle gets to knock heads with a variety of men and women. There’s obviously something triggered inside of her in these melees, because she’s often initially way out of her depths until her eyes glow and she accesses within some Neo-style moves that allow her to overtake the threat at hand. There’s some well-done street-fighting choreography in “All We Are Not” — literally utilizing a low blow — but nothing feels particularly groundbreaking as of yet.
The most interesting elements are the non-linear images and sequences that Elle experiences throughout her journey of discovery. They are effective breadcrumbs to keep us engaged and to show that there’s a far more proactive Elle that’s just waiting to come out once she can get a foothold on her life. Black Lotus feels like it could be an engaging watch, but out of the gate, it’s not quite there yet.