Science fiction is always a fan favorite at San Diego Comic-Con, and Blade Runner 2049 is taking advantage with a huge presence here at the convention. The film is expected to make an appearance during the Warner Bros. Hall H panel, but it’s also drawing attention outside of the convention center with something called the Blade Runner 2049 Experience.
Housed in a giant tent across the street from the convention center, it’s an installation made up of two parts. The first is a virtual reality experience called Blade Runner 2049: Replicant Pursuit, that puts participants in the role of a Blade Runner chasing a missing replicant. But the second half is a physical journey into the world of the movie — a detailed set featuring a crashed Spinner vehicle, a replica of the White Dragon Noodle Bar, and an assortment of live actors that are ready to help you track down a replicant, or discover if you’re one yourself.
The VR experience is a collaboration between Oculus and Alcon Entertainment, and while the title is now available on both the Samsung Gear VR and Oculus Rift, the San Diego installation ups the ante by incorporating D-Box motion simulator chairs into the mix. They’re set up in rows, like a mini movie theater, with several guests going through at a single time with a Gear VR headset.
As an experience, it’s basically a roller coaster framed as a car chase. You start in a Spinner, and are given directions by your commanding officer at LAPD to track down the vehicle that is carrying the runaway replicant — who happens to be a Nexus 8 model. (The existence of the Nexus 8 was only recently revealed in the latest Blade Runner 2049 trailer; the models that were featured in the original film belonged to the Nexus 6 family.)
There’s a brief period of interactivity after your vehicle gets in the air, when you have to look at various Spinners in the sky to scan them. Eventually the replicant is found, and the chase in on. It’s on on-rails experience, as the vehicles cat and mouse through the gritty, neon Blade Runner landscape. Eventually the replicant’s vehicle begins ramming into yours, until you finally end up smashing it into the ground.
It’s a relatively short and simple experience, and while it was a treat to be inside a Spinner and survey the Blade Runner landscape, it was also running on a Gear VR so it wasn’t necessarily a visual powerhouse. Where this particular presentation excelled, however, was the integration with the D-Box motion seats. It’s always impressive how much just a few degrees of tilt, or a bit of vibration at a key moment, can ground a entire VR experience. I don’t know how engaging I would have found Blade Runner 2049: Replicant Pursuit if I had experienced it while sitting at home on my couch, but the D-Box seats turned it into a quick bit of fun entertainment.
But the VR experience was all prelude to the physical installation. Replicant Pursuit ends with the Nexus 8’s Spinner crashed on the ground, and that’s exactly what I found myself stumbling upon: a Spinner from the film, wrapped in police tape, as bystanders poked around and police officers tried to get to the bottom of what was going on.
I simply hung back and gawked at first. I assumed it was just a standalone prop car that people could use for selfie photo ops. Then a woman with a plastic umbrella and a neon band around her neck approached me, asking if I’d seen anything strange. Steam seeped into the room from one side, while rain poured down onto some metal grillwork. It was the legendary atmosphere of Ridley’s Scott film made real, and then a police officer appeared, demanding to know my name — and asking me if I was a replicant, myself.
I told him I wasn’t, but that didn’t seem good enough. He led me away from the crash site into the marketplace nearby — luckily the rain had stopped, so I didn’t get wet — where I had my face scanned and was cleared as a human. But the interactions didn’t stop there, as the dozen or so actors roaming the space were eager to engage to whatever degree visitors were comfortable with. I asked one woman if she knew where the Nexus 8 was; she told me she did, but wouldn’t help me unless I could help her get Off-world. (Apparently it’s as big of a goal in Blade Runner 2049 as it was in the original.) I told her I knew a guy that had a ship, and we made plans to meet secretly in the marketplace the following day.
The installation did have the assortment of props and movie weaponry that one would expect, including the 2049 version of Rick Deckard’s iconic blaster and the movie’s futuristic handcuffs. But as interesting as it was to see those pieces of memorabilia, it was the environment and performers that made the experience memorable. I had a similar reaction when I visited HBO’s Westworld: The Experience. The idea of seeing something that takes a look behind the scenes of a movie or TV show is all well and good, but that’s ultimately something I can find online, in any number of promotional photos, behind-the-scenes clips, or trailers. Stepping inside a physical space populated with actors, however, is inherently singular and unique.
Granted, Blade Runner 2049 was simply a walk-through activation. Despite my conversations with the mysterious woman, I never had a follow-up meeting in the marketplace, and I assume there was no actual renegade Nexus 8 to be found. It was all atmosphere. But it also became a reminder of the inherent promise of Comic-Con: it’s a place where fans can get as close as possible to the properties they love. And if something like the Blade Runner 2049 Experience lets them they actually step inside that property, even if for only a moment, that can be considered a success.
Photography by Bryan Bishop / The Verge