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July 20, 2017

‘Blade Runner 2049’ brings cyberpunk LA to San Diego Comic-Con


Roger Cheng / CNET

A mysterious man in a long overcoat, neon light-lined facemask and hat with rabbit ears stands ominously against a wall lined with a mixture of English and Chinese words. A woman in heavy gold makeup rushes over to me and asks if I saw the accident.

“If someone’s hurt, dial 995, OK?” she pleaded, before walking away through the haze-filled room.

Behind me is the crash site, a downed hover car (known as a “spinner”), with yellow police tape wrapped around it.

This is not the Los Angeles I know.

Indeed, this is the Los Angeles of the “Blade Runner” universe, a cyberpunk future that’s the setting of the upcoming film “Blade Runner 2049.” I’m actually in San Diego for the opening night of Comic-Con. The “Blade Runner 2049 Experience,” just a block away from the convention center, mixes virtual reality with an immaculately crafted set and committed actors to bring you into its dystopian world.

Comic-Con, which has grown over the years into a mecca for entertainment — particularly of the geek and blockbuster film variety — is all about immersing you in different worlds. The “Blade Runner 2049 Experience” goes above and beyond in creating a small, but fully fleshed slice of its universe. It’s the perfect way to tease the upcoming film, a sequel to the 1982 sci-fi classic, that brings back actor Harrison Ford and pairs him with Ryan Gosling.

“It looked legit,” said Kevin Bussey, a food and beverage manager based in San Diego, after going through the experience. “The whole ambience was awesome.”

The film opens on Oct. 6, and the cast will be holding a panel later this week at Comic-Con.

Virtual introduction

I first walk through a long hallway. It’s lined with concept art from the movie as a tease of what’s to come. After rounding the corner, I see several rows of what look like racing bucket seats.

Once in my seat, I put on a Gear VR headset and headphones, which transport me to a digital recreation of the driver’s seat of a spinner. The bucket seat is specifically tuned to move in way that convinces me the hover car is actually taking off just as it does in the virtual world.

As I cruise around the cityscape of 2049, I see giant ads for Coca-Cola and Atari, as well as Johnnie Walker (a sponsor of this event). Another digital ad features a tennis racket that whacks a giant digital tennis ball through my head.

The action heats up when I identify another spinner with a replicant — a humanlike android that the in-universe blade runners are supposed to track down. From there, I’m in hot pursuit, ultimately crashing into the replicant’s spinner and forcing it to the ground.

As far as VR experiences go, this one sold me on the world thanks to the perfect marriage of the seat and the imagery, much like an updated version of those old motion simulator rides. Take away those special seats, and the graphics are likely to sustain that immersive quality.

Welcome to Los Angeles 2049

The VR experience, as it turns out, was just the beginning. As we lifted our headsets, the wall in front of us rose and we confronted the downed spinner. Actors in 2049-style garb walked around, asking if we’d seen anything.

At one point, a flood of water rained down from part of the ceiling. I narrowly avoid getting soaked.

In the next section, Bibi’s Bar, I saw people order drinks from the bar at the White Dragon. In the middle of the room was a busted-up (but futuristic-looking) taxi.

Breaking the illusion a bit was a table with spring rolls and pork buns, but my stomach didn’t mind the brief return to reality.

A policeman suspiciously asked what I was doing as I filmed him for an Instagram post. A nearby guard had me stand in front of a scanner, which shone a light across my face to determine if I was a replicant. You’ll be relieved to know that it confirmed that I am, indeed, human.

Props from the film lined the wall on one side of the room, while mannequins adorned with futuristic clothing-lined window displays on the opposite end. All of this work has been put in to get the thousands of convention-goers who’ll flock through the exhibit jazzed about the film.

Cosplayers, or costume players, aren’t a unique sight at a comic book convention. But I have to admire the dedication of these actors.

Two women, one in a zebra-like fur coat and another sporting a large and fuzzy purple hat, approached my colleague Tania Gonzalez and me to strike up a conversation. They were so committed to staying in character that Gonzalez wasn’t entirely sure whether one was legitimately flirting with her.

But having women ignore me in favor of the cooler, more interesting person to my side? Some things don’t change no matter what universe I’m in.