Blade Runner 2049: Short of Ideas

Mild spoilers ahead

The fate of Blade Runner 2049 has been interesting to follow since it was released in early October, preceded by a glowing critical consensus that declared this sequel a bonafide success. These opinions kind of really meant something in the current cultural atmosphere where studios have continually risked eroding the value of much-loved classics with cash-hunting sequels/prequels/spin-offs. Like over-masticated bubblegum that quickly loses its tang, the rewards have become lesser and lesser for an eager audience. But Blade Runner 2049 was thought to have bucked the trend significantly. No more sitting through the bum-numbingly tedious Prometheus or any of the preposterous Terminator films after T2 — here at last was a film that both respected the original and stood on its own as a work of cinema.

Ryan Gosling: Moody Future Detective. Image from here.

But soon after the hallowed word got out the disappointing box office figures brought things solidly back down to earth. Its weekend estimates were reportedly lowered by $10m for an opening weekend gross of approximately $32.7m. For comparison, that’s actually less than Alien: Covenant, a film which draws on the loyalty rather than the desire of its audience in order to wipe its face commercially. Consequently, a number of industry magazines have already (somewhat gleefully I feel) pronounced Blade Runner 2049 to be a box-office bomb. I’m actually not that interested in what kind of numbers the film does. Most people don’t really consider financial success to be an arbiter of artistic value. However, it is fascinating to watch a film that was so press-hyped fall flat after reaching the wider audience. And, to be honest, having seen the film in IMAX 3D I’ve joined the hordes of shoulder-shruggers in pronouncing: yeah it’s just not that good.

Harrison Ford & Sean Young in Blade Runner. Image from here.

First of all let me confess a few biases upfront. I am not a huge fan of the original Blade Runner and nor have I particularly enjoyed the films of Ridley Scott with the exception of Alien (which I think is a masterpiece). I can admit however that I watched Blade Runner rather late in life, ie. after I had seen scores of films and television shows which it had undoubtedly influenced. Once you’ve seen so many entertaining copies, the original can lose its lustre. Quite frankly, the same thing happened to me when I watched Ingmar Bergman’s Persona.

However, Blade Runner 2049 ignited a surprising amount of excitement given my casual indifference to the original. That was mostly in part due to Denis Villeneuve’s involvement as director. Basically I expected the cerebral workout of Arrival combined with the high-intensity visuals of Mad Max: Fury Road. In the end, as I trooped out the theatre, all I got was landscape shots, one good fight sequence, one pretty good plot twist and a bunch of recycled ideas masquerading as depth by virtue of the beautiful space into which they had been placed. If I had to watch one more second of Jared Leto blandly sermonising on a black body of water whilst shimmering golden rays light up his immaculately hirsuite head and chin I might have just eye-rolled myself out of the aisles.

Jared Leto as Niander Wallace in Blade Runner 2049. Image from here.

The thing about the film is that its story consists of two strands so desperately over-used in films of all genres, but particularly science fiction, that it never felt like the film was expressing anything approaching interesting, provocative or relevant. The first strand is, of course, the Frankenstein myth. An affliction of male sci-fi villains for decades now, this film has absolutely nothing to add to the idea that a young woman dreamed up nearly 200 years ago. Jared Leto plays Niander Wallace, a kind of human sequel to Dr. Tyrell. He is blind and berobed and specialises in armchair philosophy. And that’s pretty much it. The film neither implicitly nor explicitly investigates or critiques his corporation’s ambitions. He is just an empty symbol, an easy-stand in for an idea that is sorely lacking — an armchair bloody character.

The second strand is the Messiah complex. The idea of ‘The One’ who saves the species is, again, just boring now, no? I do have to give credit to the film though for subverting this idea somewhat (that’s the aforementioned good twist) but it still doesn’t explore the surrounding themes such as political/social revolution, enslavement or sacrifice nor indeed does it adequately deal with the consequences of this plot twist which are, in theory, really very interesting. Between those two poles there is quite a lot of talk about memory but, for my money, the film does not deepen existing cinematic tropes — relying in fact on exactly the same question that plagued the original to provide the film with narrative depth. It’s not really enough to just ask the question: what is real and what is implanted? Seriously, Ridley Scott’s been there and done that.

I ain’t no hologram girl. Image from here.

Finally, I wanted to think about how to address criticisms of misogyny directed towards the film. There have been numerous articles on this topic from Charlotte Gush in i-d magazine and Anna Smith in The Guardian. Helen Lewis offers a more subtle thought process in her excellent article for the New Statesman but there is a nagging sense of doubt about the quality of its gender representation. In addition, there are hardly any actors of colour in the film except Wood Harris and Barkhad Abdi who have a combined total of about ten lines between them and an only slighter larger cameo for British actor Lennie James. There is one woman of colour in the film who, if my memory serves me well, plays a prostitute with no lines. She is however made to wear a revealing outfit that is eye-watering even when compared to her female co-workers, one of whom even has a tiny bit of agency in the plot.

Robin Wright as Lt. Joshi. Image from here.

Before I hear the deafening cries of those who presume I don’t know the difference between representational misogyny and misogyny itself, well, I know the difference between presentation and perpetuation and Blade Runner 2049 sits dully and somewhat uncomfortably in the latter camp. To the people who think that the film’s misogyny is an undeniable part of the world in which it is set, I agree and I’m fine with that.

What I’m not so fine with is a film that presents that misogyny as a fait accompli without any kind of criticism of its consequences for the characters, particularly the female ones. But unfortunately Villeneuve and the screenwriters, Hampton Fancher and Michael Green, are not at all interested in that kind of exploration. For them, a masculine rage at not being able to create human life is more interesting than the sexual enslavement of female androids or the emotional life of an under-pressure Lieutenant in the LAPD. Why even have female characters in the first place if they’re not going to be given the kind of rich aims or interior lives of Niander Wallace or Ryan’s Gosling’s android cop, K? I mean honestly I’d rather see a great movie with an all-male cast than have female characters be nothing more than narrative props in mediocre ones.

I’m not angry. I’m just disappointed.

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