Blade Runner 2049 Review
Blade Runner 2049 is a gorgeous film. Let’s start there.
Table the baby story for later, folks. Just take a look at it all. Drink it all in (hey now, don’t drink too much though — this is a 2h43m movie). The narrow glimpses of neon streets between the manicured skyscrapers. The dominating walls shielding the city from the ocean (fuck you nature, we’re California, the techno Babylon!). The smog layered on top of the remnants of art deco design from the era of the first movie.
The primary strength of Blade Runner was its futuristic spectacle, which somehow miraculously hasn’t worn thin across 30 years. That movie had atmosphere so thick it was almost tangible. And this movie somehow lives up to that, or at least, high enough so it’s not an embarrassing sidekick. Though it seems less concerned with chewing up the visual set pieces than turning a paranoid eye towards the MacGuffin-driven plot. That’s unfortunate, but certainly not a wasted effort altogether.
I don’t need to explain to this crowd how influential Blade Runner is, and thus, what a terrifying feat it is to pick up on its trail and attempt to make a new story truly matter. These were some big shoes to fill. So I appreciate how well this movie straddled the line of being a sequel while also being its own thing. I went into this whole endeavor pretty much grossed out by the idea, was somewhat softened by the early reviews being out-of-this-world, and about 10 minutes into the movie, I got it. I understood why that world deserved to be revisited.
There are so many small touches (and many not so small) to portray the quality of life for humanity spiraling downward, despite the luxury that’s available. Alongside 2049, 2019 looks like a Golden Age. Learning right from the jump that the Tyrell Corporation was bankrupt and replaced by Wallace Corp, something even bigger and more powerful, with an even tighter grip on humanity’s throat, was a nice cyberpunk touch. Though perhaps its my perception, but they kind of hedged their bets there. Tyrell made out to be a businessman/benevolent genius in the end, with Wallace being more of an aggressor, rabidly intent on exploiting an entire race to achieve his ends.
Speaking of which, I know he’s been a controversial actor recently (I still primarily associate him with My So-Called Life…) but I really loved Leto’s Wallace, who somehow embodies a melange of hipster-techie-zen master-Satan. Listening to him prattle was like hearing behind-the-scenes of a Google or Apple keynote, 30 years from now (“7 planets … WE SHOULD OWN THE STARS”). And then I read that the initial casting choice was David Bowie (FUCK!!!). Wallace’s on-screen real estate is brief, but his presence is felt in the architecture and the creeping lighting that’s in every Wallace Corp building shot. It was unclear to me how his master plan of reproductive-capable replicants would bring humanity to the stars (is it truly only a matter of worker production?), but fuck it, sounds great and terrifying. Also, I was so, SO bummed out we didn’t get a chance to see his futuristic, off-world torture tech (so demented that not even this rotten version of Earth can sustain it), though I knew it was a promise that couldn’t be delivered on.
If Wallace and his dense, layered diatribes are one end of the acting spectrum, then Gosling’s K are at the other. I was not a huge fan of his, but at least he wasn’t a barrier for the rest of the film, which was my fear. So weird that they left in that awkward, found-footage conversation between him and Robin Wright about Ryan Gosling lacking a soul, right?
K’s a vessel for the narrative, and a great punching bag (did Ford write into his contract that if he works with Gosling, he mandates a certain number of punches to the face?), but not much else. And that’s a bummer — but that was inarguably his role: He was supposed to be a second-class citizen who represses his feelings and simply obeys. I suppose they chose the right actor! He was rationed precisely one emotion, he used it well, and that’s all she wrote.
Instead, what I found interesting wasn’t in the script, but on the periphery: K’s station in the world, and what that said about replicants and blade runners. That placating little bow that K has to do in the presence of humans at the police department was a nice touch, and of course the intense, verbal assault of the [evolved] Voigt-Kampff test, which has a fascinating new function — we know who the replicants are now, so the test is to reinforce their servitude.
K is persecuted as a replicant within the force, and outside he’s persecuted as a blade runner. On that note, I couldn’t quite tell if he were treated that way on the outside because they knew he was a replicant or because he was a blade runner. My understanding is that replicant production had exploded, and thus his persecution would be a reaction to his job, not what he was. Though it’s interesting that the movie doesn’t spend much time on that predicament — really just the title exposition and a brief sales pitch scene from Wallace’s Ana.
I found most of Joi’s scenes to be indulgent and clichè. I’m honestly not sure what would be lost if she were removed completely. K being a sweet guy? They took Gibson’s idea for Idoru and assigned her a disposable role in the story. The only interesting angle for Joi for me was questioning where the line between her individual persona and herself as the product was drawn. It’s hard not to question whether an AI programmed to be a supportive, loving companion could truly have genuine feelings, or whether that was merely her only avenue for expression (K: “You don’t have to say that”). I suppose it’s an interesting question to consider, but I don’t think the film focuses enough on it to draw out an interesting answer for it.
Of course, the primary role that Joi plays is reinforcing K’s notion that he is the REAL BOY. However, the revelation that K wasn’t actually the “chosen one” seemed telegraphed a little too early on. The story seemed so headed in that direction by the halfway mark that it never felt solid to me. The problem was, once the truth was revealed, it’s too late in the film to do anything with the idea other than ruminate on the presumptive next steps in a human-replicant war, leaving a rather messily unresolved scenario. The ending is of course unconcerned with these practical problems, and instead, trades up for an emotional reunion, and one that in a thematic way, parallels Deckard and Rachel being rejoined to flee at the end of the first movie. I’ll take it.
Speaking of which, I really felt bad for Rachel’s actor, Sean Young, in the scenes where Wallace is holding up her character’s skull. They brought back Harrison Ford and Edward James Olmos (that was a delightful surprise), but for Sean Young, all they could spare were her remains. Oh but wait, they did bring her ba-*BLAM* Welp… Sorry Sean!
Ford’s Deckard didn’t bring much to the table for me, aside from a few well-written quips ([is the dog real?] “I dunno, why don’t you ask him?”). He didn’t really feel like Deckard to me. Of course, 30 years changes a man, particularly given what he’d been through in the interim. And I didn’t check, but I think it’s a pretty safe bet that his number of lines is trumped by the number of times he punches K in the face.
While we’re on the subject of this couple, I’ve seen a lot of confusion still about Deckard’s character and whether or not he’s a replicant. This is of course the continuation of a nerd debate that has raged for decades, across multiple cuts of the original film. But from my viewing of 2049, I didn’t have many questions left.
- Gaff says Deckard was “retired”.
- We learn that Deckard went on the run with the remaining old-era replicants, in fear of being retired.
- Fear of other blade runners hunting him is likely why he’s so prepared for combat when he encounters K.
- Wallace regards him as “a wonder” at his role in creating the first replicant child. He ponders whether Tyrell “designed” their coupling to begin with.
None of these new bits puts his replicant nature in question. Instead, they’re all evidence for it. All of this stacked on top of the old film’s recut leaving little to question, it doesn’t seem like much of a puzzle to me. Of course, Scott says he’s a replicant, Ford insists that he’s a human, and Villeneuve is mum. So I suppose we’re back to our own individual interpretations, despite all the additional material in this new movie.
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I saved a bit here to go over some … well, they aren’t plot holes exactly; they’re just rough parts in the story that bothered me. I wanted to share them here in case someone can guide me through, in case I missed something.
1) Security in that police department is a bit… light, right? Yes I understand that Wallace’s personal assistant likely has ways of cloaking her involvement, and deflecting any actual repercussions to murdering someone in a police department, but it just seemed a little unrealistically sloppy, given all the attention to detail elsewhere in the movie. That scene is there because it’s the first tip of the hat to Ana’s lethality. But also, maybe they just wanted to kill that dork in a really cool way? Even odds, I’d wager.
2) Was Wallace, Mr. I Own The Fucking Stars, really going to miss the fact that his nominally protected caravan was effortlessly dispatched and NOT track them down? Isn’t going straight to the one they’re trying to hide, just MAYBE not the brightest idea?
3) Are we seriously to believe that the entire story of Blade Runner was a setup so that Deckard and Rachel would ultimately fuck? That seems like an unreasonably convoluted retcon. If preserving Deckard for that act was so important to Tyrell, why was he given such a dangerous profession and ordered to track down lethal replicants? Seems a bit rash for a carefully laid out experiment.
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Around the halfway point, I wasn’t much concerned with the story anymore, though the script really wanted me to be. In that respect, it reminded me of something I liked about Blade Runner. It’s so thick with atmosphere and so light on narrative that it almost would work better as a silent film. I used to joke about recutting that movie so it would work as a silent film, but of course, never bothered.
This is all to say that what I appreciated so much about 2049 wasn’t where the story took us, but just letting us live in that world a little longer, seeing where it went (and where it was going), and them NOT shitting the bed in the process. That was so much more than I expected to get.
If I had to give it a number, I’d say 8/10, though it seems pretty silly, because if you’re still reading this, it means you’re into sci-fi, so you should just go fucking watch it.