At the beginning of the year, I said I wasn’t going to review any sequels (except superhero-related ones). Well, I already broke that rule with War for the Planet of the Apes, and I’m about to break it again, because I can’t not talk about this movie.
Blade Runner 2049
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Writers: Hampton Fancher and Michael Green
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Ana de Armas
Music by: Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer
If you’ve seen the original Blade Runner, you know the setup. (If you haven’t seen the original Blade Runner, I’d highly recommend watching it before the sequel.) Thirty more years into the alternate future imagined there, Los Angeles is just as polluted, overcrowded, and full of the incredibly lifelike androids known as replicants. Ryan Gosling plays a blade runner named K, whose job description is the same as Deckard’s in the first movie: hunt down and kill–erm, excuse me, “retire”–rogue replicants. His job is a little easier, though, because only a few long-lived older replicants are still willing to rebel against their human masters. The newer models, the movie’s opening text tells us, are programmed to be more obedient. But during a run-of-the-mill investigation, K uncovers a secret that leads to a much bigger mystery, and ultimately causes him to question his own identity.
I am a fan of the original Blade Runner–up to a point. When I first watched the Final Cut (there are, like, five different versions of the movie, but that’s the only one I’ve seen), I fell in love with its bleak yet beautiful vision of the future, its neo-noir atmosphere, and its haunting soundtrack. It’s the movie that got me hooked on cyberpunk. But I felt the story left a lot to be desired. I didn’t care about any of the characters (not even Harrison Ford’s–and I love Harrison Ford), and the plot was a pretty basic detective story that, while entertaining, didn’t really seem to warrant all the philosophising and faux symbolism piled on top of it.
So I’m pleased to say that 2049 is better.First of all, as gorgeous as the first movie was, the sequel blows it away in terms of cinematography. With its rich colours, its desolate city landscapes and its shiny futuristic tech, it’s easily one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen. Every shot feels like a work of art all by itself. And while the soundtrack isn’t quite as imaginative as the original, it still has plenty of lovely, synth-heavy melodies to add to the atmosphere.
But more importantly, this movie has what the original lacked: a heart. Unlike his predecessor, K is a very sympathetic character despite his morally questionable job. He’s a calm, stoic guy who seems to accept his role as a small cog in the big machine that preserves what passes for “order” in his society, but as the movie goes on, we find out that a part of him longs for a greater purpose in his life. In a world where human beings can be manufactured as easily as toilet seats (and get about the same amount of respect), K wants to be special, to feel that his life has meaning. It’s a desire most of us can relate to. And K’s not alone in this movie’s universe. His girlfriend, Joi, is also looking for more substance in her life, although her motives are a bit of a puzzle. Even the villains want to make their world a less artificial place–for their own twisted purposes, of course. Even Deckard, when he shows up this time around, lets his gruff attitude slip often enough to reveal that he, too, longs for a genuine relationship with someone else. As one character says, “We’re all looking out for something real.” Between the excellent acting and the greatly improved story, I ended up caring deeply about most of the people in this movie–human, replicant and other. The original Blade Runner made me think, which is good; but this one made me feel.
You don’t have to be a film expert to tell this movie is a masterpiece of visual storytelling. But, like its predecessor, it’s a flawed masterpiece. A lot of people will probably balk at its length, which is close to three hours. I grew up on The Lord of the Rings extended editions and marathons of BBC miniseries, though, so the length really didn’t bother me. It’s somewhat slow-paced for a big blockbuster, but that’s because it needs to be in order to fully develop its characters and themes. And it has plenty of fist fights and explosions for those patient enough to wait for them. That being said, there are a couple of scenes I could have done without–mainly those involving Jared Leto as one of the main villains. Something about the way he talks just makes it hard for me to take the guy seriously. He came off a bit too much like a pop star trying to be “edgy,” rather than the evil genius he was supposed to be.
Speaking of scenes I could have done without…I did not go into this movie with high expectations regarding its representation of women. After all, in the original Blade Runner, the only female characters were literal sex objects, and the “romance” that drove much of the plot was questionably consensual at best. 2049 is a bit better in that area–in fact, it arguably has more plot-relevant female characters than male ones. But it also has a giant hologram of a naked woman strutting through L.A. as an advertisement for a virtual girlfriend who is “Everything You Want to See” and “Everything You Want to Hear.” So…there’s that.
To be fair, I’m pretty sure imagery like that (which occurs frequently throughout the film) is meant to highlight the shallowness and debauchery of this dystopian society, with its tendency to treat living, thinking beings like disposable objects. But here’s the thing about working in a visual medium: you can’t criticise the objectification of women and parade CGI-manipulated images of naked women through your movie at the same time. That’s contributing to the problem, not solving it. And while it may not be surprising in a Blade Runner sequel, it is pretty disappointing coming from the director behind a wonderful female-driven sci-fi film like Arrival.
But just because I disagree with some of the execution, that doesn’t mean 2049 has nothing to say worth listening to. Quite the contrary.
Many essays could be written–and will be, no doubt–about the many implications of this movie’s premise on issues like racism, classism, the ethics of A.I. and the mysteries of reproduction, just to name a few prominent themes. There’s no doubt that, despite the flying cars and highly advanced robots, the Blade Runner universe is bleak and miserable in ways that sometimes feel uncomfortably familiar. The climate’s a wreck, whole cities have been turned into literal trash heaps or nuclear wastes, and a large section of the population is treated as sub-human slave labour…but at least those omnipresent hologram ads are still there to distract us with Coke, Sony products, and virtual girlfriends. ‘Murica?
But for me, the heart of this story is in K’s search for identity and purpose. He lives in a world so artificial it’s difficult to tell whether anything is real–even the characters’ own memories–and one of his main goals throughout the movie is to find out how much of his own life is genuine. And while he does get answers by the end of the film, it’s still up to him to decide how those answers will affect his identity. 2049, like its predecessor, spends a lot of time exploring what it means to be human, and it takes a much more definitive stance on the subject by the end. Without giving too much away, I think I can reveal one message I took away from this movie: you don’t have to be “special” in order to make a difference in the world. You just have to do the right thing.
There’s a lot more I could say, but to avoid spoilers and to give my typing fingers a rest, I’ll stop there. This is a movie that sticks in the brain, one that demands multiple viewings to fully unpack all its themes and character arcs. It may be bombing at the box office right now, just like its predecessor (you couldn’t ask for a more faithful sequel, honestly), but I have a feeling people will be talking about Blade Runner 2049 for many years to come.
And did I mention how pretty it is? ‘Cause it’s really pretty.