Blade Runner 2049
Confession time: I’m not a huge fan of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Maybe it’s the excessive length, maybe it’s the inevitable drudgery of the “Is he/Isn’t he a replicant?” subtext, maybe it’s how Harrison Ford is one of the least interesting characters in the actual story, maybe it’s that the film appears largely famous for its opening shot and a finale monologue, maybe it’s that I could never get into the book the film is based on. Either way, while I acknowledge the films visual acumen and its undoubted impact on the sci-fi genre, it isn’t a movie I have ever been fond of.
Enter Denis Villeneuve, Ryan Gosling and the recent swell of nostalgia in Hollywood. The early trailers for Blade Runner 2049 certainly looked impressive, but like others I was also struck by Gosling’s blank face, the feeling that we were seeing something that was essentially just an updated version of what came before, and that Harrison Ford is going for the Trinity of continuing on past glories decades after he first played the roles. I was going to give it a miss. But then came the critical avalanche of praise, fawning over every other part of the production. Suitably intrigued by the idea of a nostalgia-driven continuation done correctly, I gave 2049 a go, all two hours and 44 minutes of it. So, was it a suitable continuation of a largely acclaimed sci-fi classic? Or was it, instead, just another attempt to reinvigorate something that would be better left untouched?
In a dystopian future where the world is afflicted by over-population, crumbling eco-systems and nuclear fallout, artificial life is used for a variety of unpalatable but necessary jobs, such as “Blade Runners”, those tasked with tracking down and “retiring” rogue replicants. When one such LAPD member, “K” (Ryan Gosling) discovers the remains of a once-pregnant replicant, he is tasked with hunting down the unlikely child and destroying it before its existence can prompt a war between the biological and artificial. His investigation draws in megalomaniacal corporate owners (Jared Leto), holographic companions (Ana de Armas), replicant assassins (Sylvia Hoeks) and leads inevitably to a Blade Runner (Harrison Ford) who disappeared 30 years previously.
As a change of pace, I thought I would frame this review in line with my criticisms of the original, as outlined in the first paragraph above, to see if the continuation has truly managed to improve on the original.
Excessive length – Oh goodness me, no. 164 minutes of a grim dark future is pretty much too much, though I should be careful, I feel, to couch my words somewhat. 2049 isn’t a padded movie, that is, a film where the production team have just crammed in as much as they can for some nefarious reason. It is, simply, a patient film, from a cinematography and editing stand-point. Villeneuve, with Roger Deakins, are, on the basis of this, some of the most patient filmmakers around, and Sony were, against form, seemingly happy to let them at it. The end result is a film where every scene, every transition, every beat, is given a lot of time to breath. At times, and more frequently as we head past that two hour point, this gets needlessly excessive: whenever K goes anywhere, we have to see at least some bit of every part of his journey, most notably when he slowly descends into a boiler room from his past. And that’s connected to:
“Is he/Isn’t he a replicant?” drudgery – 2049 sidesteps this barely five minutes in by revealing openly that K is a replicant. Indeed, the reveal is done in a very clever way, as he unexpectedly holds his own in a vicious brawl with another replicant (an excellent Dave Bautista, making the absolute most of his limited screen-time). The drudgery comes from later plot points that the film is willing and able to leave dangling for a large amount of time, that aren’t especially difficult for the audience to puzzle out. Thus, 2049 becomes, for significant stretches, a game of waiting for the characters you are watching to reach a narrative point that you arrived at a half hour previously. There are game attempts to subvert such problems with a twist/double twist aspect to the central crux of the plot, but these only go so far, and in the end I didn’t find either especially satisfying. A mystery only works if you can keep your audience engaged, and over this kind of running time, it is especially hard. In the way that, say, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy erred a bit in presenting a mystery over a long time with excessive complication, 2049 errs in undue simplicity that any viewer should be able to figure out too quickly.
The main character not being interesting – Oh boy. Ryan Gosling’s character is an openly replicant cop, despised by many of his fellow officers, adding a sort of racial commentary element. He is trying to replicate humanity with a holographic girlfriend, in scenes that veer between achingly pathetic in their quest for an unattenable normality and twistedly erotic in later moments, probably the films best “sci-fi” element, and more in line with the source material’s tone than anything else really. And he deals with the simply reality, so omnipresent across sci-fi, that the artificial slave race are inevitably going to rebel, and that he may have a difficult choice to make very soon. K is undoubtedly a very interesting character. The problem is not the character. The problem is Gosling, and the larger cast.
This is not an actors movie. Everyone seems to be in a race to under-act each other, between the largely expressionless Gosling, the stern-faced Robin Wright, the intentionally vacant Jared Leto, the wearied Harrison Ford, and pretty much everyone bar de Armas, and her character is a computer program designed to be spunky. Gosling’s blank-facedness has a point – he is an artificial life-form after all – but other replicants have personalities, facial expressions, a bit of verve. Dave Bautista has less than five minutes here, and out-acts Gosling. The main characters lack of expression must be a deliberate choice, notwithstanding my own belief in Gosling’s over-ratedness, but it doesn’t fit what we are seeing at all. Even a slow (and it would be slow) transformation of a kind from the robot to a more human being would be appropriate, but that just doesn’t happen. K is a terminator, and the director/writer just sort of hope we’ll remember that he might have a soul in there somewhere.
Famous mostly for opening shots/closing monologues – This will be a bit lengthier. I suppose to clarify what I mean by this, is that Blade Runner was the kind of film that I felt nailed something significant in its opening and ending, and the two respective poles tend to stick in the memory. 2049 tries to do this at the start, and actually largely succeeds, its opening shots being a look at a future agricultural sector that has had to adapt to a global collapse in eco-systems: what appear at first from a distance to be segmented farms turn out to be pale looking buildings (wherein maggots are bred en masse for the purposes of “protein farming”), split up only occasionally by the monstrous solar panel structures. It might not have quite the impact of the hellish LA cityscape that Blade Runner opened with, but it is suitably mesmerizing. Shortly after, 2049’s look at LA focuses on its mass over-population, in its rows and rows and blocks and blocks of seemingly endless buildings, a Megacity of potentially billions, that ends abruptly where a massive wall keeps out a surgingly violent sea (presumably much higher than it should be owing to climate change).
But 2049 carries on with this theme, and it is on the visual side of things that the film succeeds most amazingly. It’s a beautiful looking movie, even if at times the locales – like Wallace’s set-piece arena, dubbed “Pond office” by some friends of mine – stretch the bounds of believability. The dirty slums of LA that give way to holographic entrancements, the familiar blending of advanced technology with basic necessities, the mass dumping ground of metal and machine that San Diego has become, an irradiated and lonely looking Las Vegas. A suitably sized cinema screen allows 2049 the scope to showcase these massive and intricate environments to the full.
Other visual tricks and cues prove their worth. Of note are things like the initial fight between K and Sapper Morton, wherein the power of the replicant is demonstrated by him slamming K repeatedly into a crumbling wall, only we see the effect from the other side. Joi’s various holographic depictions allow varying hues and colours to be brought into play, in a way that toys with different emotions. K has a tete-a-tete with another Blade Runner to the strains of a malfunctioning Vegas showtune display. And the female form is utilised repeatedly in different ways, both as a means of channelling the films central thesis of artificial motherhood and what it means, alongside aforementioned futuristic eroticism and as monuments to a time long past. Please don’t mistake me as excusing female nudity when there is none of the male variety, but it never felt excessive, exploitative or titillating in 2049 (while the film is undoubtedly driven by male characters, there are plenty of meaty female roles, at least): rather, it felt like someone was using it for a point.
But is the film over-reliant on the visual? Absolutely. Overall, it does feel like it is trying to capture the same kind of thing that Blade Runner did with its opening and closing, but it can’t quite pull it off to the same genre-defining extent. Aside from the deficiencies in acting – one feels that the cast must have felt rather lost in trying to project to the non-existent CGI environments around the, no matter how well they were later realized – the script isn’t all that great either, basic to the point of irrelevancy in large stretches, and maybe trying a bit too hard elsewhere. No “tears in rain” this time (the violent finale is largely absent wordplay) just Jared Leto’s mumbling about his God complex in his brief and largely frustrating scenes. It’s only when artificial life is talking to other artificial life that things pick up: Luv’s unsubtle insinuations to K, K’s whole twisted and evolving relationship with Joi, and when K inevitably meets up with one Rick Deckard.
I don’t want to make it feel as if the film is a write-off on every level other than the visual. As mentioned, the K character is a fascinating sci-fi story in his own right, and the way he reacts to the different interpretations of Joi is an effective sub-plot on its own. There are glimpses of interesting people elsewhere: Dave Bautista’s isolated colony replicant, Wright’s hard-nosed and depressive LAPD lieutenant, Mackenzie Davis’ the prostitute who has a growing obsession with K. The music is great, on a par with Vangelis’ initial score, while having enough scope for change.
I just only wish that the rest of the film had been able to excel as well, with some tighter narrative pacing, some freer use of the editing knife, and greater freedom for the actors to breath some life into their characters. Blade Runner 2049 is worth seeing, and I mean just that: it’s a film to be enjoyed predominantly for what there is to see, and to lesser extent what there is to hear. It’s an experience. But the potential depths of its sci-fi themes and portents are lost however, in the films under-reported flaws. Is it better than the first? I suppose, but for someone like me, that isn’t saying much. Partially recommended.
(All images are copyright of Warner Bros. Pictures and Sony Pictures Releasing).