I don’t know about you, but for me it’s hard to imagine a better sequel to BLADE RUNNER than BLADE RUNNER 2049, especially after seeing Ridley Scott’s two interesting but sloppy prequels to ALIEN. Here Scott acts as producer, wisely handing the reins over to Denis Villeneuve (PRISONERS, ENEMY, SICARIO, ARRIVAL), so we get the gorgeous visuals and elliptical philosophizing, but with a stronger narrative and more coherent ideas than Scott prefers these days. It couldn’t exist without building on the 1982 film’s world and style and feel, of course, so I’m not saying it’s better, but to me this detective lead and the mystery he’s solving are much more absorbing than the earlier version.
Not that it’s trying to be accessible. Doesn’t seem too long to me, but it’s 2 hours and 43 minutes, or one DAWN OF THE DEAD plus a sitcom including commercials plus 6 more minutes. It’s mostly slow and quiet, though Benjamin Wallfisch (IT) and Hans Zimmer (BROKEN ARROW)’s Vangelis-inspired score sometimes builds to a tempest, and a few great action beats spring up among its handfuls of violence. What excites me most, though, are the simple atmospheric touches, like the gentle burble of a pot of garlic boiling on the stove as fugitive replicant Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista, HOUSE OF THE RISING SUN) is ambushed by an intruder sitting quietly in the dark, confronting him calmly.
It’s K (Ryan Gosling, ONLY GOD FORGIVES), an LAPD detective who is (opening scene spoiler) himself a “skin job,” but working to track down all remaining replicants that aren’t programmed to die. His powers of observation on this case lead him to a shocking discovery that “breaks the world” according to his boss Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright, BEOWULF), so she assigns him to cover it up. To maintain order.
It does feel like we’re back in the world of BLADE RUNNER, and it has many retro touches: green computer text, giant Atari logos, micro-fiche-inspired data files. But it’s not the fetishistic nostalgia porn we’re so used to seeing now. Nods to the first film feel organic, not like “fan service.” This is not a movie I can imagine people whooing at. I can imagine them sighing like they’re waking up for the first time in the morning 4-5 times throughout the movie, but only because that’s what the guy in the row behind me did.
Anyway, the place has changed. Buildings are tall and covered in enormous holographic ads, but there has been an ecological catastrophe, a blackout and a nuclear explosion since last time. And the robot making Tyrell Corporation has gone out of business thanks to bad publicity over events like the ones in the first film. The Voight-Kampff test has become obsolete; identifying replicants is faster and easier. Blade Running seems a little more niche. It’s just tracking down serial numbers to cross off of a list. Some day the whole list will be black ink, and blade running won’t be a job. They’ll all have to transfer to air traffic or something.
There’s some fun new tech. I like the grappling kite that disables flying cars. I love his car’s sunroof that’s actually a detachable voice-commanded drone that does his crime scene photography for him. And the “baseline” test he has to take at headquarters to stay obedient. Not unrelated, the sound design on this movie is A+, reminding me of THX 1138 at certain points.
Villeneuve doesn’t seem interested in demonizing cities the way BLADE RUNNER’s influential dystopic metropolis did. The most depressing swaths of the world we see are industrial: the “protein farm” raising some sort of edible millipedes, the semi-legal “orphanage” where tiny kids tear apart electronic garbage for salvageable components. The majority of the movie takes place away from the menacing city, in day-lit, open spaces. Cinematographer Roger Deakins (THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE) shoots eerie dust and mist, sometimes with vivid color (usually yellow), leaving a completely different visual impression from what Jordan Cronenweth did in Scott’s film, while seeming in the same tradition.
The future isn’t all bad. There’s a fascinating subplot about K’s doting girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas, KNOCK KNOCK). She’s a hologram, and at first it seems like a pathetic sexist fantasy toy, an automated pretend housewife. Then he buys her a device to link into a network so she’s no longer chained to his ceiling projector, and we see the pure bliss on her face when she leaves the apartment for the first time, and feels rain on her arm for the first time (which in her case means it goes through her and her programming knows to animate simulated rain drops on her skin).
But as soon as we’ve bonded with her K gets a call from the lieutenant and this automatically puts Joi on hold – her image, her life, her digital soul frozen in place, put on pause until he’s off of work again. Crushing.
Like HER, it brings up interesting questions about the limits of the definition of love, and the importance of corporeal existence. Even though they’re both AI and it’s their personalities that make them “alive,” it seems tragic that he can only pantomime touching her. In another scene he interviews a witness who stays behind glass, and it seems like an echo of Joi – a conversation between two people who cannot touch or be close, only create the illusion when his reflection overlaps her image. (IMPLIED SPOILER: In retrospect, this also foreshadows a major plot twist.)
My relationship with the original BLADE RUNNER is complicated. As a young man I considered it one of the all time greats. In 2007, though, I saw a gorgeous presentation of The Final Cut at the Cinerama and came out colder than expected. I got alot of shit for the review I wrote when I realized I no longer liked Deckard – he’s dull and bad at his job, which is also immoral. Some of that’s intentional, and it also doesn’t void the movie’s towering achievements in design, sound, cinematography, mood, or what we now call “world building,” but for me it takes away from the story as the movie seems to abruptly slam on the brakes every time it switches from the captivating Pris and Roy to the dull-ass Deckard and Rachel.
Damn, that was ten years ago. I figured and hoped that the next viewing would change my mind back on that shit, but no such luck last month. Next time, I’ve decided, I should watch the theatrical cut. Not only is that the version I remember loving (and what are we but a collection of memories?), but it’s the version before Scott publicly said Deckard was a replicant. I like the question, but I hate his answer. Why the fuck would they make a replicant that didn’t have replicant strength, and was bad at being a detective, and assign it to be a detective that has to capture stronger replicants, and then trick it into thinking it’s human? To me it seems like one of those misguided quasi-mindblowing fan theories like claiming a character is actually a ghost in a movie where it would not be at all cool for that character to actually be a ghost. Nevertheless, the director’s and final cuts end on this unicorn thing that I only know from reading the internet means that he’s a replicant, which obviously is not the note I want it to go out on. Maybe the bullshit happy ending is for me.
So that’s where I’m coming from when I say 2049 captures so much of the BLADE RUNNER feel I love without giving me the same complaints. To me, the character of K is very compelling, which makes his place in the world as a blade runner more tragic. He’s sort of a backwards homicide detective, going around busting people for being alive. He’s interesting to watch because he does do very good detective work, and the tangents that become more interesting than the main story – like the whole section introducing Joi – are about him, not a departure from him like with Deckard in BLADE RUNNER.
As much as I’m grousing about Deckard (Harrison Ford, MORE AMERICAN GRAFFITI), his late appearance in this movie is strong. It takes place primarily in an abandoned Las Vegas casino – futuristic to us, ruins to them. A fight is punctuated by a broken hologram projector belching brief apparitions of Elvis, Marilyn Monroe and Liberace performing on stage, soul-less ancestors of Joi, I suppose. And a sign that Vegas never found new icons, not even Celine Dion or Carrot Top. But they are malfunctioning illusions of long ago memories, fitting company for cinema’s most famous futuristic-is-he-or-isn’t-he-a-robot-old-timey-detective.
By the way I’m very happy that they (SPOILER?) avoid defining whether Deckard is human or not, and introduce a way more important question for this generation to ponder: is his dog a replicant?
This movie is awesome stop reading and go see it but if you have already then you may now accompany me into THE HEAVY SPOILER ZONE, presented by Atari. I love the way the mystery messes with our expectations as people going to see a long-awaited sequel. At first, with the body found on a new character’s property, the connection to the first movie is not apparent. Later we realize it’s Rachel and then that she and Deckard somehow had a kid and the movie leads us to suspect that K is that kid, and tells us that he believes that as well, without ever coming right out and directly saying it.
As huge of an implication as that is, it doesn’t seem too shocking, because that’s the obvious way to do these late sequels and reboots and what not: the new guy is the son of the old guy. [examples: ROAD HOUSE 2 – Dalton’s son. TRON LEGACY – Flynn’s son. INDEPENDENCE DAY RESURGENCE – Will Smith’s character’s son. THE FORCE AWAKENS – Han and Leia’s son vs. TBD. E.T. 2 – E.T.’s son Jerry T.] So when that turns out not to be the case – K is practically called “You big silly!” for having thought it – it’s a welcome subversion of that type of story as well as all the “chosen one” stories. It says that we all see ourselves in the chosen one, but we’re not her. We’re just ourselves. For whatever that’s worth.
I love BLADE RUNNER 2049, you guys.
P.S. This whole cast is excellent – I don’t completely get why everybody hates Jared Leto so much, but if that’s your thing he’s only in like two scenes, so calm the fuck down – but I didn’t want to sign off without specifically acknowledging how great Dave Bautista and his character are. He does so much with a small role and although I’m glad it doesn’t seem like BLADE RUNNER will become just another sci-fi franchise property product opportunity I can’t lie, I would love to see the small-scale Sapper Morton prequel. It would be a western in the world of BLADE RUNNER, an UNFORGIVEN tale of the ex-military badass living quietly on a remote farm until he has to reluctantly unleash his badassness to help somebody who’s in trouble.
We’ll never get that, but as consolation we have a short film (one of three made to promote the film) where he’s in kind of an action hero situation. It’s not nearly at the movie’s level of production value so it’s a bit on the chintzy side, but it’s cool to see a little more about his character.
Bautista has distinguished himself so thoroughly in the last few years that even I tend to forget that he’s one of ours – a wrestler turned actor who I first noticed in a disreputable DTV action movie. One directed by David “The Demon” DeFalco, no less! Congratulations to Bautista for hitting the big time, deserving it, and using it well.
P.P.S. They really gotta do an alternate cut with lifeless Ryan Gosling voiceover and happy ending, right? I’d give it a shot.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.