It’s been a couple of months since I went to see Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 and I’ve been mulling over what to say about it ever since. I was ambivalent about the whole idea of a sequel to Ridley Scott’s hugely influential Blade Runner (1982), a movie which itself was greeted with ambivalence by audiences and critics. Before it became a recognized classic, the sheer overwhelming power of its design caused many to dismiss it as a mere exercise in overwrought style. The narrative and thematic richness of the film was so deeply embedded in its look that for many it wasn’t immediately apparent that this was one of the most complex and nuanced science fiction movies ever made. And given the inextricable ways in which content and style were woven together, how could a viable sequel be conceived? To simply extend (or repeat) the narrative elements would make for a thin experience; but to try to repeat Scott’s incredibly dense visual world-building would likely result in mere parody.
In the event, executive producer Scott and his numerous co-producers made a number of smart decisions, beginning with hiring the original film’s co-writer Hampton Fancher to come up with a viable story. The narrative of Blade Runner 2049 is a logical and reasonably intelligent extension of the original film. Thirty years after Deckard “retired” Roy Batty and his fellow Replicants and escaped the hellish city with Rachael, things have gotten worse on Earth. Much of the planet now seems like a barren wasteland with vast industrial “farms” enclosed in factory-like buildings sprawled across deserts, while displaced tribes of outlaws and the unemployed live in endless garbage-strewn wastelands beyond the city’s edge.
Although the original Tyrell Replicants have been terminated, a new biotech corporation ruled over by Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) has developed more advanced and “controllable” androids. Can you spell “hubris”? K (Ryan Gosling) is one of these, a servant of the state whose job as a Blade Runner is to continue hunting down any remnants of the old Nexus series who have survived underground. The film opens with him flying out into the wasteland to visit a “farm” where he confronts maintenance man Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista), a Replicant in hiding who provides an important clue before being retired after a vicious fight.
K, beginning to think for himself, becomes caught up in a quest by Wallace and his minions to resolve a mystery: what happened to Deckard and Rachael? And does their fate have something to offer his program to refine and improve Replicant biotechnology? The initial “mystery” element is pretty obvious quite early in the movie. It’s easy to deduce that Deckard and Rachael had a child. The question is, what happened to it? K’s investigation leads him through the various strata of this society, from Wallace’s corporate headquarters to the police bureaucracy to the ragged tribes of the outlands. A number of K’s memories take on significant meaning as he learns more (there are many hints that he himself may be the child). What he doesn’t realize until it’s too late is that he’s being used by sinister forces to find Deckard (Harrison Ford, looking much older and more grizzled), who now lives alone in the ruins of Las Vegas.
As in the original film, the central thread here focuses on a character gradually learning the truth about his own identity. The big question which has always hung over Blade Runner is whether Deckard himself is a Replicant – there are numerous clues which have convinced many viewers, and I’m inclined to believe it myself. In the new film, that question is re-complicated because Deckard has grown old and gray and wrinkled: do Replicants do that if they’re left alive long enough? And, really, is it likely that Tyrell would have equipped one of his creations with reproductive capabilities and then allowed it to live anonymously as a lowly cop? After all, the secret Wallace is after is how to instill his own Replicants with a reproductive capability; how could he have extended and improved Tyrell’s technology but somehow have missed that particular development?
So, the story of Blade Runner 2049 is a worthy extension of the original but with a few question marks hanging over it. The big question, though, is how it has been executed. As I’ve mentioned here before, I’m not a great fan of Denis Villeneuve’s work, which I generally find ponderous in its own sense of self-importance. He takes genre material and weighs it down to the point that it often becomes ridiculous (Prisoners) or offensive (Polytechnique). But I did enjoy Arrival, so perhaps he’s more at home in science fiction, a genre which invites the layering of metaphor and allegory onto what are often pulpy stories, the fantasy elements making the pretensions more digestible.
In this movie, his approach brings mixed results. He works hard to get away from memories of Scott’s dense and paradoxically colourful noir by evoking a desaturated and depopulated world. The street-level crowds of the original have thinned out and the giant animated billboards have been supplanted by rather dispiriting holographic ads which float among the buildings, already seeming outdated in their blatant use of sexualized models which seem to belong to 1950s pulp magazine covers rather than to the present increasingly self-aware culture which is turning against this kind of exploitative advertising and objectification of women.
Perhaps the most interesting element in the movie is K’s lone personal “relationship” with a holographic AI device named Joi (Ana de Armas) who “lives” in his apartment with him. More than K himself, this device seems to gain genuine self-awareness as the story progresses, its programmed emotions becoming genuine. But there’s still a queasy undercurrent of the dehumanizing effect of increasingly sophisticated sex dolls which promise men all the pleasure without the complications of a real woman’s independent personality. Even if Joi’s feelings become more “genuine” they’ve still been programmed to serve K’s emotional needs rather than her own.
But even with numerous interesting details and some impressive (if drab) visual world-building (shot by the great Roger Deakins), Villeneuve’s tendency towards ponderous pretension works against the film. There is none of the humour which runs through Scott’s original, and none of the pace. Although there’s less going on in this movie, it runs almost an hour longer than the original. And this just gives the viewer time to start wondering about things rather than being immersed in the flow of the story. Like why, after all the problems with Replicant rebellion thirty years before, is another corporation licensed to produce new lines of even more sophisticated Replicants? And why does anyone assume that these newer models won’t undergo the same kind of awakening as the earlier ones and pose the same kind of problems? The original Replicants were barred from Earth, used exclusively for off-world work considered too dangerous for humans, yet here the new ones exist openly – everyone knows that K is not human and while they may be prejudiced towards him, they don’t question his role amongst them.
And then there are the simple failures of imagination – the fact that K’s spinner seems to be wrecked a number of times, yet in the next scene is up and running again as if nothing had happened; the thinness of the characters – Gosling is his usual moody, impassive self, lacking the energy and charm of a young Harrison Ford; Robin Wright as his police boss has none of the sleazy energy of M. Emmet Walsh; Jared Leto is a mere cipher compared to the sly arrogance of Joe Turkel’s Tyrell. And nowhere in the entire 164-minutes is there anything with the stand-out power of Daryl Hannah’s Pris, Joanna Cassidy’s Zhora, Brion James’s Leon, William Sanderson’s J.F. Sebastian or Sean Young’s Rachael. As for a substitute for the towering presence of Rutger Hauer as Roy Batty, Sylvia Hoeks as Wallace’s henchwoman Luv seems to have stepped in from a generic Asian thriller, a cliched martial arts ass-kicker with no real presence.
I resisted writing about Blade Runner 2049 for a while partly just to see how it stayed with me. The original film, thirty-five years old now, has stuck with me vividly ever since the first time I saw it and it still draws me back to revisit that superbly realized alternate world; but within days of seeing Villeneuve’s follow-up on an IMAX screen, the details were already growing hazy. It’s an ambitious movie and it attempts to treat the genre seriously, but in the end it seems drab and under-imagined, not very memorable at all. But that said, it’s definitely a more worthy effort than Scott’s abysmal attempts to reignite the Alien franchise.