Blade Runner 2049 has been defined as everything from breathtaking to boring, brilliant to pretentious and a masterpiece to super dull. The telegraph called it the most spectacular blockbuster of all time. Yet viewers have criticized it for being far too long and boring.
The stakes were phenomenally high for director Denis Villeneuve. Blade Runner Fans anticipated the film with bated breadth. To avoid an annihilating outrage and to be considered a worthy sequel, the film had to reach a high bar. There’s been plenty of glowing reviews so far along with a smattering of naysayers.
There’s a general consensus that the cinematography for Blade Runner 2049 is masterful for its environments. It has everything from parched, burnt orange irradiated deserts, to junkyard wastelands crawling with human scavengers, to silos of child labourers, to flying cars sweeping over neon cityscapes on endless rainy nights. Blade Runner 2049 is a slow burning art movie, entirely respectful to its predecessor and beautiful science-fiction that’s driven as much by image and mood as plot.
Ryan Gosling as K
Ryan Gosling does a terrific job in the lead role as Blade Runner LAPD Officer KD6-3-7 or K for short. He successfully navigates a character in existential crisis. As a replicant or bio-engineered human, he must suppress his emotions to perform his duties as a Blade Runner, to find and exterminate his own kind, rogue replicants. Done poorly a character that plays their cards so close to their chest could come across as dull or hollow but Gosling plays the role of an artificial being struggling with emotions below the surface with just the right required subtlety.
Harrison Ford reprises the role of an older Deckard. He does it with such a familiarity its as if he played the role only yesterday and not 35 years ago. He’s a hard-boiled ex Blade Runner, with a world-weary attitude.
Jared Leto’s plays Niander Wallace, an insane entrepreneur prone to unmemorable, annoying speeches . His role is largely exposition that provides insight into his twisted motivations and the history and circumstances leading to a world post Tyrell corporation, where pretty much everyone’s a replicant. There’s no doubt that Wallace is crazy. A man who has far too much power and takes himself far too seriously. Its tempting to laugh at a man like Wallace but he’ll order your murder on the spot ( he won’t do it himself unless you’re defenseless). Jared Leto does a good job at creating a thoroughly unlikable and wanky villain.
The female cast is stunning to watch but its always problematic as the film shines an uncomfortable light on women as commodities for consumption. They are idolized and given a measure of power but it’s defined by servitude to their male “owners”.
Ana de Armas plays Joi, K’s simulated girlfriend. On the one hand she’s a future-tech mail order bride, a holographic customizable A.I app. She’s little more than an objectification of K’s fantasy dream- girl. But the relationship between K and Joi is portrayed as profoundly sad and lonely, rather than exploitative. We never really forget Joi isn’t real and that K isn’t either. Perhaps K forbids himself from having a real-life relationship because he’s a replicant, without a soul and undeserving of real connection. Or perhaps he’s just emotionally immature. There’s a sex scene between them but its far more emotionally confusing then arousing as we tussle with the multiple layers of meaing that underpin this interaction.
Later in the film (warning spoiler alert), Joi is killed, and there’s a real sense of loss for K. Its a provocative moment – is it a valid sense of love and loss when neither being is sentient? With an approaching AI revolution its a question we may be faced with in the not too distant future. If you love your toy is it ever anything more than a toy? If two toys love each other is it even love? And how sentient do you have to be before emotions are valid? And what right does anyone have to judge whether another beings emotions are real? It all gets very complicated.
Syliva Hoeks plays the villian’s sidekick Luv. She elevates the film every time she appears on screen giving the movie a literal kick forward. She is a truly bad ass replicant. Her high kicks and fight scenes are choreographed and executed with perfection. You could quite happily watch her kung fu all day. There’s a cold, casual, vicious brutality about her when she’s instructing a remote rocket launcher while simultaneously getting her nails done. Yet despite her abilities shes compelled to serve and stand by the evil white guy. If this story was about Luv, I’d imagine she’s simply biding her time before she takes out her evil boss. She’s more than capable and is a much more interesting antagonist then Wallace.
Robin Wright plays Lieutenant Joshi LAPD, head of replicant extermination. There are moments that you could almost feel empathy for Joshi. She seems weighted down and tired by her societal role of enforcing the law. But you can’t get past the fact that she overseas the termination of replicants and she treats them as little more than tools. She’ll do her job despite the moral ambiguity, all for the greater good (humanities good, not the replicants good). Despite having an obvious fondness for K, she’d expire him without question. She never fails to remind him of his inferior position in the world and that she’s in charge. There’s a particularly uncomfortable scene where she comes on to him. Women in 2049 can also be creepy and exploitative bosses. She also happens to be the only female character that has no master.
Canadian actress Mackenzie Davis plays Mariette, a replicant sex worker very much reminiscent of the Pris nexus 6 model from Blade Runner. In an interview with Refinery 29 Mackenzie summed up the films portrayal of women as commodities “…its about having a thing that fulfills everything you want, but doesn’t talk back and can’t argue with you, but can be a loving supporting companion and also fulfill all your sexual needs feels like something that’s very contemporary and something the movie is very self-aware about… ” Yet these women never feel like victims but more like survivors doing what they can in a decaying society. Helen O’Hara of The Pool digs deeper into the representation of women in the movie and does a great job in pointing out some of the contradictions such as if sexual exploitation is so rampant in the future, where are all the men selling themselves? Perhaps they just sell themselves in a different way, because no one in this film feels free.
The story is a twisting reveal
There are moments when Blade Runner 2049 flounders in its complexity and the story risks losing focus. Its a twisting reveal that ultimately turns back in on itself to find minimal resolution. No one is set free, they merely survive and the world isn’t saved. There is a wrenching plot twist when K realizes things aren’t what they seem.
Most of the negative responses to Blade Runner 2049 have focused on the plot with one critic defining it as breathtakingly dull. The film is nearly twice the length of a feature film at 164 minutes, so if you need quick, complete payoffs and complete resolution this film is definitely not for you.
Despite the criticisms, its not a predictable plot by any means and die hard fans will find some resolution. You’ll get to find out what happened to Rachel and Deckard. You’ll also get an update on Deckards replicant status and the introduction or tease to an even more sinister plot, if you choose to believe it.
This isn’t a movie that puts you on the edge of your seat so much as making you sit back and bathe in its atmosphere, with a pervasive sense of unease and loneliness as you float or perhaps drown in its multiple layers. The film follows on from Blade Runners themes on what it means to have a soul and to live in slavery. Its about seeking identity and extends its predecessors theme of not only what it means to be human, but what it means to be male or female. And it reaches further into exposing the ugliness of excessive corporate power and class.
Its a thoughtful film that serves as a warning to challenges of the near future with technology such as Artificial Intelligence and what that means for our relationships in a completely digital age. If we’re already anxious about social isolation and superficial social media relations, and sexbots are becoming a very real thing, then what does the future hold? The giant holographic image of a beautiful women with K standing under her boobs, feels uncomfortable and despite the sexuality, it only heightens loneliness and isolation. As he stares into perfect, larger than life, yet completely blank eyes she points an admonishing finger at him “you’re lonely” she says. And that perhaps is the central theme to Blade Runner 2049.
One of Scifi’s primary jobs is to articulate our worries and fears about the future in the present day, a mission which Blade Runner 2049 achieves by speaking to us through stunning and imaginative compositions. Like all good Science fiction, the topics and questions it raises will make it a much loved and discussed film.
4.5 /5 Stars.