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, Blade Runner 2049 had to reach a high bar.
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 some viewers criticized it for being far too long and tedious.
Villeneuve knows about loneliness. His last film Arrival placed him in the loneliest position of all. His deft and unique handling of the sci-fi genre earned him a Best Director nomination from both BAFTA and the Oscars, raising the hopes of millions of Blade Runner fans, that after waiting 35 years, the sequel might live up to the original.
And it does.
Parched, burnt orange irradiated deserts, junkyard wastelands crawling with human scavengers, silos of child labourers, 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.
Blade Runner LAPD Officer KD6-3-7, K for short (Ryan Gosling ), is a character in existential crisis. A replicant or bio-engineered human, who 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 comes across as dull or hollow but Gosling plays the role of an artificial being struggling to contain emotions bubbling below the surface, with just the right required subtlety.
Reprising the role of an older Deckard , Harrison Ford does it with a familiarity its as if he played the role only yesterday and not 35 years ago. But the decades that have passed have seasoned Deckard, and they’ve also changed Ford, allowing him to bring something more to the hard boiled ex Blade Runner. Deckard can no longer mask his loneliness so convincingly. Loss has cracked the tough guys outer shell.
Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), is an insane entrepreneur prone to unmemorable, annoying speeches that incites everyone around him to laughter—except you don’t dare because he’d order your murder on the spot. Wallace has a dual function, to play the villain and to deliver the exposition. He provides insight into his own twisted motivations and the history and circumstances leading to a world post Tyrell corporation, where pretty much everyone’s a replicant. Wallace is crazy. A man who has far too much power and takes himself far too seriously. For the audience Wallace is a thoroughly unlikable villain yet he commands an unconditional loyalty from his replicants.
The film shines an uncomfortable light on women as commodities for consumption. The female cast while stunning to watch, is always problematic. They are idolized and given a measure of power but it’s defined by servitude to their male “owners”.
Joi (Ana de Armas), is 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 because he’s a robot? There’s a sex scene between them but its far more emotionally confusing than arousing as we tussle with the multiple layers of meaning that underpins their interaction.
Warning spoiler alert!
The love of K’s artificial life, the artificial Joi, is inevitably killed and there’s a very real sense of loss for K. Its a provocative moment – is it a valid sense of love and loss if 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.
Enter the villian’s sidekick Luv (Syliva Hoeks). She elevates the film into action every time she appears on screen giving the movie a literal kick forward. A bad ass replicant with deadly high kicks, her fight scenes are choreographed and executed with captivating perfection.. There’s a cold, casual, vicious brutality about her when she instructs a remote rocket launcher while simultaneously getting her nails done. Yet despite her abilities she’s 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.
Lieutenant Joshi LAPD (Robin Wright), is the representation of women in positions of power and the loneliness that accompanies it. As head of replicant extermination, her command inspires empathy and disdain. She’s weighted down and tired by her societal role of enforcing the law and ridding society of rogue replicants. She oversees the termination of replicants with a cold commitment 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), yet the question always lingers, will emotions override her and will she waver in her commitment? 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. But Joshi also happens to be the only female character that has no seen master.
Mariette (Mackenzie Davis), is sex on a stick, a replicant prostitute very much reminiscent of the Pris nexus 6 model from Blade Runner. In an interview with Refinery 29 Mackenzie summed up the film’s 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, it feels like something that’s very contemporary and something the movie is very self-aware about… ”
Yet the women of Blade Runner 2049 never feel like victims. They’re survivors doing what they can in a messed up world. 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.
A drawn out twisting reveal that risks losing focus.
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, only some 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 (kind of), and the introduction or tease to an even more sinister plot, if you choose to believe it. A scene between Wallace and Deckard hints at a part 3 movie although the director has denied it.
Themes revisited – what it means to have a soul and to live in slavery.
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 and ego-maniacal entrepreneurs.
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. Blade Runner 2049 is an uncomfortable look at the cost of technical perfection, loneliness.
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, hated and discussed film.
4.5 /5 Stars.