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Cinema/TV, Film Notes

Film review – Blade Runner 2049

My notes on the Blade Runner sequel.

One reason Blade Runner wasn’t a commercial success on its first release in 1982 is that it was just too far ahead of its time in terms of in-depth, immersive dystopian world-building.  We weren’t ready for what Ridley Scott had wrought, even if it almost instantly seeped into pop culture and was being imitated by adverts for financial services within months.  Another reason it didn’t click with audiences who preferred Alien, Star Wars or ET was that it never quite managed – in any of its variant cuts – to tell its story engagingly.  It’s powerful and emotional stuff, shot through with a great many ideas – some even taken from source author Philip K. Dick, though the film misses so much of the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? that there ought to have been a proper adaptation before anyone greenlit a Blade Runner sequel – and endlessly rewatchable.  But, like its replicants, it can’t fit in by passing an empathy test.  Scott has been picking at the scab with re-edits ever since, though he’s stayed away from this follow-up while devoting himself to add-ons to Alien.

 

The Blade Runner 2049 creative team is led by Denis Villeneuve, coming off the cerebral science fiction film Arrival, and screenwriters Hampton Fincher (whose draft of Blade Runner was reworked by David Peoples) and Michael Green (whose seesaw credits include Green Lantern and Logan, Alien Covenant and the Murder on the Orient Express reboot).  Harrison Ford is back – as are a couple of other alumni, at least one in virtual replicant form – as a now-aged, and as-near-as-can-be-proved-without-anyone-actually-administering-a-Voigt-Kampff-Test not-a-robot Rick Deckard, while a new generation of blade runners and replicants are incarnated by puppy-eyed Ryan Gosling and a range of interesting, offbeat casting choices plus Jared Leto as a global saviour tech tycoon villain who’s a less substantial character than several holograms.  If anyone gets Man of the Match it’s cinematographer Roger Deakins, who – on the strength of his work here – could probably make a long-delayed sequel to Masters of the Universe or Krull into a must-see movie.  On IMAX, this is probably the most immersively gorgeous movie you’ll see all year – and I’m tempted to go again next week just for the look, though I found the story banal and the character business maddeningly unengaging.  I’d advise you stop reading here and come back after you’ve seen the film … because there are things we have to talk about which you might not want to know going in.  And, yes, though I think there are major problems with the movie, you absolutely have to see it.

 

To fill the spoiler warning gap, here’s a trailer

 

And here’s a message from Mitch Benn

 

Here are some covers for Do Androids Dream … ?

Here’s another nice still …

 

So …

 

It’s thirty years after the events of Blade Runner, and another untidy clutch of captions establish that the Tyrell Corporation is gone and the new world-running gazillionaire and replicant manufacturer is robot-eyed guru-in-a-suit Niander Wallace (Leto).  There are still blade runners retiring replicants – and code-numbered K (Gosling), who calls himself Joe, is on the job.  Is K a Dick reference, Joe K a Kafka reference or JoK a joke?  That’s a lot of layering, but it’s not amusing or particularly clever – a signal failing of this script, which gets stretched out to two and three-quarter hours by playing very slowly and with a lot of pauses.  In his department, K is sneered at for being a skin-job, and spends his downtime with a holo-girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas, one of the Knock Knock psychos) programmed to make him feel less lonely.  The abiding sins of contemporary American cinema are well in evidence in yet another paean to male self-pity – shot through with daddy issues, as usual.  It would only be just if fan theories arose to argue that K is a human being … or Villeneuve decided to reissue the film with a voice-over and cut the wooden horse flashbacks.  Robin Wright is K’s boss, and we get new model replicants in Mariette (Mackenzie Davis), who channels a bit of Daryl Hannah as a politicised pleasure model, and Wallace’s assistant Luv (Sylvia Hoeks – Dutch like Rutger Hauer), a killbot in a sharp suit whose human sadism as much as K’s soulfulness ought to betoken an evolution of robotics.  To recap, male robots yearn to be human/humane, die beautifully and for noble causes, and are worth an audience’s emotional investment – female robots are hookers, eye candy, support staff or wicked widgets and repeatedly shown to be disposable as they pour naked covered in goo from plastic bags or get decommissioned with quick headshots.  The mcguffin is a callback to the finale of Blade Runner, but oddly beside the point as everyone is searching for the offspring of human (or is he?) Deckard (Harrison Ford) and near-her-sell-by-date (or is she?) Rachael (Sean Young) and K is stuck with implanted memories that raise the strong possibility of Gosling going the route taken by Shia LaBeouf or Adam Driver in the last two Welcome Back to the Franchise Harrison Ford movies.

 

The 2019 of Blade Runner was an overpopulated, media-blitzed future … but the 2049 seen here owes more to Dick’s vision of abandoned urban spaces.  Though there’s some crowd and clutter in the Los Angeles scenes, much of the film has K visiting vast empty spaces – a protein farm, Las Vegas, city records offices, Wallace HQ, science labs – which turn out to have one or two occupants, and be stuttering reminders of the way things used to be.  There are trivia lists online about the many companies and products featured in Scott’s future which went out of business or were discontinued in the real world – a prominent PanAm ad insists that this isn’t just a sequel to a 1982 film but takes place in a timeline that diverged from ours in the 1980s.  There’s talk of a societal blackout after the fall of Tyrell that accounts for the lack of an internet – one of the developments Blade Runner didn’t foresee – or apparently any 21st century pop culture in this 2049.  The hologhosts of Elvis, Sinatra and Marilyn pop in and out of Vegas, and the retro-noir look of 2019 hasn’t much changed – though flying cars are sleeker, giant holowomen more naked and the rain sometimes leaves off so it can snow prettily.  K glumly follows clues like a roborat in a maze – like Deckard, he’s a dupe and a side issue in the film he’s supposedly toplining – and a now-grizzled Deckard (Ford in far and away the best of his revived franchise character performances) shows up with a quote from Treasure Island that’s the most memorable line in a script that could do with on-set Rutger Hauer rewrites to punch it up.  It’s not an action movie, but it is full of fights, chases, stunts and coups (an unexpected variant on the replicant-through-a-wall bit from the climax of BR) – and an impressive tussle in the rain on a tilted landing platform as the tide froths in which begs the question of why anyone would manufacture replicants which can drown.  Somehow, it’s all more impressive than exciting … just as the family business is solemn soap rather than engaging drama.

 

Perhaps the failures of empathy are the point, just as the rise of androids renders humanity obsolete.  Blade Runner 2049 isn’t a revival or a reboot, but a replicant.  A work of astonishing craft which aspires to a soul that simply can’t be manufactured.

 

 

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