Home > Reviews > BLADE RUNNER 2049 Review (spoilers)

BLADE RUNNER 2049 Review (spoilers)

My latest movie that I belatedly got from the library because I was too broke to see it in theaters was Blade Runner 2049, Dennis Villeneuve’s sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi-noir classic. And it’s the second movie in a row that I’m kind of glad I didn’t spend money on. While superficially impressive, it doesn’t have a lot of satisfying substance or really add up to much.

It’s rather odd to see a 2017 movie set in 2049 that’s a sequel to a 1982 movie set in 2019. What was futurism is now alternate history. But the film basically ignores this paradox and evolves the Blade Runner world 30 years in the future through a cursory text crawl at the beginning — a backstory that was explored in a series of online shorts before the film’s release (including a fairly impressive anime segment) but is barely relevant to the film itself. For all the text exposition about the Tyrell replicants being prohibited after a revolution and a resultant technological collapse, there’s little in the film’s 2049 setting that seems like anything other than a direct continuation of the original film’s status quo. Whatever was lost in that revolution and collapse is back in place by the time of the film — replicant slaves are even more ubiquitous and programmed not to rebel, the cyberpunk techno-dystopia looks much the same but with flashier (and more R-rated) holo-ads, despite the presence of wastelands beyond, and so on. So all that background worldbuilding seemed to serve the shorts more than it served the film itself.

Which leaves the film’s own story and characters to generate interest, and I’m afraid it doesn’t do that very well. The film is certainly good to watch — the visuals would have been worth seeing on the big screen, and the tiny text of the captions would’ve been easier to read there (I had to freeze and zoom to read them on my antique TV) — and at first, I liked its slow pace, which made it feel like a film from the era of its predecessor or even earlier (think 2001: A Space Odyssey). But after a while, I started to feel it was often too slow, too overindulgently edited like so many films today are, despite the retro feel it conveyed. It didn’t really need to be 2 hours and 44 minutes long.

But on to the characters. One thing that makes this film distinct is that most of its central characters are explicitly replicants or other AIs. Human characters (other than Rick Deckard, whose true nature is left as ambiguous by this film as it’s been for the past 35 years) are secondary and basically just there to perpetuate the power structure, and the story is centrally about replicants who either support or resist their enslavement. Ryan Gosling (an actor I remember being very bad as the lead in Young Hercules 20 years ago but who’s evidently improved since then) plays Officer K, a nameless replicant who works as a blade runner, assassinating older-model Tyrell replicants that were outlawed after the rebellion. (He’s a newer Wallace-brand replicant, of the supposedly safer kind made by Jared Leto’s Niander Wallace.) Now, this is a plot hole that I didn’t realize until after the film was over. Why are there any Tyrell replicants left? What Batty and the others were fighting for in the original film was life extension beyond their planned termination at 4-5 years of age. And they didn’t get it. So how are there still Tyrell models running around 30 years later? This wasn’t explained, as far as I could tell.

So anyway, K starts out loyal, but he comes upon the lovingly buried bones of a replicant who, according to the autopsy, died in childbirth. A replicant who could reproduce is a game-changer, and K’s lieutenant, inexplicably called “Madam” (Robin Wright), wants him to destroy all evidence of it, while Wallace sees replicant procreation as a holy grail he’s been trying and failing to invent, sending his head hench-replicant Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) to find the replicant child. K begins to suspect that he is the child, and goes on a search for the mother, who turns out to be Sean Young’s Rachel from the original film, and that puts him on the trail of Deckard, who doesn’t show up until a couple of hours into the movie. For a while, it seemed that the arc about K’s identity was playing out obviously and predictably, but that turned out to be a red herring, fortunately.

The thing is, none of this is quite as interesting as the conflict in the original film. Blade Runner worked because of the complexity and ambiguity of its characters. It was basically a story about a man gradually realizing he was the villain of the story and his victims were the ones on the right side. (Well, at least in the later edits. The original version’s narration alters the meaning of the climax, which is why I didn’t like the film until I saw a later cut and realized what it was really about.) Here, we have K going through a similar arc, going from a loyal blade runner to a resistor, but it’s basically for more personal reasons. And it’s less interesting as a story because there is no ambiguity to the antagonists. Like, at all. Niander Wallace is a cartoonishly evil eccentric who shows up for 2-3 scenes, a mercifully brief exposure to Leto’s tiresomely affected acting, but hardly very interesting from a character standpoint. (He’s also blind and uses creepy hovering “fish” drones to see, which perpetuates the unfortunate cinematic cliche of equating disability with evil.) And Luv is nothing but a one-note terminator, without anything remotely interesting about her personality or motivations. She’s just programmed to obey and that’s it. Which makes it disappointing when the film’s climax comes down to K fighting Luv over Deckard’s fate in a very small, claustrophobic setting, a single skimmer surrounded by a visual void. It’s an interesting directorial choice to bring the climax in to something so small and intimate after such vast, sprawling vistas, but climaxes that close in to tight character focus are successful when we actually give a damn about the characters, ideally on both sides. The film didn’t really succeed in creating that investment, so we just get a really long fight scene that feels extremely anticlimactic because it’s utterly devoid of any emotional weight or character relevance. Even Deckard doesn’t really get enough character development in the film to become much more than a Macguffin the other characters are fighting over. There’s not much connection between Deckard here and the person he was in the original. He’s just an old guy who has a dog. (When I first saw the rather wooly-looking dog in the shadows, I wondered, “Is that a sheep?”)

It doesn’t help that the other major female character in the film, Joi (Ana de Armas), is nothing but a sex hologram programmed to act like she’s in love with K. There are times when it seems that she and K have a real relationship, but it’s made clear to the audience before too long that Joi is simply a consumer product whose primary advertised feature is that she tells her owners what they want to hear. It’s also easy to guess, since she’s a Wallace product, that the Wallace people are using her projector unit that K carries around in his pocket as a tracker.  It might’ve been a little more interesting if it had turned out, as I expected it to, that Joi was an active spy for Wallace, tracking K’s every move and manipulating him into leading Luv to the child. Instead, it just turned out that they were passively tracking her, and there was a moment when it seemed that she had enough intelligence to want K to avoid tracking, but ultimately her story just fizzled out. I can’t even say she was fridged, since her destruction didn’t really motivate any particular action or decision on K’s part. There’s a bit where K sees a giant nude ad holo of Joi and seems to realize that she was just a toy telling him what he wanted to hear, but why didn’t he know that all along? Or did he know and just convince himself otherwise because he was so lonely? It isn’t really made clear. And the film could really have stood to devote more screen time to female characters who had actual agency and goals of their own, rather than devoting the bulk of its attention to a “character” who was literally nothing more than a nonsentient sex object created to pander to male fantasies. I gather that Villeneuve has said his intent was to comment on society’s objectification of women, but it’s not that much of a commentary if you just do the same thing yourself. And all that aside, it’s just hard to invest emotionally in a major character that is not actually a self-aware being. It’s not as if the other characters have a lot of depth to make up for it.

We do learn, rather late in the game, that there’s a replicant resistance whose primary characters are both female (the old Tyrell-model leader and the sex-worker replicant who gets in close to K), but neither of them gets as much screen time as Joi or Luv. And the resistance plot is just introduced and then doesn’t really go anywhere. Like Wallace’s unresolved quest for replicant procreation, it feels like a sequel hook that’s just left dangling.

I suppose the resistance leader scene does serve the purpose of revealing to K that he isn’t the child after all, that he just has one of the child’s memories, as most Wallace replicants do. And I guess that’s important. We were told at the start that Wallace replicants were programmed to be obedient slaves, incapable of rebellion. That’s why Wallace was permitted to make them after the prohibition of Tyrell replicants. For most of the film, we were led to think that K was able to resist because he was special, because he was the child of Deckard and Rachel and thus not Wallace-made after all. But it turned out that he was just an ordinary Wallace model — yet he was still able to resist his programming and defy his orders. Which means that all replicants are able to do the same. That is kind of a big deal, but it’s left pretty much implicit. I didn’t realize it until afterward. Although it’s the one thing I realized on further reflection that had a positive impact on my reaction to the film rather than a negative one.

Honestly, the whole Macguffin of replicants that can reproduce like humans — or rather, the premise that they’re this amazing rarity — seems implausible. Why is reproduction so hard for Wallace to emulate? If you can create something as incredibly complex as sentient thought, mere cell replication doesn’t seem that difficult in comparison. Other than that, though, if we just stipulate to the premise, I can see why it’s a big deal; for replicants, it means they don’t need human help to reproduce and can be free, while Wallace sees it as a way to expand the size of his slave force and accelerate his business empire’s spread across the stars (something only talked about and never shown — but is implied to have expanded far more than is plausible in just 30 years). But given what the film implies about replicants’ ability to resist, doesn’t that mean that Wallace is doomed to failure anyway? Not because of any hero’s actions, but because he mistakenly wants to give his own slaves the very power that would give them their independence from him? Even if he acted unopposed, he would still ultimately lose through his own actions (although he would kill Deckard and the child in the process). Which is another thing that undermines him as a villain. Ultimately, the main characters’ actions have little impact on anything except the personal. If anything, keeping the reproductive knowledge from Wallace just prolongs replicant enslavement.

All in all, then, Blade Runner 2049 is a sequel that does a reasonably effective job capturing and building on the visual style and feel of the original film and its world, but whose story doesn’t really carry much weight and whose characters are largely ciphers. It’s an impressive surface over weak substance, like far too many modern movies. By itself, it would’ve been an adequate and beautifully made cyber-noir thriller. But it falls well short of being a classic like its predecessor.

  1. Gavin Sheedy
    March 24, 2018 at 4:34 am

    You make some good points here. The lifespan of the Nexus 8s, the possibly self-destructive nature of Niander’s quest. But I took away a different take on the thrust of the movie.

    Like the first movie, there’s an amiguity as to the nature of the created populace. The key lies in the repeated mantra ”I know what´s real”.

    Joi is supposed to be a wish-fullfillment perfect partner, and perhaps she is; perhaps she presents as having a personality and drive because he wishes her too; or perhaps not. A programme that complex, perhaps they built her too well. She appears to have a personality when talking with others; she appears fearful when he is unconscious and threatened; she has a complex understanding of the situation.

    Luv is supposed to be unquestionably loyal and obedient to Niander, and loyal she is; but she understands that K might be lying because she can lie; she explicitly plans to lie to Niander; and she´s not simply loyal to him, she´s passionately bought into his dream. Why is she crying as the fresh replicant dies? Out of sympathy? Because she can´t give him his heart´s desire, a child? She explicitly wants to be the best. Her drives are subservient to his desires, but she has her own drive.

    And, of course, K, who ultimately follows his own agenda. Madam says she forgets what he is.

    And the child of the replicant(s), who is the most creative person in the film.

    Nobody acts like a robot. Perhaps they are all built too well. Perhaps building beings that complex is incompatible with building robots.

    They know what´s real. It´s a statement. I experience myself as real, therefore I am.

    That´s the question of the film. At least, that´s what I took away.

    It´s interesting, because it´s how we operate too. There are so many contradictory world views out there that are resolutely believed in, and absolutely contradict each other. Religion, politics, philosophy, economics.

    Excuse my overlong ramble, I really should revive my own blog rather than overburdening yours.

    • March 24, 2018 at 8:00 am

      The question isn’t about replicant sentience or emotion. That’s always been a given in Blade Runner. Indeed, that’s what’s so cruel about the society in this film — they deliberately give replicants memories and emotions and dreams because it makes them more contented slaves. The first movie established that there is no meaningful difference between humans and replicants. The second movie shows that society knows this… and keeps enslaving them anyway. It convinces itself that making them content and obedient is a better fix for the ethical problem than giving them freedom.

      For me, the question is simply the more universal one of whether a film succeeds in making its characters interesting and complex. The original film was full of multilayered, ambiguous characters, as a good noir should be. BR49’s characters have nowhere near enough complexity. Yes, Luv shows the odd emotion here and there, but the story doesn’t do anything with them. She and K don’t change each other or learn from each other the way Deckard and Batty did (or at least the way Deckard was changed by Batty’s actions); there’s just a chase and a fight and a death, a mechanistic formula like in a million other movies. And the most disappointingly one-note character is a human, Wallace, who’s a ludicrous caricature. Batty, Zora, and the others were compelling antagonists because they weren’t evil. You could understand their cause even if you deplored their methods. But Wallace is pure black-hat evil, and Luv is simply his instrument. They’re just not interesting characters, not compared to what the original offered.

      As for Joi, yes, she gives the appearance of sentience, but the holo-ads establish that she’s marketed specifically to be convincing and satisfying, to act in exactly the way the customer desires. So a customer who desires a fully realized person who loves him will get that. The reason I don’t find it convincing is that Joi never expressed a thought or desire that was about herself, or about anyone other than K. Everything she said and did was geared solely toward his happiness and safety. So it’s all consistent with what the Joi product was designed to do. It only proves that she’s a very well-made product, not that she has any real thought or will of her own. Granted, she did show some moments of curiosity when K was asleep, but that could just be part of her programmed behavior to seem convincing as a person with her own inner life. Or it could be a glimmer of awareness that just wasn’t followed up on. Even so, it’s hard to relate to a character who doesn’t clearly have any genuine thought or viewpoint, and giving so much screen time to such a character when the rest of the characters are already so superficially drawn doesn’t help the film.

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