Return to the world of man and replicants in Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049, sequel to the beloved 1982 science fiction classic. Lee and Lawrence review.
Each of us experiences a struggle, some more notably than others granted, to prevent the inner unrealised identity from being crushed or appropriated by the outer perceived personality promoted eagerly by the numerous hands or mouths or eyes that feel their position is to determine that very aspect of what amounts as ‘you’. We are both influenced and labelled by the same sources, and occasionally once those sources are gone (say, a parent dies or a partner leaves), we scramble desperately to recall or reclaim, to varying degrees of success, who we are.
Blade Runner 2049, despite its central character being openly ‘not human’, distances itself from its predecessor by being a decidedly more human story. Not that there wasn’t humanity in Blade Runner – Deckard’s entire stance is a man experiencing a crisis of conscience – but something more applicable to every person (rather than those simply in a position of influence) is a crisis of identity. Trying to find who we are and where we fit into the schemes of things – that’s the overarching conceit that drives K in his battles against the future ‘man’, man.
And it’s a solid conceit – well explored both on a surface narrative level and in the fleshier depths of the subtext. While K races to uncover the source of his memories and his troubled origins, unsure of what’s real and what isn’t, plagued by prejudice and sinister forces on all sides, all the while the landscape around him contorts to the pressures of the easily self-satisfied human mind, displacing the many bastions from which we can draw our identity.
Fractured statues in varying degrees of sexual congress, famous human sex icons, lost childhood relics, a collectively shared hologram lover, musings on the fluidity of gender – the sheer multitude of banners under which we can claim our identity impresses upon our protagonist while also reflecting the strength of each in our quest for self-actualisation, and it’s all subtly worked in to the point where, for most, it won’t distract at all from the straightforward sci-fi mystery that surrounds it.
The structure of the film itself is less commendable – a relatively featureless story that gives us all the beats we would expect in a pseudo-action movie, just slower; often for no real reason than to show off some gorgeous cinematography which, occasionally, finds purpose in reinforcing the climate our characters are living in but regularly act as padding agents for a world we never fully get acquainted with or learn to understand.
Other blips include perhaps a rather gratuitous sex scene and a prolonged strangulation scene – each stretching far past the purpose of either character relationship enhancing or potential commentary on our character’s mind-set to just sheer indulgence or, regretfully, desired catharsis. Women in this world get a raw deal in general, and for the most part there’s a reason (this is a dystopia after all), but it does sting that not a single woman is beholden to themselves – even the ones that are supposedly free from the system. One step forward for gender fluidity in subtext, one step back for falling hard on some violent womb metaphors; it’s the future, let’s not just take the low-hanging fruit if at all possible to avoid.
Still, blips are only blips; the vast majority of Blade Runner 2049 has been crafted with care and intention, delicately patting the head of its forbearer while decidedly becoming its own beast, and it’s altogether a more accessible and focussed beast – if at the loss of some of those trendsetting aesthetics that made the original so distinct. Fans likely won’t be too distracted (and will probably, inevitably, relish the idea that this film doesn’t take any unnecessary stances that changes the original) and newcomers who liked director Villeneuve’s previous step into science fiction, Arrival, will find themselves right at home. All-in-all another successful addition to our growing catalogue of modern films that wear sci-fi in order to delve into our currently understood human psyche.
Would you describe yourself more as an Alien person, or an Aliens person?
I ask not because it’ll affect whether or not you’ll like Blade Runner 2049; if this is a movie you’ve deliberately chosen to go see (rather than simply “went along” to see), you’re going to like it. I ask because the closer a given work of art reaches its ideal state, the more scrutinised it becomes, the more its fine crenulations become visible, and before you realise its those tiny latent preferences we all possess that can suddenly make all the difference.
If you haven’t seen either, what I mean is that Blade Runner 2049 is a sequel; it epitomises “The Sequel” so thoroughly that how you feel about what that entails will probably be the deciding factor on how you feel about this movie, because as far as the critic’s checklist of “Camerawork, Acting, Script,etc.” is concerned all those boxes have been firmly ticked.
The core of the matter is the increase of scope, and the subsequent risk to focus. Blade Runner (much like Alien) was a story of characters and their problems, with an underlayer of rich subtext, for those so inclined. Blade Runner 2049 expands greatly on its predecessor: more characters, more complexity, more ideas, but this process often results in a discernible loss in precision. 2049 strains its ciliary muscles as taut as it can, but is not quite able to retain that razor focus.
Visually it’s incredible; it’s Blade Runner directed by Denis Villeneuve. If you know much about either of those things you know what I mean, if you don’t you’re in for a treat. The urban sprawl is as dazzling as always (you be pleased to hear Atari is still alive and kicking in 2049 L.A.), but the film also provides tantalising glimpses outside the city and there’s enough variety in environments to keep the eyes fresh; just as well for a two hour and forty-minute-long film.
There’s no “Tears in Rain” analogue, which is equal parts disappointing and relieving; to make the attempt would be transparent and cloying, but it leaves the movie with no single stand-out moment, to point at, to say “That’s it, that’s the scene, that’s what you watch cinema for”. This is at its most noticeable with the soundtrack. Remarkable restraint is shown when making use of the familiar motifs, but what fills the void is imitation Vangelis-esque tones set to Zimmer-esque volume (that is to say, deafening). It does a job, one could even say if does it well, but there’ll be no longing for the CD on rainy nights.
Broadly speaking, the film dances a fine balance between remaining true to the original and striking out on its own, but at times it seems to fly just a little too close to the Sun, oversteps its bounds just a little. Not enough to be a problem, but enough to produce a small yet discernible feeling of bloat. It beats the alternative, the ever-present temptation to play it safe, but that’s not a binary value, and the sheer extent to which they almost had it perfect only exacerbates the sensation.
I’m being very hard on this film, harder than I normally would; but when you make a sequel to Blade Runner, you’re throwing down a gauntlet. Nitpicking aside, I’m delighted to say 2049 holds its own. Truth be told there was some moments that had me worried, ‘is this better than the original?’ In some regards yes, but while it makes improvements in some places it steps backwards in others, creating an impression of being as good but for different reasons. The Same, But Different, and is that not what a sequel should be?
(Note to Ed: Apparently there’s a short anime side story, which feels strangely appropriate. I tell you what, though. I cannot wait for the Final Cut in 25 years’ time that irons out all the kinks!)