Blade Runner 2049
(SPOILERS) It was a questionable thing for (Sir) Ridley Scott and Alcon to go ahead with a sequel to an all-time classic that wasn’t screaming for one, and whose very pervasive influence makes any attempt appear immediately defensive. How much credit they should get for pulling off the seemingly impossible is debatable, however. Ridders was certainly right to go to Hampton Fancher for (co-)screenplay duties, but the clincher was probably delegating directing to Dennis Villeneuve; the Ridley of today just couldn’t direct a slow-burn, immersive piece like his original, and would have turned Blade Runner 2049 into something serviceable but generic; would you want a sequel to Blade Runner that at best stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Prometheus or Alien: Covenant (and I ask as an apologist for both)? I don’t think Blade Runner 2049 surpasses the original, or even equals it, if that must be the yardstick, but it manages to be a worthy successor to an extent no one could have realistically expected.
If one were to find fault, it would be mainly in terms of premise (which I understand was Scott’s); one might argue the picture should have eschewed all ties to the first other than milieu, replicants and the thematic nature of what it means to be human. Forget Deckard and Rachael, or you’re stuck with generational legacies and all that entails. But, being as the decision was made to go that route, 2049 avoids many of the pitfalls of others who have dared tread in the footsteps of cherished originals. The choice to make a direct sequel inevitably means 2049 is tied into the mechanics of plot to a degree its predecessor, built largely on ambience, mood and atmosphere, simply wasn’t, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t take the same amount of pains to imbue those elements.
Indeed, what’s most striking here is that Villeneuve cues us into this being the same world yet is confident enough not to merely replicate it. To be too beholden to a recreation would have led to a pale imitation (Paul WS Anderson’s Blade Runner 2049). The strongest signifier that this is occupies the same universe isn’t the spinners, or the cityscapes, or Harrison Ford; it’s the pacing, allowing shots and scenes to linger on a world that moulders, the anti-modernistic visual style (the anti-current Ridley visual style). Which just happens to be Villeneuve’s approach anyway, making it a perfect marriage. As such, I don’t know how well general audiences will take to the film (boredom appears to be as common a response as adulation). Alcon previously invested significant sums in turkeys that deserved their ignominious fate (Transcendence, the Point Break remake), but this could very easily replicate the original’s tepid box office reception (or a steep fall-off from the first weekend). Which is its own badge of honour in a way, and suggests a Blade Runner 2065 may be some years off.
You can’t broach the subject of the atmosphere and tone of Blade Runner, now and then, without discussing the score. My own biggest bone of contention as news of the project came in was the realisation Vangelis wasn’t on board. That was softened somewhat by hearing how regular Villeneuve collaborator Jóhan Jóhannsson was reverential towards one of the all-time-great scores. Plus, I really liked the static-beat-up interpretation of Vangelis’ original by whoever put together the first trailer. Alas, though, it was then announced Jóhannsson was out and Hans Zimmer and one of his factory of protégées (Benjamin Wallfisch) were in. Don’t get me wrong, Zimmer has done some fine work (for Nolan and Guy Ritchie not least) amongst acres of highly generic output, but he’s about as far from Vangelis as it gets. The finished score definitely supports that. While he utilises cues from the original, this is very identifiably Zimmer, replete with thundering bass that shakes the LA cityscape to its foundations. It isn’t a score I’ll be listening to at home, which I’ve done with the Blade Runner OST innumerable times.
But, and it slightly pains me to say it, it does kind of fit what’s required (which is not to say I’m not hoping there’s a Composer’s Cut on a Blu-ray down the line, offering us Jóhannsson’s special signature). I’m not sure the blanket of melancholy permeating the original movie would work here (when we hear bona fide, unvarnished Vangelis in the final scene, it fits exactly that emotion for the first time). Our protagonist K (Ryan Gosling) doesn’t nurse dreams or regrets; he knows what he is (until he doesn’t) and that stark inescapability merits an austere, industrial-tinged score. It fits.
As “genuine” as K’s relationship is with Ana de Armas’ holographic Joi (itself a further dive into the rabbit hole of man-machine-robot-soul; instead of human and replicant interplay, we have a new subordinate tier of replicant and simulant), we aren’t able to support the illusion that it’s something else; K treats it as something else because he has nothing else (making it even sadder). Which isn’t to deny the resonance of Armas’ performance or Joi’s sacrifice, but acknowledge the limitations of her sentient vassal (the giant holographic billboard later beckoning K announces “Hey, Joe”, the model’s standard greeting but also the name she gave him, further underscoring the hopelessness of his connection; we have to wonder if she’s prescribed to tell all her purchasers that they’re special).
Villeneuve didn’t have final cut on the movie, but I suspect the cut itself is predominately his, but he was likely vetoed by Scott in choice of musician (Zimmer being one of the latter’s fave raves, having score six of his previous pictures). What’s most surprising is that the dubious narrative choices Sir Ridders tends to make (particularly of late – see his retconning of the Alien franchise) have failed to mar this, his other iconic now-franchise. Given how loudly he has incessantly shouted about Deckard being a replicant, even to the point of stating there’s no debate anymore and that 2049 straight-up confirms it, it’s surprising that Villeneuve leaves the waters just muddy enough to allow anyone who wants to see the reflection whichever which way to be satisfied.
There’s no doubting K is a replicant – it’s established in the opening scene – but Rick Deckard? When Niander Wallace (Jared Leto; it’s mystifying that some are criticising his performance, as he absolutely gets the heightened tone of this world, and makes an accordingly suitable successor to Tyrell) gives his take on the plan enacted by Tyrell, he outlines his belief that Rachel was designed for a singular purpose, and that Deckard too was designed with meeting Rachel in mind: that they should procreate. But then he pulls back, caveating his remark with “Whatever you are”. One might argue this is clumsy cop out (couldn’t Wallace simply take a DNA sample to check, if he’s in any doubt?). Alternatively, perhaps he’s just considerate of the delicate alchemy of Deckard’s delusion, that something more than his failed technical attempts is needed, something nebulous or soulful, something tantamount to self-belief, if one is to take an evolutionary leap. Ironically, if Scott thinks the movie’s making a blank statement, he has yet again presented a scenario where the alternative is more powerful thematically; that interspecies procreation further dissolves the distinction between gods (men) and men (replicants).
A few weeks back, I was entirely underwhelmed by Darren Aronofsky’s biblical (and environmental and whatever else you may wish to excuse it with) allegory mother!, so it’s pleasing to report Hampton Fancher (I don’t know how much credit to give Michael Green, but I will charitably suggest the worst parts of Alien: Covenant were all John Logan; on the other hand, perhaps the biblical analogies belong to Ridley, heavily embedded as they also are in the Alien prequels) weaves such a subtext much less obtusely into his characterisation of this sequel. Maybe he didn’t plan all along that Rachael would be a reference to Jacob’s wife, who was barren and who would parent a child who would achieve great standing in a foreign land (a land of humans), but it plays with so seamlessly that it’s easy to buy that he did.
Indeed, this kind of generational sequel plotline for is fraught with difficulties, and it’s to Fancher and Green’s credit that they almost entirely avoid them. The chosen one offspring (“Born, not made”) has been run with by both TRON: Legacy and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, but it’s in keeping with an original where the landscape is all-consuming yet the action is small, the most we get of a grand plan to overthrow the system comes in the invitation to K to be part of the uprising; seeing that would make this a different movie (or movie series), about exterior action rather than interior fulmination.
Even the scene we get suggests a troublesome gear shift into the more functional; as such, any third instalment would pay off by entirely undercutting the expectations of the insurrectionists. Certainly, Fancher otherwise works his deal in unexpected ways, like a better-tuned approach to The Godfather Part III, in which the next generation don’t reveal the expected traits. Ana (a hugely, sympathetic, low key Carla Juri) is an entirely imperfect superhuman, victim to the genetic vagaries of an experimental process. She’s no Roy Batty to get behind, and it might be interesting to see her response to and rejection of such a position being thrust upon her (and I don’t mean in a coming to realise she should respond to the summons at a later date sense).
More especially, Fancher plays in a near meta-manner with our expectations of the traditions – the Hollywood traditions – of a text such as this. More commonly, K, the hero, would be a special son, as he believes himself to be, and there’s a period in the film where there’s a struggle with the possibility of our worst fears of a narrative plughole being realised (it’s unclear who doctored the archives to obfuscate the trail, but some have misinterpreted the thread to indicate that K’s a clone of Ana).
Yet his special memory is really Ana’s memory; it’s implied she has been as liberal with her illegal implanting with other replicants too – although I become unclear which are which, as if Mariette recognises the memories she can’t be an earlier Nexus 8, and who exactly designed the Nexus 8, since Tyrell was dead at the time and Black Out 2022 fails to illuminate this, maybe it’s like Apple post-Steve Jobs – as Freysa (Hiam Abbass) appears to instantly recognise his delusion (the small comfort for K is that they sympathise with rather than mock his fantasy). This in itself course corrects from the rather stagnant obsession of Ridley with Deckard’s nature; doesn’t even the act of wanting to be real, of having that self-awareness, make one real? Indeed, if there’s an issue here, it’s that the “soul” is thrown around rather spuriously (by K, by Joshi) as if it’s a tangible distinguishing factor (I’m trying to recall if the word is even used in the original).
There are numerous visual cues in respect of memory as the vital source of “soulfulness”, of identity, weaving the thread the first film established. The carved horse – originally a unicorn with its horn shorn off? – takes up the mantle of Gaff’s origami; the sheep he folds while talking to K offers a cute double reference, to both the title of PKD’s source novel and K’s function, blindly following the instructions of his human masters. If there’s an element in this that didn’t work so well for me, it’s the cultural specificity. Such as Joi repeatedly referring to K’s wish to be a “real boy”. Like the holograms of Elvis, Marilyn and Sinatra, a Pinocchio reference (already more than covered in A.I.) feels a little too marked and pronounced, given that the original integrated elements without ever flagging them as being directly inherited from our world (product placement aside). Even Peter and the Wolf on K’s pager device might have been better as an original piece.
You might say the same about the Apple apps aspect of Joi, finding the picture moving on from the analogue-neon of Scott’s first movie. One can see echoes of Her in this, but mostly it represents a bleaker vision of human relationships than Scott extended (for all its forced seduction scene). Deckard took love, K can take only that he did the right thing, aspired to a righteous cause (and his life is predicated on rejection by all around him. Even his apartment is a cramped affair, with antagonistic graffiti daubed on his door and a hallway lined with scum and villainy. He’s the little man, not the super one). He loses that which was impermanent (as the holographic sex scene with Mackenzie Davis’ Mariette testifies), but he has only a nominal cause to replace it with, and not even that, since his situation appears terminal (unless this makes enough to guarantee a sequel; I thought the ending left him on the brink, but the wiki synopsis appears to confirm K’s death).
The technology aspect of the picture is interesting, in that it appears to allow the writers as much or as limited leeway as they want. Aside from the continued existence of defunct brands and the Soviet Union, the Internet as we know it does not appear to have been formulated, and more especially, the presence of a metaphorical cloud is only such that it doesn’t limit the plot. Joi’s hub can be read if accessed physically, but doesn’t instantly report back to the corporation that manufactured it, and replicant memories, it seems, cannot be accessed. There’s a degree of autonomy that suits a detective novel format and would be left rather deprived if everything everywhere fed into Wallace’s systems. As such, it makes for a satisfying alt-universe self-sacrifice by Joi that she tricks Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) into destroying her portable link and thus the information that could lead Wallace to Ana.
As with the original, not everything makes a whole lot of sense (in this regard, many reviews will cite the superiority of the original in all the ways it was initially criticised). The opening text is somewhat inelegant, and poses more questions than it answers. Such as, how Wallace’s new replicants, the Tyrell lot having been banned, are differentiated by being obedient to humans when they clearly aren’t. Not just in the case of Luv, who might be explained away as a special model (as Wallace’s own personal assistant), but if obedience was built in, K wouldn’t need to take the replicant behaviour test (which is a highly convincing exercise in sensory assault and distraction). And Joshi failing to ask K for proof that he killed Deckard and Rachael’s child is as unlikely as faking Deckard’s death in absentia of a body. And, if Deckard’s plan to keep Ana safe makes sense (certainly more so his being out of the picture than Luke hiding himself away in The Force Awakens), then Wallace’s interrogation equipment being conveniently off-world (requiring a spinner flight K can intercept) doesn’t especially.
Fancher peppers the picture with mostly successful references to future history and prior nods, even if Villeneuve’s visual aspect is far from the post-modern palimpsest Scott flourished. These include unobtrusive call backs - Instead of Methuselah Syndrome, we now have Galatians Syndrome, Deckard’s denseness about the owl in the first movie is replicated in K’s response to his dog – “Is he real?”: “Why don’t you ask him” – the multi-cultural LA appears to have experience a slight demographic shift. There’s also the new, such as the blackout that wiped records of everything, the reference to a dirty bomb hitting Las Vegas, and moments of curious import. K comes across an apiary in the wilderness. Are the bees replicants? Is it significant that they are thriving there just as the real deal has been (presumably) wiped out? A foretelling of the order to come?
There are numerous portents in the picture in this regard, with Lt Joshi (Robin Wright) telling K outright that the knowledge of replicant reproduction would lead to all-out war (except that the replicants already know, and those on Earth don’t appear rampant, albeit have a good thing going with basements). Wallace has a curiously hands-on (and scalpel-on) approach to his progeny, but is entirely dispassionate in observing their functionality (reproduction equals an effective slave labour force, ending his supply issues). Luv sees herself as entirely superior to humans (mocking Joshi as she kills her) but is wholly obedient to Wallace while shedding a tear for the new born he murders, which makes for something of a dichotomy. If that third one comes along, they should definitely avoid depicting this inevitable impending war; look how it turned out for Terminator.
It’s notable that some of the speculated-upon big concepts didn’t come to pass. Most suspected, rightly, was that this would be about Rachael and Deckard’s child, hidden away somewhere (right down to the holographic garden centre in the trailer). While it might have been an effective twist to also reveal that all Earth’s inhabitants are now replicants, it probably moves too far from the closeted, ground-level approach of the movie. As it is, even the location hopping, bright exteriors and spinner fights take a bit of getting used to – it’s the languor between that grounds them.
Villeneuve’s visuals, readily aided by cinematographer Roger Deakins, are both distinctive in their own right and resonant of the work of Scott and Jordan Cronenweth; there’s significantly more empty space in Villeneuve’s frames, making his world more stripped back and desolate. His inclusion of flashbacks to earlier moments (in the same picture) has a tendency to feel unnecessary and mistrusting of his audience’s acumen, however. The only other duff note that comes to mind is in the last temptation of Deckard, in which a de-aged Sean Young is wheeled on looking like a bad hologram version of her former self. The scene holds more sway than just a fan service call back (“Rachael had green eyes”), but because of the effects quality (leagues better than young Jeff in TRON: Legacy, insufficiently superior to Carrie in Rogue One) it lessens the impact; of course Deckard’s not going for it. She clearly isn’t real.
Gosling’s perfect casting in the lead, implacable when called for, brimming with bewildered emotion otherwise, and able to deliver the troubled look rather than searching for dialogue; it might be, if you’re looking for a continuation, that he’s too sympathetic a protagonist compared to Deckard’s rough houser. Ford has pretty much gone through his back catalogue of iconic roles now (unless John Book returns to Amish fields or Richard Kimble has to hotfoot it again) but in this one he finally nails it. Maybe that’s Villeneuve’s influence, but returning to the character doesn’t mar or sully Deckard (and consistently, he is still fairly useless. His best detective work occurred off screen). The fringes are perfectly chosen too, including the enlistment of David Bautista to offer an early guide to the narrative terrain, Barkhad Abdi as a street analyst and Tomas Lemarquis – the best Caliban – as one of Wallace’s employees. It's true that the picture is generally a cooler prospect than the original in terms of performance - but then, how many movies can boast prime Rutger Hauer? - and Villeneuve simply isn't the guy to embrace the luridly humorous in the way Scott did there, but that goes back to the importance of not trying to repeat oneself, or someone else.
Of course Blade Runner 2049 can’t match the original, and it will take time to percolate just how worthy a sequel it is, but right now it feels like it has more than earned its place in the select ranks of great ones. Thematically, it continues the main threads without ever feeling lazy or routine about it, and crucially, it knows that the spaces between the action are more important than the action itself. But in conclusion, we need a third instalment, not so we can follow the replicant revolution, but just so to find out what happens to Deckard’s dog.
Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.