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Do humans dream of organic sheep?  Don’t they just count them?

by Thom Yee

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Blade Runner 2049 images courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

So let’s get one thing straight:  The original Blade Runner is a quality movie.

It’s an interesting movie, a distinct movie, and, more than either of those things, a revered movie.  There are some circles for which a Blade Runner sequel is like a dream even, the fruition of decades of speculation and the ultimate expression of the growth of the movie from a once misunderstood quandary to now a cultural icon.  It’s a visual spectacle with a haunting score and a chilling vision of where it looked like we were going.  In preparation for the release of Blade Runner 2049, I, finally and for the first time, watched the original Blade Runner (and read Grace’s now-classic review of course), only days before I would see its sequel.

I fell asleep twice trying to make it through.

The original Blade Runner is the kind of movie I know I would have been bored with if I had seen it when I’d first started hearing of it, back in my early teenage.  That was an age when my favourite movies were titles like Tango & Cash and Best of the Best 2, movies that weren’t exactly nuanced or sophisticated (not that I don’t still, to this day, love both), and I’m certain that if I had seen Blade Runner at that time I would’ve been looking for something more action oriented, more fast and cool, and certainly something more straightforward.  Like maybe something with blades.  Or something with more running.  Basically I would’ve been bored and impatiently wondering when Deckard was going to get to the futuristic, 2019-era fireworks factory.  Having watched it now that I’m older, now that I’ve had the benefit of about two decades to see many more movies and spent the last five years of my life blogging about movies?  I’m not sure I liked it much better than I would have back then.

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Blade Runner is a visually stunning piece even to this day, one that benefits immensely from its mind-bending score and themes that speak to the nature of humanity, and while all of that’s good and equally present in all of its forms — original theatrical release, Director’s Cut, Final Cut — that’s about all it has to offer.  It’s a technical masterpiece that affords its audience enough headspace to breathe in, but I never felt very frightened or excited or otherwise engaged by it because nothing much happens.  It’s a future-set neo-noir mystery that lays out everything, EVERYTHING right as it begins:  What the Replicants are, why they’re bad, where they are, who created them, who the good guy is, and why it’s wrong that he loves who he loves because, duh, even if we weren’t later told Rachael’s a Replicant, she moves, acts, and talks like a robot from the first moment we meet her!  The story goes exactly where I thought it was going and precisely no further, less far in fact, only really scratching at the surface of its aboutness in its final scenes, like tears in the rain.

Blade Runner is great looking but it’s boring af (AF!), not because it’s too heady or theme heavy but because nothing happens and everything is obvious.  So it’s a good thing (a f*cking good thing!) that, of all possible directors, it’s Denis Villeneuve who’s handling its sequel.

What’s it about?

It is the year 2049. The formerly treacherous Nexus 6 Replicants have been refined as Nexus 8s and become a part of society after a blackout decades earlier wiped out much of the computer records of the previous world.  Blade runners are still necessary, however, to hunt down aberrant Replicants, K (Ryan Gosling) being one of the blade runners most effective at retiring them.  Then K finds out some sh*t that upends everything and he needs former blade runner Rick Deckard’s (Harrison Ford) help because sequel.

Especially from the perspective of our current year, I think one of the most curious things about Blade Runner is how many things it got wrong.  First released in 1982, the original Blade Runner presented a vision of the then-far future year of 2019 where a mish-mashed “street” language called Cityspeak mixed equal parts of several different languages, advertisements dominated city skylines, the atmosphere was perpetually dark and raining, and artificial life had the capacity to be “at least equal in intelligence” to humans, and while there are elements of all of those things happening right now, be they shifts and convergences of cultural norms, ads dominating our news feeds, the ongoing effects of climate change, or AI taking over more and more parts of our lives, Blade Runner was also a world where people lived in off-world colonies, still used pay phones, and seemed to have easy access to flying cars.  With 2019 less than two years away now, what makes these inconsistencies with our real world so fascinating is that they change the purpose of the first Blade Runner into something else entirely with the sequel.  Rather than presenting us with a chilling vision of the future as the original attempted to, Blade Runner 2049 is, instead, more firmly entrenched as a fantasy; it’s not our world or where we’re headed, and that’s something that, I think, allows it to take more chances in its storytelling.

blade-runner-2049-letoOf course, the first thought that comes to most people’s minds when it comes to the idea of a Blade Runner sequel is will we finally get an answer to whether or not Deckard, the original’s protagonist, is a Replicant, and there are [at least] two curious things about that question as well.  First, the idea of Deckard being a Replicant is a construct supported only in the later cuts of the film, which inserted key scenes to suggest that idea specifically, and I honestly think if you take in the Blade Runner narrative as a whole, besides those clumsy inserts, there’s no real reason to believe that Deckard is a Replicant.  Because if he was, it wouldn’t add anything to the story, it would actually make it worse.  Second, when you break Blade Runner all the way down to its core, its main question deals with what it is that makes us human at all, and in that sense, beyond plot specifics, the answer to that main question really renders the question of “Is Deckard a Replicant?” kind of pointless.  As interested and caught up in the world and plot specifics of Blade Runner as you may or may not be, it’s seeing the movie’s main question that’s key to really getting what’s going on in these movies, and I think it’s that type of understanding that director Denis Villeneuve, a truly visionary modern director with a so-far spotless directorial record, seems to have with Blade Runner 2049.

Is it any good?

So let’s get one thing straight:  Blade Runner 2049 is a quality movie.  And it’s much better than the original Blade Runner.  In almost every way that matters.

Blade Runner 2049 is a dense movie, particularly in comparison to the original Blade Runner, a much fuller, heavier movie, thick almost, and by the end of it you really feel its full weight as thoughts of it will linger with you for days and [probably] weeks and [maybe] years after watching it.  Despite that, and again in comparison to the original, it’s also strangely empty in terms of people or a real sense of crowding, something that doesn’t directly make sense in terms of its future setting, but lends this world almost a fairytale lightness, like the story is so much more about the people involved than the rest of the rabble, a kind of post-post-apocalyptic fable.blade-runner-2049-fairytale.jpg

At the same time, there’s a grittiness to the world, the same type of lived-in, mechanical sensibility that made the original Star Wars movies stand out against the comparative sterility of their later prequels.  There’s a scene where we meet a girl whose creativity makes her one of the best at building the artificial memories that Replicants have (so that they remain compliant) that’s highly immersive in showing us how easy it is to create digital environments, but manipulated by an entirely analog device, and it’s something that stuck with me specifically because of that contrast.  The tactility of the world makes it feel real but what’s happening is still removed enough from reality that it doesn’t feel weighed down, and as we learn more about who K is, what motivates him, and what’s become of the Blade Runner world since we last saw it, the storytelling is smart enough to let us interpret all the details, small and large, for ourselves, the story unfolding equally through significant events and clever little moments.

It’s important to note that though the Nexus 8 Replicants have become integrated into the modern culture of 2049, they’re far from accepted and are allowed to exist more on the level of the “took-our-jobs” foreign workers of today, and that’s something you’re repeatedly reminded of in K’s interactions and in what becomes the central plot of the movie.  And that’s about as much as I can tell you about 2049’s plot, even if I’d like to describe more, as the experience of the movie hinges on discovering it at the pace and in the time the movie sets.  Blade Runner 2049 provides an enormous amount of space to explore its themes, possibly too much at times when you consider its running time (dangerously close to three hours and likely over when accounting for all the previews you’ll have to sit through), and if you’re looking for something heady, artful, and intricate that invites the type of reflection and conversation the original is known for, I think 2049 actually does a much better job of all of those things.blade-runner-2049-action.jpg

Unlike the original, there’s some very decent action in the movie as well.  You certainly shouldn’t mistake Blade Runner 2049 for an action movie, but it does contain a pretty big fight right in its very first scene and a few others later that should more than scratch that particular itch.  In terms of romance, unlike what we saw between Deckard and Rachael, the love story between K and Joi is strangely effective as well, weird and layered, and sort of answering the next generation of the questions posed by the Deckard-Rachael relationship, only this one works, isn’t at all rape-y, and actually feels really, really sweet, but in an absurdly empty way.  It’s possible to interpret K and Joi’s relationship as true love breaking free of our social conventions and most firmly held beliefs or the complete opposite and exactly and precisely a one-sided relationship that only represents what one of the two needs in their relationship, and all the clues are there to be seen and interpreted throughout the movie rather than held entirely in one scene inserted only into later cuts of the movie that adds nothing other than the suggestion itself.

Of course, with Denis Villeneuve in place as director and celebrated cinematographer Roger Deakins onboard, it’s probably no surprise that Blade Runner 2049 is visually stunning, upholding the legacy of the original while exploring many more settings, but what was surprising to me is how effective the visuals were in creating subtext that allows the movie to fire off more of the synapses in my brain than probably anything else I’ve seen this year.  Personally I usually resist storytelling devices like symbolism for their usual painful obviousness, but here, the images are evocative and irresistible, making you consider what this movie’s creators may be saying about parts of this world that are never even touched on in the actual plot but constantly being felt as the various subdivisions of man stratify the people of this world, man, Replicant, machine, or something else entirely, all of whom seem more trapped in this world than living in it as something less or more human, something less or more able or deserving, something less or more allowed to be a part or separate.blade-runner-2049-cinematography.jpg

It’s just too bad, then, that there’s another story building, simmering, and eventually coming to a boil in the movie’s background, because unlike everything I’ve just laid out and all of that technical and emotional brilliance, where the greater world of men and Replicants is growing to is painfully obvious.  Again, as with the A story’s plot with K and Joi and how that links up with Deckard and Rachael, I don’t want to spoil what’s happening with the man-v-Replicant B plot, but in comparison it’s tame and expected and overdone to the point of eye rolling.  If you watched the trailer I’ve embedded above and observed the deliberately stilted dialogue of Jared Leto’s character opining on his own ability to create Replicants as limited followed immediately by his assistant shedding a tear like I did, with a shiver of pretension travelling up your spine, that’s Blade Runner 2049 at its worst.  Along with moments of thrilling profoundness, there are definitely moments in the movie that will strike you as pretentious, and that tendency, though not quite overpowering, makes the movie as a whole a little bit too much to take at times, especially when they never really follow up on the line itself, “Every civilization was built off the back of a disposable workforce,” with anything to support it in story.

So should I see it?

I don’t think I was exactly being subtle with my borderline disdain for the original Blade Runner in the preamble of this review [above], but don’t get me wrong, I understand why people like the original Blade Runner and I don’t hate it.  What’s more, if you loved the original for the elegance of its stark storytelling, there’s a chance you might hate this sequel and I wouldn’t hold that against you.  If you think, however, that the original is grossly overrated because of its emptiness but held potential (like I do), I think you’ll enjoy Blade Runner 2049, because it, 30 years later in story time and 35 years later in real, finally fulfills the original’s promise.  You really have to be in the mood for it though.blade-runner-2049-replicants.jpg

Blade Runner 2049 is a monster of a movie, in its running time and in its contents, one that runs the gamut from intriguing to affecting to exciting to overwrought to pretentious, but, overall, much more of the former three than the latter two.  It’s a masterpiece, flawed to be sure, but, importantly, it’s flaws are those of a group of creators committed to telling a deep, meaningful story rather than those of a group of executives trying to sell a big, broad movie.  It’s not cheap, it doesn’t feel undercooked, it’s extremely thought through, and doesn’t at all seem studio-driven, and I think there are three basic ways to react to it.  One is that it finally breaks through to the possibilities of the Blade Runner concept.  That’s me.  Another is that it goes too far and, in so doing, loses what it is that made the original special.  And I get that.  The last, though, comes from a point of dismissal, from someone just itching to spout out the usual “worst movie ever” line.  If you’re that type of person, then you should stay far away.  From the movie and from me.

Thom’s Blade Runner 2049 final score

4.5

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On the Edge

  • What was in that pot?
  • I’d assume they were sticking with the “Japanese take over the world” thing with the adverts, but it was weird for me seeing a Sony logo being advertised rather than, like, a Samsung or LG one.
  • No spoilers, but Deckard isn’t a Replicant. I’m now more sure of it than ever.  Though, unlike many of you, I’ve only been seriously thinking about that possibility for the last two weeks.
  • If you haven’t seen them, the various prequels online actually do add quite a bit for some of this movie’s underserved characters and moments. I’ll go ahead and post them here:

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