Blade Runner 2049

bladerunnerCan the Uncanny Valley ever be overcome? The line between a computer simulation or robot, and a real person seems like a great chasm today, but once we get closer and closer, will the line blur, or will we become hyper-sensitive to the minute differences? Will we ever need to have a debate over a “grown” human’s rights? Are they the same as a robot? A fleshy version of Commander Data? Can an automaton have a soul if it passes an emotional Turing Test? Is it different if it bleeds? Do tests even really mean anything when we’re looking for a soul? We could sit here and have ourselves a podcast’s worth of questions, but let’s talk about the movie instead. Is it a good movie?

Blade Runner officer “K” (Ryan Gosling) goes out to a protein farm outside Los Angeles and “retires” one of the old replicant models. The replicant was hiding a secret so powerful it might “end the world” as officer K’s superior, Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright) explains it. It is up to K to unravel the mystery.

This review contains SPOILERS

The original Blade Runner is a bit like Citizen Kane in that it influenced countless movies to come, but not everyone who has claimed to have seen it, has. Denis Villeneuve has doubtless seen it, however, and studied it down to its tiniest detail. The result is a stunning film that captivates and entertains. Although, like the original, it can sometimes be frustrating.

The classic dystopian future feels timeless now, and Villeneuve expands upon it effortlessly. The panoramas alone are worth the ticket price. As Officer K climbed a rubbish heap and we saw the endless fields of rusted steel and trash ruins behind him I had to pause and think about what an amazing job the visual team had done. Everything felt as raw and concrete as the original, if not more so.

There is one design element that I do have a problem with. Normally, I don’t really care about how many female speaking parts are in a film. But with so much of Blade Runner 2049 filled with sexualized advertisements I have to ask: do the women of this universe lack spending power, or are they all lesbians? Could they not put one single Calvin Kline model, somewhere? Lieutenant Joshi is clearly a powerful woman, who flirts with K, so where are the computer generated boyfriends? In a world where it is perfectly acceptable to use 50 ft tall naked women as advertisements, are the Mad Men of 2049 really stupid, or really sexist?

It’s a minor gripe, I know, but it was fun to write, so I’m leaving it in.

K is a fascinating character, an inverse of the original Blade Runner. Ryan Gosling has never really captured my attention, but here his stoic blank stare is really useful. But when it comes to leading characters, the original still wins. Why are we so fascinated by the quiet types these days? What saves K in my mind is his computer girlfriend, Joi (Ana de Armas). She injects life into every scene. Her death was surprisingly emotional for me.

That’s two minor gripes in a movie I’ve praised to high heaven. That’s the trouble with this movie (and the original). I can never decide how much I enjoyed it. Blade Runner 2049 is very clearly a beautifully made masterpiece of cinema. It has a plot that pulls you forward, it has stakes, it has good villains, and it is a worthy sequel to a much beloved classic. But, is this opinion coloured by nostalgia? Is the film made for new fans or old? Would it, or something like it, have existed if not for the original? A stupid question, you might well say, but it keeps itching at me, right under my skin.

Every shot and character feels like it is wearing a costume, like the director himself put on a Ridley Scott mask and dressed the original cast in new clothes. It is a very good ruse, almost perfect. As a casual fan of the original, one who hasn’t even seen it all in one go, I still felt compelled to compare everything to something it must be referencing. The wooden horse was this one’s paper unicorn, the crazy replicant lady was the crazy replicant lady, and on and on. Maybe in this age of remakes and reboots, we just can’t have nice things anymore. A reference is now akin to a laugh track in a bad sitcom: an invitation to roll your eyes. There is a fine line between universe building, homages, and references. We can debate that line till the sun goes down, but for me, I hit it when I spotted CGI Rachael’s 80s-shaped silhouette.

My evolving opinions on nostalgia aside, the film also misses a few thematic opportunities. The main crux of the film is “what makes a human?” The ability to procreate is the film’s answer. Deckard’s heartfelt moment at the end, and the fact that K gives his life for the idea of a replicant child, is enough of an answer. But is that the only answer? The last film explored the same question, but it doesn’t give easy answers. At the beginning 2049 seems to want to explore this question in a new direction: with AI. Joi is as much a part of that debate as the replicants, but instead of delving deep into those muddy waters we are given the simple out: save the child, start the revolution. Questions like “what would this revolution look like?” or “why is this the fact that will change everything, don’t animals procreate?” are never even hinted at. It’s not so much a missed opportunity as a plot hole. It allows the good guy and bad guy to have the same goal, which is interesting and convenient for the plot.

As usual I have written a review about a film I liked with a laundry list of complaints. In that way Blade Runner 2049 is a worthy sequel. I am sure I will watch it again and again, through numerous sittings.

Dice roll: 5

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