Blade Runner 2049: a brief reaction
Blade Runner 2049 is a very good film, although it would have benefited from more threatening villains.
I finally saw Blade Runner 2049, and some people have asked (knowing what a huge fan of the original I am) what I thought. Here’s a cleaned-up and expanded version of what I wrote to my friend Will.
Three caveats up front. First, I’ve only seen it once, so this is an initial impression only. Second, while BR2049 is a direct sequel, it’s also a very different film from BR2019. It’s not exactly an apples/oranges challenge, but it feels that way in spots. Third, I am not a reviewer, so this isn’t a review. It’s a reflection from what you’d probably call a thoughtful, critically minded fan.
I’ll begin by saying that, by most measures, BR2049 is an excellent film. It will hopefully earn some recognition come awards season, and I look forward to seeing it again. Probably multiple times.
Technically, of course, 2049 is just stunning. I’d probably sum up all the individual remarks I could make by simply saying that director Denis Villeneuve has seamlessly rendered a complex near-future dystopia that manages to be stylistically contemporary, technologically and culturally plausible, energetic and forward thinking without compromising necessary continuity with the original film (which is 35 years old). This is no small feat.
Let me offer a couple notes on things that weren’t awesome.
One technical bitch. Like damned near everything being made these days, no real concern is given to clarity of dialogue. (I don’t know that The Wire invented this technique, but they damned sure perfected it, to the point where I gave up on the series after two episodes. I just had no idea what people were saying.) Natural sound and background hum render much of what is said in BR2049 nigh-on unintelligible. I appreciate that we live in a world of audial static and the difficulty of culling signal from noise is an inherent confound in the contemporary condition, so I get the desire to signify the murk. Still, we know we’re watching a film – we get the artifice, we know we’re willingly suspending disbelief, etc. – so I don’t think you’d be compromising the integrity of the imagined world overmuch by mixing the voices a bit more to the front.
Then there’s 2049‘s greatest flaw: the relative flatness of the bad guys. When I sit and concentrate on the nuts and bolts of what happened and what was said, it’s clear enough that lead antagonist Niander Wallace is motivated by a wholly reasonable – in context – agenda, and he demonstrates his evilness in a number of ways, none more stark than his gutting of the new replicant model. It’s clear that him winning would be bad for the world. So on paper, then, all the boxes on the villain worksheet are appropriately checked.
But that’s about it. Wallace doesn’t scare us. He doesn’t challenge. He doesn’t infuse the proceedings with any particular menace or dread. He’s a pretty, meh stand-in for the sort of genuine threat to the common good a movie of this import deserves (and needs) and is unengaging even by accepted genre flick standards (literary stories are about character development, while genre stories worry mostly about plot).
And his sidekick, Luv? There’s nothing about the character that much transcends “generic enforcer.”
As a result, there really isn’t much tension as the climax unfolds. The bad guys have been so underdeveloped we’re not really able to imagine them triumphing.
Compare these two with the seething ambivalence of Roy and Pris and the charismatic Dr. Frankenstein swagger of Dr. Tyrell in 2019 and you quickly realize that the foils in the original inspired more empathy and revulsion than the bogeys here.
Meanwhile, the protagonists make us care. Deckard is the Deckard we remember, only now his story has been leavened by tragedy and three long decades in the desert, as it were. K/Joe is wonderfully understated – we can sense the wrestling match beneath the calm exterior as he seeks to understand what he is and how he might somehow be more.
Even Sapper Morton, the replicant we meet in the opening, manages to affect us more in a few brief minutes than Wallace and Luv.
Thematically, the primary difference between 2049 and 2019 lies in how they work different sides of the brain. 2049 is more intellectual and the machine evolution issues addressed are intensely compelling. Not to say that the original didn’t raise all sorts of important issues with respect to machine actualization, but what made it a masterpiece had more to do with its emotional richness.
2049 attacks the machine/emotional question, as well, but the effect is nuanced and utterly distinct. K, being a replicant, isn’t programmed for romance, exactly. Like the replicants in 2019 he wants more life, except that for him the issue isn’t more years, but more … humanity. He seeks it via a deeper union with the holo, Joi. The three-way with Mariette is a desperate sort of Pinocchio moment, as two constructs try to end-run the reality of what they are in a quest for the most human form of connection.
Since Villeneuve is casting the spotlight directly on the Pinocchio story, it feels as though he’s subjecting the philosophical issues to greater scrutiny than what we saw with the various relationships in 2019, which played out in that film’s utterly romantic afterdark. In a sense, the original allowed us to feel whereas the sequel makes us think more critically about essentially the same issues.
The upshot: 2049 is a more thoughtful, more intellectually demanding film than the original, but it lacks the emotional pop. The love story at the core of the plot (which turned out to be a lot bigger deal than we even imagined, as well as laying to rest once and for all 35 years of speculation about Deckard’s origins) was the engine driving 2019. The dark, doomed romantic noir insisted on emotional engagement with the complexities of the narrative, including an undeniable empathy for the murderous replicants. Deckard and Rachel at the piano is and always will be the place my mind goes when I think of love scenes, and Roy’s death scene remains one of the most beautiful and painful moments in popular cinema history.
The K/Joi love story was sweet and important in how it raised questions about the potential for love among machines (and its implications loom even larger once we fully understand all that happened with Rick and Rachel). But it comes nowhere near the emotional power of 2019. Yes, my mind was working overtime, but my heart not very much at all.
I suppose I should note how the overall look of 2049 resonated with the more think/less feel vibe I’m describing. 2019 was groundbreaking in its depiction of the grit of cyberpunk’s blasted near-future dystopia. That it constructed such a lush emotional landscape out of the urban night wasteland remains one of film’s signature achievements.
But LA circa 2049 is so gritty and dystopian it makes the original look like Candyland in comparison. There’s more daytime in 2049 and Villeneuve saturates these scenes with muted sunlight that fairly reeks of radiation and poison. We can see all the things we couldn’t in the original, and the effect isn’t especially alluring. 2019 was, when all was said and done, a beautiful place (in a twisted sort of way), but 2049 is profoundly ugly – there just aren’t any romantic shadows in which to curl up.
This is how the first viewing of BR2049 struck me. I’ll be seeing it again (although maybe not dozens of times, like I have Blade Runner), and it’s altogether likely that I’ll realize things I didn’t pick up on initially. Maybe I’ll be back with more insights – or to explain why everything I wrote here is wrong…