Perhaps it doesn’t need to be said – after all, the film is exceedingly well reviewed – but I want to start by saying it anyway: Blade Runner 2049 is a gorgeous piece of visual art. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Roger Deakins has surpassed himself; his portfolio does include The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, after all. Nevertheless, there are few films this side of the turn of the century, or even this side of the original Blade Runner, that offer as coherent and as gorgeous a window into a world that is at once excitingly different and eerily familiar. And the praise isn’t just Deakins’: the artists that worked on all the individual puzzle pieces that make up the look of Blade Runner 2049 may just deserve most of the awards that exist and some that don’t. I don’t think the film will necessarily become as influential as the original Blade Runner, which pretty much defined what dystopian cityscapes of the near future look like, but aesthetically it manages the almost impossible, reconciling the iconic neo-noir with a more modern, almost anthropological sensitivity and creating something that both recalls the original and adds to it in startlingly original ways.
Just consider this: after the endless night of the original film, Blade Runner 2049 is largely set in daylight scenarios – and it pulls it off.
Perhaps people are already waiting for the “But…” – and indeed, there is one. I am in awe of the craftsmanship of Blade Runner 2049, yet to be honest, I didn’t particularly like it. In part that’s purely a matter of taste and no critique of the film. It starts with the visuals: Blade Runner 2049 looks stunning, but it doesn’t have – nor does it need to – the nostalgic, romantic glow that the original’s vistas combined with a neon chill. I don’t know to what extent this is due to me having seen Blade Runner as a child. (I would say that it remains a formative experience, at least to my becoming a film geek.) There’s a fuzziness to the original’s world, an analog quality, that is intimate, and it is heightened by the constant rain-soaked darkness, the grain of the film material, the way Vangelis’ score marries ’80s synths and film noir saxophone sighs. I admit that I feel nostalgia when I think of Ridley Scott’s film, and I appreciate that Blade Runner 2049 didn’t pander to that, but for me the world of Blade Runner is suffused with nostalgia to begin with: the nostalgia of genre, transplanting the hardboiled detective into an urban hellscape of the future, the nostalgia for memories that may be artificial. Denis Villeneuve’s film appeals to the past, but apart from a cameo or two (which I did appreciate) nostalgia isn’t part of its fabric – and I missed that: the sense of longing for something that may never have been, that was as much a dream as Deckard’s unicorn reveries and the replicants’ memories. Blade Runner 2049 isn’t a stranger to romantic longings, but they’re of a different kind. I missed this particular flavour that, for me, largely makes Blade Runner what it is.
More than that, though, Blade Runner was big on ambiguity, especially with respect to characterisation. In the tradition of film noir, its protagonist isn’t particularly heroic: to begin with, he just wants to be left out of it. He is neither heroic in going after a group of murderous replicants, nor is he heroic in saving the replicant he loves. He is a passive (or at best reactive), self-pitying schlub in one scene and a rapey bastard in the next, so for all of early ’80s Harrison Ford’s charisma, his Deckard isn’t particularly likeable. The other side of the equation, Deckard’s replicant adversaries, first come across as murderous, cruel children who quite clearly have to be put down in order to keep the wet streets of future Los Angeles safe – yet we need to remind ourselves that they are bred as slaves, condemned to an early death by design and an even earlier death if they step foot on earth, which means that they are then hunted down and killed like animals – but we see that for their childlike qualities and their superhuman strength, replicants are capable of feelings, they experience fear and rage, love and loss. They may be artificial (though what exactly artificiality means in this case is left vague by Blade Runner), but the film insinuates that they are no less human than human.
Blade Runner 2049, in comparison, is happy to put most of its characters into one of two boxes marked “Good guys” and “Bad guys”. It does some interesting things with its protagonist and with the hero’s journey, but it doesn’t make its characters particularly ambiguous. Some are good guys by dint of sentimentality: the grizzled, obsolescent replicant with the sad eyes, the hologram lover who wants to be a real girl. Some are good guys because of their motivations and because they help the protagonist, such as the group of replicants planning to rise against their masters and claim their rights – though they are underwritten, as is the entire motif of a coming war between humans and replicants. In turn, the bad guys are almost laughably bad, even if the actors perform well within the constraints of the script: Jared Leto’s Niander Wallace is given a scene where he first speechifies at a newly created replicant, naked and afraid, and then slices her up, apparently only to make sure that the audience doesn’t miss the point that he is a villain. His henchwoman Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) fares little better and is just as uniformly antagonistic, even if Hoeks gives the performance her all. Compare this to Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty, Deckard’s antagonist from Blade Runner: there is a similarly psychotic element to him as there is to Luv, yet there’s also a playfulness and a pathos, even before his much-quoted speech about attack ships on fire and tears in the rain.
What hurts Blade Runner 2049 as much, at least to my mind, is that it retreads the original’s theme of what makes a person human, and in doing so it takes two steps back and one step sideways. My problem here is mostly with the writing: Blade Runner 2049 got Hampton Francher back, who co-wrote the original, but I wonder if Francher’s writing partner David Peoples wasn’t just as important to the mix, because the new film is often clunky and literal in ways that Blade Runner wasn’t. (Warning: While the following is revealed early in the film, it might constitute a spoiler for some.) The film’s plot is focused on the revelation that Deckard and his replicant lover Rachael had a child. Not a horrible conceit in and of itself, but the film seems to think that this child – not designed and created industrially but born of (at least) one replicant parent – adds a new wrinkle to the question of how human the replicants are. Except it doesn’t: the first film already argued against the clear-cut distinction, in a less literal and less reductively biological way. Blade Runner suggested that what makes us human isn’t whether we were created biologically or synthetically, whether we grew in a womb or in a test tube, it was our emotions and our wanting to not just exist but live that determine our humanity. Blade Runner 2049 isn’t unsympathetic to this non-biological answer to what makes us human, seeing how its central romance is between a replicant and a hologram, but the plot about the replicant child, the notion that the proof of the human pudding is in the birthing, sits at cross purposes with this theme and with the earlier film. What doesn’t help is that although it spends a lot of time on this plot thread (in a film that could have used its three hour running time better), in the end Blade Runner 2049 doesn’t even seem all that interested in what it would mean to the film’s world and its characters if replicants could find a way to procreate. The characters whisper of rebellion and of a coming war, but we don’t see much of this, and worse, we don’t feel it. The film is more interested in the personal and the emotional aspects of this theme, and that’s where it works much better, but it still dedicates what feels like long stretches to a stillborn storyline, which weighs Blade Runner 2049 down. People say that Blade Runner is slow to the point of boredom, but it was the sequel that had me checking my watch repeatedly, especially during its final hour.
Which is a shame, because there is a lot here that I like. The romance between Blade Runner replicant K (Ryan Gosling) and his hologram girlfriend is sweet, if perhaps a bit sentimental, and it adds to the ambiguities of the first film: to what extent are we programmed to perform certain roles, and how can we tell the difference between good programming and real emotions, in ourselves and in others? (There are shades of Spielberg’s A.I., another film I wanted to like more than I ended up doing.) Blade Runner 2049 is also interesting and original in how it makes K as well as the audience believe in him as the hero of the story and then pulling the rug from under our feet. It’s in these moments that Villeneuve’s sequel builds on the original in ways that go beyond the aesthetic, and I would have loved to see a Blade Runner 2049 whose plot is much less dependent on the original so that these new angles could have been developed further.
Chances are I will still get Blade Runner 2049 on Blu-ray (or on one of those newfangled 4K media, seeing how I appreciate the film mostly for its visuals – as Eldon Tyrell says, “More HD than HD is our motto”), not least to see whether my viewing of the film changes when it isn’t weighed down by my expectations and my memories of the original. When it came out in 1982, Blade Runner wasn’t exactly embraced by a majority of critics, but many of them have since come around. Give me a few decades and/or a Director’s Cut or two, and who knows? Perhaps I too will come to see Blade Runner 2049 as the real deal.