Blade Runner 2049 and all the images you see in this review are owned by Warner Bros Pictures and Sony Pictures
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Yup! Blade Runner sure was a movie, wasn’t it? I mean I was always more into eighties Carpenter than eighties Scott, but it’s clearly a movie that’s impact can still be felt to this day from science fiction films like The Matrix and Dark City to anime like Ghost in the Shell and Akira. Heck, even the live action Ghost in the Shell looks as much like the original Blade Runner as it does the source material! Many of us have been living in this film’s shadow for as long as we’ve been alive, and so the prospect of a sequel seems rather quixotic considering how hard it would be to not only live up to that movie’s actual merits but to also live up to the sense of scope and impact that it ended up leaving in its wake. Does the director of that one movie where Jake Gyllenhaal meets a giant spider have what it takes to stand with one of the titans of the genre, or will this project collapse faster than Rutger Hauer’s plan to not die at the age of four? Let’s find out!!
One more thing! Some people may consider a pertinent detail that we learn five minutes into the movie to be a spoiler. I don’t REALLY see it as a spoiler considering how early it is in the movie, but I figure I’ll just put up a SPOILER WARNING here just in case you want to go in completely blind. TURN BACK NOW IF YOU MUST!!
We good? Okay, so the year is 2049 and the movie begins with Agent K (Ryan Gosling) who we learn within the first five minutes of the movie is a replicant which is an artificially created human but ALSO a cop for the LAPD. A Blade Runner in fact which is a cop that specifically hunts replicants! Hence the title… though I’m still not sure WHY they’re called that considering he uses a gun and tends to leisurely stroll from place to place. Anyway, replicants haven’t been a problem for a while now as the CURRENT big bad organization Wallace Corp has fixed all the kinks that were in the Nexus 6 models from the first film (they had a tendency to rebel and kill humans) but K still has to hunt down these old timers whenever one crosses their path and we see him at the start of one of these missions as the movie begins. Once the deed is done (in GRUESOME detail), he ALSO discovers something else that’s on the replicant’s property that shouldn’t be there but holds secrets that could turn this world on its head. Oh, and in case you were wondering OF COURSE Deckard (Harrison Ford) is somehow involved, so K has to not only find answers as to what exactly they found but where it came from and who else knows about it. While on this super-secret assignment that I’m not gonna spoil, he also has to contend with Wallace Corp head honcho Niander (Jared Leto) as well as his replicant assistant Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) who seem to know exactly what’s going on and are keeping tabs on him just in case he either discovers too much or finds something that they’re looking for as well. Will K unlock the mysteries that are so mysterious that they can’t be discussed here? Will they in some way deal with his mysterious past which is a mystery even to him? JUST HOW MANY SECRETS CAN ONE MOVIE HAVE!?
I’ve never held Blade Runner up as one of the greatest films in the Sci-Fi genre, but it is a really solid movie with great ideas, interesting imagery, and fantastic performances across the board. The sequel is… as good I guess? I have very different feelings about this film than I do the original, and yet when you add up all the flaws and strengths of both films, it comes out to about the same for very disparate reasons. I liked the overall aesthetic of this film way better than the original which I felt was a bit overblown, but then this movie lacks a certain amount of humanity that was in the original film which makes this film feel incredibly artificial. The investigative aspect of the original film felt really loose which is definitely fixed here as K has a clearly defined role in the police department (I’m pretty sure Deckard was fired like a week before he was hired back on in the first film), but then the way the investigation plays out becomes that much more ludicrous when contrasted with how much better realized that aspect of the movie is. It’s so recognizably Blade Runner in terms of its world, yet it feels very different at the same time. It improves upon the original film in a lot of ways, but also feels like its stumbling all over new problems that weren’t there before. It’s certainly one of the most fascinating films we’ve gotten this year and I absolutely applaud Warner Bros and Sony for sinking THIS much cash into a movie that’s almost guaranteed to be a box office disappointment (just like the original was), but I’m not about to tell you it’s a perfect movie. A rather enjoyable one to be sure, but it never quite comes across as the MASTERPIECE that the filmmakers were clearly envisioning this to be.
Alright, I should probably temper my cynicism for this movie right off the bat lest I get accused of hating everything (except for Halle Berry car chase movies). I do want to reiterate that this movie is REALLY well made and has a solid enough story to be a worthy successor to the original film. Denis Villeneuve, while not my favorite director, was a solid choice for this material; especially when coupled with Roger freaking Deakins as the cinematographer. Now the look of the film CAN feel a bit overdone (particularly with the nightmarishly yellow and absurdly lit Wallace Corporation), but the visuals in this are probably the best you’ll end up seeing in any film this year. It’s not a world you really want to LIVE in after seeing it, but you do appreciate how much work went into every single frame of the damn thing. On top of that, I do think there are some good story beats in here with some compelling performances to go along with it. We’ll get to the weaknesses in the plot soon enough, but there are a lot of interesting ideas and concepts that expand the Blade Runner universe and even correct some of the more awkward aspects of the previous film. For one, they pretty much dropped the Voight-Kampff test entirely as Replicants are easier to identify which was one of the STUPIDEST plot points in the original film. I get the whole WE’LL DO IT BECAUSE WE CAN idea when it comes to advanced technology like this in sci-fi stories, but it just seems like a bad idea to make super strong kill bots completely indistinguishable from humans to the point that they can only be identified by an absurdly elaborate interrogation process. Here it’s just a quick scan of their eyeball and BOOM! Replicant identified! I also like how Replicants are integrated into society rather than just outright banned like they were in the first film as it means we can see them interact in everyday situations. Instead of desperately running for their lives or trying to hide among the humans, the replicants in here get to be… well, themselves. It’s not always PERFECT as I think they focus WAY too long on K being emotionally isolated from everything (if he’s the only character we’re following and he doesn’t give a shit about anything, why should we?) but eventually it starts to click with him and it ALWAYS clicks with Luv who’s easily the most interesting and complex character in the whole movie.
So now’s the part where we get into things that don’t quite work about the movie; namely the plot. It’s not a particularly good mystery, the ways they try to incorporate elements from the original film is only MARGINALLY successful (it seems that Bautista’s character is the key link between this film and the first one but I’m still not quite sure how it all works), the bad guys don’t make any sense or are explored to any great degree, and it seems like the third act is about seventy percent exposition for things we’ll never see or will ever care about. There are story beats that are incredibly predictable yet take almost an hour to play out, while the big explanation of what the hell is going on towards the end of the movie doesn’t get nearly enough time to be adequately explored or even makes that much sense. It’s hard to talk specifics in a movie like this as I wouldn’t want to spoil too much, but some really basic stuff like the fact that there’s no explanation for why the villain doesn’t double tap our hero or just how blatantly they knock you over the head with foreshadowing a character’s death just end up taking me out of the movie; especially when it thinks SO highly about everything that it does. I wouldn’t say the movie is pretentious as it clearly knows what it wants to talk about about and has the technical chops behind the camera to back it up, but the way the plot itself just kinda falls to pieces as we get into the third act undermines what could have been a spectacular movie and also highlights some of the weaker moments in the first two act that led to it all just kinda going out with a whimper.
By far the worst story element has to be Jared Leto as the villain. Not only is his motivation by far the murkiest (I honestly cannot tell you if he wants to kill or protect someone he’s looking for), he only gets two scenes in the WHOLE movie; both on the exact same set which was honestly the one I liked the least. It’s a giant poorly lit room with water all around it which reflects off of the walls and while it’s a pretty enough image, it’s UNIMAGINABLY distracting to have to look at the lights dancing all around the place while he’s trying to explain what he’s after and how he plans on getting it. This unfortunately also poorly reflects on Sylvia Hoeks’ Luv who has to follow the dude’s mad ramblings so she ends up doing some rather… unnecessary actions. She’s still amazing in the role and does her best to pull some of these scenes off, but let’s just say that some of her actions REALLY shouldn’t have gone as unnoticed as they did which only furthers the problems I have following this plot all the way through to the end.
There’s one more issue that I want to bring up, though I am much more conflicted about it. The movie has a very odd relationship with women which I feel is INTENTIONAL, but I also feel that whatever message the film is trying to get across with its female characters is somewhat lost in the execution. Similar to how male replicants are used in this movie to do the leg work, heavy lifting, and take ass beatings, female replicants as well as holographic AI personas are around to be used and fetishized by not only the human male characters but the replicant ones as well. It’s an interesting idea that feels distressingly accurate considering how we interact and anthropomorphize technology today… but it also isn’t above leering at fully naked female holograms or indulging in negative stereotypes about sex work. The most prominent example of this would be Joi played by Ana de Armas who’s basically Siri with a holographic form and a duty to stroke fragile male egos. She’s a product that is owned by K and she IS an interesting character to consider as so much of what she does is clearly her being PROGRAMMED to be warm, supportive, and even protective… but it’s just that. She’s treated like an object in this movie to be fetishized and is at one point contrasted with a real life woman (okay, she’s a replicant but you get the idea) and the movie consistently frames her in a more positive light than the other woman who is a duplicitous sex worker. Yup! It’s another movie where sex leads to a man’s downfall which I’m honestly REALLY sick of seeing in these kind of films; especially one that tries to be as high minded and forward thinking as this one. Thankfully there’s a counter balance to Joi’s awkward portrayal in this in the form of Luv who has all the same uncomfortable undertones of being forced to please men (in this case her boss), but it feels like its framed FOR that message instead of in spite of it. Think of Luv as Jessica Jones being controlled by The Purple Man while Joi is in that same scenario but from The Purple Man’s point of view, and you can kind of see what I’m saying here. K may not be a horrifyingly abusive monster since his virtual girlfriend doesn’t have sentience that is being overruled by K’s demands (though I guess that gets into the ethics of AI which I’m certainly not knowledgeable enough to have a cogent discussion of), but there IS that sense of entitlement to him having what is essentially a “willing” virtual slave and the movie is more interested in showing us how it affects him than what it says about him. Like I said, Luv is a phenomenal character and Sylvia Hoek does such an amazing joke portraying her various aspects just through body language and facial expressions, and it’s worth pointing out that Robin Wright, while being racist towards replicants, isn’t sexualized or objectified in any way, but it feels like the movie is only partially aware of what it’s saying when it comes to how men both subjugate and beatify women and it’s a bit distracting whenever it tries to deal with it head on.
I want to clarify once again that this is a GOOD MOVIE and my urge to watch it again after watching it is certainly noteworthy as I don’t often feel like seeing a movie again in theaters. That’s usually the sign that it does something unique and fills some sort of need that I didn’t realize was there. Films like The Big Short, Spotlight, and Sing managed to do just that as I’ve probably seen those a dozen times since their release yet none of them were REALLY what I’d call the best films out there (even if I was the lone mad man who thought Sing was better than Zootopia and Moana). This might just end up the same way. It’s a bit too long for me to be certain about that, but I will absolutely say that it’s absolutely worth seeing in the theaters; flaws and all. We don’t get movies like this very often and while I’m more than capable of pointing out what it did poorly, I can also realize just how interesting and engaging it is outside of that and this is one of the more compelling films of the year. Maybe not one of the BEST of the year, but it’s certainly worth talking about and absolutely worth seeing. To put it bluntly; this is absolutely a Blade Runner movie. Make of that what you will.