Blade Runner 2049 opens with a similar opening text scroll with the first film, setting the scene for the events that are about to occur. Here, the role of the ‘blade runner’ – a being employed to wipe out rogue replicants (android) – is played by Ryan Gosling. His character of K is sent on a path of mystery, one that leads off with David Bautista’s worm growing man. There is more to this futuristic tale, but let’s not delve too far into that as it’s something that’s worth discovering for yourself.
First things first – if you’re a fan of Blade Runner, then you’ll have already seen this film already. This is for you. For others, the question floats in the air as to whether this is a film that everybody will love right now. Just like Ridley Scott’s original, its status as a classic gradually formed over time with each new cut revealing another layer in the android onion. Putting it bluntly – Blade Runner 2049 is a very good film right now, but it will be a great film in twenty years. When the dust is settled from the hype around the other water cooler android pop culture ‘thing’ Westworld, film lovers will look back at Denis Villeneuve’s entry into the Blade Runner series with awe and wonder.
Let’s jump into the film as it is right now. Pre-think pieces and digestions, pre-deep dives and theme explorations. What place is Blade Runner 2049 at right now?
My immediate thoughts as I left the cinema were ones full of questions. When people live in fear for their own lives, and a world where automation is killing jobs – do people want to see a film where humans are obsolete? Villenueve and screenwriters Hampton Fancher & Michael Green team up to present a future where most of the human race has left earth, and what remains of earth is a place of darkness for the depraved and empty. What hope remains for anybody left behind? Los Angeles is made up of citizens and replicants (androids), and a silent war is waged between the two with the humans looking to regain their place as the leaders of society. These androids are not preparing earth for our return, they are merely existing on a desolate place, having emotions and memories implanted to make them feel like they have lived a life. This is the anti-Wall-E.
Where wars about religion rage on in the world today, one can’t help feel like this is a film out of time. It is answering questions that humanity is not ready to confront – which makes the seemingly emotionless core of the film even more distant and empty. There is a damnation and desolation here that paints humanity in a dark light – we yearn for a life where nobody has to do a menial task, where nobody is a garbage cleaner. But by yearning for that, and managing to achieve a supreme abandonment of those roles, we haven’t escaped the fact that those roles still needs to be filled. We simply cannot create a slave workforce to do the work we don’t want to do. However, that exists today – child factories where children make gadgets they can never afford, sex workers who fill the role of absent lovers, police officers employed to hunt down and kill their own kind. The future that Blade Runner 2049 presents a world where that continues to exist, however because those roles are filled by ‘non-humans’, there suddenly becomes an accepted notion that ‘slavery’ is ok. If it isn’t human, then is it really slavery?
This is a world where creators loom in cavernous rooms, hiding in the darkness,espousing about a future that society may never be prepared to be lead into. They have taken the role of God, and when that role appears in a society that has eternally awaited its return, while equally mourning its absence, it has no choice but to reject the notion of a deity in human form. Angels cannot walk in the presence of God’s, and this is no more evident than replicants walking amongst men. These ‘Angels’ are hated and despised, thrown out of society and only designed to be used. For their creation is society’s downfall, but they did not ask to be created. Did humanity itself ask to be born into existence and tear down the world it lives in? Far from it.
This world of manufactured human emotions and relationships is one that exists today. But in a rapidly moving world where our digital footprints get larger by the minute, are we capable of recognising the devastation on our own souls that we willingly wreak? Are we too far gone on a path of dehumanisation that Gosling’s Joe is no different than anybody walking the streets today – emotionless, yet seeking a truth that may not exist. We have been so long asleep at the keyboard, that the smell of garlic no longer exists and memories of cheese are what helps fuel our hearts. In a dark moment in a sea of dark moments, a casual comment about the seemingly infinite availability of hard liquor (something that gets better with age [like this film will]) brings a moment of levity.
When we finally meet Harrison aged Ford’s Deckard, he is the lord of his own domain. He exists in a world that once housed heightened emotions fuelled by gluttony. Gambling, sex, food, pure excess. The monuments of beauty and power still stand, weathered over time, draped in a muted golden haze. He is alone, detached from a world that wants him dead and gone – consuming the millions of bottles of alcohol that remain, a reminder that through this golden liquid, our minds can change and our memories can be wiped away.
The women feel like they are wholly creations of men – existing to emulate love, to provide a tool for romance and affection. Yet, they lack an impactful presence outside of being figures to help move the plot along. In a film about creation, you can’t help but notice the director and writers moving rustling behind the curtains, attempting to quietly shuffle things along to the next scene. David Bautista’s Sapper Morton mentions that K can’t imagine his role in the world as he hasn’t seen a miracle – and one understands the fact that even though this is a beautiful world, it is one conjured in boardrooms, the soul and spirit having been sucked out of it. In turn, the women feel like mere creations from masculine minds for a world where testosterone has conquered all.
In a mark of supreme irony, the beauty within the film feels as empty as the beautiful women on display. Skyrise high digital projections of women tower above humans wandering around, ignorant to their presence even if they may be dancing the most beautiful of dances, or be completely naked. Roger Deakins captures and bottles up the future with a manner of perfection that belies the disturbing desolation of humanity. It’s fitting that Deakins has portrayed this future with all its necessary beauty, as we soldier on as a society that is infatuated with beauty and perfection. It’s a towering technical achievement that further reinforces the themes of the story, and one that helps reinforce Deakins as one of the greatest artists working in film today.
The visual palette blends CGI and real life seamlessly. A climatic, breathtaking fight logically would have taken place on a safe, secure sound stage, but through the great production design and cinematography, this event feels like it’s taking place in a real, tangible world. Where superhero films poise their heroes against each other on an open plane, surrounded by obviously fake digital trickery, it’s refreshing to see a fight occur in a tangible environment.
But again, who is this for? Other than dedicated fans or those who are open to questioning our own existence and who we are right now? As a massive budget blockbuster, it fails to hit the four quadrants – but for dedicated fans of the cult classic original, Villeneuve has created something truly stunning. He furthers the conversation established with Scott’s film, taking Philip K. Dick’s story down a long path of ‘yes and…’, and in turn, proposing questions that will no doubt spawn endless debates.
Yet, it’s hard to escape the slow, deliberately languid pace. This feels like Eyes Wide Shut in the future. Every element is placed precisely, and every line of dialogue is measured to perfection. Ryan Gosling’s emotionless K is a fascinating character – on the surface he is nothing, but just beneath that smile free exterior is a being that is questioning who, how and what they are. The film allows the time for the themes to sit in, and in turn allows the viewer to process those themes in real time. It’s deep stuff, but never condescending or pandering to the glasses pushing, suspender snapping audience members.
This is a film that will no doubt spawn an era of imitators and those who go to their empty theatres will no doubt ask everyone soon ‘why didn’t you go see Blade Runner 2049’? Again, this is a film out of time – it talks about our future and presents a world that today’s smartest minds are warning us against heading into. But with all the real world tragedies, and the focus on the here and now, will anyone listen? It appears nobody listened when Ridley Scott raised these issues in the seventies and eighties, so what makes this any different? Is it even the place of cinema to be the fortune tellers of the future, allowing viewers to play hypotheticals as to what their future may hold? Many see the role of cinema as a place to be entertained, to escape from the day to day difficult moments of their lives. Whether this will entertain the masses is doubtful – escapist cinema this is not.
When a film as huge as Blade Runner 2049 regularly steps into discussions of philosophy and self reflection, it’s hard to not get the impression that this is a lesson in psychology. After all, science fiction has the unique ability to transport us to a different world, and often an intrinsic element of science fiction is the questioning of mankind and what it means to be human. There is a tenuous, fine line between including the audience within the conversation the film is presenting, and through condescending and talking over the heads of the audience ala the Colonel Sanders scene of The Matrix Reloaded. Fortunately, Blade Runner 2049 leans towards including the audience.
For those science fiction fans out there, this is like dining at Eleven Madison Park – a long, sumptuous feast for the eyes, the mind, and of course, the soul. For others, it may feel too deliberate or (dare I say it) boring, as they wait for the next major story beat. Enter with a patient mind and you will be rewarded. Enter expecting action and emotional kicks, and you will leave wanting.
For me, I was intrigued by what was presented here, and I can appreciate what Denis Villeneuve and co. are presenting. However, I found myself at a distance from the film at all times, admiring it, while not truly engaging with it. A technical achievement that deserves every accolade coming for it, and a film that definitely deserves its place in film history – if only for the dedicated fans of the original.
At least, as the handful of cinemagoers said as they left my lazy Sunday afternoon screening – ‘it sure does look pretty’.
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Ana de Armas, Robin Wright
Writers: Hampton Fancher, Michael Green