To get the heresy out of the way: I have never been all that enamored of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982). Yes, the film is well made and visually stunning, and it certainly stands head and shoulders over all the other, usual lamentable adaptations of Philip K. Dick stories in the three decades after its release. But it remains the prototype for a sort of science fiction film that sadly has become increasingly commonplace: the routine action film with a patina of profundity to provide the comforting illusion that one is not really watching a routine action film (one recent, and egregious example being Scott’s own Alien: Covenant [2017 – review here]). 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) merits the status of the greatest science fiction film ever made in part because it makes absolutely no concessions to popular taste, foregrounding its predictions and ideas without the distractions of chase scenes and gun battles; and praise the film all you like, but you cannot make the same statement about Blade Runner.
But you are here today not to learn what I think about Scott’s Blade Runner, but rather what I think about Denis Villeneuve’s just-released sequel to the film, Blade Runner 2049. And I think it’s a pretty good film. Its sequences of gratuitous violence are infrequent and almost perfunctory, as if they were inserted primarily to pay homage to its distinguished precursor; the film’s focus of attention is rather an intriguing mystery involving Blade Runner’s now-deceased replicant Rachael (Sean Young), who we now learn had the unprecedented ability to give birth to a child. Still, the film isn’t quite as good as director Denis Villeneuve evidently thinks it is, imbuing the film with an aura of self-importance and excess that should have been addressed with some judicious editing. In other words, Blade Runner 2049 might have been, like its predecessor, an admirable two-hour film; but it was unwisely released with a running time of two hours and forty-three minutes.
However, before unleashing my complaints and quibbles, I should discuss all the things that the film is doing right. In its world of 2049, a new inventor-tycoon, Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), has supplanted Blade Runner’s Eldon Tyrell as the creator of a new generation of replicants that are safely obedient and hence allowed to live on Earth; but some of the bad old replicants remain on the loose, so blade runners like the replicant Joe (Ryan Gosling) are still needed to track them down and eliminate them. Co-screenwriters Hampton Fancher (who also co-wrote the original Blade Runner) and Michael Green might have taken the easy way out by replicating the original’s plot, dispatching Gosling to chase after another batch of nasty replicants, but a mission of this sort is instead completed as the film’s opening gambit, signaling that other, more original concerns will be animating its story. Both Gosling’s superior officer Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright) and Wallace’s chief enforcer Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) want to find Rachael’s child and suppress all knowledge of his or her existence, fearing that evidence of child-bearing replicants might disrupt a social order dependent upon, in Wallace’s words, a “disposable workforce” of artificial slaves. If they can have children, as one character puts it, replicants must “have a soul” and hence would be entitled to equal rights, the goal of a group of replicant rebels led by Freysa (Hiam Abbass). The only predictable element in the ensuing narrative is the eventual appearance of the child’s father Deckard (Harrison Ford) as Joe’s ally in resolving what Freysa calls the “puzzle” of the child’s identity and whereabouts.
After meeting the challenge of extending the original film’s story without mimicking it, the filmmakers next had to match Blade Runner’s evocatively decadent environment, and they have devoted a large portion of their $185,000,000 budget to recreating, on an even more massive scale, the future Los Angeles first crafted by artist Syd Mead (who receives a “Special Thanks” in the credits). Thirty years after the time of the first film, Los Angeles is still dark, decaying, and dreary, afflicted with constant rain, though it is also decorated with garish neon signs and advertising holograms, and Joe must make his way through crowds of homeless people in the hallways to get to his apartment. (By the way, one aspect of Blade Runner’s future that quickly made it seem dated – the prominently displayed names of soon-to-be-defunct companies – is defiantly reiterated in this film, with large signs for “Atari” and “Pan Am,” though more recent companies like Diageo are also featured.) Further, Joe’s quest for answers later takes him outside the city to an expansive plain devoted to “waste processing” near San Diego that is also the site of a makeshift orphanage, and he ends up in a deserted Las Vegas, with the distinctive Luxor pyramid now standing amidst the ruins of newer casinos offering still-functioning holograms of entertainers like Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley. It’s all very impressive, but it seems unimaginative simply because so many other films have already imitated the look of what I have termed the “Blade Runner future” (most recently, Ghost in the Shell [2017 – review here]).
Any film based on the works of Philip K. Dick must also address the problem of distinguishing illusions from reality, and Blade Runner 2049 does so on several levels. The replicants, of course, look human but aren’t, though the film, again declining to revisit its precursor’s plot, does not explore any uncertainties about whether a given character is a human or a replicant. We know from the start that Joe is a replicant, and the film never addresses the unresolved question of whether Deckard is a replicant. Joe’s girlfriend is a computer program which displays itself as a beautiful hologram named Joi (Ana de Armas), and at one point she strives to “synch” with an actual woman, the replicant prostitute Mariette (Mackenzie Davis), to provide Joe with a physical lover. (Significantly, the actress closely resembles Blade Runner’s replicant prostitute, Daryl Hannah.) But one questions whether Joi’s expressions of love for Joe are sincere, or merely a product of her programming. Deckard has a loyal dog as his companion, but he doesn’t know whether or not it is real – even though, later on, he paradoxically asserts that “I know what’s real” and rejects a perfect duplicate of his beloved Rachael. Joe has vivid childhood memories about hiding a beloved wooden horse from a gang of bullies, but he isn’t sure whether they are real or artificial; to find out, he visits Dr. Ana Stelline (Carla Juri), who earns a living by creating false memories and selling them to Wallace to be implanted in his replicants. She also has an immune deficiency requiring her isolation from other people, so she lives in a large chamber where holograms provide her with interesting surroundings. She became good at her job, she explains, because “if I wanted to see the world, I had to imagine it.” There is a reason, perhaps, why one of the songs the hologram Elvis sings is “Suspicious Minds” – for this is a world where everyone must be suspicious of what’s in their own minds.
As for my complaints and quibbles: in the first place, one can definitely raise questions about the film’s internal logic. Blade Runner 2049 simply ignores a key plot point in the original film: the fact that Tyrell’s replicants are designed to die after four years, a trait that Tyrell states cannot be altered. If the Tyrell Corporation has long been out of business, as the film asserts, then all of its faulty replicants should be dead by now, and there would be no need for blade runners to search for them. Also, since children inherit the intrinsic characteristics of their parents, a child from a replicant parent should die at the age of four. Further, we are told that Wallace’s new replicants have been accepted on Earth because they are incapable of disobeying orders; yet in the course of the film Joe starts disobeying orders, and he encounters an entire group of disobedient replicants, presumably also manufactured by Wallace. Living in a world of advanced technology, and regularly accompanied by a helpful drone, Joe would undoubtedly have the ability to detect and remove a homing device slipped into his pocket, and after he is followed by the bad guys to Las Vegas, they inexplicably fail to capture him – simply to keep the plot in motion.
One can also question the relentless poverty evident in the world of 2049; while the police and Wallace’s corporation have access to all sorts of advanced devices, everyday people live in shabby apartments with gas-burning stoves, recalling the “Grapes of Wrath future” that I have observed in other films; one sees an old-fashioned upright piano and grand piano, but no electric keyboards. But we are told that “synthetic farming” and the new, improved replicants have now revitalized the economy, and this surely would have led to some urban renewal, eliminating some of those run-down buildings and slums, as well as modest improvements in household appliances. For heaven’s sake, even today, one doesn’t have to be rich to own a television or a microwave oven, two of the many amenities not observed in Joe’s apartment.
Villeneuve’s film fails to make proper use of one of its greatest assets – Harrison Ford, reprising the role of blade runner Rick Deckard. Trailers, advertisements, and the film’s credits all convey the impression that he and Gosling are the film’s stars; in fact, viewers must wait a very long time before Ford even appears. Further, while J. J. Abrams’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015 – review here) wisely and quickly puts Ford’s Han Solo back to work, doing what he had always done best, Villeneuve gives Ford’s Deckard little to do: after a skirmish with Joe, he is immediately captured, and spends the rest of the film passively observing Joe’s heroics. In contrast, Gosling seems overused; as a contemporary star with greater clout, Gosling perhaps insisted upon being the film’s constant center of attention, but it’s a strategy that backfires, as one eventually grows weary of looking at him. This is particularly true because of one of the film’s recurring features: an extended scene, with some of the film’s ponderously slow music blaring in the background, wherein the camera lingers endlessly on Gosling’s utterly expressionless face as he purportedly experiences some wrenching emotional episode. But these tributes to the Keanu Reeves school of acting have absolutely no impact at all, other than making one wonder whether Gosling’s contract specified that the film had to include thirty minutes of close-ups.
But the real problem may be Villeneuve’s referenced sense that he is making a great film, and great films must proceed at a stately pace to allow audiences time to fully appreciate its awesome visuals, complex dramas, and provocative themes. Thus, Gosling’s face is not the only thing that the film’s cameras linger endlessly on. This approach worked in 2001: A Space Odyssey because its visual effects were at the time genuinely innovative and its themes were genuinely thought-provoking; here, as noted, the visual effects will already be familiar to most viewers, and the warmed-over themes from the first film do not provoke a great deal of thought, so the film’s determination to take things slowly merely seems pretentious. And as in other films, people are occasionally burdened with portentous utterances that do not seem appropriate for their characters: a manipulative manufacturer of replicants, for example, would not announce, “I need the child to teach them [the replicants] all to fly,” and the leader of a band of desperate rebels would not announce, “Dying for the right cause is the most human thing we can do.”
Great films must also have literary references in their scaffolding, and when Joi suggests that Joe should read Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire (1962), it could be Fancher and Green’s way of informing audiences that their film is similarly filled with deep allusions to literature and popular culture. But the only obvious text on the screenwriters’ minds was Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883). I can’t be sure, but the abandoned casino where Deckard resides is probably Treasure Island, as intimated when he quotes Ben Gunn, the madman exiled on Stevenson’s island who asks, “You mightn’t happen to have a piece of cheese about you, now? No? Well, many’s the long night I’ve dreamed of cheese – toasted, mostly – and woke up again, and here I were.” And I suppose that Joe’s quest for Deckard’s missing child is a treasure hunt of sorts, though I can’t discern any other relationship between Stevenson’s novel and the film. I am also unable to explain the relevance of the film’s repeated use of Peter’s theme from Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf (1936) and the Frank Sinatra song “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)” (1943), though both are arguably stories about dangerous journeys.
Pondering the film’s fondness for Gosling’s soulful face brings up an interesting difference between the male stars of Hollywood’s past and the male stars of today. Harrison Ford was one of the last representatives of the old-style action hero: he was basically tough, but occasionally he could be sensitive. Ryan Gosling typifies the contemporary action hero: he is basically sensitive, but occasionally he can be tough. I have noted elsewhere that Chris Pratt, another example of this trend, regularly seems to be overdoing the sensitive thing, and I think Gosling is overdoing it here. These sensitive men might be regarded as a natural reaction to another new Hollywood icon, the tough-as-nails woman, here represented by Joe’s boss Joshi and chief antagonist Luv; but filmmakers remain reluctant to make such women their heroes and surround them with male supporting characters, though the success of Wonder Woman (2017 – review here) might change some minds. And why not? In this case, if Gosling and Sylvia Hoeks had switched roles, having a female replicant as the lead would have required only minor adjustments to the screenplay.
Perhaps, though, a woman will star in the next Blade Runner film – which producers are already planning, even though no official announcements have been made. After all, no one invests $185,000,000 in a film without expecting it to be a huge success, and no one expecting a huge success will fail to anticipate making a sequel. The smoking guns here are that the film carefully keeps both its major stars and one of its chief villains alive, ready to reappear if called upon, and leaves the fates of the replicants yearning to be free unresolved. If a sequel does materialize, one hopes that as a condition of their returns, Harrison Ford and the equally underutilized Edward James Olmos would insist on more meaningful roles, and to escape the monotony of gloomy Los Angeles cityscapes, the screenwriters might take their characters “offworld” to one of the inhabited planets, where it appears that people are forging a different and brighter future for humanity. After all, one of the characteristics of truly great films is that they do not timidly cling to the patterns of their precursors – a problem that Blade Runner 2049, for all its virtues, does not entirely avoid.