Blade Runner 2049 (2017) by Denis Villeneuve
Review by Lydia Creech
Blade Runner 2049 starts with the same image as the original.
Already something is wrong.
Villeneuve is a director that works with blacks and whites, brights and darks, and (yes, I’m going there because he’s going there) good and evil. Unfortunately, that’s never what the world of Blade Runner was. Despite or perhaps because of all of its confusion--from the production to the releases to the actual plot of the thing--Ridley Scott’s original stands as a beautiful and compelling exploration of humanity. Hell, it’s gotten a reboot 30 years later. 2049 isn’t going to get a 2079 (I mean, it will, because that’s how the Hollywood sequel machine works, but it’s not because people will still be thinking about this particular piece of cinema and wondering about it). Sequels don’t ruin the originals, but Villeneuve missed the mark on this one in every way. Villeneuve is not an incompetent filmmaker, but I hate every choice he made; from the way he shot it, his disregard for narrative and genre to favor stupid philosophical points and to his lack of care about the implications of his cliché romance subplot.
To go back to the look of 2049, I don’t understand why there’s so much white everywhere. I actually balked at the opening shot because it’s too clean and clear. When Blade Runner opens, it takes a second to recognize that what we’re looking at is an eye, and there are shadows and mysterious reflections to pique our interest. I don’t need this opening shot to be so crisp that I can count eyelashes.
Moreover, there are white rooms and white suits and white skies and landscapes and snow, and it’s not an aesthetic that works. Villeneuve did this look with Arrival, too, which is profoundly moralizing (and cruel) film, and I just knew he’d come to unfog Blade Runner with the same heavy hand. I like the hazy wooziness of the first; it fits the story being told. When that atmosphere and ambiguity are taken away, what are we doing returning to the property built on precisely those things?
I know it’s not totally fair to completely judge a sequel against the original. Clearly Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins are trying to do their own look, but it is obvious from the first shot to the last that 2049 was always visually set up against its predecessor (you can make the trailer with shots from the original! ~gag~). When production designing and lighting and shooting your sci-fi film, you need to think about what those choices are telling the audience about the world where it’s taking place. I hate this Apple-fication of the future, because it’s not telling me anything. It’s meant to be simple and look good, but it’s bland and stifling of the imagination. In the original, I want to know why it’s raining all the time and why there’s trash everywhere. None of those details are ever explained and it feels like the world exists beyond the story of Deckard. Here, I’m not given anything to wonder about, or even the room to look around and discover things.
It’s amazing to me that there is no breathing room in an almost 3 hour movie.
Some people would call Scott’s camera ponderous in the original Blade Runner, but those moments where he just lets the scene drift a little build up so much atmosphere and mystery. None of that in 2049.
I have no sense of what life may be like in LA in the year 2049. There’s simply no time in between characters staking out their philosophical positions and info dumps. They explain their own confusions and motivations and plans before simply carrying them out in adjacent scenes, being just as clear as the boring cinematography.
This is such a talk-y movie (its like they failed to learn the lesson that the over-explanatory voice-over issue was a distinct negative), and it’s not in the service of anything other than plot or preaching. The monologues in the original are earned character moments (tell me the “tears in the rain” speech from 2049, I dare you), but here we have characters show up to drop an idea on us and then disappear without any further explanation of the concept. For example, Ryan Gosling's boss is *very concerned* about the blurring of the distinction between replicant and human--which is great! That’s worth exploring!--but then she’s out by the second act and we’re not getting a payoff in the narrative. After she delivers her point about needing difference to maintain the social hierarchy, she’s killed off and we never see that idea borne out either by example or by some change in the world.
Because of this failure to properly set up any theme, by the third act, I had totally lost the thread of what Ryan Gosling wanted. And maybe this isn’t fair to say, but it feels like this arises from a fundamental misunderstanding of genre. K. Austin Collins writes about how Villeneuve does genre Grown-Up, which is to say that he attaches Serious Stories and often forgets about the trappings. 2049 does this by going the very dour sci-fi-as-philosophy route, but the original was a NOIR. In noirs, our protagonist is usually just a guy doing his job, which he’s very good at if a bit world-weary, and in the process he uncovers some horrible secret about the way the world works. Deckard discovers that he can’t keep retiring Replicants because it crosses the line into murdering a sentient being rather than an unruly tool (or, that he’s also a Replicant and thus a cog in a machine to his own destruction, depending on how you wanna interpret). The noir hero doesn’t actually have a hope of a better future; it’s all just a journey to some truth (and sometimes not even managing that). I don’t understand what Villeneuve was doing when setting up Officer K to be the Special-Special (a YA plot device), and I don’t understand the response to the twist (fuck you, audience!) that he’s actually not.
Genre films can be varied to tell an infinite amount of different stories with different morals and themes, but you have to actually understand (or, you know, care) what you’re working with in the first place. K isn’t a noir protagonist.
Villeneuve just doesn’t seem actually interested in letting the implications that can arise from good genre storytelling grow organically. He’s so busy feeding us (confusing) information about the big Important Points he thinks he’s making (slaaaaaavery? Replicant reproduction? What about them?) that the things he doesn’t attend to get… problematic.
My biggest issue arises from the romance plot between the sad white boy and his computer. Joi and K’s relationship hasn’t been considered AT ALL and feels like just a function of modern movie making -- gotta throw some sex appeal in there for the quadrants aged 25+ male and female. Its carelessness, however, creates some of the most confusing and off-putting moments of the movie.
To explain why, I have to return again to the original, and *that scene.* I’m not calling it “rape-y” anymore--it makes me uncomfortable, it makes other critics uncomfortable--it’s a rape. It’s tonally wrong, what with the sexy romance sax music and doesn’t fit in with the rest of the movie… especially if Deckard is a Replicant himself. To me, the scene ONLY maybe works if he’s human. He’s reduced Rachel down to an object (which, literally, as a Replicant, she is) a trope I hate, but she’s still obviously exhibiting fear and distress. By failing to respond to her emotional state, Deckard goes on to illustrate that Replicants exhibit more empathy and range than he can -- “more human than human” indeed. Men reduce real women to objects all the time, and the fact that this has to be made explicit by literalizing the phenomenon shows the inhumanity of not just Deckard, but (hu)Man as a whole. If he’s a Replicant and doesn’t know it, then the point just gets lost in an unnecessary sex scene that’s merely recreating violence without critiquing it.
Now in 2049, we’ve got two AI beings, not to mention the Replicant who knows what he is, but he’s still lonelyyyy, so he’s given a girlfriend character. However, because she’s only a companion program, he’s merely reenacting his subjugated position upon a different object. Their relationship is not examined or presented in a way that marks it other than as normal healthy support, and it grosses me out. Joi is not given an arc; she exists and dies solely to move the plot along and give superficial motivation to K. We’ve already seen that two Replicants can love one another and bond over their place in society in the first film with Roy and Pris, but the foundation of K’s and Joi’s relationship is K’s wish fulfillment.
This objectification culminates in an AI three-way that compounds it: woman as prostitute (sex object, commodity), prostitute as Replicant (object), Replicant as AI vessel (object again) so K has something physical to put his dick in. This scene doesn’t really change the relationship between K and Joi, nor does it seem to be saying anything about desire (for sexual and not sexual intimacy) in a world where computers are advanced enough to be sentiently indistinguishable from humans, like, uh, the exact same scene in Her. I can’t even begin to understand why Joi presents herself to him the way she does -- subservient, morphing into various fetish outfits (50’s housewife, Chinese cheongsam, schoolgirl?) -- because I don’t understand why it is K would have sexuality in the first place, as a self-aware killing machine Replicant, much less one that expresses itself in a way that unthinkingly recreates the exact awful power structure he’s trapped in. I mean, I know why. It’s for the male gaze of the *the audience.* The whole thing exists as merely sexy set dressing, disturbing not in support of some theme, but to titillate the viewer. It’s been pointed out many places, but merely sexy set dressing exists everywhere. There are more boobs on display than ever than in the first one (not to mention all the same type of boob: same size, same perkiness, same nips, even). Even when Deckard was creeping on Zhora, the camera usually stayed above tit level.
It’s just so disappointing to me how much of this movie goes for sexy over substance. Not only sexy in the way literal sex appeal is used, but in the way that ideas and aesthetic are sexy. Things look good and sound sleek, but ultimately come up very, very shallow. I’m not complaining because Villeneuve has changed things from the original--I do understand that sequels are supposed to be different. Rather, I’m complaining because the changes he did make indicate that he never understood what made the original in the first place, and that creates only a skin-job cinematic experience.