Last week, I went to see Blade
Runner 2049, which is the sequel to the 1982 sci fi classic Blade
Runner, and I was genuinely curious to see what the director - Denis
Villeneuve could do with this fantastical and complex world. I tried my best to
keep an open mind, and judge this movie on its own merit, and not just as the
sequel to Blade Runner.
One of the consequences of having been writing reviews for over two
years is that when I'm watching a movie I can't turn off the part of my mind
that is responsible for all the nitpicking and critical thinking. I can no
longer just see a movie as a fan, as I am constantly thinking about what I'm
going to write once I get home. This is a minor nuisance that can sometimes
make it difficult for me to enjoy a movie. Perhaps, it's this over-analyzing
that kept me from liking Blade Runner 2049.
I have tried to keep my emotions out of this review. I've tried to keep
my arguments clean and sober. Ironically, it isn't my irrational love for the
original that made me dislike the sequel. Nor was it any in-universe changes
and world-building choices made by the screenwriters. My strong dislike
of Blade Runner 2049 has to do with the structural and tonal
flaws of the movie itself.
review contains spoilers for the original Blade Runner, and some
minor spoilers for Blade Runner 2049.
Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Screenplay by: Hampton Fancher and Michael Green
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, and Jared Leto
Premiere date in Sweden: October 5, 2017
Just like the original, Blade Runner 2049 starts with
an opening crawl that sets up the plot, and teases the central conflict of the
movie. The words look clunky on screen, and I was reminded of the innumerable
plot summaries I used to write for my own brilliant projects. And even though
that one detail made me a little uneasy about what was to come, I wasn't going
to judge the whole film based on that one nitpick.
In short, the movie is about Ryan Gosling's hero - "K", who is
the next generation blade runner, a special task police officer whose job is to
hunt down and "retire" rogue replicants. I say, "next
generation" because "K" himself is a replicant, one of the
latest models, known for their obedience and loyalty, which makes them the
perfect blade runners.
In the original, it was strongly hinted at that Deckard himself was a
replicant. This uncertainty was one of the things that made the original so
interesting and gave the story and Deckard's role in it a whole new dimension.
More importantly, the question was never answered, and was left open to
In the sequel, however, we learn about "K”: s true nature from the
very beginning. And that's because "K”: s identity crisis is
supposed to be the central conflict of the movie. "K”: s journey,
which starts with a rather messy "retirement" and leads him to a
massive cover-up makes him come face to face with a possibility that he might
be human after all.
So, for the most part of the movie we follow "K" as he's
trying to figure out whether he's human. "K" is Pinocchio,
and we want to believe that after all the trials and tribulations, the Fairy
with Turquoise Hair will descend from the skies, and reward "K" by
turning him into a real boy. That is a good story. That is a
good central conflict, and it's the only central conflict this movie
But since this is a sequel to the original Blade Runner,
there just has to be a McGuffin that will connect "K”: s story to
Deckard's past. And this is where the movie, at least storywise, falls apart.
The original was a noir detective that made you ask interesting
philosophical questions. It had a small story set in a big world.
The scale of that world, that awe-inspiring grandeur was only hinted at, as the
story remained on the ground-level of the futuristic Los Angeles, and focused
on a handful of characters. These were characters whose motives, and fears we
understood, and even if we couldn't directly relate to them, we could at least
respect their motives.
Take then "K", who is suffering from a bad case of identity
crisis. He is a replicant and he knows it. As loyal and obedient as he is, he's
still scorned by society, and has to endure verbal abuse from other cops on a daily basis.
His nature renders him lonely and isolated. He has no connections to the world;
no friends; no family. As a replicant blade runner his existence is defined by
one thing - terminating other replicants. His life has no meaning outside of
the task he was designed to perform.
So, when "K" is faced with a very real possibility that he
might be human after all, we root for him. We see him for the vulnerable,
lonely human being that he is. Gosling gives a stoical but incredibly heartfelt
performance, bringing this complex character to life. How disappointing is it
then that "K" is the only such character in a movie filled with stock
characters, and rigid stereotypes.
Sure, "K" is surrounded by characters with more or less
defined goals, and motives but their actions are subservient to the plot, and
tell us nothing about who these people are. I want to say that
Deckard is still the complex antihero we remember from the original but there
is nothing in his actions or motivations that would support my argument, as the
only reason he's in this movie is to remind us that we're watching the sequel
to Blade Runner.
Which brings me to my biggest issue with Blade Runner 2049: "K"
isn't the only one with an identity crisis.
Deckard is but an echo if his former self, and has nothing to offer to
the story save for some awkward exposition and quippy lines. And yet, this pale
husk of one of the most interesting characters in cinema takes center stage, as
"K" - the actual hero of this movie - becomes a sidekick in his
own story. The attempts to connect "K" to Deckard's past are not only
clumsy, but also unnecessary, and offer some of the worst examples of nostalgia
bating, and fan-service I have seen in a long time. (Not to sound harsh, but
how much faith did the filmmakers have in their own movie, if they had to
include actual clips and soundbites from the original?)
In other words, Blade Runner 2049 doesn't know what
story it wants to tell. Is it "K”: s story or is it
Deckard's story? The movie's identity crisis is reflected in its tone as much
as in the storytelling itself.
From the opening scene, as the sound effects department was trying to
drown me with ominous music, I got an instant feeling that this movie was
trying too hard.
This movie is trying too hard to be like the original, only bigger, and
louder. Everything has to be twice, four times as big, from the architecture,
to the post-Inception soundtrack. If there is anything we have learned from the
army of sequels, and reboots, is that bigger doesn't always mean
better. Sometimes less is more. But the filmmakers
don't seem to realize that. I want to say that the filmmakers don't seem to realize
what it was that made the original so good, but one of the screenwriters (Hampton Fancher) also co-wrote the original, so I don't really know what to
The world in the original, the monstrous Los Angeles looked and felt
gritty and lived-in. The city felt vibrant and alive not only because of the
neon explosions of colours, but because of the feeling that the filmmakers had
created. Los Angeles of 2019 felt real because of the contrast created between
the bright and glossy advertisement, and the dark dirty back alleys; between
the seedy glamour of the pleasure districts, and the hectic reality of the food
market. Los Angeles was a character, and it had a story to tell. There wasn't a
shot that made the city look desolate, or barren. It was a city plagued by
overpopulation and yet, it was so easy to feel lonely and isolated there.
In contrast, the world of 2049 looks hollow and desolate. We see a lot
of wide shots of barren landscapes and dusty horizons. We see giant ruins that
look like leftovers from a Leni Riefenstahl movie. Visually, this is supposed
to represent "K”: s loneliness and isolation. I get that. However,
Deckard's loneliness and isolation were just as tangible - if not more so -
while he was surrounded by hundreds of people.
This imagery is also supposed to show a world that is slowly falling
apart. For instance, there are mentions of a "blackout" that almost
destroyed the civilization. Meanwhile, the periphery of California is
succumbing to chaos and neglect, as Los Angeles is continuing to grow, not
unlike a tumour. If this is the visual language that the filmmakers have chosen,
fine. I can respect that. But they can't seem to decide what visual language,
what tone they want to adapt. Is it the multiple shades of sepia borrowed
from The Book of Eli, or is it the busy neon colour pallet of
the original Blade Runner? And whenever the movie comes back to its
stylistic roots, it looks like it's trying too hard to look and to sound like
It's tonally dissonant, and doesn't know what kind of movie it wants to
be. Is it a neo noir detective that's faithful to is roots or is it a
post-apocalyptic action flick? What we're left with are a lot of
half-baked ideas, clumsy storytelling, and a very uneven visual tone.
If it seems that I'm making a case against Blade Runner 2049 because
it's a sequel to a much beloved film, this couldn't be further from the truth.
As stated above, I was curious to see what story the filmmakers could tell. I
was looking forward to this movie. Let's
not forget that the original Blade Runner was based on a book.
Yet it was original, and created a legacy of its own. It also created a world
so vast and complex that it seemed almost a crime not to revisit it. It's a
world with a nearly endless amount of possibilities to tell good stories about
interesting people. What a pity is it that the only other entry in this series
we got in over three decades turned out the way it did. *
That's not to say that this movie doesn't have any redeeming qualities.
As mentioned, I like "K”: s tragic story, and Gosling's performance is the
strongest part of this movie. I also like the retro-futuristic visuals in some
of the scenes, and how reminiscent they are of the classic sci fi I love so
much. I respect the ambition, and the effort put in this production. I just wish
the filmmakers had more courage to be original, and make a movie that could
stand on its own.
*PS. There is actually a film that claims to be a "side-quel"
to Blade Runner. It's called Soldier, and it was
written by David Webb Peoples, who also co-wrote the screenplay for the
original Blade Runner. with Hampton Fancher.
Labels: Blade Runner, movie review, science fiction