Blade Runner 2049 (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Robert Cashill
Produced by Andrew A. Kosove, Broderick Johnson, Bud Yorkin, and Cynthia Yorkin; directed by Denis Villeneuve; written by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green; cinematography by Roger Deakins; edited by Joe Walker; production design by Dennis Gassner; music by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch; costume design by Renée April; starring Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Robin Wright, Jared Leto, Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, Mackenzie Davis, Carla Juri, Lennie James, Barkhad Abdi, and Dave Bautista. Color, 163 min., 2017. Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures.
In the summer of 1982, a season rich in noteworthy fantastic films, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Poltergeist, and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan won the battle of the box office. However, three failures, Tron, The Thing, and Blade Runner, left more significant imprints on film culture—not just landmark special effects and design, but themes that resonate thirty-five years later. Disney’s Tron transported us into the brave new world of computer gaming, long before “first- person” POV games were prevalent and Angry Birds and the like could be played on our smartphones. Truer to its short story source, John Carpenter’s intense remake of 1951’s The Thing quite literally turned us inside out, separating humans from the stealthily invading alien presence within.
The costliest flop of the bunch, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner has had the longest coattails. Its DNA is everywhere in the science-fiction universe, most recently Ex Machina (2015) and the chamber piece Marjorie Prime (reviewed in our Winter 2017 issue), which substitutes lifelike holograms for androids. But they ask the same basic pair of questions: What does it mean to be human? And what does it mean to be “More Human Than Human”?
That, as you recall, is the slogan for the Tyrell Corporation, which in the blighted Los Angeles of Blade Runner’s 2019 is churning out humanoid “replicants,” whose lifespans are limited to four years and are targeted by assassin police (“blade runners”) when they depart from programming that renders them slaves. There’s intrigue, and brief, sporadic action beats: Deckard (Harrison Ford), a blade runner, sleuths malfeasance by a small band of replicants who have escaped their “Off World” bondage in the cosmos and returned to Earth seeking more life. There’s romance: Deckard finds temporary solace in the arms of Rachael (Sean Young), the corporation’s most perfect product, even more human than human.
Mostly, there’s noir-like sci-fi atmosphere, from the streets (where crowds fashionably dressed for end times congregate and acidic-seeming rain drizzles on still-standing LA landmarks) to the sky (framed in billowing flames, flying “spinner” cars transport Deckard to Tyrell’s Mayan temple of a headquarters). Take a bow, cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth, production designer Lawrence G. Paull, “visual futurist” Syd Mead, costume designers Michael Kaplan and Charles Knode, all of the effects people, and composer Vangelis, with your swoony, soaring synths—you made dystopia cool, and gave the just- then-deceased novelist Philip K. Dick an afterlife in the movies. No one wants to hang out in the totalitarian, no-fun zones of today’s anxious fantasies, like The Hunger Games or The Maze Runner. But Blade Runner looks like an evening’s romp, with meals of Chinese noodles, stripper “snake shows,” and the chance to philosophize with replicant rebel Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), one of the genre’s most memorable creations. Downtown getting dicey? No sweat, just hop in a spinner, or grab a car, and hightail it into an inexplicable wilderness, like Deckard and Rachael do at the end (or, rather, an end) of the film.
We’re drawn to Blade Runner for its funk, its weirdness, its objet d’art oddities. Scott, however, was displeased, and he spent the next quarter-century refining it. (My preference is the “international cut,” a more violent variant of the initial U.S. theatrical release, preserved on one of the first Criterion laser discs I ever bought, in the late 1980s.) Goodbye, stilted Deckard narration and that climactic dash for wide-open spaces (derived from outtakes from The Shining); hello, tweaked special effects, and “unicorn dream,” and (after more revisions) a “final cut,” that premiered in 2007. “Unicorn dream?” It’s meant to imply that Deckard is himself a replicant, as his fellow blade runner, Gaff (Edward James Olmos), crafts origami unicorns, and has insight into Deckard’s artificially implanted memories. I’m fuzzy on the whole thing, too—there’s just not enough to it to imprint it as a major, definitive change.
This final cut is nevertheless the basis of Blade Runner 2049, arriving after the semi-successful Tron: Legacy (2010) and the blah 2011 prequel to The Thing as cult films resurrected for their hoped-for value. Scott takes a backseat, as an executive producer—fortunately, as Prometheus (2012) and this summer’s dreary Alien: Covenant have besmirched his first genre trend-setter, 1979’s Alien. Returning as screenwriter is Hampton Fancher (a colorful Hollywood figure, and the subject of the recent documentary Escapes, from Marjorie Prime director Michael Almereyda), with Michael Green, who sent Hugh Jackman’s X-Man off to his noble, Roy Batty-esque end in Logan (2017). Directing is Denis Villeneuve, an astute choice. His Prisoners (2013) and Sicario (2015) have thuggish politics, but an eye for composition, and last year’s Arrival is a notable contribution to the subgenre of thoughtful films about alien visitation, like The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951).
Replicating the look of the original is another team of consummate artists, among them cinematographer Roger Deakins, production designer Dennis Gassner, and costume designer Renée April. Mead’s contribution is true to its imagined world—2049 has more, computer-generated spinners, but the characters continue to consult libraries or clunky databases, with no apparent Internet. With top-notch talent, what could go wrong?
Answer: Nothing, not really. (One disappointment is the score, from the Hans Zimmer drone factory, though it’s not as overbearing, or as omnipresent, as the one churned out for Dunkirk.) Blade Runner 2049 is as good as any not terribly necessary sequel arriving a tardy thirty-five years later can be. The major flaw, per Scott and his final cut, is that Deckard and his fellow blade runners, including K (Ryan Gosling), from a newer, more advanced, and subservient product line, are all replicants. Villeneuve, Fancher, and Ford disagree, and the movie bats this around from time to time. (With almost three hours, quite a bit more than its predecessor, there’s a lot of time.) Olmos is brought back for a scene (reminding fans of one of Blade Runner’s superior progeny, the reboot of TV’s Battlestar Galactica), as is Young, or rather an unconvincing simulacrum of the performer. I’ve never understood Scott’s position on all this—the beauty of Blade Runner is that Batty, in saving Deckard as his dying gesture, reminds the assassin of his humanity. But Scott, possessor of one of the more severe and joyless Hollywood résumés (not many laughs or good tidings there), is more attuned to conflict between machines.
And so we have Ryan Gosling’s K, the scourge of older model replicants, whom he is tasked to eliminate, and humans, who distrust the manufactured. (That the people we meet, like Robin Wright’s superior officer, are more coldblooded than the replicants further grays the issue of humanity.) The mystery K has to solve, which eventually leads to Deckard, is one of identity—the remains of a female replicant have been uncovered, indicating that she died in childbirth. This astonishing discovery ripples upwards to the enigmatic Wallace (Jared Leto, as walled off from most of the action as his Joker was in last year’s Suicide Squad), who bought the Tyrell Corporation’s assets but whose attempts at mass production have been stymied. The now-grown child is targeted, something that troubles K, who has never “retired” a human.
Wary, vulnerable (and rockin’ April’s shearling coat, an instant hit among fashionistas), Gosling is a fine addition to the growing stable of actors hitting peaks as androids, including Alicia Vikander in Ex Machina and Evan Rachel Wood on HBO’s Westworld (2016– ). He underplays the soul of the machine, whose assassinations are relieved, literally, by Joi (Ana de Armas), a Wallace-designed hologram that springs from K’s “emanator” device. Joi occasionally lapses into Siri-speak, hawking products (a rare light touch in the Blade Runner universe), but mostly warms and engages the lonely replicant. In the film’s most startling scene, Joi contrives to break free and “become” human, for lovemaking.
Then it’s back to our usual programming, so to speak. The elevator door that clanged shut on Deckard and Rachael in the final cut opened not to Eden but an aborning hellscape, with San Diego a wasteland thirty years later and Las Vegas, where Deckard has been hiding out, in ruins. K asks what became of him, and asks again minutes later, after a digressive exploration of Deckard’s home typical of the longuers of this “director’s cut” length narrative, which is thick with ambiance and heavy on supposition. We do learn that Deckard is also enamored with holograms, of Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, and Frank Sinatra, cultural emblems of the “happy days” 1950s, safer and more conservative than the threatening, alluring urban punk of Blade Runner. If John Wayne showed up the movie might evoke The Searchers, with one character leading another to a domestic reunion that cannot be easily shared, but Blade Runner 2049’s replicant savior narrative doesn’t contain that much emotional turbulence.
This is altogether a tidier, milder follow-up, with no pressing need for subsequent edits to “get it right.” It’s competent and unexciting, including most of the performers—no supporting cast member is as indelible as Hauer, Daryl Hannah, Joanna Cassidy, and several others are in the original. There is, distractingly, a third act push toward another installment, with a “rebellion” component that would align Blade Runner more with the Terminator and Planet of the Apes series, but the affliction of limited theatrical lifespan has struck again. Not that you’re likely to spend much more time on its mysteries. Blade Runner offered the shock of the new, which propagated throughout its genre; Blade Runner 2049 offers the reassurance of the familiar. Not bad, just not enough.
Robert Cashill, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, is a Cineaste Editorial Board Member and the Film Editor of Popdose.
Copyright © 2017 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XLIII, No. 1