Went to see Blade Runner 2049 yesterday.
Here I aim to review the movie not only as a movie, or simply as a sequel, but from the perspective of storytelling, world building, and articulate some of the lessons I’ve learned from watching the entire collection back to back.
Note: I’m not going to go deep into the philosophical themes, not because I don’t care — quite the opposite, I’m deeply invested in these topics — but because there are so many, and they all require a different approach. I’ll reference some of them, of course.
TL;DR (without spoilers)
I liked the movie.
I’m not a hardcore Blade Runner fan, but always appreciated the original’s value both as a movie (even if it didn’t move me) and as a framework in which some very serious and very interesting questions can be debated.
What I liked: I think Dennis Villeneuve managed to do what most of his peers couldn’t: make a sequel that’s worthy of its predecessor. He kept it intimate and personal, with a tight plot and no excess spectacles just because he could do them. The visual effects were solid and subtle, the action is sparingly used within a good rhythm, and the perspective constant.
The actors were fantastic, particularly Ana de Armas’ Joi and Sylvia Hoeks’ Luv.
The mood was constant and well-built, and the soundtrack — although not on the same level as Vangelis’ original — did a good job supporting the visuals.
What I didn’t like: there were moments where I wasn’t sure whether they existed to move the plot along (which makes them clumsy and lazy) or to build a bigger context, perhaps for a third movie (entirely possible, and in that case I can see them work, but leaving them without payoff leaves a certain level of emptiness).
It felt sometimes that the movie can’t decide between being intimate — which came to be the dominating characteristic, and I think that was great — or grandiose. Adventures into the latter felt half-baked and quickly abandoned, and stood out from the overall flow of the movie.
And then there were simply some stupid things where the plot needed to move along, and they did it in the most simplistic way possible. I know the movie ran 2 hours and 43 minutes (and it didn’t feel long, thank to the great pacing) but it could’ve used a handful of extra minutes to fix these.
And now let’s go more in depth, with spoilers. You’ve been warned.
SPOILERS! SPOILERS! SPOILERS AHEAD!
There can be a lot to argue about the short films that were released as part of the movie’s marketing campaign.
I think they’re great in their own right, add a layer of texture to both the original Blade Runner and the new movie alike, without being essential to either the enjoyment or understanding of the latter.
The original Blade Runner had a much applauded air of ambiguity: the question of whether Decker is a replicant or a human is one example.
Neither Villeneuve in the movie, nor Shinichiro Watanabe or Luke Scott tried to resolve that ambiguity. I loved that. They moved on. And that really shows just how personal both these movies are.
What I also liked about these three shorts is that they continue the ones that came before in a realistic fashion. Of course the replicants are only outlawed temporarily. Human greed and ambition knows no bounds. Wallace may be seen as altruistic by keeping famine at bay for humanity, but it’s obviously only a step in his larger plan to become a god. In Nexus Dawn he mentions his ‘patents’ — he’s not giving things away. He wants to rule the universe.
I also liked the different styles and perspectives they brought into the Blade Runner world. Black Out and Nowhere To Run are told from the replicants’ point of view, while Nexus Dawn is from the humans’.
Off-world is off-limits in more ways than one
A lesser storyteller would’ve raised the stakes to make it bigger. The problem with that is that the original Blade Runner relied largely on very personal questions. The new movie does the same, although on occasion wanders into being to grandiose for its own good.
Dragging the whole “replicant revolution” idea into things, and deploying a very on-the-nose messiah-concept didn’t do the movie much good. I think the filmmakers recognized this, because in the end, these wandering lead to nowhere. Which is of course still a problem, especially because the rest of the movie is very tightly knit together, and these aimless setups stand out like a sore thumb.
Their function becomes moving the plot forward, and sometimes it felt like an unearned deus ex machina — for example rescuing K from Las Vegas after the abduction of Deckard. Sure, they’ve set it up somewhat, having Mariette sneak a tracking device onto K, but come on: it was clumsy as hell. (For another thing, the fact that Luv only killed Joi and left K alive, however in-character and intentionally cruel, is a weak way to create conflict. And it’s not like K needed more reason to fight Luv.)
With the exception of a handful of scenes needed for context, K is present in every moment. It’s something to be applauded, because way too many movies sacrifice this intimacy. From the very first moment to the very end we see the world through K’s perspective, and it doesn’t break for a second. This gives the story a very grounded feeling.
I couldn’t help to be reminded of the same way the original accomplished this: it gave every character a reason to be on Earth, instead of shipping out off-world for better and greater things.
That Wallace is residing — presumably — off-world puts his character on a different level than all the others. Jared Leto’s performance sells his character, but also suffers from trying to put a much larger context around the main characters that they don’t need. We don’t need Wallace to get Luv. We don’t need his reasons to understand hers. And we definitely don’t need Freysa’s speech calling for a revolution.
I think Freysa’s line to K about “we all want to be the leader” is completely tone-deaf. K doesn’t want to lead. He doesn’t care about the revolution.
I think the base mystery of Blade Runner 2049 — ‘who is it?’ instead of ‘who done it?’ — is well executed to keep the suspense up. There’s always an air of ambiguity around K and whether his memories are his or someone else’s. This, I think, is much better executed than Deckerd’s and Rachael’s brief exchange about the memories of her mother. Although K knows he’s a replicant, coming to terms that he could be something special, and the implications of that — both on a practical (“we’re going to be hunted”) and theoretical (“who am I?”) level — is well weaved into the fabric of the movie.
Finding out that it’s Stelline who’s the “miracle child” is a good twist. And it’s not revealed until the very end, which is admirable and makes for a good mystery: it’s logical and evident looking back. It’s also a symbolic slap in the face for Wallace, which is made even greater by the fact that he, presumably, has no idea.
Ultimately, it’s this pairing of mystery and keeping the story to a personal level (K’s quest to reunite father and daughter) is what makes the movie work. Anything that tries to go above and beyond this feels out of sync.
Marketing is one thing; storytelling is another
My last point concerns Harrison Ford. Of course the marketing relied heavily his status and pull. But, similarly to The Force Awakens, he’s brought in late and kept to have a subtle presence. Blade Runner 2049 is the story of K, and Deckard doesn’t over-shadow him.
Villeneuve kept him from being a mentor, too, or an all-knowing character, which was awesome. I’ve never understood the hype around Deckard’s blade running: with the possible exception of Zhora, he isn’t shown to be particularly good at it. K, on the other hand, is clearly proficient at his job, and that’s a contrast that goes beyond K being a replicant and Deckard being, most likely, a human.
It also continues his character from the original movie: the same as K he doesn’t give a damn about anything but surviving and being left alone. I like that parallel between their characters, and it also nicely plays into keeping the story level and personal.
Joi to the world
I just have to gush about Joi.
In a movie that’s — against all current trends for a production this size — almost constantly personal and intimate, Joi’s character and function fits in perfectly.
I loved the introduction of Joi, and the constant expansion of her character as things come into context.
And the way Ana de Armas plays her is wonderful.
That said, I can see a backlash against a female character being in such an obviously supportive position — similar to the backlash that for example Belldandy from Ah! My Goddess got from critics. Joi may seem like a stereotypical “magical girlfriend” throwaway at first glance.
But that’s not entirely true. Yes, on the surface Joi may seem like a “slave” or appear exploited, but there are two things to consider:
- she’s a virtual/artificial being, and not having a physical body restricts her options a great deal;
- she’s a virtual/artificial being, designed to be this way. Considering that, she has plenty of agency and individuality, not in the least through K. Not because K — a man — gives her purpose — as a woman — but because their relationship is pure love: supporting each other to the extent of ‘she’ and ‘he’ becomes ‘them’.
In my opinion Joi’s wide-eyed, pure affection toward K isn’t a woman being beholden to a man, but complementing K’s lack of “soul”.
I thought Ryan and Ana had a wonderful dynamic, Joi had a meaningful purpose within the story (and she had that despite not being able to express much agency), which was greatly enhanced by her death. Afterward, when the “stock Joi” interacts with K, it’s evident she was more — through him, because of him, and because of her own volition — than a throwaway character.
And I just loved their “sex scene” — it was beautiful, emotional, and thought-provoking.
Seeing all the Blade Runner movies was highly entertaining — but more than that it was valuable and educational.
On the one hand, as a “kind of” Transhumanist, and generally interested by philosophy, the questions raised fascinate me.
Also, as a writer (read: storyteller) I’ve learned a lot about what to do — and also what not to do. My own projects play nicely along with the neo-noir, deeply philosophical, and open-ended qualities of Blade Runner.
As far as mechanics go, it was valuable to see how to keep a story grounded in the personal and intimate, even when the implications of one’s actions can reach long and far. It’s something I’m very much working on in Between the Lights. The characters as well: being faced with grandiose consequences and still keeping their personal narrative makes for very realistic and interesting personas to play with.
Going back to Joi again, her scenes very the highlights for me as related to my own work. The way they played out those characters and dynamics is something to be taught.
And in general, I would say, what Dennis Villeneuve did with Blade Runner 2049 is how all sequels should be made. Modernize it when it’s needed, but always staying true to the world, to the characters, and to its predecessors.
Cover image source: Destructoid