Denis Villeneuve, 2017,
I know it’s going to take second watch to fully determine what I think of Villeneuve’s continuation of Ridley Scott’s classic. I like Villeneuve ever since I thought the direction of ‘Sicario’ proved exceptional, but I felt ‘Arrival’ had major problems that dented my appraisal of him (although that was more the material than his execution). From the trailer, I thought ‘Blade Runner 2049’ was going to be a more action-filtered rendition of the premise, hyped-up with adrenalin for a modern audience, so I was pleased and surprised that the tone proved to be measured and faintly abstract. In fact, it’s so wilfully – and in my opinion appropriately – languid and conceptual that this seems to obscure its storyline: it has been accused of lacking story, but the storyline seems to me to offer plenty to chew on. A replicant (an artificial human) with an identity/midlife crisis is going about his job of killing other replicants when he is given reason to follow up on his heritage; this leads him to a revelation that makes him think he is special as well as to the narrative of the previous film, but in a nice snub to The Chosen One trope that is so dominant in fiction, he finds he is mistaken. Rather, he sacrifices himself for the greater good. This seems plenty to be getting your teeth into and perhaps it is the overwhelming art-design and mood that leads people to believe the narrative is smothered and lesser than it is.
And this is a gorgeous film. Many times, I found myself marvelling at the visuals, with Roger Deakins’ cinematography accentuating the glare of the opening, the perpetual neon night of Los Angeles and the art design of Jared Leto’s domain. The film is almost overwhelming with visual wonder – many of the urban vistas are breathtaking – but it also abundant with details to sift through: Pan Am adverts left over from the original; 'Peter and the Wolf' as a ringtone; the idea that a personality is just memory on a data stick (an idea completely in tune with Philip K Dick’s agenda); etc. Surely it is a veritable wealth of Easter Eggs that it is impossible to parse on a single watch. On top of that, the holo-Vegas fight and the final battle in a flood are exemplary action pieces.
“K” (Ryan Gosling) has a personality built upon artificially implanted memories, but when he gets home, all he wants is a traditional set-up where a devoted wife-figure serves him dinner and dotes. Is such an old-fashioned domestic desire programmed into him? Indeed, are we to deduce such desires can be credited to his programming or a more independent personality, growing from the programming, and that this vision of an idealised lifestyle is derived from the surrounding patriarchal/misogynistic culture? Nature or nurture? And are we to assume in this future setting that gender-politics haven’t gathered any nuance in the past hundred years, at least? It’s easy to take issue with such details but it remains steadfastly ambiguous and that is surely a strength and a nod to the unresolved questions of the original, questions it snakes around answering and mostly leaves open-ended.
We can maybe attribute “K”’s heterosexuality (and that is presumably programmed too) as triggering the objectified female holograms, but we don’t see any parallel and balancing experiences from the women character’s perspective so it leaves the film wide open for accusations of misogyny. This is mitigated by having Robin Wright as “K’”s boss, even taking advantage of her power by making a pass at him; also by shading Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) by having her seem increasingly saddened during her actions, as if she is asking herself Is this all I am: a murderous replicant? Mark Kermode makes a solid argument that actually it is the women of ‘Blade Runner 2049’ that hold all the power and that it is the patriarchal mindset of the male characters that hinders them in seeing things clearly. More than once, characters are told their attractions are programmed and then the film continues to maintain the air of ambiguity. Perhaps it is human vanity that we wish the replicant characters to be human? But the original surely took a jab at this by having Roy Blatty (Rutger Hauer) in the original be the most soulful character, despite the humans?
Indeed, it is surely the female characters that actually have more to do and show. The men come from the stoic, underplayed side of things, and one of the main frictions is waiting to see if Ryan Gosling will break out of his reserve. When Harrison Ford turns up, he effortlessly shows that you don’t need so much to exude a broken, grizzled machismo. Jared Leto has come in for attack for its high mannerisms, but that is surely a piece with the original replicants. But no, it’s the women that get to show more layers, more evident intelligence and range; and with the female prostititute and assassin replicants, they express a barely subsumed tiredness at working within patriarchal culture is expressed. It’s this that muddies the waters of criticisms for ‘Blade Runner 2049’s gender politics: it’s not that they don’t have some grounding but that it’s working on a more complex terrain than might be originally thought.
The thematic heft of ‘Blade Runner 2049’ is surely stronger than the original, which benefited and may be seen as superior from having a simple film noir narrative and a romantic intention that were instantaneously familiar as a guide through the tremendous art design. That Villeneuve with Michael Green and Hampton Fancher’s screenplay manages to capture and continue much of the ambiguity and abstract tone, smothered in state-of-the-art effects and set design, is surely a remarkable and stubborn achievement (although it might be seen by detractors as just pilfering and imitation). The fact that it is surely to be hotly grilled and debated in many studies to come – not least about its gender politics – is surely indication that, although already mostly warmly received, it’s true worth is yet to come. And even in that, it follows in its seminal original’s footsteps.