Okay, I’ll be honest; this was an idea that I didn’t think would work. In fact, I made a case for why it wouldn’t work on this blog only a few months ago.
As a devoted fan of Sir Ridley Scott’s original (arguably his finest-made film), I just didn’t see a need for a sequel to this standalone, future-noir classic.
Well, I’m happy to say that as of Sunday afternoon, October 8th, I’ve been eating crow with a healthy side order of humble pie. And I’m more than happy to do so. Repeatedly.
“Blade Runner 2049” wildly exceeded my modest hopes for it. In fact, I’d go a few steps further and say that screenwriters Hampton Fancher (cowriter of the original), Michael Green and director Denis Villeneuve (“The Arrival”) have crafted a sequel that ranks among the greatest sequels ever made (“Godfather II” “Bride of Frankenstein” and “The Empire Strikes Back”). One of the common denominators BR2049 shares with those other great sequels is that it not only recreates a world that we originally fell in love with, but it greatly expands upon it.
In BR2049 we see that same acid-rain soaked Los Angeles of the original but projected from that movie’s future, and not our own. It’s a dystopian vision that shares some commonalities with our ‘real’ world but from a different jumping-off point.
This alternate world has holographic girlfriends, flying cars (‘spinners’) and cloned humanoids for slave labor (‘replicants’) for its ‘off-world colonies.’ Our world has FaceBook, hybrid cars, Roombas and the international space station.
But, sadly, one thing both worlds seem to share is a planet on the verge of ecological collapse. The universe of “Blade Runner” is only a few years ahead of us, but sadly that’s one gap we’re all-too rapidly closing in on.
But I digress.
***** SPOILERS FLY LIKE SPINNERS HERE *****
BR2049 picks up 30 years later, and the Tyrell corporation has long gone bankrupt. The Wallace corporation, led by a blind-but-cyber-assisted Niander Wallace (an intense Jared Leto) has taken up Tyrell’s mantle of creating replicants (who are still derisively referred to as ‘skin-jobs’) for use as slave labor in the off-world colonies.
Newer, more compliant replicant models are being manufactured for selective roles on Earth (all replicants were banned on Earth in the first movie). A few of the older models with open-ended lifespans (Nexus 8s) are still operating in secret and are targeted for ‘retirement’ (nee: death). BR2049’s new protagonist is a blade runner named “K” (a perfectly enigmatic Ryan Gosling) who, as a skin-job himself, seemingly operates on the premise that it takes one to know one.
K is first tasked with taking down a burly, musclebound replicant named Sapper Morton (played by ‘Guardian of the Galaxy,’ Dave Bautista), who is trying to eke out a living as a solar protein farmer. They fight, and K is forced to kill him. But his killing of Morton leads to a new mystery; K learns that the bones of the first film’s replicant heroine “Rachel” were buried on Sapper’s property, and it’s later determined that Rachel (last seen fleeing with Harrison Ford’s Deckard in 2019) died in childbirth.
K’s police captain, played by a wonderfully steely Robin Wright (also superb in “House of Cards” and “Wonder Woman”), wants K to simply find the surviving child (an adult now) and kill it. No questions asked. She believes that if it were to live, it could lead to all-out war between replicants and humans. Or at the very least, it would lead to a dilution of the human race. That dilution argument is reflective of the one that racists often make about peoples of differing skin color having children together. And since K is a type of replicant programmed to be compliant to human demands (an Isaac Asimov-ian trait of his model), he appears to be okay with this latest assignment.
In his modest workmanlike apartment (a far cry from Deckard’s spacious digs in the original), K has a holographic girlfriend named “Joi” (a surprisingly effective character played by Cuban-born Ana de Armas); Joi is a VR-companion made & mass-marketed by the Wallace Corporation.
The irony of an ‘artificial’ human seeking companionship and solace in a holographic girlfriend is not lost on the viewer. It’s a wonderfully meta relationship; two differing children of technology seeking connection with each other. And what seems, at first, to be a submissive, guilty pleasure/male-fantasy relationship turns out to be far more.
Apparently the notion of a replicant like K seeking out human companionship (beyond a one-night stand) would probably be verboten in this world. Replicants are fine as prostituting ‘pleasure models’, such as the original’s “Pris” (Daryl Hannah) or BR2049’s newest pleasure model “Mariette” (played by “The Martian” actress Mackenzie Davis), but they’re still not considered ‘real.’ Which is why replicant K seeking refuge from loneliness in the holographic girlfriend Joi is alternately heartbreaking and poignant, despite its outward ‘sleazy’ male-fantasy appearance. K really loves Joi; and not just as a masturbatory sex-fantasy.
It also begs a new question; what exactly is real to the unreal? Isn’t so called ‘real’ life largely a succession of agreed-upon illusions anyway? And just what exactly are the parameters of ‘real’ love? The relationship of K and Joi is 2013’s “Her” taken to the next level.
The image of replicants as a new underclass is also made explicit in the daily prejudice K receives from others living in his own apartment complex, as well as Wallace’s impassioned argument that most of humanity’s greatest achievements were made on the backs of slave labor (unjust to be sure, but not necessarily inaccurate).
In the original film, Deckard’s mission to kill escaped replicants on Earth was fairly cut-and-dry; despite his attraction to Rachel. In this film, the innate inhumanity of human beings against their own creation is put on trial; and this is far more interesting than debating about whether the replicants are ‘real’ or not. This is perhaps the kind of analysis that should’ve been tackled in the first film, but wasn’t. BR2049 takes much of what was seeded in the original and brings it to fruition.
Through a bit of memory-implant suggestion (augmented by a character who is critical to the story), K soon comes to believe that he might be the missing child of Rachel and Deckard (Harrison Ford), and after going rogue, he seeks out that man whom he believes might be ‘his father.’ He takes Joi with him by placing her program within a mobile projection device, and heads to a bleak, dusty, abandoned and still somewhat radioactive Las Vegas; the ground zero of a EMP-like event nearly 28 years earlier. The movie’s Las Vegas is a dry, desolate, warm-hued contrast to the dark, wet, acid-raid soaked Los Angeles. After a series of booby-traps, K finds the reclusive Deckard.
Harrison Ford is in top form here, as he has been ever since his old passion apparently came back online with 2015’s “The Age of Adeline” and “The Force Awakens.” In fact, his performance in this sequel far outstrips his performance in the original movie, despite its relative brevity.
It is in this climactic meeting (on a par with Luke meeting Vader, or Michael confronting Fredo in Havana) that we learn the truth; Gosling, in a fun twist, is not the movie’s ‘chosen one’ (an overused cliche these days), and the two of them set out to find the true daughter (not son) of Rachel and Deckard. Wallace Corporation then violently crashes their Vegas refuge, and Joi’s emitter is destroyed (hence she is effectively ‘killed’). Deckard is then captured by Wallace’s replicant goon squad.
At Wallace HQ, Deckard is tempted with a ‘new’ Rachel (a near-flawless CGI-recreated Sean Young facsimile that is far more realistic than “Rogue One”’s somewhat synthetic Princess Leia) and he is eventually rescued by K as their flying, pursuing spinners crash along the Pacific coastline in an epic, rising-tides battle that is vaguely reminiscent (for me, anyway) of the rain-soaked rooftop confrontation between the younger Deckard and his nemesis-turned-savior Roy Batty.
The last scene has K taking Deckard to meet his daughter. K lays dying in the snow-covered steps. His quest to reunite the child born of a replicant with her father is complete.
K is not the movie’s ‘chosen one’ and he lost everything to help others. K is truly more human than human. He embodies those best qualities of humanity that we all covet and only occasionally achieve.
What could be more human, right?
In my blogs, I sometimes tend to make laundry lists of things I like and don’t like. But in this case, I don’t really have a ‘don’t like’ list; so I just want to jot down a few little extras of the movie that were greatly appreciated:
* Edward James Olmos’ cameo as Gaff.
In a wonderful bit of continuity, the former L.A. policeman Gaff (played by Edward James Olmos then and now) is sought and found by K in a high-rise nursing home. Olmos’ steely gravitas is largely intact (as are his character’s blue contact lenses). And hearing Olmos use bits of “Streetspeak” again is a nice geek-out moment. Was this moment 100% necessary? No, but I’m glad that it’s there, nevertheless.
* Denis Villeneuve’s interpretation of the “Blade Runner” universe.
Watching BR2049, I’ve no doubt that this is the same universe seen in the original movie, but we see it in a new light (literally and figuratively). Cinematographically, there is more ambient light in this vision of the Blade Runner universe. It has a fluorescent aura that gives this universe a slightly less dark/grimy appearance. But at times it also adds a wan complexion to this dying ecosystem. The first movie’s signature golden ‘liquid lighting’ (seen in Tyrell’s lobby) is perfectly recreated in Niander Wallace’s inner chamber. And the persimmon glow to the Vegas scenes feel almost as if they could exist in the “Mad Max Fury Road” universe.
This new film is every bit as gorgeous and meticulously photographed as Sir Ridley’s original.
* A deeper exploration of the replicants.
Other than Rachel’s tears and Roy Batty’s beautiful death scene soliloquy, we didn’t really get a sense of what it meant to be a replicant in the 1982 original (other than that they desperately wanted to live). In this film, we learn so much more about them; their desires for love, their frustrations, and their lack of respect in the very society they serve. They’re not just desperate refugees; they’re a culture. Through K, the audience has an avatar into a replicant’s life. We don’t just see K on the hunt; we see (and feel) K simply attempting to live. That was the fleeting goal of the replicants of the first movie, and we finally see it realized here.
* Deckard’s replicant/human status is left ambiguous.
Deckard still may or may not a replicant; just like his pet dog he keeps for company in Las Vegas. Asked by K if his dog is synthetic or not, Deckard responds with “Ask him.” In other words; who gives a shit? Deckard’s ambiguous human/replicant status still works whichever way the viewer chooses. Either replicant Deckard and replicant Rachel had a baby together (which would be miraculous), or a human Deckard had a baby with replicant Rachel (equally miraculous, and reminiscent of Helo and Sharon from “Battlestar Galactica”). I was in the “Deckard-is-a-replicant” camp, and after BR2049? I’m still not convinced that I was wrong. BR2049 takes a nagging persnickety question from the Final Cut of the movie and leaves it, well… persnickety. And once again, I’m okay with that. Not all question demand answers. It’s art, not an interrogation.
* The cast.
Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Robin Wright, Ana de Armas, Mackenzie Davis, Edward James Olmos, Jared Leto, Sylvia Hoeks (as ironically-named homicidal replicant “Luv”) and “Walking Dead” alum Lennie James (as a latter-day Fagin right out of Dickens) all deserve one hell of a bow. Not a weak link among them.
* The retro-technology and alternate history.
A wise decision was made by the writers and director Villeneuve to preserve the original’s future vision in an alternate reality ‘bubble universe’ rather than make it ‘fit’ with ours (that continual need to align with reality has afflicted the Star Trek universe to this day). Blade Runner’s original ‘future’ of 2019 is now two years away. Rather than retcon its own past, the filmmakers choose not to flinch. Their new ‘future’ of 2049 is extrapolated from the future we saw then; and not the future projected from our current ‘now.’ We see clunky, cathode ray tube monitors; which have been obsolete in our own time for nearly a decade or so. The personal computers seen in the movie are a bit more cumbersome, but other technologies are more advanced; such as holography and virtual sight-devices. We see sleeker-looking Spinners that are still very recognizable from designer Syd Mead’s originals.
Apparently there was more congruity in both universe’s pasts; in fact, both had Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley (“Only Fools Rush In” is Deckard’s favorite song, as we learn in a rare humorous moment). But sometime after the 1970s, the worlds diverged considerably. But the decision to keep the retro-future of the original film intact works. Much as the 1984 film adaptation of George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” wisely eschewed references to Michael Jackson, or slipped in product placements for Pepsi and Nike shoes. The people of the bleak Oceania are their own culture; as are the dystopian occupants of the Blade Runner universe. No matter how different our own future becomes, it’s oddly comforting (as a fan) to know that the Blade Runner universe exists independently and unaltered by our world’s events and advances.
Once again, in the tradition of the best sequels, BR2049 is familiar but new enough to expand upon what we’ve seen. This is not just a meticulously recreated rehash of the original; this is mostly new territory that uses the original as a jumping off point. In fact…
**** POTENTIAL SELF-BLASPHEMY AHEAD *****
… I may be in danger of blaspheming myself, but after a nice long night’s sleep on it, I’ve come to the conclusion that I actually enjoyed this movie even more than the 1982/2007 Final Cut of the original.
I know, I know. I’ve often said that “Blade Runner” is one of my all-time favorite movies and it still is. But in all honesty it feels somewhat shallow in comparison to its deeper and more bountiful sequel. All of those intriguing little ideas that were brought up (or rather inferred) in the original are brought to maturation here.
I once questioned this movie’s need to exist. Now, my initial fears/doubts are officially null and void. In fact, I wouldn’t mind another movie set in this universe, but only if it can be as thoughtful and intriguing an exploration as “Blade Runner 2049.”
It’s a crime that this movie isn’t a huge box office hit right now, but then again, the original wasn’t a smash success in its own time either. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if it eventually surpasses the original in the collective pop culture psyche; it’s already done so within my own.
This is not only one of the greatest sequels yet made, it may very well be one of the best science fiction movies ever made. Sequel or not.