What We Liked (And Didn't Like) About Blade Runner 2049

Last Friday, Blade Runner 2049, the sequel to the iconic cyberpunk film, hit theatres. Staff writers Gita Jackson and Heather Alexandra checked it out this weekend, and, as you might imagine, there's a lot to digest in this nearly three hour film.

Image: Blade Runner 2049

Gita Jackson: Hello Heather! You and I watched Blade Runner 2049 over the weekend, and it certainly was a movie.

Heather Alexandra: It was! I think it's fair to say that both of us had a lot of trepidation heading into this. We're both pretty big fans of Blade Runner's final cut; the movie set the standard for a lot of neo-noir and cyberpunk tropes. Following it up felt like A Bad Idea™ but 2049 ended being a pretty good movie.

Gita: Well, after I simmered on the movie a bit, it soured a bit for me. I think it's an accomplished piece of filmmaking, but I'm still not really sold on why this had to exist as a Blade Runner story, or why these story beats needed to be added to the Blade Runner universe.

Certainly not gonna kick Denis Villeneuve's work with light and shadow out of bed, but my big takeaway is that it is a pretty, interesting, but ultimately overstuffed movie that doesn't give its thematic elements time to breathe. In short, it's Blade Runner fanfic, filmed lavishly.

Heather: I suppose we should set the stage quickly. 2049 takes place about 30 years after the first film. After a major blackout destroyed a lot of records and replicant rebellions led to the old Tyrell company from the first movie going under.

Instead, there's new replicants made by a man named Wallace, played by Jared Leto. It wipes the slate clean a bit, which is why we can have a main protagonist like K who is... gasp! a replicant who hunts other replicants!

Gita: This is, immediately, where it begins to feel fanfic-y to me. Like, right from the start this feels like an extremely self indulgent way of trying to insert more story onto the end of a story that already had a conclusion. Not that self indulgence is bad!

Heather: I think some of the self indulgence comes from the fact that Hampton Fancher, who also handled the screenplay for the original Blade Runner, is back on this project. Blade Runner has a notoriously contentious production history and it feels like Fancher's script (co-written by Logan screenwriter Michael Green) wants to do a lot of the things he couldn't do back '82.

Gita: I think you told me that the very first scene was from Fancher's original script?

Heather: Right. The opening scene is a riff on an early pass for Blade Runner. If I recall correctly, Deckard retired a replicant on a farm in one of the initial drafts.

That didn't make it in, so Fancher slides it into 2049 except this time it's Officer K involved in a replicant v. replicant battle with Dave Bautista. Indulgent? Probably. But still moody and exciting, at least for me.

Gita: You remember me SCREAMING when I saw Bautista in the credits right? Still not over it!

Heather: I don't blame you. He's in it very briefly. That noted, I think this film has some pretty good casting. Gosling is a good lead here, although he doesn't have to emote much for a while. But secondary characters like Robin Wright's police chief or Wallace's super scary replicant assistant Luv all feel pretty good here. It's a bit broad, but this is noir so I can mostly forgive that.

Gita: Robin Wright's role is perhaps my favourite piece of acting in this movie. She's K's chief at the station and there's an aggressive but also affectionate relationship between her and the replicant she's hired as a blade runner.

2049 occasionally dips into a story of discrimination and minority groups, and the conversations that Wright's character has with Gosling uncomfortably mirrored some conversations I've had in places of work.

Heather: "You get along fine without one." "What? "A soul."

Gita: WOOF, Heather. Woof.

Heather: It's a good line! When this movie hits, it hits hard.

Gita: Or just the way she demands that he tell her one of his implanted memories -- crossing a boundary that he doesn't want to cross, but he does it because she is his superior. Still, the story of discrimination is hard to swallow when the amount of minority actors in the film with speaking roles could all be counted on one hand.

Heather: Right. It's also component that many Blade Runner fans seem to dismiss in favour of focusing on the world building and mood. These are stories of police violence against minorities, economic divisions, and more.

The first film sometimes leans into that before backing off. 2049 had a chance to really explore those things but the casting reveals different priorities entirely.

Gita: The first half hour of the movie really puts an emphasis on K being a replicant who hunts other replicants. But instead of diving deeper into that, we follow another plot thread that ends up being the bulk of the film. It's a secret replicant baby. They did a secret baby plot.

Heather: It's a bit predictable and turns the focus from social issues to something a bit broader. This is less about how we treat the "other" and what it might mean if certain boundaries break down between humans and machines.

In this, I think the movie does a decent job, if only because the general conclusion isn't much more grand than "we don't know and it might honestly not matter." Is K more human than Deckard? It doesn't matter in the end; each of them finds their own reasons for existing.

Gita: Here's something I really wanted to ask you, Heather. 2049 touches on a lot of issues that Nier: Automata does. It's less a question of whether robots are humans than what is it about humanity that's worth preserving. How do you think they compare? I know games have the virtue of telling these stories over many many hours, but I found it interesting how many times I found myself thinking "oh, they talk about this in Nier."

Heather: The piece I kept coming back to was 2012's Binary Domain. It also has people who don't know if they're artificial and one of the major plot complications is what happens to their children.

Both Binary Domain and Nier: Automata tend to fall on the side that individuals are less "what they are" and more "what they do." That's here in 2049 as well. K finds himself in the act of dying for something he believes in: protecting Deckard's child. Being a replicant is an afterthought in the end. K is not the sum of his literal parts; he's the end result of personal choices and deeds.

2012's Binary Domain

Gita: I really like K's overall character arc in that regard. But I must say I abhor the actual meat and bones plot of the film. I am really not here for "omg what if Rachel and Deckard had a baby?" It feels particularly lazy and undeveloped, and the more I think about the more annoyed I get that this is where they went with it.

Heather: On a practical level, the film also stumbles thanks to some more modern directorial decisions. Flashbacks to previous information, subtitles for different languages, faster editing in general. And while Roger Deakins is a good DP and the movie is still visually impressive, it doesn't quick match up with the work Jordan Cronenweth pulled off in Blade Runner. 2049 is cleaner, faster, and less contemplative than its predecessor.

Gita: It's the less contemplative that really gets me. While K gets a lot of time and open space to sit in silence and emote, allowing the audience to consider the world and the implications of its politics, it seems like those scenes are there at the sacrifice of clean explanations of plot beats.

I am usually not a person who even cares if plots "make sense" as filmmaking is a messy business, but watching this movie as a critic as opposed to a layperson really laid bare for me that this is a tone piece less than it is a coherent story. But if it's a tone piece, its themes need to be clear. Like, let me get into K's AI girlfriend subplot for a second.

Heather: Yes, let's! There's some ambiguity there that I like but the end result had most of the audience at our theatre snickering.

Gita: I love K's AI girlfriend, Joi. I really like the subplot that they have. She's a hologram that is literally designed to love you, but what she and K have is really pure.

They do actually feel love for each other, even if there is an infinite amount of Jois in the world. In fact, Joi experiences the closest to what an AI can experience as death for K -- her memories are deleted from the source and uploaded essentially into a portable emulator, which is later destroyed.

She specifically says she is ok with that because it makes her more of a "real girl," and "realness" is something she has been seeking with K over the course of the movie. But (and I start so many sentences with but), this subplot doesn't get... time. That's so complicated! And Joi gets so little time to be a character!

Heather: I think it's a busy concept to explore in a movie that's already trying to figure out more literal questions of flesh and machine. What does it mean to be a program and can a digital being fall in love? Is this all just her programming acting out? All interesting questions but because it moved so fast, it seemed to leave a lot of people in the audience a bit incredulous.

Gita: When K briefly thinks he's the secret replicant messiah baby, she insists on giving him a name. When Joi insistently called K "Joe," our audience was laughing. Did they even have the time to consider her as someone with personhood?

Heather: We also get a really imaginative sex scene out of their relationship but without more development between K and Joi, that also feels somewhat forced. The concept is cool and a gorgeous scene yet there's something about it that seems gratuitous in a film that already runs nearly three hours.

I think it's meant to run parallel to Deckard and Rachel's stuff from the first movie but that relationship's portrayal has a mountain of problematic stuff going on so the comparison fizzles a bit.

Gita: And that's not even starting on the secret replicant revolution, Mackenzie Davis's sex worker spy circle, the politics of being a replicant blade runner, Jared Leto's nightmare Silicon Valley CEO character ... the list goes on.

A lot of interesting ideas proposed, but not fulfilled. And yet, despite this mountain of complaints. I can't bring myself to say that the movie is bad.

Heather: Right. It's not must watch and doesn't necessarily justify its existence in full but there's still a lot of good stuff. Solid action, a score that's good even if it can't compare to Vangelis' work, and it's also just a good looking movie.

Gita: I keep thinking about the beautiful, beautiful final fight scene between Luv and K. It's on a beachfront, at night. The tide is coming in. Neither K nor Luv will yield. It's backlit, like so many of Villeneuve's scenes, so it's two aggressive, agile shapes, hurling themselves at each other.

Heather: It's vicious but there are moments of beauty in that viciousness. Bold silhouettes clashing, the occasional rush of azure blue water covering it all.

Gita: All against the sound of the tide -- something that is soothing and calming, but also a threat to them.

Heather: In general, the film is really good about making things seem both epic while paradoxically impressing just how small everyone is. Their struggles matter deeply but when you pan back, it's just uncaring cityscapes, wild oceans, or endless ruins.

Gita: It's a more thoughtful series of images than it is a thoughtful story. And that's fine. But mostly it made me want to watch Ridley's Blade Runner again.

Heather: I'll see it again. It's gorgeous and occasionally lands some heavy blows. I love noir and cyberpunk; this is a great addition to the genre. But I don't know if folks need to rush to their nearest theatres right now either.

Gita: It seems like they aren't! The box office for this movie is not looking great. But it wasn't great for Ridley's Blade Runner either, and that's now become a classic thanks to home video sales. Who knows? Maybe when 2049 hits Blu-Ray, I'll be able to enjoy it more, despite its faults.


Comments

    tl;dr

    Saw it on Sunday with the miss. It was a pretty good film, I thought. Not a bad entry to the Blade Runner "franchise". There's room for another movie, but I don't think it's one that needs to be made.

    I thought the Joi/K love storyline was a bit excessive but it was okay I guess.

    I think the problem the reviewers have is not quite with the movie itself, but with the weight of expectation for a cult classic sequel; one they acknowledge as being extremely memorable. And, to be fair, it's a common problem. Memory will always trump reality. The good old days are really not quite as good as you remember. It may have been better for them to have forgotten that it's a sequel, and judge the movie purely on its own merit.

    This is a very good movie. Excellent even. As noted by the reviewers, the visuals are stunning. What they didn't mention was the realisation of a future tech-noir world is superb. It felt like a real, living, breathing (choking?) entity. I thought they did an excellent job here. The story was less about the replicant baby, but rather what that means to an acknowledged replicant. The uncovering of his desire to be real, through the discovery of its possibility.

    The movie ain't perfect, sure. There are a number of times you'll wonder what's going through K's head. He doesn't give much away with that stoic expression. There are some topics touched on, like Artificial Intelligence, that feel a little squandered. Still, there's only so much time, and the movie had other things to concentrate on. The villains felt flat, and I wasn't quite sold on their motivations.

    It may not quite reach the status of Blade Runner, but I'm certain 2049 will grow on people of that cult. You just have to let it become memory. It'll sit more comfortably next to the original that way.

    In any case, it gets a very recommended from me. Go see it. I'm glad I did.

    Last edited 10/10/17 5:16 pm

      I agree 100%. I only saw Blade Runner last year (I actually just chucked it on one night before I even knew there was a sequel coming) so my nostalgia for it is almost non-existent. It was an awesome film, I really liked it, but i thought this was a similarly awesome film. I remember walking out of it thinking "Wow, they didn't Hollywood the shit out of it!"

      I loved how the first film ended in this small scale climax (the way so many older films did) and that the sequel stayed true to that. This isn't about half a city getting destroyed and an impossibly powerful enemy, it all boiled down to a messy fist-fight.

      Anyone who saw it and thought it was even close to bad needs to take a good hard look at the current film landscape. It's the slimmest of slim pickings for films with budgets this big and concepts this cerebral. Even with that considered, the film is just flat out good.

      I have a saying when it comes to choosing the movies I actually go to see at the cinemas:
      "If it's Gosling, it's gold."

    This conversation/review the most like how I felt about 2049. Especially about how Robin Wright's character is the most interesting - she seem to be the only character in the film who has inner conflict between her goals and how she feels about K. Her conversation in his apartment was the closest in terms of pace and storytelling that I could relate back to noir.

    In rewatching original Blade Runner post 2049, Blade Runner which may have seemed slow beforem suddenly seems economically efficient with how they presented their ideas world and mythology on-screen. Also how pretty much every single character on screen is interesting and worth emotional investment in.

    Luv and K together were poor substitutes for Roy Batty. I liked that Rachael was brought back, but I can't make up my mind about whether what happened to her was needlessly cruel or not. If she was Tyrell's perfect creation, I would have thought for sure that she would have been held in higher regard from both the resistance and Wallace. seeing her remains both highlighted what is so disturbing about replicants being used as slave labour but also seemed like a fridging of the character.

    The sex overlay (the steak dinner over microwave dinner sequence was enough) and the 'is he my father arc' was totally pointless- the fight itself was completely a moment where you coud go take a toilet break.

    I did like the part where he finds the wooden horse - dreams and memories turning out to be true is really terrifying when done well - especially the mulholland drive beast/monster section.

    At 2:45 hours I really doubt it's going to become a classic like the original. The film is slower paced than the tree of life (which i have fond memories of), and even terence malck was smart enough to cut all the spacey bits into a seperate film.

      Just saw this last night and loved it.

      Re the "is he my father arc" - I absolutely disagree that this is pointless. This is the fundamental arc of the film. The "is he my father" arc and the implanted memories are what lead K to break out of his programming. The suggestion that he might be real, in a sense, leads him to reach beyond his soulless existence. It's that very question of "Am I real?" that makes him real. When he finds out that he was not born but made, that's the pivotal point of the film to me. It's when he realizes he's not special, that Deckard is *not* his father, that's his biggest low, that's when he thinks he's just a machine and is ready to follow the orders of the rebellion. AND YET, he is still able to make his own conscious choice rejecting the rebellion's request for him to kill Deckard (the pivotal point of which comes I think when he sees the giant hologram of Joi on the bridge and thinks back to how she *chose* to be a real girl and perhaps was real), instead choosing to reunite him with his daughter and find a new way. This is how he proves his humanity and that he's beyond his programming. That he proves that he's a real boy, and that it's irrelevant whether he was born or made. That to me is at the very core of the film. I also feel unclear about what you're trying to say about how they treated Rachel's character in this film. What does seeing her bones have to do with the rebellion's treatment of her? The bones were dug up in the investigation...she was buried there under the tree (respectfully) by the replicant at the beginning of the film. The rebellion did their best to protect her and the child and when she died, they buried her under a tree. Where is the cruelty or the lack of respect? I feel like you may have misread something in the film?

      Last edited 11/10/17 3:58 am

        I was unclear since I write these things in haste.
        I think most of the things I wrote had more to do with the world outside the film.
        This is probably the third time we've seen Harrison Ford take on the role of an absent father in the last decade - for ALL his major characters - Indiana Jones, Star Wars now Blade Runner- this has definitely been the best time he's done it - on an emotional level. I haven't seen it again but if I were to, I would feel that on a rewatch and going in with the knowledge, the long one-sided punch up would have a lot less emotional weight, so in retrospect, maybe I did enjoy that particular plot, but with Deckard trying to kill K it seemed like a tangental sequence from point A to point B.

        The Rachael stuff, I still haven't wrapped my head around yet. I think my dislike of her scenes stems from a Aliens to Alien 3 reaction. It seemed like a shame to kill the real Rachael offscreen during childbirth. The original film leans so heavily on Film Noir tropes and archetypes, that killing her off, was like killing off Lauren Bacall in a fictional sequel to a Bogie and Bacall movie.

        It could even be a personal thing, where I prefer to not think about the decomposition of a non-fictional or fictional character and have a memory of a person as they were.

        furthermore
        I still think the film is too long though and the visuals of this new film as elegantly shot by roger deakins doesn't compare the hand crafted look of the first film. It's could also be a thing where all the overall plots just didn't resonate in any real 'feelings' for the characters. I'd say the music played a big part in this- very blaring and mechanical, rather than those beautiful synths and slightly sleazy sax tones mixed with world music.

      I think the sequel's in a tough position. It simultaneously has to re-setup the world of Blade Runner for new or lapsed audiences while also adding enough new elements and characters to justify its own existence. It's probably a key reason for the long run time.

      I actually liked how Wallace, for example, didn't get a whole lot of screen time. He was a just a CEO that was somewhat indirectly responsible for the personal struggle of our protagonists. His henchwoman was the direct threat and naturally she got the lion's share of the screen time. I think the film was economical in lots of ways about who or what to give screen time to.

      The only time I rolled my eyes was when they fell victim to the digitised face of an older actor nonsense that's in every single blockbuster these days. It's not impressive, it's not cool, it just looks dumb and it immediately pulls me out of the story.

        You're right, they didn't Hollywood the crap out of it, it could have been a lot worse. My bias lies in the way that after so many years, original Blade Runner probably is a masterpiece that I would place in my top 5 because of how I can go back to it every year or so and still find stuff to notice. I have my doubts about this film.

        Luv the henchwoman - she did get a lion's share of the screentime, she was fine and she was never going to make the same impact as Rutger Hauger, but her role was really thin. I felt like I got more of a sense of Pris, and Zhora's characters from the limited time they did have.

        She had a little more depth than say depth as Milla Jovovich in Zoolander, angry, doesn't like killing people or seeing people killed if she can help it but does it anyway. Not much of a character ARC unfortunately, and she doesn't help in making me care about replicants in any sort of meaningful way considering she's the main antagonist.

        I was fine with the digitised actor in that you knew and was meant to feel like a fake version of the original replicant but the way she was taken out just felt like it was done for shock value, like Newt and Hicks of Aliens.

          I agree that the digitised face was there to look weird (and it was the first time in film there was an actual connection between the real-world technology's failure and the story itself), I just roll my eyes every time I see that stuff. It just seems like "What can we do?" instead of "What should we do?" filmmaking.

          I agree as an antagonist she was less compelling and weird than the original's antagonist. But I think they established early on that she was equally a prisoner of Wallace as she was an ally. The birthing / dying scene for example. She wasn't entirely two dimensional.

          If you really think about that end sequence, K was more of an antagonist than Luv was. Deckard was supposed to die. He was supposed to die to protect his daughter and the future of the replicants, but K projected his own feelings onto the situation and created a more dangerous situation for all of them. Wallace won't give up, he'll just hunt them even more aggressively now.

          I think the idea of a sequel to an older film is rarely a good idea. Hell, I think sequels in film are rarely a good idea. But I think that if we accept that the Blade Runner sequel is a thing, it was good against tough odds.

          Ultimately I didn't want to see the same film as the first one. I didn't want it to hit all the same story beats. I liked the new tone and the less wooden acting overall. People forget that everyone in Blade Runner delivered in a really dry (and by today's standards, kind of jarring) way.

          Really, we can't tell for sure what's going to stand the test of time and what isn't, the original film has flaws just like the new one does. Hindsight is 20/20, and this one's just come out.

    Great director and cast, but to be honest I seriously wasn't interested in seeing the Blade Runner world revisited. Will probably never see this. And going by the opening box office results in the U.S., I'm guessing they weren't interested either.

    It was hard for me not to feel this movie as... Am I human? Where is Deckard? Here’s your daughter.

    Honestly felt dragged through it all rather feeling any kind of ‘aha!’ moments.

    Great sound and vision.

    In the 3rd sequel it turns out K and Hologram girl have a baby now living in cyberspace somewhere...

    This movie is brilliant and all of these misinterpreted plot comments are gonna make me lose my mind. There is so much to take away from this movie as it chews on ideas of "what is real".

    MANY people have widely missed the mark on Joi (literally falling for the fallacy marketed to K - the whole point is to show that she has no real personhood, not by virtute of anything K's version of Joi says or does, but when the Joi billboard containing the slogan 'everything you want to hear' calls him "joe" by default). Similarly re "secret baby" plots (a really concrete move re freedom and self determination); and the sub plot politics of K being a blade runner (watch him walk through the police station, walk through his front door, speak to his boss, desire/motivation for something like joi...); and the evil CEO (just... I don't even want to start on that one).

    Point being, there's a lot going on in the film, it is beautiful and well thought out and its not going to hold your hand about it. You really will miss a lot, e.g. Joi, if you're not invested in watching it (saw it twice already)

      Yeah I'm glad someone else loved the Joi dynamic. Seeing him taunted by the far more demonic version of her late in the film really highlighted the fabricated nature of their relationship (and the fabricated nature about a lot of human relationships).

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