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.
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.