Thursday, October 12, 2017

Cells Within Cells, Interlinked: Blade Runner 2049

Ryan Gosling in Blade Runner 2049. (Photo: Stephen Vaughan)

Note: This review contains spoilers for Blade Runner 2049.

I have a . . . complicated relationship with Ridley Scott. I’m skeptical enough of his work, both old and new, that the prospect of a sequel to one of his better-loved films – directed by another filmmaker, to boot – was less than appetizing to me. I simply didn’t agree that the world needed more Blade Runner; Scott’s visually gorgeous 1982 tone poem was a sumptuous enough meal for me (if not a very nutritious one), whose working elements felt like they would be next to impossible to recreate. Learning that Denis Villeneuve, one of my favourite filmmakers, was the one being tapped for the sequel only served to complicate my feelings further. The casting of Ryan Gosling as the new blade-running protagonist boded well; the inclusion of Hollywood’s chief aging grumpypants, Harrison Ford, did not. It was nearly impossible to calibrate my expectations, so . . . I chose not to. I tried to ignore the marketing campaign for Blade Runner 2049 (except for the tie-in short films, which I thought were brilliant). I went to see it with very little idea of what I was in for.

I’m still having trouble processing what I saw. 2049 is a stunning movie in every sense of the word: visually arresting and confidently realized, yet with muddled ideas and languid, stupefying pacing. It creates a dreamlike atmosphere that lulls you into a state of detachment, where your mind is free to drift on what Villeneuve is using this well-known property to say . . . or not say. The film raises thematic questions that it doesn’t answer, occasionally in the interest of maintaining a sense of mystery, and occasionally because it doesn’t seem to actually have anything coherent to say. Sometimes, both director and film are maddeningly quiet.

The film’s text engages directly with the subtext of its predecessor, which I find to be a refreshing approach for a sequel – doubly so, given that 2049 is smart enough to leave the big burning questions open-ended. I‘ve come to find the question of whether Deckard was human in Blade Runner to be an irritating one, since I think that film works best as a sort of poetic allegory that contrasts the cruelty and pettiness of its human characters with the empathy and passion of its non-human  characters, exemplified by an extremely unlikeable – and therefore all too human – protagonist (Scott’s shoving of a unicorn dream sequence into his director’s cut notwithstanding). 2049’s opening exposition, shown in a series of sentences that flash on screen, immediately addresses this Harrison Ford-shaped elephant in the room: if he’s a replicant, the way Scott (and many cinephiles online) insist he is, then how is it he survived beyond the artificially shortened lifespan that was fatal to Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) and all the other Nexus 6 replicants? Ah, but there was another model, say the expository titles, the Nexus 8s, and they have lifespans of an indeterminate length. There, in the first thirty seconds of screen time, Villeneuve introduces an even muddier mythology that seeks to double down on the deliberate ambiguity that should always have remained, free of meddlesome input, at the core of Blade Runner.

2049 does present a similar quandary about the true nature of its protagonist, but this is more a function of the film’s detective story, and also a springboard towards the material Villeneuve (and screenwriters Hampton Fancher & Michael Green) are really interested in. The question of whether Joe/Agent K (Gosling) is “the child,” the proof of the miracle of replicant reproduction, propels the plot forward towards the climax, but once we learn that he’s not that child – that, whether he was born or made, he is not the symbol for his kin to rally behind – then 2049 is finally free, finally released from the shackles of both its predecessor and its own plot. By the time that happens, though, the movie’s mostly over, and there isn’t room left to explore anything else – leaving its many thematic threads floating in the radioactive wind. 2049 uses the structure of a traditional hard-boiled noir – and quite a handsomely crafted, gratifying one at that – to claw its way free of those very same genre conventions and attempt to drop a true thematic payload. Its ideas about identity, genesis, legacy, love, and consciousness are not new to the sci-fi genre, but are expressed with more sensitivity here than in Blade Runner, even if the conclusions being drawn about them are untethered. That 2049 delivers a satisfying cinematic experience, and yet struggles with its semiotic ambitions, is a bit like the struggle the replicants face in their attempt to realize their “more human than human” potential. I can’t credit the filmmakers with this doubtlessly unintentional connection, but I expect that in years to come we’ll still be picking the movie apart thanks to details like this – which speaks to the kind of clever filmmaking that comes much more naturally to Villeneuve than to his predecessor.

Robin Wright and Sylvia Hoeks in Blade Runner 2049. (Photo: Stephen Vaughan)

On its face, 2049 is an embarrassment of riches. Cinematographer Roger Deakins delivers a bleak and pitiless portrait of the kind of future humanity has earned for itself, full of flawless artificiality and organic decay. I cannot overstate the impact of the film’s visual palette; this is even more of a watershed moment in cinematic expression through the art of colour and composition than Blade Runner itself was, and I expect it too will shape our popular conceptions of the texture and technology of future life for decades to come. 2049 one-ups the original film in most other ways, too, offering writing that easily surpasses the 1982 script by Fancher and David Peoples with its clean narrative functionality and occasionally lyrical style (Robin Wright’s character expresses the dire ramifications of one of Joe’s discoveries by telling him that “this breaks the world”), and performances that effortlessly outclass the hammy, inconsistent work that Scott brought out of his original cast. Gosling taps into the same "strong silent type” vein that he mined for Refn’s Drive, which owes its lineage to the same pulp-detective-story archetypes that Villeneuve plays with in this snowy collars-up dystopia. But Gosling’s Joe – to use the character’s chosen name – is a far more sympathetic and relatable protagonist than Deckard ever was, and this endears 2049 to me immensely. The relationship subplot between Joe and his holographic girlfriend, Joi (Ana de Armas), is a marvelous thing, a true joy to behold – a strange sci-fi romance that trades in tenderness, oddness, humour, and beauty (which, it’s safe to say, is a far cry from Deckard’s pushy and not-fully-consensual relationship with Sean Young’s Rachel in Blade Runner). Jared Leto, whose acting choices are almost always questionable to me, tunes his portrayal of blind tycoon Niander Wallace to a fascinating (if extremely strange) frequency, and Sylvia Hoeks brings a cold, barely restrained power to his right-hand woman, Luv. Even Ford, who rarely shows any interest in committing to a role apart from the bare minimum required to earn his paycheque, took the opportunity to slip back into the self-loathing that originally defined Deckard, and delivers a more motivated, haunting performance than he’s given in years. The film’s languid, unhurried pace – and nearly three-hour runtime – may alienate many audiences, but I enjoyed the experience of luxuriating in its visuals and atmosphere like a hot bath. Its “hard sci-fi” elements, though few and far between, aere also strongly compelling (like the “baseline test” intended to measure a replicant’s level of subservience through a disquieting sort of poetic interrogation). Leaving the film, I felt an overwhelming sense of relief that it not only turned away from the many, many different ways it could have gone awry, but asserted its own identity too. Every time I thought 2049 was going to do something typical of stupid Hollywood blockbuster sequels and remakes, it did something smart instead. Well . . . most of the time, anyway.

Where 2049 badly errs is in its perspective, or lack thereof. The film relegates its female characters, with only minor exceptions (like Robin Wright’s Lieutenant Joshi, who represents a clever upgrade to M. Emmet Walsh’s original gruff police chief), to tired archetypes, and almost entirely omits people of colour in terms of perspective and participation. Blade Runner was rightly criticized for its stylistic appropriation of Asian culture, and 2049 borrows this aesthetic without correcting its lack of representation. These could be deliberate choices meant to express the film’s thoughts on dehumanization, segregation, and systemic cruelty, but that feels like a real stretch. Excruciating scenes of violence committed against women, talented actresses given little to do (Mackenzie Davis springs to mind), and a rigidly white-male-driven perspective contribute to an underlying ugliness that’s very much at odds with the thoughtful, careful construction of the rest of the film. Most audiences won’t even notice the issue at all – and that’s the real problem. The film loves to decry objectification, but still shows you naked body after naked body. This isn’t Westworld. 2049 can’t have this cake and eat it too. I don’t think Villeneuve can be fairly criticized for expressing his ideas from his own perspective – expecting more than that is unfair at best, and deeply problematic at worst – but it’s hard to ignore the lack of representation in a future that ought to be full of it. If this was intentional, and 2049’s mistreatment of its marginalized cast was meant to be a commentary, rather than an omission or misstep, then it is a weak and incoherently communicated one. Frankly, I expect better of Villeneuve – but not of Scott.

It’s difficult to pinpoint the source of 2049's problems with making its ideas stick, but my guess is that Ridley Scott is to blame. Scott did serve as primary executive producer, and it feels to me as though his corrupting influence looms large over the final product. I enjoyed the film's script for its narrative coherence and functionality, and for the stylistic flair of its dialogue, but when you dig past those surface-level elements into what it's thematically trying to say and do -- that is, the big-picture territory in which Scott frequently loses himself in his own movies -- things get much more messy. Did Scott actually have an influence on the script? I don't know. Other faults are easier to pinpoint: since Hasn Zimmer is a frequent collaborator, Scott would likely have been the one to suggest that he replace the original composer, Jóhann Jóhannsson (who has scored nearly all of Villeneuve’s previous films), and the result is a score that sometimes hints at the sensitivity and grace of Vangelis’s iconic original soundtrack, but inclines more often towards pounding war drum percussion and orchestral blasts that sabotage any of the nuance Jóhannsson might have given it. The usage of a heavily CGI’d recreation of Sean Young’s Rachael, except for the fact that its strangeness and unreality seems to accidentally work to 2049’s advantage (unlike in other films), also feels like the sort of decision that only someone like Scott could make. I have no proof for any of this, but the correlation seems to me to be too obvious to ignore.

This is all speculation, though,speculation in film circles (online and elsewhere) is what will help Blade Runner 2049 endure through its poor box-office reception and its thematic issues and make it to cult-favourite status. It’s still a Denis Villeneuve film, and though it’s larger, louder, and more problematic than his other efforts, it also showcases his talent for intelligent storytelling, emotional resonance, and artful presentation. I know I’ll return again and again to this film the way one returns to a favourite detective yarn on a rainy Sunday, indulging in its lavish design, its moody atmosphere, and its bleak outlook on a future that we very well may be hurtling straight into.

– Justin Cummings is a narrative designer at Ubisoft Toronto, and has worked as a writer, blogger, and playwright since 2005. He has been a lifelong student of film, gaming, and literature, commenting on industry and culture since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade.


  1. I thought the film was seriously defective in that early on the bones of Rachel from the first film are discovered and it is claimed that from these bones the cause of death was childbirth-related AND that a cesarean was done. Sorry, I am an OBG and cesareans do not leave marks on the bones. I also thought it somewhat ruined the film that the replicants now have serial numbers on them. In fact, they know, again from Rachel's bones, that she was a replicant because there are serial numbers on on her bones when one of the chief features of the bladerunner world is that replicants are *biological machines* indistinguishable from "real" humans except for their source/history which is why the only way to spot them is with the Voight-Kampff testing. If they have serial numbers on their bones (and eyes) then they can easily be told from "real" humans!

    1. Great points. I was similarly confused about the bones (I remember thinking in the theatre that it must have been a real hackjob of a cesarean). This lore is starting to get muddled, especially since there are other replicant models now. Perhaps the Nexus 8s were designed with the serial numbers as a security measure after what happened with the 6s in the first film? Tyrell designed only one Nexus 7, Rachael, whom he gave the ability to reproduce. Maybe the serial numbers started with her? (Although I doubt the number shown on the bones in 2049 would corroborate that.) I guess Tyrell's insistence that Deckard perform a Voight-Kampff on Rachael when he could have just looked under her eyelid was just a power move?

      Or, maybe Ridley Scott did what he always does and used a sequel to one of his films as an opportunity to muddy the narrative waters for no discernible reason.