When Ridley Scott's 1982 detective noir/sci-fi mashup “Blade Runner” first hit theatres it was thrashed by critics and failed to draw an audience, much like John Carpenter's “The Thing”, which was released at the same time. The summer of 1982 belonged to Spielberg's “E.T.”, but in the years since, both Carpenter's gruelling paranoia-infused sci-fi/horror and Scott's cerebral future noir vision of dystopia 2019 have been reassessed and gained the adoration of film fans around the world.
That's worth bearing in mind considering Denis Villeneuve's belated sequel failed to draw much of a cinema-going audience, but did gather a vast array of five star reviews. Some have theorised that the long-winded 163 minute running time is responsible, while others blame a lack of 'broad appeal', but perhaps there are just some movies viewers are more comfortable viewing in their own home? Think about it, how many people will have discovered Scott's original on home video, DVD, or any number of other ancillary markets instead of at the cinema? Indeed, with a trip to the cinema being an increasing pain in the arse (ill-mannered patrons, rude staff, escalating ticket prices, an avalanche of pre-show advertising), it's hardly surprising that BR2049 didn't set the box office alight.
But enough about the film's financial failings over a short period of time in the temporary home of a darkened room, because the true lifespan of Villeneuve's sci-fi epic will be in whichever context the audience will choose to experience it. Personally, that was in the comfort of my own living room with the Blu-Ray that I'd pre-ordered months prior.
Belated sequels represent a treacherous path to walk for many reasons, including the very real risk of taking a large, steaming dump over a beloved original...
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Mercifully, Blade Runner 2049 is an absolute triumph, building upon the world presented in Scott's '82 original with logical extrapolations (which are further explored in the short film “Prologues” on the extra features, the most impressive being 2022: Blackout). Screenwriters Hampton Fancher (who gave birth to the original film's screenplay with David Peoples) and Michael Green pull off a remarkable feat, opening up fresh avenues for storytelling while grounding the entire narrative firmly within a fully-realised world that lives, breathes, and makes complete sense in and of itself. Rich thematic themes provide much to consider and will no doubt inspire decades of debate in the years to come while established mysteries – such as the possibility of Harrison Ford's Deckard being a Replicant – are added to without providing any definitive answer in the most satisfying way. Indeed, the film's mysteries are more fascinating than their possible answers, open to interpretation without ever fobbing off the audience with half-baked concepts.
Visually sumptuous (and a litany of other adjective-laden descriptors) can only go so far in describing Roger Deakins' gorgeous cinematography as we explore rain-drenched Los Angeles, the rusted trash heap of San Diego, and a sand-swallowed Las Vegas. The film is also a pleasure to the ears as Hans Zimmer's score walks the tightrope, offering up enough familiar sounds (e.g. those delicate single electronic notes that seem to fall off into a deep chasm) while also striving to bring something new to the aural palette of the Blade Runner universe.
At 163 minutes (10 of which are credits), though, it's definitely a bit too gradual in its pacing, but at least the world on screen is so richly textured it's not a chore to linger here for a while longer. Also, at times 2049 feels too reverential of its source material, treating it with a level of seriousness that can occasionally feel overdone. While Scott's original was evenly balanced between genre pulp fiction and thoughtful science fiction, Villeneuve's sequel skews the scales much more over to the cerebral side. The film isn't without action, but can can on rare occasions feel in need of just a small snifter of adrenaline.
However, these two criticisms are pretty damn small in the shadow of Blade Runner 2049's masterful achievements. Villeneuve and company have done the impossible in crafting a sequel that not only respects the source material, but builds upon it appropriately, exploring both familiar and new ideas, and does so with a jaw-dropping sense of style and artistry. What's more, it dares to trust the audience will follow without the need for dumbing down the plot or characterisation, nor machine gun editing. Much like Christopher Nolan's Interstellar, Villeneuve's Blade Runner 2049 considers the viewer smart enough to come along for the ride and be able to interpret and unpack the myriad mysteries over repeat visits. It deserves every bit of adoration and study afforded to its predecessor.
That's the review part done, now let's get socio-political...
Even with the vast selection of adoring reviews, the film, of course, attracted a few scathing side-swipes – because it wouldn't be the 21st Century without the perpetually offended going into a movie to specifically find something to be exasperated by. Apparently every female character is a 'hooker or a victim' … which, if you actually watch the film without a boiling agenda in your gut, is patently untrue.
Let's think for a moment about the world presented in Blade Runner 2049. Overpopulated and polluted, this is a world where the real opportunities in life are “off world”, but you can only go there if you're rich enough, healthy enough, or useful enough. If you don't fit the bill then you're trapped on Earth, so the majority of the populace is essentially in the realm of 'second class citizens'. Furthermore, with the Human vs Replicant troubles (“skinjob” is a slur for Replicants) where the artificial beings are created for slave labour, menial/dangerous tasks, or pleasure, it's hardly surprising that some folks are either not having a great time or are quite simply subjugated.
But let's delve deeper, shall we? Are there female victims in the film? Yes – and there are also many male victims in the film, but you don't hear anyone crying about them on Twitter, do you? No, because you never do. This in itself illustrates the blinkered vision of the perpetually offended. However, there is much more to the female characters than what the Offendotrons would have you believe...
Joi (Ana De Armas) is revealed very early on to be artificial, she is a digital projection, a companion software sold by a multinational corporation. She is who K (Ryan Gosling) returns home to after a long day of retiring Replicants, of whom he is one (again, this is revealed very early on in the film). K is despised at work and on the streets, even his front door has “Fuck off skinner” scrawled across it by one of his wretched neighbours, and is a very lonely individual with little sense of power or destiny in his own life. It's hardly surprising then, that he would want some compassionate company, readily available in the form of Joi.
Now, Joi is generally sold as a 'made-to-fit' fantasy (as told by the giant hologram seen later in the film), but K regards her more as a life-long companion, a wife, a girlfriend, a lover, a confidant, and more all rolled into one. Indeed, Joi is a loving and caring character whose nature is to be encouraging, to be a bright shining beacon of good. She sees far more in K than K sees in himself. But are her feelings true? This is just one of many mysteries the film offers up, but if a Replicant can develop their own emotions, why not an A.I. in the same universe? My take? She does develop her own complex emotions once she is able to venture into the wider world. Joi may be a hologram, but her compassion, smarts, humour, and selfless concern with the well-being of others is very real (her sense of wonder at the falling rain is one of the film's most beautiful moments) … hardly a terrible depiction (digitised or not) of the female of the species!
Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) is a Replicant, the right hand woman of corporate giant Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), and is at all times depicted as being strong, extremely capable, and resilient to the point of ruthlessness. Her actions are effective, her personality disarming in the right circumstances, and while she commits some violent acts she is also conflicted. She sheds a tear while murdering someone, and reacts in a similar fashion when Wallace callously kills a freshly created Replicant … 'victim' is not how you would reasonably describe Luv.
Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright) is K's boss in the LAPD. She is confident, in-charge, and is very concerned with the big picture. Her true calling in life is to protect the populace for which she is responsible, even if the harsh realities of the job have compromised the softer side of her character. In a key moment later in the film she exhibits a great sense of defiance and strength, an example of true humanity.
Mariette (Mackenzie Davis) is, yes, a prostitute (you'll never believe it, but such people existed in the real world before the invention of cinema), however she is also revealed to be a key member in an underground freedom fighter movement (which is also lead by a female Replicant). Her motivations aren't simple and she engages with Joi and K in a complex yet emotional way of her own volition. Considering that Blade Runner Replicants are viewed as second class citizens within the already subjugated world of Replicants, Mariette's warm treatment of K is all the more remarkable. We would have likely seen much more of her in a third film, but the box office disappointment has surely snuffed out that possibility.
Dr. Ana Stelline (Carla Juri) may not have many scenes, but she is crucial to the narrative. In addition to be being highly educated, she is immensely creative and displays a level of compassion that makes her the most human character of all in the entire film. She, in many ways, represents the absolute pinnacle of what mankind is capable of at its best.
Now let's have a look at a few of the male characters. We've already had a glance at Gosling's “K” (lonely, subjugated, full of self-doubt and loathing, desperately in search of meaning), but in addition to the litany of Replicant-hating male goons and male red shirts who are slain throughout the film (you always need some 'red shirts'), you have Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), whose God-like nature has rendered him almost entirely without compassion for his creations. Having been responsible for making millions of Replicants, we witness his callous lack of regard for them in a key sequence where he appears to gently care for a 'newborn' Replicant only to slice open her belly (the similarity to a C-Section is thematically very important and displays Wallace's impotent rage over a miraculous engineering mystery that he cannot solve).
Suffice it to say, he is the main villain of the piece, his complex actions weaved into a murky back story that includes him saving humanity from starvation while simultaneously lamenting mankind's qualms over slavery … hardly a nice guy, hardly a man to look up to, hardly a good representative of the male of the species!
Then there is Mister Cotton (Lennie James) whose, albeit brief, appearance in the film provides another example of the evil that men do. Cotton is a weak man, an owner of slave labour who also happen to be orphaned children, and he's more than willing to sell any of them to anyone for a decent price with few (or any) questions asked. Putting it bluntly, Cotton is a reprehensible human being.
Well … I've rambled on long enough, so to conclude: what is the point in all this?
If you go into a film seeking to be offended then you're going to come away offended. If you go into a film with blinkered vision then you're going to miss everything else there is to see.
And let's re-establish something that should have already been obvious – art is merely a reflection of life, life does not imitate art – it has been true for centuries, millennia even, and it is still true today, even in this preposterous situation we now find ourselves in which an art gallery in Manchester removes a classic and highly regarded painting from public view for reasons of pearl-clutching censorship dressed up in “debate”, an act that is doubly offensive not only for its hijacking and muddying of the important issues being wrestled with right now, but also as it betrays something extraordinarily insidious: cultural redaction.
You might call all this blethering on 'an agenda', and maybe it is, and the indulgent length of it all certainly qualifies as a rant (I do love a good rant). Or perhaps it's more a reaction to the frustratingly blinkered viewpoint of Twitter-bound misery guts (albeit a relatively small group of them in this context), or maybe it's just a single voice calling for a measured response and conversation in these extraordinarily conflicted times we find ourselves.
Keep repeating: it's only a movie, it's only a movie … and instead of getting tangled up in 'problematic' semantics, how about tackling the very serious and very real problems that are facing us, for we're all human beings even though in many corners of our planet, where truly offensive things are happening, that is sadly untrue in practice. Never mind the plight of women in unstable/undeveloped nations, never mind the genital mutilation, never mind modern slavery, never mind the rise of extremist politics, never mind the absence of moderation, never mind the genocide, the climate, the ballooning population, the energy crisis, the threat of nuclear annihilation … because the Offendotrons are mad as hell.