Review: Blade Runner 2049 (cinema)

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I wasn’t going to go. I haven’t forgiven Ridley Scott for Prometheus. I’ve been baffled by the idea of this sequel ever since I first heard about it, especially when Harrison Ford was brought on board. And although I went through a phase at around 14 or so of living, breathing, drawing fanart for Blade Runner and reading all the K.W. Jeter books, I’m damned if I can remember a thing about them. The trailer didn’t help, I have to say. But then the reviews started coming out: one major fear was allayed by the news that Jared Leto’s role was pretty small. There were impressed murmurings about Harrison Ford, too, and surprise at Hans Zimmer’s range. Also the healthy reminder that this is Denis Villeneuve’s movie now, not Ridley’s. And I like to think that Denis Villeneuve is less interested in either big questions or big answers than Ridley Scott is these days; he’s instead happy to dwell on the complicated human response to the questions.

Mild spoilers below.

So yeah, I kinda loved this. It’s not perfect, I do have a few complaints, but for the most part I barely noticed the three hours fly by. I suspect that, a little like Arrival, which I also really enjoyed, if you focus too closely on any aspect it might start to come apart, but enough was cohesive and coherent enough that I don’t feel the need to dwell on things that weren’t. My main gripe was with Luv’s arc, and it could have been solved by having even less — i.e. no — Jared Leto. Luv is Wallace’s number two at his replicant-making corporation, and she is stronger and more ruthless than any other replicant we’ve seen. She also seems initially to be far more complex than an obedient second-in-command, though sadly this never goes anywhere. Wallace is the kind of boring misogynist god-complex psychopath that it was completely unnecessary to show or give any dialogue to (we all know the type…), whereas for the first two-thirds of the movie I thought Luv had an agenda that was separate from his: she was very aware of how humans saw replicants and she was capable of exploiting it. She also seemed to have a fairly complicated emotional response to some of those aspects of humanity that humans also struggle to come to terms with: love, reproduction and death. Unfortunately, this was swept away and she became all brawn with very little below the surface by the end of it, and it’s my biggest disappointment in the movie.

By giving Luv’s agency and motivation a bit more prominence, and perhaps by showing a little more of the institutional hierarchy that Madam (a steely Robin Wright) fitted into, the movie would have given its depiction of women more depth. In this dystopian hellscape of a future, women are everywhere as sexualised images; in one scene we even have the perfect blending of the Virgin and the Whore, though it feels pretty hollow for the fulfillment of such a popular fantasy. Other grim realities seem to persist: women are seen as disposable vessels by some, whilst for others they’re elusive objects of reverence and mourning. However, I don’t think the film glamourised any of this. It showed a lonely world, full of lonely people, isolated from one another for their own protection. And when you do let someone in in this world, are you always just hearing what you want to hear? Deckard and K seem to have different responses to this, and the fact that the movie doesn’t attempt to resolve differences like this is something I appreciate about it. It could have done better by offering a female perspective in more detail, and Luv would have been the perfect opportunity for that.

Still, the sound and visuals were impeccable (and if I could enjoy Sicario for those things even when the last half-hour infuriated me, then this was ten times better). Blade Runner 2049 is deliberately disorienting throughout: the soundtrack is an incredible, thrumming thing, where the sound of a police drone’s engine merges with the bubbling of water on a stove; battering synths sound in time with over-worked windscreen wipers; is a piano played off-screen being played by someone we can’t see, or is it part of the soundtrack? And in moments of high emotion, where revelations are had, memories are dredged up and heartstrings are plucked, the camera frequently denies you the opportunity to read the actors’ faces. Instead we see K’s hands, or the tense silhouettes of characters in conversation. We think we know what we’re filling in, but how do we know we’re reading the situation correctly when we don’t have all the usual cues?

And yes, those reviews praising Harrison Ford were right: Villeneuve wrings an astonishing array of emotions from him, but it’s understated and unassuming, whilst still conveying Deckard’s grim, hopeless trudge of survival. Plus, having never really quite grasped Ryan Gosling mania, I did think he was an excellent lead in this. His performance reminded me on a number of occasions of A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, not because it was of a similar standard, but because it seemed to convey so much of the confusion and longing at the heart of that film so much more effectively. He was a scared child, a tightly wound ball of confusion and hurt and betrayal, and a man used to observing and responding to orders who suddenly found himself reconsidering these things. Yes, it’s a bit rich having him play a representative of a marginalised group as a handsome white guy, and yes, while we’re at it, the universe still needs to sort out its response to Asian representation. But I can’t fault Gosling’s performance.

The ‘twist’ for K was one that I felt confident was coming for much of the film: words are chosen carefully, the sense of disorientation mounts, but in the end, I let myself believe for a few scenes along with K. The effect of the revelation on him was all the more profound for having finally caught me up in it, and the unfairness of his ending was, to my mind, another of those contradictory presentations of human nature that Villeneuve seems to enjoy so much. It made it clear that K is less the inheritor of Deckard’s story than of Batty’s story. I’m not normally that engaged by Asimov’s troubles, or the line between human and machine, but damnit, Blade Runner 2049 actually made me care about this. Very glad I did go in the end.

(you’re still not forgiven for Prometheus though, Ridley)

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