Widely lauded with wall to wall 5-star reviews, Blade Runner 2049 looks set to become the new reference for dystopian science fiction film-making.
I beg to differ.
The new Blade Runner provides an opportunity to reflect for a minute on what film-making is really about. Most cinephiles, as well as people who simply like going to the movies will agree that good films are ‘moving’ in some way – that they elicit emotional responses. Under the surface of what we think of as ’emotional power’ are invariably the conundrums, whether funny, horrible or poignant, thrown up by the conditions of our existence – clashes between moral imperatives and practical opportunities. All good films really explore the same things, just in different ways. Science fiction and fantasy films provide more flexibility in the rules of existence, making it easier to explore existential problems in novel ways. In Lord of the Rings for example, we at one point have to consider the unavoidable impossibility of a human, with a lifespan of perhaps 80 years, falling in love with someone of the Elvish race, beings with 500 year lives. The great futuristic films have all been about the human condition in all its forms: Metropolis, 2001, Solaris and Blade Runner, the original.
Films with no emotional offering struggle to affect us or be truly memorable, but can be saved by form: interesting characters, witty dialogue, decent narrative, a funny story. Most crime thrillers have little emotional depth but the good ones are made so by a twisty plot that rings true at the end: films like like Rear Window, The Usual Suspects and Gone Girl for example. On the comedy side, films like Four Weddings and a Funeral, the films of Roberto Benigni (except Life is Beautiful, which could not be more touching), Les Visiteurs and Ghostbusters are not in the least bit memorable, but are hugely enjoyable due to being genuinely funny.
What happens if you have no exploration of the human condition, weak characters, flat dialogue of the high school essay variety, and plodding characters? And a giant budget?
You get films like Blade Runner 2049.
Hyperbole of the ‘worthy successor to the original’ and ‘instant classic’ variety has been thrown around in recent weeks, including by people who should know better like Peter Bradshaw and Mark Kermode. At least David Stratton only gave it 4 stars, although he appeared to not understand much about it going by his review.
The film I went to see left me not in the last bit moved, and to be honest, somewhat bored by the end. Yes, the visuals are stunning, and there’s no doubt director Denis Villeneuve knows a thing or two about turning high concepts into something engrossing on the screen. After all, Arrival was genuinely thought-provoking, and it’s probably the closest attempt I can think of to take the problems of ‘first contact’ seriously (the other being the film Contact.) But moving? Not really…
In the end, Blade Runner 2049 just has no soul, and Villeneuve and his team have entirely missed the point of what the first film actually was, and what it was about. Even having done that, they might have created something new and moving. But they didn’t.
Blade Runner is about life: its value, sacredness, and fragility. Every one of the characters and every relationship they have is an exposition of the many ways to understand the question of what it means to be alive, living, and human.
Consider. The nexus 6 replicants (Roy Batty, Pris, Leon and Zhora) come to Earth for one thing only, which is very simple, as Batty explains to Tyrell when he goes to see him: I want more life. In the scenes with Batty and Pris, we see two complex beings; by turns playful, calculating, worried, and hopeless. They may be replicants, but these are no mindless robots: they are quite aware of their limited time and desperate to extend it. Indeed, Batty is genuinely worried about Pris, since she is closest to the end of her time. Surely only a conscious, self-aware being can love life and want more of it?
Zhora and Pris are both killed by Deckard while desperately trying to outrun their likely fate. Both much stronger than the average human, they are scared to death of death, just like us. The way they die is grim, Zhora in a slow-motion frenzy of shattering glass, neon and blood; Pris thrashing in a dark corner. This is not how soulless automatons expire.
When Deckard meets Rachael, he knows she is a replicant, although more advanced than his quarry. Initially he affects disinterest, but it is not long before he realises he wants to be in love with her. Would a man really want to love just a machine? Only if the machine is not a machine, but as human as any human. And then of course, there is the unasked question: is Deckard himself a replicant? How can he be, he thinks, his memories are real, his feelings are real. He really needs to drink that whiskey.
What can be more touching than Rachael’s expression when Deckard tells her that her memories are not real? Or when playing the piano, she says I didn’t know if I could play. It’s not being human as we know it, but it’s not inhuman either. She, like Batty and the rest are real conscious beings who can taste life, but are unmoored from the real pasts that true humans have. But it doesn’t mean they don’t have feelings or their own albeit short real personal histories beyond the implanted memories.
Even Tyrell, when confronted by Batty, explains how hard he tried to build replicants that would live longer. You can tell he would have done better if he could have. At least, he says in commiseration with his wayward son, the fire that burns half as long burns twice as bright, and you, Roy, have burned so very very bright. Batty kills him in rage and despair; now there is truly no hope. Only a self-aware being could be capable of such an irrational act.
And then there is the finale. In the end-game, Roy Batty’s character is the very incarnation of doubt, fear, dark humour, and lust for living – there is no-one more human in the film – and he intends to show Deckard what this life thing is all about. Rutger Hauer’s performance is one of the greatest in science fiction film history. In the final moments, he saves Deckard from falling to his own death. Why? Because he values life? He hates to see it wasted? Probably, but mainly because he needs to make Deckard understand what he is, and what life is.
I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe.
Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion.
I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate.
All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.
Time to die.
It has to be said that it’s not often that a modern film succeeds in producing a truly poetic moment, but this is one right here, and justly famous because of it (the final words were thanks to Hauer, who changed the script). It even parses. Just before he dies, he releases a dove.
What’s Deckard thinking? He’s watching Batty, stunned, injured, when it seems to dawn on him that this is a person dying, not a replicant being retired. Someone who loves life very dearly. Perhaps he is rethinking his actions in retiring the others. Is he a murderer rather than a cop?
He finds his own love story, or at least he hopes so, when leaving with Rachel in the final scene to go on the run.
The backdrop of all of this is an arresting vision of LA, a vast citadel of grime, neon, and multi-lingual street life. It was a remarkable achievement at the time with the relatively limited CGI (back then we called it SFX), and the obligatory maquettes for close objects such as police vehicles.
One last element: the languorous music by Vangelis was clearly designed to reflect a mood of dark hope and beauty, the very opposite of what the facts of the story told us. It’s moodiness turns what might have been Deckard and Rachel simply being in a room together into an unspoken meditation on love and life.
Blade Runner the original is all about doubting one’s right to live and one’s right to feelings on the one hand, but nevertheless being alive, having feelings, and desperately wanting to keep both. The concept of the replicant gives us the chance to consider what life is worth in terms of gradations – the idea of being partially human, with more advanced models being more human. The fact that even the nexus 6 generation evolved feelings is alluded to early on, so it’s a given that no human, not even Tyrell the creator, really knows who is more ‘human’ and who has any more right to life than anyone else.
So … back to the new version. Only out of duty, mind you.
Where to start? I struggle to think of even a moment at which the film was about any character’s internal state of mind. Let’s look at the characters. The main protagonist, K, is played by Gosling as unfeeling and duty-bound. He does what he’s told. He’s a replicant, but apparently one without any particular interest in life. I don’t think at any moment I worried that he might be in danger, be unhappy, have any needs, or even be killed.
Wallace, played by Jared Leto is a kind of Daniel Craig-era Bond-villainesque replacement for Tyrell. He says that replicants are very hard to make and that they really need to make them breed, so they can take over the galaxy on their own. Or something like that. Nevertheless, he kills two of them in cold blood (both females) just for amusement. It’s hard to imagine Tyrell doing that.
How about Luv, Wallace’s emissary, ordered to find the replicant child? It turns out she’s a soulless assassin. She’s ruthless, programmed and apparently invincible until the point where she is killed herself. There is a tear at some early point, but otherwise she’s just a serial killer.
Then there is Joi, K’s 3-D hologram lover. She’s not even a replicant, she’s some sort of programmed love projection that will freeze when the wifi goes down, and can in any case be turned off permanently with no consequences. For sex, she has to be projected onto/into a real person so that K can imagine he’s making love to her for real. That seems like an awful lot of trouble to go to. She doesn’t have anything interesting to say, certainly nothing not expected of your average selfless, fawning, ego-boosting love-hologram. There’s no thought process or inner conversation, no doubts or fears and no humanity.
Robin Wright’s LAPD Lieutenant Joshi is a hard-bitten senior cop who rants when things are not going right (most of the time) or affects deadpan cool-cop attitude for when everything’s fine. Not a moment of emotional engagement there, nor one interesting line. A wasted character in every sense.
What about Deckard? My reading is that it is now assumed he is a replicant, and the fistfight he has with K who turns up unannounced in his secret giant theatre hideout in a radiation zone (that is no longer radioactive, apparently) seemed to be of the invincible robot variety, rather than the one-sided affair one would expect for an old man fighting a young cyborg. The problem isn’t that Deckard might be a replicant, it’s with what the idea of what a replicant is this time round.
There’s a thread about K dealing with a memory of having hidden a carved wooden horse when he was a child, but that’s what a replicant implanted memory is meant to be: realistic. We know it’s not real, so we don’t care about it, and he himself does not seem overly worried. The character whose job it is to spin dreams for the minds of the non-human is an abstraction, until near the end when she turns out to be the daughter that Deckard and Rachael managed to have 20 years earlier. He goes to meet her finally, but there’s no heart-rending reunion, there’s just a sheet of glass, and anyway, as the film has made very clear for two hours, they’re all just robots.
There’s another minor story thread about an underground army which aims to sink the current power structure, but this goes nowhere and seems entirely misplaced in the film.
The background, an even grimmer version of LA, while visually impressive is not really convincing. It’s just too extreme. Everything is either post-apocalypse grey or nuclear urine-stain yellow. Villeneuve reuses the menacing foghorn sound effect from Arrival, but… why? It would have been better to have manufactured some normal city sounds. There’s a super-realistic feel to every outside scene, which is a sign that they’ve mastered CGI properly, but the makers seem to have forgotten that no film is about its CGI.
The overall arc of the story, as I read it, is more or less: how will K stay alive, and then starting at a later point, how will Deckard stay alive? That’s it. K isn’t someone you’ll care about, and Deckard seems to be reduced to an android, nothing like the angst-ridden human-or-replicant from the first film, so you won’t really care about him either.
The film is clearly intended to be a slow-burn sci-fi-noir kind of affair, but unfortunately, it destroys its own credibility early on, by treating all the replicant characters as machines, not humans, and the humans (inasfar as we know anyone is human) as machine-like. The question of the sacredness of life just never comes up.
Give me Roy Batty any day.