Ridley Scott’s original Blade Runner (1982) got off to a wobbly start during its initial release. Studio interference resulted in a film suffering from a tonally inconsistent ending and some ghastly voice-over exposition. Critically and financially, it suffered. After seven (yes, seven!) revised editions, however, the film gained a cult following. By the time 2007’s Final Cut was released, Blade Runner had transformed into a belated triumph.
Like all good sci-fi fables, Blade Runner’s strengths came from the ideas it grappled with. It warned of a time where technology, economic catastrophe and pollution had spiralled out of control. Our species no longer had a grasp on their creations. Audiences were forced to contemplate what such a world may look like.
The most compelling of these concerns relates to its exploration of what it means to be human. How can we define sentience? Is it our ability to feel emotion, retain memories, empathise, understand our place within the universe, learn new skills, create art or possess free will? It’s a question presented to us throughout.
Blade Runner’s story centres on a group of Replicants; artificial humanoids created to serve and gratify mankind. Later models found themselves caring for one another, expressing creativity, possessing (false) memories, feeling joy and experiencing a sense of adoration toward reality.
Scott’s film depicts Replicants as both creatures to fear as well as souls to pity. These biorobotic droids who protagonist Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) has been assigned to “retire” (aka kill) dominate each scene with an intimidating presence which will haunt you to the core. Aside from their tendency of resorting to violence; visible signs of psychological instability; and super-human strength, however, their actions can be justified (or at least understood).
It was a film shrouded in enigma and uncertainty. This is why the open ending found in the 2007 Final Cut worked so well. We were never told who to side with, what think or how to judge the actions of those Deckard was hunting. Such vagueness encouraged audiences to ponder the concept of humanity and how to address uncontrollable technology from an ethical point-of-view.
Via its grey areas and moral vagueness, Blade Runner exposed the thorniness of topics concerning AI and autonomous technology. If we fast forward to 2017, it seems such questions are more relevant today than they were in 1982. Which is why there’s no better time than now to release a sequel.
Blade Runner 2049 (2017) is directed by Denis Villeneuve, written by Hampton Fancher & Michael Green and stars Ryan Gosling & Harrison Ford. Set thirty years after the original, the Tyrell corporation initially responsible for building Replicants has since shut down.
Following the corporation’s demise, idealist Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) has revolutionized genetically modified food, ending global food shortages. With his fortunes, Wallace secures the remains of the Tyrell corporation, redesigns the Replicants and gives rise to a breed more obedient than their predecessors.
We open with Blade Runner K (Ryan Gosling) discovering the remains of a person buried at the farm of a Nexus 8 Replicant he’s assigned to retire. Forensics confirm the body belongs to female Replicant Rachel (Sean Young) who died from complications brought about by an emergency caesarian. Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright) of the LAPD believes knowledge of pregnancy amongst artificial humans could bring about an all-out war across the varying worlds. Niander Wallace, on the other hand, wishes to seek out Rachel’s child so he can learn to create procreating Replicants in a bid to expand his off-world operations.
Firstly, this is an excellent sequel. Sublime as a matter of fact. Storytelling and the nature of Hollywood has changed dramatically over the past 35-years, so there was always a concern that Blade Runner 2049 was going to fall flat. The first was a groundbreaking and visually breathtaking piece of cinema, however, it’s deep-rooted Noir thriller routes, slow pacing and high-concept sci-fi themes could have quite easily been ditched for its three-decade late follow-up. Fortunately, director Denis Villeneuve has created a movie remaining true to the pacing, tone, and themes of its predecessor whilst simultaneously moving the story forward.
Similarities and nods are threaded throughout, however, that’s not to say this is a direct recreation of Scott’s 1982 original. Much has been altered and expanded upon. One thing, in particular, is the perspective in which this one is told in. As already mentioned, ambiguity is threaded into the DNA of its predecessor. Good or bad is never explicitly distinguished between. Although we followed Deckard throughout, his actions were questionable, plus the actions of those he hunted were understandable. Here, on the other hand, is a story that centers itself as being largely onside with synthetic individuals. K is a new model Replicant, whereas his girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas) is a holographic computer program. This is very much a story driven by artificial lifeforms where humans largely pushed to the sideline. Whereas Scott’s film was more than happy to showcase the qualities that made androids human-like, Blade Runner 2049 is determined to present them as oppressed souls trying to get by.
It’s a bold move to tell a story largely with artificial protagonists, but then again, this is a film more than willing to be audacious. Glancing at the promotional footage alone, it’s clear the film cost a fair few ditties to make. $185 million as a matter of fact. A high cost means studios would no doubt be itching to pander to a wide a demographic. Action is very much in popular demand these days, meaning it would have been all too easy for this sequel to go down the all-guns-blazing route. Instead, Villeneuve, Fancher, and Green take plenty of time and liberty moving the plot forward. Everything unfolds at a speed far slower than the average Hollywood flick. Action does rear its head from time-to-time, yet for the most part, Villeneuve is more concerned with allowing his characters and story room to grow.
In addition to this providing audiences with an opportunity to soak up the beauty of Blade Runner 2049’s world, it allows the story plenty of time to delve into the concepts it raises. No stone is left unturned in this respect. We’re not shown a bunch of half-baked concepts simply because they sound “cool”. Everything that makes it onscreen has time to feed into the larger story playing out.
Just look at how the notion of Replicants giving birth is handled. The LAPD are terrified such knowledge will shift societal thinking. If the world learns that androids can create life, there would no longer be anything distinguishing them from their makers. It’s essentially looking at how we as a species try to cling to excuses when it comes unethical actions. We’re more than happy to dehumanize and exploit others if we can provide “reason” for our behavior. Once reason has been depleted, however, the immoral structures stringing our society together come undone.
Niander Wallace, on the other hand, understands the news of a Replicant mother in a slightly different manner. He believes human progression is built on the backs of slaves. From his point-of-view, Biorobitc workers are vital to humanity’s expansion into the stars. He doesn’t perceive Rachel’s miraculous procreation as a catalyst for an uprising, but an opportunity for a larger workforce.
Potential responses and consequences are not merely hinted at, but multiple possibilities are presented. Revolutionary events can have multiple outcomes; a truth Blade Runner 2049 elaborates upon by venturing down numerous avenues.
Fastidious exploration means the film can take tropes we’ve seen executed a thousand times before and flesh them out further. K’s holographic girlfriend, Joi, would have only appeared briefly in most films. She’s the stereotypical housewife “sexbot” purchased by lonely sleazebags. Except Blade Runner 2049 decides to transform her into a character more familiar to Samantha (Scarlette Johansson) from Her (2013) than anything else. During the 2 hour 43-minute runtime, we witness her stepping outdoors for the first time; make love to K via a surrogate sex worker and provide him with moral/practical support as the story progresses.
In addition to the more sizeable of concepts, gradual pacing also allows audiences the opportunity to soak up some of the smaller ideas peppered throughout. For instance, when K meets with memory designer Dr. Ana Stelline (Carla Juri), we’re treated to the mechanics of how these fictitious thoughts are put together. It’s a gorgeous moment in which we see faux worlds engineered before our very eyes. It’s a somewhat minor moment within the larger story, although to bear witness to these dreams being woven is beyond gorgeous.
Blade Runner 2049 could’ve easily grown stagnant, especially with its whopping 163-minute runtime. Fortunately, the plot reshapes itself enough to remain engaging. It begins as an investigative thriller, transitions into a chase movie, becomes a generational homecoming and ends with K delivering Deckard to his daughter. It never remains as one fixed plot, keeping the film continuously fresh.
In an age where sequels, reboots, and spin-offs dominate Hollywood, filmmakers working on pre-existing properties may benefit from paying attention to director Denis Villeneuve. He knows how to tackle the world of Blade Runner in a way that both respects and builds upon its source material. The visual iconography of its predecessor is present throughout without ever directly mimicking it. Much like the narrative, these elements are masterfully tied into a bigger plot separate from what existed before it.
An overabundance of new environments and modes of technology have been manufactured for this story. If you want to expand a franchise, this is the way to do it. Serve up some recognizable appetizers, but make sure the main meal is something we haven’t tried before. That’s what all good sequels should do; take the familiar and make it unfamiliar.
Blade Runner 2049 not only showcases new corners of this fictitious reality but does so in spades. City-sized solar farms, factory-situated orphanages, shanty-town junkyards, Dreamweaver laboratories and a desolate Las Vegas surround a dystopian LA mutated by three decades of stagnation.
There are are a few issues with the film of course. Nothing huge, but like every movie, it’s not perfect.
One downside is the main antagonist. Blade Runner had the enigmatic Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) positioned at its core; a complex, scarred and compelling lifeform clinging to a reality he didn’t wish to leave. Blade Runner 2049, however, has Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), who at times comes across as a mustache-twirling villain. It’s not that his character doesn’t have potential, it’s just he’s far less intriguing than he could have been.
A lack of ambiguity is something prevalent in a number of areas as a matter of fact. Blade Runner 2049 isn’t a straightforward script, although more set in its ways than the first. Plus the story is much more closed-off when it comes to interpretation. Although numerous groups (including the Replicant Freedom Movement) have conflicting goals that are never unequivocally condemned, it’s more obvious who’s suppose to be good and bad.
Denis Villeneuve clearly has a very particular story he wishes to tell here, and although this makes for a more coherent story, it leaves less room for interpretation. This, in turn, removes some of the enigma attached to the ethical questions raised three-decades prior.
Another issue is the level of exposition contained throughout. Although this is nowhere as near bad as the horrible info dump voice overs found in the original 1982 cut, Blade Runner 2049 does have a habit of explaining the plot through dialogue when nothing needs clarifying. Characters such as Joi, Joshi and Wallace will randomly start discussing what’s going on in layman’s terms. Understandably there’s a lot happening plot-wise, however there are moments when individuals discuss how the story’s progressing, despite us being able to see on screen what’s happening. If only the film had thought a little more carefully about where dialogue info dumps were placed, it could have worked a little more effectively. This is a movie with big ideas. If it’s going to trust its audiences to go along with heavy themes, surely it can give them the benefit of the doubt when it come to plot progression as well.
These are only minor quibbles, however, and the overall quality of the film isn’t diminished as a result. Making a more established and morally defining sequel doesn’t make it any less valid. All the themes and ideas surrounding technological advancement, artificial intelligence and humanity’s attitude toward slave labour are as important today as they were back when Philip K Dick published Do Androids Dream of Electric? back in 1968.
Blade Runner 2049 is an exemplary piece of cinema. Slightly less enigmatic than its predecessor, but excellent nonetheless. In an age where Hollywood sci-fi flicks are dominated by chaotic action, it’s great to see a film brave enough to ease off the gas. It’s a film that takes time building its world, meanders through well-developed concepts, explores important themes and lets its plot naturally progress at its own pace.