Mediocre story, you might ask? How can the movie that has shot into the top 100 sci movies of all time have a “mediocre story”? How can a movie that has quickly become beloved to many sci-fi fans across the globe be described by anyone as being “mediocre”? Well, it’s all a matter of opinion, of course. As in Captain America: Civil War, or the ongoing national debate over Left v Right Twix, this is a movie where, after watching, you’ll definitely feel as if you have chosen a side.
To elaborate a little, I didn’t find this movie to be bad at all. There are elements of the movie which are absolutely stunning, but they’re not related to either story or character, or even acting. I came away from the movie feeling that it was overlong with an overblown sense of entitlement, in some odd way. It’s worth noting, I suppose, that I’m a fan of the original Blade Runner, but not a superfan. I should also say that I consider it one of the very few sci-fi movies that deserves that genre label. Too often people consider anything with spaceships and blasters to automatically be “sci-fi”, and yeah, I’m aware of hot geek-debates about whether or not Star Wars, for example, is a sci-fi movie. It isn’t to me – so that’ll give you a little bit of insight as to how I approached Blade Runner 2049 (and I have to say, that’s an absolutely terrible title). Science Fiction is an analagous genre. It tells stories about the us of tomorrow in order to talk about the us of today. That might be too rarified for some people, but that’s my position. Both Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049 meet my lofty criteria, but actually, the sequel a little bit more.
I’ll go out on a limb here and say that while Blade Runner is squarely in most sci-fi fans best of lists, it remains something of a cult movie, and relatively obscure to the general public. It’s no populist crowd pleaser like Star Wars, and has no eye popping action and visuals like The Matrix. Despite having a star who was arguably at his peak in 1982, the movie bombed at the box office, but like so many other genre movies it’s since become a “cult classic”. John Carpenter’s The Thing is another notable example of the phenomenon. I wasn’t particularly surprised when the early box office for 2049 appeared. A near-three hour sequel to a 35 year old movie starring Ryan Gosling, an actor who seems to be more of a concept than anything else, was doomed from the start.
Blade Runner tells the story of K, (played by Gosling) a Blade Runner who finds evidence of something that could fundamentally change the world, but which first fundamentally changes him. K is a replicant, one of a new series of androids that seemingly lack the capacity to go rogue (though K does just that, so that feels like a bit of a plot hole). They’re essentially second class citizens, used and exploited like servants, but when K accepts his mission to penetrate the depths of the secret he has uncovered, it leads to a transformative narrative that puts him in opposition with powerful forces.
Once the story moves past the early scene where K confronts Sapper Morton (Guardians of the Galaxy‘s Dave Bautista), I began to feel a little underwhelmed by what the movie was clearly trying to be, and what it actually was. The “slavery” analogy is meeker than it should be. I get K faces discrimination, but it feels too underdone. Considering the movie’s central theme is essentially about human trafficking and other forms of discrimination, the angle isn’t played up here as much as it could have been. K is a good looking, capable, white guy and if there’s any way that regular people can tell what he is in public, I must have missed it in the movie. He’s only picked on by people close enough to him to know what he does for a living. It’s a cop out. The story, by Blade Runner’s original writer, Hampton Fancher, lacks this essential conflict with which to further define K as an individual. As played by Gosling (in full-on Gosling mode), there’s not much about K that’s all that interesting. The story he becomes embroiled in is mildly interesting, but I found the misdirection involved in his character to be weak. Early in the story I was expecting something that more resembled Angel Heart, but the hand is played way too early for the story to retain that kind of mystery, which is unfortunate because it definitely seems like it’s trying to create a much deeper ambiguity than what actually plays out. If it was pretty obvious to me what was not the case in the first hour of the movie, it would be that obvious to others too. As it was, I never felt compelled by K’s mission, or his character arc.
Gosling’s performance aside (and by the way, I like this actor), the movie’s central conceit was just something I could not buy into at all, and I’ll admit that it prejudiced me heavily from that point onward. I won’t reveal it, but it’s what ties the movie directly back to its predecessor, and it’s why Harrison Ford’s Deckard is necessary to the plot, but it failed to convince and engage me, and actually turned me off, as did the few appearances of Jared Leto in the movie. In a role that’s as typical of him as K is for Gosling, Leto’s Niander Wallace is weighted heavily on the pretentious side, and played like that with gusto, by Leto. Every time this guy speaks – every time – it’s to mutter some theatrically “profound” doggerel that veers dangerously to sounding comic. I found the character’s pop up appearances contributed almost nothing to the story, even though the motivations of his character are prime movers in the plot, so much so that I was annoyed by him every time he showed up.
There were other things that bothered me about the movie. The use of casual female nudity is one of them. I appreciate beautiful women, and I appreciate the female form as it pertains to my own prejudices and preferences, but in the last few years I’ve become sensitive to the objectification of women. And yeah, it’s too complex a social issue to talk about in a movie review, but in a nutshell, it feels much more exploitative to me now than it ever has. As in HBO’s Westworld, I didn’t really see the need for it – if you’re going to use the naked female form as some kind of future advertising angle, as 2049 does, why not use the naked male form too? You know what I mean? It was completely unnecessary in my opinion, and cheapened the character of Joi, K’s AI companion, played well enough throughout by Ana De Armas.
So what does the movie have going for it? Well, a few things, but they’re almost all technical in nature. For one, the movie looks absolutely fantastic. Veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins’s (whom I was utterly – and wrongly – convinced shot Blade Runner) visuals are stunning. Combined with the production design, it’s one of the best looking movies I’ve ever seen. Perhaps Deakins’s previous collaborations (Sicario and Prisoners) with Denis Villeneuve has led to a strong creative partnership – that’s the feeling I got after watching 2049. And the musical score by Hans Zimmer and It‘s Benjamin Wallfisch is absolutely incredible. It’s one of the most mood-setting scores I’ve heard, resounding with – at times – an overwhelmingly crushing sense of oppression. And then there’s Villeneuve himself, a director who has quickly become my favourite of the times. He’s accumulating an impressively eclectic body of work, that also includes last year’s Oscar nominated Arrival, as well as the Jake Gyllenhaal mindfuck Enemy. When I heard he’d been hired to direct 2049, it turned a must-see movie into a must-see-at-all-costs movie, and while I felt his direction here wasn’t as strong as I’ve seen in other movies, I still feel his talents enhanced a movie that’s pretty weak on the story and character side.
I’ll mention too, the actress Sylvia Hoeks, who plays the replicant villain Luv. She’s really good in many scenes, one in particular that she shares with Robin Wright, so much so that I was extremely disappointed that the movie from that point on treats the character more like a female Terminator, than a being possessed of a true mind and the depth of character K is imbued with. It actually is antithetical to the point of the movie, and it remains a bewildering and disappointing choice to me. She could have been an interesting counterpoint to Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty, but her character arc ends with nothing whatsoever resembling his. I love that one so much, here it is, for your viewing pleasure.
This is definitely a movie where the creative aspects are a much weaker cousin to the overwhelmingly superior technical side, to the point where I felt that a story that had clear intentions to say something profound about humanity ended up being cold and sterile instead.
© Andrew Hope, 2017