*AS USUAL, HEAVY SPOILERS FOLLOW. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.*
I muted my expectations for Blade Runner: 2049. I was dreading leaving the cinema disappointed, and have been looking forward to this film since the first rumours of a sequel to the original emerged, so kept my hopes low for once. However, there was of course a large part of me that couldn’t help but get butterflies when the lights dropped.
Deckard (Harrison Ford) has gone into hiding after the events of 2019, culminating in Roy Batty’s death and Deckard and Rachel’s escape to the fallout zone in the North. Thirty years in the future, Agent K (Ryan Gosling) is tasked with hunting the missing Blade Runner down, but learns an even darker secret along the way.
Not in probably my whole life have I seen a film that has so stunned me with how good it is. The overwhelming feeling that washed over me as I was lost in the pink neon glare and growling basslines of 2049 was relief. Relief that finally a blockbuster wasn’t pandering to the classic brain-dead Hollywood audience, relief that a writer-director team hadn’t cracked under the pressure and dumbed down the plot in favour of flashy set pieces and cheap gags, relief that for once a classic had been captured so perfectly and expertly, respecting the series’ roots while simultaneously moving forward in a new and innovative direction. Relief that yes indeed, this is Blade Runner.In this vein, the plot twist is that the plot twist you expected isn’t the plot twist, and I can’t come up with a single example of a film which has done this so well. From the first few scenes, me and my girlfriend were sure that K would turn out to be Rachel and Deckard’s kid, but in reality it’s a very minor character that I don’t think anyone would have expected despite what they may say once they know the truth. This is what plots should be like, and it just makes cash-grabbers like Marvel (okay, I understand they’re aimed at kids, but there are plenty of adult fans out there) and especially DC look even more like trash. On top of that, it’s paced so, so well. The fact that scenes can last for minutes at a time with no dialogue, only subtle sound effects or sweeping musical motifs, and are not interrupted by someone making a joke (see every other film review I’ve written this year) is sheer beauty, and so much more satisfying. Case in point: My girlfriend has fallen asleep every single time we’ve been to the cinema together, save for Moana, and she stayed awake for the whole three hours of Blade Runner 2049. Why, you ask? Because it’s so mentally stimulating, and it doesn’t need giant robots and explosions to achieve that. Although, delightfully, there’s no shortage of the latter.
But it’s not just the plot that’s expertly crafted. The neon glow of the Earth we came to love from the original Blade Runner is back in all its glory, with plenty of new environments to satiate our appetite for a deeper look into the setting. Sweeping birds-eye-views of glass-shrouded farmland, towering holographic billboards, rolling oceans, bombed out cities forming gargantuan deserts, these are all so breathtaking to look at and executed wonderfully. Pair this with the positively thunderous bass notes and electronic tones that are such a great callback to Vangelis’ original score that it hurts, and you have some world-building to be proud of. Hats off.
Speaking of honouring the past while embracing the future, this film does all that and more. A moment where K asks Deckard if his dog is real and the veteran replies “I don’t know, ask him” perfectly respects the key themes of the book (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep) that if you can create artificial life that’s so realistic you can’t tell the difference, what is the difference? Furthermore, there are just enough little nods to the first film (an audio snippet of Rachel and Deckard’s first conversation, the towering ziggurat of the evil corporation formerly known as Tyrell, and an interview with an aged Gaff, still making his little origami animals) to satisfy fans but not detract from a new audience’s enjoyment. That said, I would of course still highly recommend seeing the original before you watch 2049. There’s also a cheeky moment where Deckard runs for his signature Spinner, only for an incoming missile to completely obliterate it. Seconds later, a new and improved Spinner, sleek and glistening, flies in and lands. If this isn’t symbolism for doing away with the problems of the original in favour of the innovation of the sequel, I don’t know what is.
To be Improved:
Once more, a film with so few issues means unfortunately that those issues must be examined in depth. That’s just the way I like doing things, because imperfections in a masterpiece stick out like nobody’s business.
Let’s start with the villain. I feel bad for Jared Leto, because once again he has been cast as a character who has about as much screen time as he did in the trailers. We all know which character I’m talking about, and though he plays the sinister Niander Wallace well, he is genuinely in just two scenes, which mainly consist of him monologuing. What’s worse is that to add to how underdeveloped his character is, we are given what I shall be calling Chekhov’s Chips. Wallace’s assistant opens a case and selects one of six or so microchips, which she then inserts behind Wallace’s ear, allowing him to see (he is blind) through the use of small, black, hovering robo-pebbles. A cool concept, but what I’m left wondering is what the other five chips do. Why show us if it’s not going to be explained? It’s not even a subtle shot, but a relatively extreme close-up of the contents of the case. Either way, there’s a ‘P’ word I don’t use often when it comes to this sort of thing, but I’m going to have to say it: Blade Runner 2049 is a movie with a pointless antagonist, and it hurts the narrative.
On a technical aside, Rachel’s cameo, though studios are now getting incredibly close to nailing CGI humans, tipped unfortunately into uncanny valley territory. In fact, I’m sure the only reason the animation held up was because she barely moved save for her walk up to Deckard, during which she was mostly shrouded in shadow anyway.
But to get back to the subject of the overarching narrative, like the original loads of things are left to the imagination and single throwaway lines are used to cover up massive plotholes. After being saved from drowning, Deckards tells K “You should have let me die out there” to which K replies “I did”. A single exchange that in the moment is simply an interesting way to stop Deckard from being hunted, but because it’s just come after the climactic battle you forget that it solves a lot of other unanswered questions. Why Gosling doesn’t carry out his initial plan of killing Deckard, for instance, or why Wallace’s company will now immediately forget about a man they sought out for years. Someone online recently pointed out that the Blade Runner franchise has always favoured themes and imagery over a thorough plot, but in a film where (as discussed earlier) the twists in the story are so well thought through in some places, it’s such a shame that it falls down in others. For instance, a scene where Joi, K’s holographic girlfriend, sort of merges with a real prostitute so that K can properly make love to her given physical form, is impressive insofar as it’s visually interesting, but to me it lasts far too long and simply sets up the prostitute placing a tracker in K’s jacket (a move which will later be ignored and glossed over completely, because she doesn’t work for the villains at all). There are lots of moments like this and they create threads that seem only there to distract from, rather than convey, any useful information.
All my other film ratings are to be ignored, and this is where I particularly find that the rating system falls down. I give films ratings out of ten based on the individual experience, not in comparison to other movies. Lots of this is aided by nostalgia, yes, like my 9.5 awarded to this year’s Ghost in the Shell, arguably a 6/10 if I unclouded my judgement. This is what I’ve tried very hard to do with Blade Runner: 2049.
To give the film a 9/10 would assume that it is near-perfection. As much as I wish it was, this is not the case. It’s incredible, visually, musically and narrative-wise, and there are so many amazing scenes, though as my girlfriend pointed out, the problem is that they only work as standalone moments, not a whole string of consciousness. The film plays more like a series of wonderful, mildly-interlinked shorts than a whole film. Sure, the nearly three hour runtime doesn’t get boring at all, because it’s paced so elegantly. What’s up for debate is how much is crammed into that runtime, and whether or not they pull it off. Honestly? Though I’m still on the fence, I’m leaning towards yes. Let’s give credit where credit is due: It says a lot about how great a film is that I firmly believe it is one of the best I’ve ever seen even with room for improvement… but sadly that also means that it isn’t perfect.