Blade Runner 2049

October 13, 2017
How advertising works in 2049
How advertising works in 2049

Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) is the epitome of a cult classic. It didn’t set the box office on fire at first appearance, but with every year its grimy vision of the future reappears in one film after another. If Scott had kept possession of the original sets he could be running a useful little rental business.

Inevitably a sequel was in order, but it has been a long time coming. When it finally arrives, it’s not Scott at the helm, but Denis Villeneuve, who garnered good notices for his melancholy science fiction flick, Arrival (2016).

Villeneuve is a director who is adored by the critics but leaves the general public scratching their heads. A quick glance at the first responses for Blade Runner 2049 shows this pattern continuing, with rave reviews and poor box office. There are various ways of analysing this phenomenon. It could be that Villeneuve is a true artist, and the philistine public – in love with CGI and car chases – doesn’t appreciate his sophistication. On the other hand, perhaps the critics are too willing to be impressed by anything slow and confusing. The public are less forgiving and more easily bored.

On this occasion I’m tending to side with the public. At almost three hours, Blade Runner 2049 has too many long, static scenes of Ryan Gosling looking glum. It will be an agony for those who go to the movies chiefly for the fights and explosions.

The original Blade Runner was set in the year 2019, which means we still have two years to catch up with this dystopian scenario. The sequel moves us 30 years into the future, to a world in which it’s hard to differentiate degeneration from progress. The big change is that a certain Wallace Corporation has managed to stabilise food production, and create a new kind of replicant, guaranteed to comply with humanity’s instructions.

Ryan Gosling is one of those replicants – KD6.3-7, or “K” to his friends. Like Rick Deckard in the 1982 film, K is a Blade Runner, an L.A. police officer given the task of tracking down and “retiring” replicants that have gone rogue. To recap: a replicant is a lifelike form of android created to do the jobs humans no longer wish to do. The problem is that the first run of replicants became so intelligent they developed a desire for freedom.

The film begins with K confronting an imposing specimen named Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista), who wants to get on with his life as a farmer. At Morton’s protein farm K discovers a set of bones that threatens to upset the balance of the world in which he operates. For his boss, Lieutenant Joshi, (Robin Wright), the structuring principle of this life is the division between humans and replicants. If that division is questioned by the possibility that replicants might be able to give birth, pandemonium will be the outcome.

For K the problem becomes increasingly personal. In this sci-fi impersonation of a film noir he begins piecing together the tiniest of clues, trying to establish the identity of a father, a mother, and a missing child. There is a mythical aspect to this quest, with K as a belated Oedipus. The other obvious reference is to Kafka, whose protagonist, Josef K, found himself immersed in a metaphysical labyrinth in The Trial. When K is given a nickname, it’s no surprise that it’s “Joe”.

By the time K’s quest brings him to Harrison Ford in the role of an aged Rick Deckard, the plot has grown very muddled and bloody. This is largely due to the introduction of a blind-eyed Jared Leto, as the industrial magnate and super-villain, Wallace, and his favourite replicant, Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), a femme fatale in every sense.

At the preview Villeneuve appealed to his first viewers not to give away the ending. This seems unlikely since everyone is still trying to work out exactly what happened.

If there are standout moments in this complex, murky tale they are largely down to the cinematography of Roger Deakins, whose images linger in the mind. It’s almost worth seeing Blade Runner 2049 for the aerial shots of K flying his police vehicle over a massive wasteland of twisted, rusty metal, or an orange-toned ghost city suspected of being radioactive.

There’s a sex scene in which K’s virtual girlfriend, Joi (a delightful Ana de Armas) mingles bodies with a real live prostitute, in which hands overlap hands and faces fade and reappear. There’s the spectacle of one of Wallace’s replicants being ‘born’, dropping from a womb-like membrane onto a hard floor. Meanwhile, in the neon-lit streets, huge holograms of naked women solicit customers for the sex trade.

Villeneuve has given us a film that tries too hard to be a masterpiece and ends as a heap of glittering fragments. It’s exhilarating and exhausting by turns, striving for profundity but settling for the lesser satisfactions of arty mystification.

Blade Runner 2049
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Written by Hampton Fancher & Michael Green, after a story by Hampton Fancher, based on characters created by Philip K.Dick
Starring Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Robin Wright, Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, Jared Leto, Mackenzie Davis, Dave Bautista
USA/UK/Canada, rated MA 15+, 163 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, 14 October, 2017