As you can probably tell from my frequent posting on the matter, Blade Runner 2049 is kind of a big deal here. The legacy of the original Blade Runner from 1982 spreads far and wide, it rolls deep with die-hard fans from director Chris Cunningham to EL-P of Run the Jewels fame singing its hypnotic praises. It’s the kind of movie that inspired a lot of other movies, not to mention an astronomical amount of music, fashion and art. For better or worse, Ridley Scott’s futurist meditation on the nature of human existence has been seared into our collective consciousness. Personally, I wasn’t really sure what to expect from the Denis Villeneuve-directed follow-up. It seemed a difficult proposition for a variety of reasons.
Full disclosure: if I’m honest with myself, I was probably never a die-hard fan of the original. While I can totally appreciate its dense, melancholy atmosphere, singular vision and stunning visual innovation on a more cerebral level, I’ve always found it hard to get emotionally invested. In spite of its unquestionable strengths, it never really got me in my feels. There’s a distinct possibility that I’ve just found it hard to see past the dated bits. For some people, the wonky, early 80s kitsch is the movie’s main appeal, but for me it sometimes becomes the wayward, pointy projectile that sends the soaring Hindenburg of a movie crashing down to earth in cyberpunk-tinted flames. My ADHD-riddled internet brain probably doesn’t do me any favors when it comes to Scott’s meditative sci-fi odyssey, and I certainly can’t rule out that I’m just so used to fast-paced Netflix entertainment that its relentless dwelling on idiosyncratic detail – soundtracked by sticky synths and self-indulgent saxophone solos – is why I sometimes catch myself zoning tf out. This is a movie that’s drunk on its own imagination. It wallows in its own melancholy. That said, I do think parts of Blade Runner, like Rutger Hauer’s dying in the rain with its inspired monologue, are earth-shatteringly great.
What I’m trying to say is that my relationship with Blade Runner is fairly complex, if not a little agnostic. From my perspective, parts of Blade Runner are flat out tiresome, while others are borderline genius. In other words, Blade Runner 2049’s potential was hard to determine. It could go either way, as far as I was concerned.
For the purposes of making this review more orderly and palatable, less rambling and ranting, I’ve divided it into four segments: the soundtrack, the plot, the world-building and the politics. Let’s jump in at the deep end with the heavily contested soundtrack. Spoilers ahead!
As I mentioned, there was a bit of an uproar in Nerdland when Denis Villeneuve gave Jóhan Jóhansson the boot in favor of Blockbuster titan, Hans Zimmer. Murmurings that Denis Villeneuve was losing his neuve (lølz) flourished in many a geek-driven corner of the internet, and I can totally see where they’re coming from; with Jóhansson’s timelessly yearning, neo-classical sound, Blade Runner could potentially have followed in the footsteps of its avant-garde predecessor by turning everything on its head. By flipping off an increasingly ossified sci-fi establishment. Then again, A Blade Runner movie that completely neglects the soaring Vangelis synth, wouldn’t really feel like a Blade Runner movie. You can sense Villeneuve’s pickle.
If we start out in the nitpicking department, the main problem with Zimmer’s score is that is has the all the subtlety of being bro-slapped at a toga party. On more than one occasion, I felt compelled to grab the German composer by the scruff of the neck and tell him to cool it with those massive ‘BWAAAAH!’ sounds that he also pummelled to death in Inception. And it’s nice to be overwhelmed by an all-encompassing wall of surround sound in the cinema, but when the wall is so frequent and so loud, it kind of feels like that episode of The Simpsons where they’re making fun of surround sound ads and people’s teeth and valuables get torn off in the soundwave.
Moving on to the good parts, Hans clearly knows what he’s doing. A seasoned craftsman with a proven track record in mesmerizing the big screen sci-fi audience, his vast, immersive tones compliment, contextualize and enhance the movie’s grave, larger-than-life themes. At one point when K flies into the foreboding Wallace monolith, the ambient background noise suddenly turns into a weird, heavily processed, guttural tribal chant that manages to stay on the right side of outrageous. Strange, fucked-up, colossal buildings where they engineer human slaves necessitate strange, fucked up, unholy sounds.
As an old synth-freak I can’t help relishing the generous washes of Vangelis-indebted synth-work that Zimmer implements with knowing precision. Hovercraft ride with AI-girlfriend: Vangelis-synth. Dying in the snow for a bigger cause, which is the final proof that you’re not a ‘skin job’, but a real human being with a real soul: Vangelis-synth. It works a charm, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
All in all, I’d say the the good outweighs the bad by a long shot. 7 out of 10 vintage Yamaha synthezisers.
Here lies the centre of my struggle, my main gripe with 2049. I mean, I love the introductory text describing how the Tyrell Corporation had its downfall and the ecosystem collapsed making way for Wallace and his ‘mastery’ of synthesized farming. The scene is set for an epic, downcast, post-apocalyptic adventure.
But then comes Robin Wright’s lackluster claim that they need to ‘keep order’ and if they don’t – if everyone finds out about the replicant baby – civil war between humans and replicants will break out. With no tangible backstory, no discernible character motivation, to underpin this pivotal claim, the premise that the entire movie rests on becomes one person’s half-baked opinion.
It’s a bit flimsy for my tastes. And the combination of uninspired acting and sloppy screenwriting kind of kills the plot for me. Theoretically speaking, I can see how a baby born to a replicant could stoke the fires of an insurrection. The way in which this crucial plot device is delivered, however, just makes the point of no return fizzle out into mediocrity – and I find it very hard to get fully invested in what comes next. Adding to that, the completely overshadowing focus on cinematography can sometimes make it seem like you’re watching 10 different, isolated short films in succession instead of one, unified whole. The plot gives way to the visuals. Now, depending on who you ask, this is either a strength or a flaw. More on that in a second.
These are my main points of contention with 2049. In no way do they make it suck, but they don’t do it any favors either.
This is where Denis and crew really nail it down to a tee. 2049 is a visual cornucopia of sci-fi boner-inducing imagination. I realize that I’m contradicting myself here, but the lack of backstory and character motivation actually serves an engaging purpose in this particular respect because it pushes us straight into the vertigo-inducing action, and sort of makes us observe what these strange people who are so unlike us, but still kind of similar get up to in a fascinating, distorted reality. It becomes a window into an alternate universe that’s taken a hard turn for the worse, and its immersive properties are by turns exhilarating, enticing and deliciously melancholy. Channeling the true, maverick spirit of the original, 2049 makes few attempts to guide its audience along a traditional blockbuster narrative, opting instead to enmesh its viewers in colour, mood and atmosphere with relatively open-ended thematic conclusions.
This is one of the most visually appealing movies I’ve ever seen. If cinematography is your bag, this is your holy grail. It also sits incredibly well with the atmospheric, world-building of the original while building on and expanding its prescient ideas into the present and beyond.
At the end of 2017, making a big budget movie can never not be politicized. Sure enough, accusations of misogyny came flying left and right when Blade Runner 2049 first premiered. I-D fired a few rounds at Villenueve, castigating the film as ‘a misogynistic mess’ saying that women in the movie are either prostitutes or ‘violent boss vomen.’ If you judge the new Bade Runner according to criteria that usually apply to contemporary movies, this is a very fair point. In that case, the portrayal of women is straight-up barbaric and very one-dimensional. In other words, most of these women make for dubious role models.
In my humble opinion, this critique is fairly short-sighted. It also kind of misses the point. First of all, this is cyberpunk. We find ourselves in a post-apocalyptic society that’s gone off the rails. It’s creative extrapolation, making us live a worst-case scenario. We have to assume, I think, that untamed capitalism, unchecked patriarchy, toxic masculinity and all the other ills of this world are factors in the precipitous descent into debasement, leaving our protagonists with the sad, broken pieces of a world in rapid decline. Or rather, the decline is over and they’ve hit rock-bottom. Their job is to navigate this hyper-oppressive dystopia where human beings are commodities, and their use-value is the only thing they have going for them. None of these people – neither the men, nor the women – are role models. They’re misguided outcomes of a society based on the every- person-for-itself- rule. I’d agree that creating a visually titillating dystopia could be construed as irresponsible, but that’s a different discussion. (Also, if you’ve read this blog, you’ll know that I’d love to see a full-on utopian movie).
But like Black Mirror, Blade Runner is, partially at least, about seeing how bad shit can really get if we don’t stop and think – if we don’t find a way to curb our most self-destructive impulses. The 2049 universe is the opposite of woke; it’s a scenario that plays out how the world might look if we don’t find some way to change. Hence, big-breasted statues of women in the abandoned, toxic desert are not reinforcing patriarchy, they’re pointing fingers at it. They’re showing us how obsolete, dehumanizing and damaging the commodification of human beings can be.
True, 2049’s themes are subtle and ambiguous. I don’t know about you, but I prefer my entertainment subtle and ambiguous to obvious and lecturing. You could argue that today’s political climate requires lecturing, but that’s another discussion for another time – and one that I’d like to keep out of a Blade Runner debate. Simply put: if you’re going to make a movie or music about how things should be with themes that should be taken literally, that’s amazing and commendable. It has nothing to do with Blade Runner, though, and from my perspective Villeneuve does a good job of orchestrating a bold, new take on the groundbreaking Blade Runner legacy.
I can see how people can get pissed off by Blade Runner 2049 (and a few of my friends actually have). Still, I find it hard to be offended by it. If anything it depresses me. It reminds me that we’re pushed with increasing speed into the totally insane task of changing the course of humanity, so we can avoid living in a real-world dystopia where brute force, dickheaded antagonism and soulless technological innovation and are the only constants in a terrifyingly chaotic universe.
To my own surprise, I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around this movie despite seeing it twice. I’d love to give you a clear-cut answer along the lines of ‘it’s really great’ or ‘it’s embarrassingly bad’, but I can only say It’s mind-blowingly great in some respects, but kinda half-assed and sophomoric in others. Which is more or less what I have to say about the original, so I guess everything is as it should be.
Interestingly, the original Blade Runner got crap reviews when it first came out in 1982. 2049 being so ahead of its time that I just don’t fully get could be within the realms of possibility. Maybe Villeneuve’s sequel will be to your generation what Fritz Lang’s ‘Metropolis’ (1910) is to us. It manages the unlikely feat of being a beautiful, depthless void favoring form over substance, as well as a deep-seated visual poem on the intersection between technology and humanity all at the same time. The fact that it can be both may be too much for my binary, early 21st century pea brain to handle. I might even have to watch it a third time to see if I can make more sense of it all. Maybe that’s what Blade Runner is: a beautiful, confusing mess of conflicting energies.
Wherever you are, whether it’s your version of cyberspace or somewhere on an off-world colony, I sincerely hope it hasn’t aged too poorly and that you’re able to watch it without feeling embarrassed for your early 21st century ancestors. Who will probably all be gone by the time you read this.
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