Blade Runner 2049 is a good movie.
I’d even say a great one, but I reserve that kind of praise until after I’m out of its trance, and I find myself still mulling over some aspects a few days after seeing it (explains this wall of text). Maybe just that kind of persistence alone makes it great in an age of mostly forgettable crap movies.
I’s a flawed movie - the flaws are noticeable but also easy to forgive, given what Villeneuve and his crew achieved.
Spoiler warning: lots of details about the movie ahead!
First, the good.
The movie portrays a vision of the future that is, unfortunately, entirely plausible. I enjoy fantasy settings like Star Wars and Valerian, but they never quite get to you at the level that a Children Of Men or The Road or BR2049 do - the feeling that this all can happen tends to turn off the usual bullshit filters you have in place that make schlock efforts like The Fast and the Furious and Transformers bounce off your attention and barely register.
In line with the “it’s easier to show nightmares than to think of dreams” ethos sweeping through most of the cultural output in the West these days, we’re presented with a dark future of everyone barely surviving a worldwide ecosystem breakdown in the 2020s and the aftermath of a disastrous event that wiped every computer’s memory in 2022. Blade Runner: Black Out 2022 by the legendary Shinichirô Watanabe is a short story that offers a glimpse into this Great Wipe. There was no real way out of maintaining the same aesthetic and going for something more upbeat. This aspect of the movie could have been covered in more detail, but that’s just my yearning for more dystopian works that go into the meat of the impact of said dystopia in everyday life - most audiences probably wouldn’t go for that and prefer to have a plot of epic proportions (and gunshots).
Plot wise I think we’re well served, with an intelligent script that keeps you guessing, with some imbalance in character strength but overall above-average.
Visually, it is a stunning movie. I’m really glad this is the case, since my first guess at where the studio would cut down in terms of budget would be VFX and production quality, this being a risky sequel to a cult classic that bombed at the box office in the 80s. There is a bright side to studio execs having no idea what they are doing after all. Cult movies become cult for a reason - they’re essentially good movies that don’t make their money back, so this sequel was always risky, especially since catching up on Blade Runner’s 5 different cuts makes it hard to be “in” on the canon.
However, the original 1982 movie was different from other cult classics like They Live or Dark City. It’s a deeply divisive movie, but one that even haters respect as visually well constructed, and it was a bit of a break with the established norm of storytelling up to then.
Most of the 1970s “true” sci-fi efforts, excluding less ambitious ones in terms of subject matter like Starcrash, Buck Rogers in the 25 Century, Battlestar Galactica and others are adaptations of ‘heady’ works by Vonnegut, Tarkovsky, Stanislaw Lem that are expected to stand on their own, but Scott’s vision of Philip K. Dick’s story has a unique visual aspect that has made it a true work of cinema, and not a “mere” book transplant onto celluloid. Even the fact that the movie’s title isn’t “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” kinda gives it away. This is not the same story, because Scott understands that film is a different medium. Comic books are hard to adapt to other forms because the story is formed in the reader’s mind between the comic’ pictures, and Scott knows that a movie needs to focus on stylistic cues native to cinema to achieve a similar effect.
Just as Spielberg’s formulas became the blockbuster wannabe director’s bible, Scott’s focus on visuals and style have marked the work of directors like Burton, Nolan and also Villeneuve. And that’s great, but it’s also why BR2049 is having such a hard time at the box office. Complicated movies are harder to digest for audiences. Usually, these are not “bite-sized” works, since complex stories - both in substance and in style - inevitably take longer to tell. The number 1 complaint about the movie that I’ve heard from others had been its runtime of 163 minutes.
For me, this is the cop-out excuse of people that are not really receptive to what’s being told. They didn’t go see this movie, they went to see a movie and a movie for them is 100 minutes of something that they’re used to. BR2049 is not that, and doesn’t even try to be - Villeneuve makes that perfectly clear by giving us beautiful long shots that are only there to reinforce a theme, and not to advance the plot a single inch. I don’t mind long movies that show me a reason for their length, but this is a deal-breaker to a lot of people. A hipster I once spoke to told me that he wasn’t going to see The Hateful Eight because “I don’t have two hours to waste on a movie”. In this age of instant gratification, delayed dopamine releases are not everyone’s bag, and this movie is really slow until just before the end for 90% of moviegoers’ perceptions.
Sexism was a complaint of a lot of the audience too, but to me that’s like complaining about all the slavery in Twelve Years A Slave. One of the biggest points of the movie is how little worth life has in the future, how sex and women have become even more of a commodity than today because of technological advance, and how basic human rights are no longer observed. Wallace builds slaves. Joshi, Robin Wright’s character, “maintains order” - and that’s all she does between sips of strong liquor to keep her conscience at bay. Cops treat K like a despicable “skinjob” because they probably perceive him as a threat to their livelihood. K tries to see Joi for more than what she is, a hyper-sexualized perfect Barbie doll that “says everything you want to hear” but by the end when he sees “her” again in a billboard (and even calls him Joe!) he realizes the truth: she’s a product and he’s been fooled into thinking she was anything more by clever AI programming.
This is not a glorifying portrayal, but a scathing depiction of where we’re headed if we do not contain the systemic sexism and toxic masculinity in our society, and especially the IT sector. Luckily, this perception of what Villeneuve and crew tried to say is not widespread. I don’t believe the nudity is gratuitous (see Game Of Thrones for that), it’s inline with how a product like this would be sold in the future to a population that doesn’t give a shit about being proper and just needs hardcore distraction to keep from committing suicide in a world that doesn’t really motivate you to get up in the morning, and probably has microscopic levels of attention (and care) to spare.
Acting wise, it’s all around brilliant. Major props for Gosling and Wright’s performances (as usual). Some overacting here and there, but it’s not a big deal. I believe the bad acting comes from the pain points present in the script.
On to the bad.
Luckily there’s not much to say. The big blemish on the whole thing are Jared Leto’s and Sylvia Hoeks’ characters, even though their performances are still good. I’m not a Leto hater - been a fan since Lord of War, and even though Suicide Squad was a low point for him, it’s again due to the script in my opinion.
Wallace and Luv, as characters, are what spoils the movie. The Evil Overlord thing has been done to death, and it’s lazy. I think Wallace’s “I brought mankind from the brink, saved them from starvation and now give them the stars” aspect could have been conveyed with more balance, since I do believe there’s an interesting character there, but instead we got a robotic evil man with blindness as a gimmick, and who rips apart newly born “slaves”. It’s all a bit too much.
As for Luv, she just doesn’t work. We know replicants can be “more human than human” - that’s part of the message of hope in the story. But she’s just a robot that merely advances plot through the kind of conduct that just seems out of a drawing board and not really a living, feeling person that has emotions.
The whole Russian/Asian influence in the movie could have had more exposure, but I guess that didn’t make the cut. Again, as a fan of world-building, I’d like to know more, but I accept that that doesn’t sell much.
The final big complaint is the Hollywood standing complaint since… ever: cast diversity. Again, little to no representation of minorities apart from the always, always, always brilliant Lennie James and minor parts for Wood Harris and Barkhad Abdi. I don’t buy into the “Asian influence so where are all the Asians” argument, since I’m pretty sure if you made a movie today in Shanghai there’s perfect congruency between the total absence of caucasians and the Western iconography everywhere, but it’s just boring and disappointing to me to see a story told by white people mostly for white people. At least it’s not downright historically inaccurate like the Unbearable Whiteness of Nolan’s Dunkirk.
Finally, my impressions of what the future holds for the franchise. I’d say it’s pretty bleak - studios will be unlikely to want to follow up on this universe, but it might become the “staple cult movie” that serves as Oscar-bait if it does well at the next awards. But the heart of the story, to me, seems to be fading away. The focus on K’s personal journey with subtle hints of slavery and sexism don’t make me feel confident that the ideas being tackled are going in the right direction. The obvious sequel is about the replicants rising up, but we don’t have a thread connecting us to the resistance movement, Deckard’s daughter seems to be a narrative dead-end and going from Deckard to K to someone else entirely has more of a narrowing feel to it than going for the larger picture that, to me, seems the most interesting.
But who knows? Maybe in 25 years someone as skilled as Villeneuve will bring this world to life again, and try to shine a light on mankind’s responsibility towards the future. Seriously doubt it. Regardless, I’m pretty sure I’ll be interested again.