By Emad El-Din Aysha, PhD
Well, I can’t say that I was surprised that I didn’t like Blade Runner 2049. I’d sussed its weak points out early on whilst watching the trailer. And if a trailer can’t make something look good – and trailers can make anything look good – then it usually isn’t good!
Just to fill you in on the story. The movie is set in the future, I assume 2049, twenty odd years after the original movie Blade Runner (1982) took place, set in 2019. Blade runners are cops whose job it is to hunt down replicants, biological robots that have an annoying tendency to rebel against their human creators. (Adapted from Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep). Things haven’t changed that much in 2049, apparently, it’s just that the new replicants are obedient, and go after the older models. Enter Officer KD3:6-7 aka Ryan Gosling.
Bigger, not Better
In all fairness, BR 2049 is a very well-made movie. (It better be. It reportedly cost $150 million). The visuals are stunning, especially in the aerial shots, and the casting and acting is good – if unevenly so. (Special mention should go to the delicate as a flower Carla Juri, who gave the sincerest performance in the whole movie). The director, Denis Villeneuve, is a significant sci-fi director and taking on Ridley Scott’s masterpiece from 1982 is a tall order for anyone, Ridley Scott included. (Just look at the mess of Prometheus, minus the cool deleted scenes).
Nonetheless, BR 2049 is disappointing. Not only because it steadfastly refuses to tie up loose ends from the original movie but because the story is convoluted, inconsistent and unconvincing – and there’s other problems to boot. Overkill is the most obvious problem. There’s too many characters, especially female ones. Very nice ones, mind you, but they’re hardly given enough to do and end up getting in each other’s way. And the casting is just way too cute. Check out the erstwhile hero Ryan Gosling. Technically that’s a good choice. He’s an accomplished actor and has a very Aryan look (the sharp blue eyes) and he’s beefed up quite nicely here for the muscular role at hand. Nonetheless, his voice is too soft and squeaky. His performance is good, at first, mixing the right level of sympathy and humour and downright coldness for someone of his genetic constitution. But it doesn’t last. He gets colder as time goes by, whereas he should be getting warmer, learning things about himself that drive him to make the right moral decisions in the end.
The scene where he’s looking at the DNA archives is a case in point. His eyes dart around in mechanical fashion, as is intended given his bioengineered nature, whereas in the beginning he was more human when he tracked down and ‘retired’ Sapper Morton (played very nicely by the hulking mass of a man that Dave Bautista is). There’s also the scene early on with his holographic girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas), taking her out into the rain. (She’s the most realistic person in the movie. I once saw a man playing around on his mobile, dressing up a female character – a cat – in alternative outfits, just like what you see here!)
Even someone/thing as genetically cold as Officer K – not just his job, but the way he’s built – has a soft spot, a need for a lover and someone sweet and delicate he can shepherd and protect. (Joi is his better half and conscience; no reason why consciences can’t be ‘exotic’!) So why all the coldness afterwards? Makes it hard to enthuse with the movie and move along with the moral transformation that should leave you feeling elated.
Same thing with the replicant pleasure model Mariette (Mackenzie Davis). She’s hardly given anything to do, and as big and androgynous as she is here, she has very adorable, sensitive features. (Her lips and eyes). Same goes for the lovely Lieutenant Joshi, or Robin Wright from The Princess Bride fame. She plays a nihilistic police chief in a squeaky-clean office that looks like a laboratory at an infertility clinic. You like her and feel sorry for her when she gets killed and understand her jaundiced perspective on things, but she still isn’t given enough room to shine and is too nice for the ruthless decisions she makes; precisely the whole problem with the movie.
It’s not sleazy and grimy, in the least. Even the place where the hookers hang out looks too serine and sanitised and roomy. Hardly look exploited, do they. (And what’s the point of a see through nude you can’t even touch, let alone… The poor sexbots industry!) There’s no sense of congestion and over-crowdedness, except briefly at Officer K’s apartment bloc. But even there, once you get inside his uncluttered apartment, there’s no awareness of noise and the outside world intruding inwards with a sky clogged with spinners (flying cars) and flying advertising blimps. (He’s a guy who invades people’s privacy, without any need for a search warrant; but the same should happen to him on a routine bass in this Topsy Turvey world).
It’s a sign of the times. The world has become too soft. The 1980s was the last gasp of the industrial era; compare Wall Street to Boiler Room. And the director is from Canada, a squeaky-clean, spacious world if there ever was one.
The premise of the movie is also implausible. You have replicants now referred to as genetically engineered human beings – not biological robots or androids as in the original – and yet, for some bizarre reason, they can’t breed. Could Dolly the Sheep not breed? That’s why the new bioengineer businessman playing God – Niander Wallace played by (the wuss) Jared Leto – is so desperate to find the child of Racheal (the CGI Sean Young) and break the genetic code holding him back from his power-mad plans to colonise the galaxy. (He sounds perfectly reasonable to me. Compare that to Tyrell, with his chess set made up of human figures and his Vatican-like office and Pope-like outfit; the god of biomechanics indeed).
You would have preferred to believe that Rachel getting pregnant was a genuine ‘miracle’, even if the result of the rebellion of humane genes, instead of the last trick of Eldon Tyrell from the first movie, as Mr. Wallace phrases it.
I had bad vibes about the sequel from early on when I heard that Hampton Fancher was once again writing the script. He did the first draft of the original Blade Runner and Ridley Scott had to pull in David Peoples to fix things up. Watching the deleted scenes from the 1982 classic, you can see what a mess the original script was.
Deckard (Harrison Ford) from the original movie was a replicant himself, he just didn’t know it on account of the memory implants. He did have a troublesome memory fragment though of a unicorn running through the forest. Here Officer K has a memory fragment that didn’t fit too – involving a toy wooden horse, from his childhood. The horse, which he eventually finds again, is what leads him to Deckard. (The detection scene is meant to hark back to the animart sequence in the original movie, but it’s boring and the surrounding environment too technical). And the horse also leads Officer K, ultimately, to Rachael and Deckard’s long lost daughter. (That scene, at the very least was nice and a fitting ending to the story). But why is it a horse and not a unicorn?
Even when you meet Gaff (Edward James Olmos) at the old-age home, he makes an origami (like in the first movie), but it’s not of a unicorn or a horse. More likely a Buffalo, a species hunted to the edge of extinction. Fine and dandy, but is Deckard a replicant or not and if he is, how can he still be alive? What happened to the 4-year life-span of the Nexus Six models? And what about the original unicorn, why is no explanation given?
Like I said, too many loose ends from yonder past. If the new movie was good enough you could forgive it this incompleteness, but it isn’t. The world it subsists in is lacking many things from the original (see below). Cityspeak, the Esperanto language from the original, isn’t evident enough here. There aren’t nearly enough Asian characters. (I don’t remember any, and there’s only one item of Asian clothing anywhere). In the original movie, you have Deckard trying to persuade a sushi chef to give him four sushi bars and the man insists on only two.
As an arrogant American he thinks he can have whatever he wants, like at a fast food joint. Proper chefs know about what the stomach and taste buds can handle; avoiding two starchy items, that kind of thing. It’s meant to signify Asian rules, that the downtrodden of the Earth are overpopulating the world and pushing the white man out of the way.
Why else would the advert for the Off-World colonies be brought to you by the Shimata-Dominguez corporation, helping ‘America into the new world’? American is now part of the old world, so the white people want to head off somewhere else where they can feel in charge again, with their bioengineered slaves. The title, like Wayland-Yutani from Ridley Scott’s other masterpiece Alien (1979); Shimata sound Japanese, Dominguez is clearly Latin.
The narrative flow has no rhythm, contrasted to the poetry Rutger Hauer (replicant Roy Batty) insisted on inserting into the storyline. The music, while good, doesn’t have the romance and exotica of the Vangelis soundtrack, with its mix of techno and jazz and Demis Roussos. There’s only ‘one’ Third World person in the whole movie – Barkhad Abdi, the dilapidated pirate from Captain Philips. Rick Deckard aka Harrison Ford is back for the usual yuks here, but he actually acts quite well this time over. (Imagine that, having to wait this long to finally fall in love with Sean Young). And nobody ever seems to sweat, no matter how tense the situation or humid the weather!
E is for Extinct
On the plus side the film is replete with themes, embedded in the very ‘stuff’ of the movie. There’s the creepy replicant orphanage, for instance. The kids are all bald and the man who runs the place has an orange scarf over his head, making the place look like a Buddhist monastery.
The place is run like a Third World sweatshop and since the man is also black, you have a role reversal here meant to bring back memories of slavery in American history. (The sharp contrasts in black and white clothing are part of the whole dualism theme – questioning who’s good and who’s evil). This is impressive, evidence of considerable artistry on the part of the director, but it is also unstable. It introduces too many untenable propositions: Who needs an orphanage for genetically grown individuals? Don’t they make them ready-made as grownups straight away for the workforce? And who needs socialisation if you have false memories and genetic programming that makes them obedient and passive?
Other themes clearly come from today’s headlines. Environmental degradation and global warming is in there, like the original movie, but there’s also the place Deckard is hiding out in, full of radioactive dust from a ‘dirty bomb’. (The war on terror, anyone). Nonetheless, Deckard has no problem breathing the air and even raises bees (a motif for cops as caretakers). I assume that means that we’re imprisoning ourselves behind walls of fear. The world is a much more hospital and fertile place than we think. (But that still doesn’t excuse the absence of stuffed animals, given that only synthetic worms seem to thrive in this world).
Wallace also threatens Deckard with torture, Off-World, a tongue-in-cheek reference to the black sites the CIA runs abroad to interrogate terror suspects; where American courts have no jurisdiction. (As if they can’t beat the crap out of him in their corporate HQ or use fancy drugs and mind-reading equipment this far into the future). I ‘assume’ that the replicants here are meant to be the downtrodden of the world, hence their leader Freysa (Hiam Abbass), played by a Palestinian Arab. She’s leading a revolutionary movement and wants Officer K to be as ruthless as the powers that be, telling him to kill Deckard before the retired (pun intended) blade runner can spill the beans. (The scene is lame, lacking in energy and ‘constricted’, like this is theatre, not cinema).
The scene where Officer K goes after Wallace’s henchwoman Luv (the intimidating Sylvia Hoeks), knocking out two spinners with his police model flying car, harks back to film noir, since corrupt politicians and power-hungry businessmen are always the enemy of the common citizen. And it’s the disgruntled cop or (more usually) the small-time private investigator who stands in their way, and the citizen body is more often than not embodied in the form of a woman. (Faye Dunaway in Chinatown, for instance. The first time you see Joi, she’s dressed like a 1950s housewife).
Other themes abound in the very tools of the trade. The part of K’s spinner that detaches and flies around is an obvious allusion to ‘drones’; a remote-controlled drone missile attack happens at one point in the story. (Luv directs the attack while having a manicure, happy to be a slave).
Nonetheless, the weapon of choice half the time is the scalpel, a surgical tool meant to save lives but here used for murderous purposes; both Sapper Morton and Niander Wallace use scalpels. (A replicant is a machine, and like any ‘tool’ is either a benefit or a hazard). Even Luv has a preference for knives and there’s a persistent preference for old-fashioned technology here. Evidenced by Officer K using Deckard’s pistol to finish the job instead of his modern energy-type gun. (When he kills Luv, at the melodramatic highpoint of the movie, he strangles here, relying on brute force). The lack of originality of this too modern world – post-modern funk – is evident too, with all the holograms of the songs and singers from the previous century: Elvis, Frank Sinatra, and the 1960s song Joi mentions early in the movie. (All the more reason to read classics like Nabokov or Treasure Island).
The themes are commendable but problematic, and just not future noir enough for a movie of this pedigree – ‘cyberpunk’ as it’s more commonly known. (Wallace is blind and uses computer cameras hooked into his neural system to see his creations. That’s the one element of proper cyberpunk, but you feel it’s there by accident, since Eldon Tyrell had a giant pair of spectacles).
To finish off I would say that Officer K is a representative of the human condition and probably modelled on the character of ‘K’ from Kafka’s novels, someone who always felt out of place in the world of the modern. (The opening sequence, with Officer K by himself in his spinner has a ‘no man is an island’ feel to it). Just look at the names of the other characters. ‘Sapper’ Morton. A Sapper is someone who looks for mines, and Niander sounds like Neanderthal. That means Wallace is someone who’s still a barbarian at heart, no matter how advanced the tools he uses to dominate others.
Well, look at the bright side. They say Mr. Villeneuve is going to do the remake – yes, yet another remake, sequel or prequel from Hollywood – for Frank Herbert’s Dune. Maybe they’ll get it right this time, but I seriously doubt is. Especially since Ryan Gosling is on board too!!!