It would be great if we could collectively stop talking about a film like Blade Runner 2049 in terms of its box office and look at its various qualities instead. The nearly 3-hour soft-reboot-cum-sequel to Ridley Scott’s canonised 1982 Science Fiction/Noir hybrid may however purposefully dissatisfy audiences, director Denis Villeneuve almost encourages the refusal by many to engage in the themes raised here. Many of the technical elements are superb but, as with the original, just as much is hinted at or obfuscated that one does wonder the point of it all.
Bold, sustained close-ups highlight an ensemble of terrific performances. Gosling as more than a comic actor he often leans toward manages to humanise android detective K. Harrison Ford giving his most vulnerable, measured performance since Witness. Makenzie Davis glares down the camera lens, instructing you to watch her get her due in Always Shine. Jared Leto appropriately cast as an abusive creep. With certain allegations against him, it is difficult to see him assaulting a naked woman as he does in the film. This contributes to the effect of the performance but makes one question the politics of the moviemaking.
Women in general, in fact, lack agency, depth, interest. One wonders if this is the condensed cinema version (it would be funny to see Villeneuve struggle with multiple cuts of the film over the next 30 years as Scott did the original) but between a submissive A.i, a prostitute, and a blindly aggressive henchman character one wonders about the intentions of the all-male writing and directing team. If Science Fiction is a warning about the present in the guise of a warning of the future, then what are they trying to say about today with these cliched representations?
Easily the most expressive scene in the film touches on this. Right out of Her comes an A.I sex surrogate scene in which two souls seem to meld in a carnal moment, the sophistication of which calls Persona and Hannibal to mind. The psychosexual aspects of the story, from this scene to Gosling’s overall quest to find Deckard and Rachel, a metaphorical search for the womb, are what gives the film its drive and makes the three hours occasionally compelling. The final fight sequence especially has a primacy, occurring both in and out of water, nature clashing with the mechanical, that give the film a heft which much of its visual posturing do not manage.
One of Ridley Scott’s key innovations with his Blade Runner, in whatever cut, was to merge Science Fiction with the Film Noir. The detective narrative feeding exquisitely from the heady ruminations on what it means to be human. The dark shadows and urban decay contrasted with a technologically saturated society. 2049 was never expected to create an entirely new sub-genre as Scott did, but Villeneuve’s world-building is too busy being vaguely evocative. Deakins’ photography is stunning, of this viewers are aware, but to what effect does he use his striking colour and lenswork? We see little of the dystopian world established by the opening crawl, instead we are treated to landscapes which each chose a different colour as their palate but are remarkably shy on detail. Villeneuve relies on audience familiarity with the original as a shortcut to the story he is telling. This is fair game for a sequel, but as a result there is little comment on modern anxiety. This suggests a redundancy of purpose, allegory is why Dick wrote the original after all.
The closest thing to allegory here is the film’s subtext, which hints that there are no humans left at all, or at least, that the implementation of Artificial Intelligence has had a minimal impact on human life quality, as evidenced by one of the few ostensibly human characters being a call girl.
Villeneuve is a hit and miss director. Often within the same film. Enemy and Sicario are both fascinating but troubling in their lack of moral clarity. Last year’s Arrival was his best yet, a step forward for cinematic Science Fiction in the way that it manipulated the audience with images and tied this structure into the theme of the film. With Blade Runner 2049 it is clear that he is being positioned as the heir apparent to Christopher Nolan. However the box office ‘flop’ of 2049 will affect this, considering the fact that Nolan’s own blockbuster breakout, Batman Begins, hardly set the world alight in 2005, remains to be seen. But it is hard to believe Villeneuve cares. One only need consider the clear metatext he lays out in the film’s denouement, the ostensible downer twist that has upset many.
SPOILERS (is this still a thing?)
Dr Ana, the greatest memory writer of all, is revealed to the be the chosen one. The idea is that her strength lies in her authorship of these memories, that she was unable to entirely keep her personality from them and by putting herself into these fake memories she gave the resistance hope. It is a noble, possibly self-important view of the role of the author and a clear insertion by Villeneuve of his own ideology. Just like Ana, when imprisoned by a large corporation (Warner Bros) Villeneuve can do nothing but put something of himself on the product he is to spread to the masses.
The twist is exciting but Villeneuve is so keen to hide it until the third act that there is little time to explore this idea. 2049 strictly sticks to Gosling’s point of view, the better to feel his pain on the discovery that he is not the chosen one, that he is an empty vessel who has placed the weight of his dreams on someone else’s imagination (take note, Rick and Morty fans). He is therefore unable to weave this theme to the structure of the story in a meaningful way. It doesn’t lessen the film but the cumulative inability of 2049 to follow through on its ideas leaves it much like Scott’s original, a triumph of aesthetics above ideology.