“I’d sort of like to see some of my ideas, not just special effects of my ideas, used… and concepts that awaken the mind rather than the senses.”
Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villneuve, 2017)
May contain spoilers — I am circumspect at the start, with a firmer warning later on.
So after a full week of lectures and tutorials and a London day trip, I checked when a certain sequel was showing and saw there was a Thursday night preview with one seat left. So I booked.
I confess to a love-hate relationship with Blade Runner, ranging from the hating it because it betrays the source to loving it for visual style and allusiveness to hating it because half the students were writing about it and I’d seen it too many times. If I’m honest, I didn’t see the need for the sequel and I wasn’t convinced Scott could pull it off — and Prometheus and Covenant didn’t help, but the baton had baeen handed on.
I fully expected to hate it and had kept my expectations low, as I saw a number of rave reviews and Kim Newman’s balanced response, although I carefully didn’t read past his spoiler point.
Well, I didn’t hate it.
Nor did I love it.
Of course, the things I don’t like would need spoilers, and it’s a little early yet for those.
I wrote something for the work blog, which began by discussing the film’s reception and the extra cuts, before finally discussing the film. I think this is spoiler free:
And then talk of a sequel arrived. K.W. Jeter, whom Dick had championed, had written three sequels, which melded together book and film in interesting ways. But this was going to be a film and called Metropolis, but Scott’s Alien prequel intervened, and other sf projects followed, as the reins passed to Denis Villeneuve, who directed the not-as-intelligent-as-it-thinks first contact film Arrival. Hampton Fancher, who had written the major drafts of the original before David Peoples was added, was engaged to write the script, with revisions by Michael Green who has also written the upcoming Murder on the Orient Express.
We have had a rash of delayed sequels lately — most notably The Force Awakens and Trainspotting 2 — and essentially we want more of the same, even though we are twenty or thirty years older, as are the cast. Deckard is no longer the central character, but at some point we want to know what he had been up to between films. A couple of other characters survive — and we might wonder if we will see them again, although one of the actors is dead. Instead we have K, later Joseph K in a nod to Kafka, a Blade Runner and replicant, who tracks down illegal early models. On retiring one of these, he finds evidence for a buried corpse, leading him to the Wallace Corporation — the successor to Tyrell — and an attempt to find out what happened thirty years ago. He must track down Deckard, but Waddell have their own reasons to get in on the act.
Much like those other sequels, this is a refraction of the original. There is a opening set of captions, setting the scene, there is a close up of an eye, there are aerial shots of Los Angeles, there is a version of the Voigt-Kampff test for testing androids, a replicant crashes through a wall. The score quotes and mimics Vangelis’s original. But whilst Scott’s L.A. was a rainy night city, much of this is foggy day time. The streets are less crowded — although this time there are a couple more African American characters. There is a sense of déjà vu. K’s apartment seems a close duplicate to Deckard’s — perhaps they are LAPD standard. A new element is introduced — K has a hologram girlfriend, Joi, who offers him an emotional arc and who he upgrades to make more human. The film here continues the original’s theme of what makes a human.
When Ford finally appears, he defaults to the gruff, awkward, reluctantly paternal performance he gave in equivalent roles in the last Indiana Jones and Star Wars films. He gets a few action sequences, and we are back to those climactic fights from the showdown of the original film. He probably gets the film’s best lines. If the first film was built around an Oedipal struggle of son and father, then thirty five years on the trajectory is parent and child, although there is an inevitable sense of K being set up to take over from Deckard.
There are vast, gaping plot holes or dangling threads that offer space for a further sequel, should Hollywood wish to milk the cow. If the gaps in the original were the result of frantic rewrites and editing room errors, as well as allusiveness, then the gaps here are from not following through on a narrative that is frankly a good half hour too long. It also gives one character a too portentous series of speeches of the kind that fatally weakened Scott’s Alien prequels.
Of course, it is sumptuous, visually stunning, but it is too easily swayed by eye candy. It’s never going to have the impact of the 1982 film. But then again, what has?
So what didn’t I like? Here you may wish to tread carefully or look away now, until you’ve seen the film.
The original film had some issues with representing women — the female replicants were basically sex models, with Zhora as exotic dancer. Both her death and Pris’s are sexualised, and Zhora is played for maximum fetish. Zhora, the erotic lady with the snake showers and then fends off Deckard, making her escape in a see through rain coat, to be shot in the back to die in slow motion. I think this was a moment when we did feel sympathy, but it is weighed against sadistic voyeurism. In the novel, the character is an opera singer. In the novel, Rachel seduces Rick (“‘Get into bed’ she said. he did.” Or words to that effect.) In the film, Rick demands Rachael goes to bed with him; some critics have read this as a rape and I wouldn’t disagree. This is a sequence we may want to revisit in the light of allegations in 2049.
Joseph K lives with a female hologram, Joi (Ana de Armas) who is programmed to love him and can be upgraded to love him more. At first, she is trapped in the house, but she does become more mobile. Her amount of free will seems limited to how far she can go to please him. This involves allowing Mariette (Mackenzie Davis), the replicant tart with a heart, to take part in a threesome with K. Thee were a few moments when I thought the film would not objectify them, but I became aware of the sheer number of female nipples on display. Late in the film there is a giant hologram of a Joi, naked, naturally. (Do we see Joseph K naked? Am I misremembering a shower scene?)
Where are the male sex dolls?
Then there is the replicant Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), assistant to the Big Bad Wallace (Jared Leto, achieving the impossible by being more pretentious in his monologues than Rutger Hauer), who is the beautiful woman kicking male butt and so forth, coded as villain. It is hardly a role of great subtlety.
Of course, there is K’s boss, Lt Joshi (Robin Wright), smart, brave, cool and almost enough to make you forgive the rest. Dr Stelline (Carla Juri) is clearly smart, but is in it too briefly to be that developed. There is the rebel leader, Freysa (Hiam Abbass) who will also need consideration in time.
Of course, depiction is not endorsement. But if the majority of depictions run in one direction, you wonder. And Villeneuve did a better job in Arrival.
Much of the trajectory of the film is toward reunions between people who haven’t met — most notably between Deckard and K. This is by far the best sequence in the film. But there is another missing person, whose location makes the emotional climax of the film. But this will distract us from the careless dropping of another plot thread and a showdown we are denied —I can remember thinking, surely there’s not another twenty minutes to go. Except it doesn’t happen. The credits rolled. Is it being saved for the sequel?
The wooden horse.
No, not escaping a prison camp, but a recurring carved toy that becomes significant in the way that the origami toys do in the original. I wonder at what point it got changed to that from a unicorn? The unicorn was the key to replicant memories and here it is also a memory key — flagged by a number of heavy handed flashbacks the film could have lived without. I realise that I’ve made an assumption about who made the horse and I wondered briefly if that works still, but it does.
Race and slavery.
One of the odd things that I don’t think I’d noticed in the first fifteen years of watching the original film. There are no black people. Or no black people with dialogue. Imagine making a film set in LA with no black people. (You don’t have to.) This film has at least two speaking roles.
One of the subtexts of the original is slavery and race, displaced onto the Aryan Roy Batty. An article by Sarah Gailey does a good job of exploring this in the original — although she’s not the first to explore the film in such terms. Now we have replicants who are programmed to be slaves rather than just acting as slaves, where does it leave the theme? Does it endorse it? How does it map onto patriarchy?
I don’t yet know, but I do know I have to rewatch the film, and may be I will like it more. But at the moment I only see problems where others see great cinematography.