Blade Runner 2049 – Somnambulent Sprequel


Exciting cinematography in the opening scenes of Blade Runner 2049: the noir tones of the original film replaced by ashy whites of a dusty landscape that looked like either an alkali farm or Ice Station Zebra.   This was the perfect photographic “negative,” a brighter view, suggesting that things hidden would be revealed, normalcy and daylight would let us examine the issues raised in the original  without that dank sense of dread.

And Ryan Gosling, the perfect emcee, he of LaLaLand and The New Micky Mouse Club.   Like a talk show host he would take care of us.   The point of the original Blade Runner was that no one took care of you.  That’s why people love it, it’s uncompromising, gemlike, almost cruel.   How I longed for the discipline of the sharp cut after two hours and forty-nine minutes of this metastasized bloat.   The visuals quickly turned gray and derivative.  You would think in 32 years the landscape would have changed beyond plunking down giant holographic ballerinas in the same post-apocalyptic cityscape.

The only bread-leavening (see previous review of the original) is a confusing, overblown plot, one that screams for another sequel in which the “humane” replicants will begin to breed and rebel against the machine-like cruel humans.  Perhaps their leader will be named “Caesar”.  We’ve seen this story before in the many wretched “Planet of the Apes” sequels and reboots which will never displace that masterful original.

The original Blade Runner grapples with issues of what it means to be human, whether it’s a meaningful distinction, and whether death adds to that meaning.  In the sequel the desire of the replicants isn’t “more life,” it’s the ability to reproduce through birth, without a master-builder.   But the sequel never delves into why the manner in which you are produced matters.  It’s a rich question: humans can be seen as bound by determinism, genetic inheritance, social conditioning – to what extent does free will exist, what does it import that we can we change our genetic code via epigenetics?  And to what extent are replicants able to have free will ?   The fact that the Nexus 6 models rebelled, which was not programmed into them, suggests they do have at least some independence.

The only way that these questions can be made compelling is placed in the context of relationships between characters.  The failure to do that is the central weakness of the original Blade Runner and also of Blade Runner 2049.  The original was structured in a way that this weakness mattered less: it was fractalized, episodic, promethean in it’s vision.   A successful sequel cannot be visually imitative, and is only successful if it moves the concepts of the original forward, in other words, if it adds.  Adding more plot does not count, it makes things worse.  Watching this film I felt like I’d  been dumped into season 4 of “Game of Thrones” without ever having seen an episode beforehand.

Hampton Fancher, was bitterly upset after getting replaced by David Peoples as a writer on the original, and he layers on every plot twist he can think of.    Is “K” the first-born child of replicant Rachael, and maybe-replicant Deckerd?   Or was that a female child?  Or they were twins so both?   Would that mean we now have races of reproducing replicants, along with humans?  Why does this matter?  Because the replicants are so much smarter and stronger and would crush the humans?  Would they employ their own non-breeding replicant helpers?   This movie bites off way more than it or the audience can chew.

I respected the effort to raise issues like that, it’s just that Blade Runner 2049‘s weaknesses highlighted it’s other weaknesses: the confusing themes called for characters who could embody and transcend them.  Instead we get impish Ryan Gosling who like Sarah Jessica Parker, seems always aware of his own celebrity.  And the new slurring Harrison Ford who makes an appearance 90 minutes in, has transformed into an actor who always seems partially demented and wild-eyed, like an old man ordering kids to get off his lawn.

How are we to believe that he is soulful and had a great love for Rachael?  They had no chemistry in the original.  Deckerd-manque “K” falls in love with his hologram-cyber-geisha –  again to what end, why, and based on what?  Nothing we saw on the screen.   This movie was created as a launching pad for a slew of studio-system sequels, ones in which the interesting questions will be buried in proxy myth: “they are human because they stick together”, “sacrifice for the group makes us all better”.  How this is from the bracing: “I want more life, fucker!”.

Let’s try to really be creative and think of how the themes  raised in the original movie could have been developed, advanced, without Villanueve’s derivative treatment:

The world is vastly different from what it was 32 years ago.  Humans are no longer crowded into wet alleys and overcrowded cities.  They are in brightly-lit but sterile parsected sections of land on 9 planets.  It’s hard to tell how old people are because they have had parts of themselves replaced and enhanced.  At the same time replicants are self-learning and can imitate humans perfectly.  The Blade Runner killers have selected for only those replicants who can pass the “20 Questions” test, and these do in fact exist since Tyrell created “special” models, like we saw with Rachael.  Some humans have artificial wombs, as do some replicants.

Humans can form relationships with replicants and not realize they are replicants.  Humans can have parts of their brains rewired through nanotechnology.  At this point there is no longer meaningful distinction exists between humans and replicants.  No one needs to die. Certainty exists.  And this triggers a crisis.    When you have everything what do you have?  What do you lack?   You lack meaningful struggle.

People (humans and replicants) start to die, to self-retire, for no apparent reason.  Is it because of a malevolent AI or is it the only volitional act anyone has left to make? The new “K” is on a mission to find out.  He must hope it is a malevolent Artificial General Intelligence or even his own struggle will be meaningless.   It turns out Roy Batty and Pris, who were “special” replicants had a girl child before they died,  who hid out as one of Sebastian’s toys.  She is now 32 years old and  is just as invested in finding out why people are mysteriously self-retiring as K is, because it turns out that Roy Batty did not have to die, he CHOSE to die.  Her inherent conflict with “K” –  since K’s father, Deckerd killed her mother Pris is eclipsed by their shared mission.   They begin to bond.   They discover that there IS a malevolent Artificial General Intelligence and are able to defuse it right before it goes into singularity.   After they do this they feel the weight of that original certainty, now the meaninglessness comes back.  But just then they are informed that unexpected neural networks have started appearing shortly after communication has been established with a species from a new planet.

I think it would be interesting to create a film that centers around what would give life meaning when we are all half-machines (and we are getting closer with Elon Musk’s Neuralink initiative), versus Blade Runner 2049’s reduction of identity to born vs. not-born.

  1. Nice. You really have a handle on this sci fi business. I don’t think it screams to repeat Apes, merely grunts.

    Promethazine is capitalized.

    Rachel only has one a, lol.

    Nicely broken down. Please no more sequels.

  2. I’ll try to be less jejune when I have more time.

  3. Glad you sat through this so I won’t have to. I’ve been feeling as though I should go but can’t bring myself to.

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