Movie Review: Blade Runner 2049
Okay, I have something to admit: I don’t love Blade Runner.
It’s not that I think Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi classic is a bad movie, necesarily – not at all, in fact. I can appreciate the grungy, grubby vision of it’s future, the excellent Harrison Ford and Rutger Hauer performances, the iconic and influential direction and cinematography, it’s innovative exploration of classic sci-fi themes. But something about the movie has never connected with me. For a movie about what it means to be human (take a shot, by the way, for every time that sentence turns up in a review), it’s always left me cold.
So I wasn’t going in to Blade Runner 2049 as a fangirl. I mean, I love Harrison Ford, I adored Denis Villineuve’s last outing, Arrival, and I am always in for a dense, sweeping sci-fi movie with a cast that includes Dave Bautista, Robin Wright, and Lennie James. Even with my mortal enemy Ryan Gosling in a starring role, I was in for this long-awaited sequel. Even if it was an absurd 164 minutes long.
And, look, in all fairness, there is a reason that this movie is getting all the insanely adulatory reviews that it is. This is perhaps one of the most visually stunning movies I’ve ever laid eyes on in my life; Arrival displayed Villineuve’s flair for the artistic visual, but the budget and scope for Blade Runner 2049 just allows for him to come up with some honestly breathtaking images. In some ways, it reminded me of Scorcese’s Silence, also out this year, in just the sheer, sweeping enormity of the world that it depicted. The world-building, too, was exceptional, the film touching on various little foibles and characters every one of whom could have carried their own movie (Lennie James, in the five minutes of screentime he had, might as well have been dunking Gosling upside down into a sudsy bucket for all he was wiping the floor with him, and Robin Wright commands the screen as Gosling’s police chief). The sound design, with Hans Zimmer’s portentous, bone-shaking score, was exceptional enough that I actually noticed it. In terms of the technicalities behind 2049, it’s hard to think of a movie this year that has delivered with such aplomb. It’s not often I would argue a film is worth seeing solely for the way it looks and sounds, but 2049 might just be that movie.
And yet. Maybe it’s because I’ve never been a die-hard fan of the original, but the characters and the story in 2049 left me wanting for much more. I think what frustrated me most was seeing this brilliantly constructed world and watching the filmmakers choose to follow a character strikingly similair Ford’s Deckard in the first film; a straight, white, male leading man who may (or may not) be a replicant and who does a lot of pondering on What It Means to Be Human. There’s nothing inherently wrong with stories about straight white blah blah I have no interest in pandering any further, but in a world that diverse it felt like a missed opportunity not to pick a different perspective, to explore a different kind of story within this ostensibly diverse world. We know what the experiences of a straight white male Blade Runner are in this universe – how about something different?
(just an aside, too, but the woman stuff left something to be desired: though the film, like movies like Ex Machina and Her before it, seemed to want to explore questions about the commodification of female sexuality and affection, it merely posed the question and left us without a decent answer. Not to mention the fact that 2049 seemed keen to reframe the relationship between Deckard and Rachel – which, in most cuts of the first movie, includes a scene where he rapes her – as romance, depicting it only through the romanticised lens of Deckard’s memories of her. Which is a shame, firstly because it put the movie in the uncomfortable position of trying to pretend that scene never happened and making that rape part of a romance plot, and partly because there was an interesting story to be told about our ostensible protagonist and hero, Deckard, committing sexual assault and how that effects his view of himself, Rachel, and his relationship with morality and humanity, a big part of the thematic elements for both movies. Considering how important the concept of free will and autonomy are to both films, it would have been interesting to see them explore this through the lens of this rape scene and how it stripped Rachel of her autonomy.)
2049 also felt distinctly like it was deliberately leaving some threads hanging for a future movie, too – I don’t want to spoil too much here, but there were a number of storylines that either seemed to end too abruptly or be left obviously open-ended to be picked up on in later films, which I really bloody hate; I don’t mind if there’s got to be a sequel, but at least be upfront about it when I’m going in. And there were other problems with the plot, too – notably, Jared Leto’s antagonist was literally, and I’m not exaggerating here, in two scenes, and was left feeling poorly fleshed-out as a result (it’s a sick world when I actually want more of Leto in a movie, but there we go). Some of the writing was hackneyed and the symbolism a little on-the-nose; I cringed a little when the film draws obvious comparisons between a dead tree and a replicant prostitute (“beautiful, but dead”, Gosling intones in that usual dead-eyed fashion he’s got down so well). I really don’t think this is the sweepingly perfect piece of art people are making it out to be. It’s a little indulgent, overlong, and touches on themes and plots that it really should have leaned in to with a little more aplomb given that the length of this film could have allowed for it.
So, yeah, overall, this review might seem more critical of Blade Runner 2049 than not. But it is, undoubtedly, a great film in many ways – it looks fantastic, explores a truly amazing world, and features a handful of killer performances. But when a film comes this close to being a classic, you can’t help but hone in on what kept it from making it over the edge, and, despite it’s enormous ambition in some respects, it was Blade Runner 2049’s fallback on the predictable that kept it from going all the way.
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