This is a long film, so make sure you have snacks before setting out to read this review. Its a long review with no intention to summarise it in a word.
[SCREEN BLACK. OBLIGATORY CAPITALISED INTRODUCTION]
It’s 2017. 3D is still a novelty at the cinema. As they exit the cinema, film-goers everywhere mourn as they try and adjust to the clear light of day after watching fog: blue fog, orange fog, hyperreal holographic fog and some gratuitous mud-covered nudity without direct fog, but with Jared Leto swanning around with foggy eyes.
In 2017 here at Scorkle Media we want to question the conclusion of some critics that this movie has strong female characters. Strong physically but with no agency? Face it twitterverse, this is still a movie with male protagonists and abundant evidence of the male gaze.
Ponderous. Pensive. Plodding. Foggy. Fog Runner. The film is striving for a kind of visual poetry, an aesthetic quality, and a philosophical tone.
People might be fooled into thinking that the high panoramic shots and the sonorous sounds recapture the magic of Vangelis and Ridley Scott’s original Blade Runner. But they would be wrong. This is Villeneueve reusing some of the material and style he used in Arrival, with just enough of the Los Angeles city design there to invoke memories of the original.
If you’ve seen Arrival, you can feel that film being scraped for pieces to use in this altogether different film. This one has also got these really big honking whale sounds that shudder through the cinema. Our little local cinema was rattling to pieces at times as the deep throaty fog horns rumbled about. Luckily it was perfectly balanced by higher tones and bells, and equilibrium was restored.
It’s a film made to seem visually rich, but strip it back a layer or two and it’s a moody crime story, with less ‘noir’ than the original, and more low-visibility scenes as a substitute for movement. The experience of watching the film is a long time out from the real world: something like a zen garden or reflection pond for those who like to sit on hard seats in dark rooms. Something tells me that Villeneuve’s work with the misty environment of the aliens in Arrival has contributed to the idea that all you need to do to convey mystery and save on plot and effects is a bit of water vapour and smog. However, it’s not all dusty and rank and degraded. The environment at Wallace’s building and office is like a shot from the World’s Best Interiors.
Let’s not forget the deliberate product placement, laid on the superficial background images. To see it you must look past the fetish-like attention placed on bodies of all shapes and sizes, mostly artificial. This is a film where the relationship between mind and body is central: but it’s mostly young bodies searching for meaning, and few older men or women play a part.
There’s a whole world of history here, and the audience is taken on the road of Agent K’s attempts to understand what has happened and his place in the future. Should we be focussing on a small family? Unlike the original film, the relationships seem closer and more familial, like the Star Wars Universe. So let’s think about what’s going outside Wallace Corp. There’s an AI program that Wallace owns. If there are other corporations doing a steady trade on earth it is implied rather than stated. Like the car manufacturers that somehow survived the ‘blackout’ and make almost indestructible cars. Now there’s a story. Who makes these cars? Are they doing it off world or on the barren earth? Do they make more money than those that make replicants? I lost count of the number of long shots of flying cars (something that survived even the almost total loss of earth’s records: a marvel really). Some in light fog, some in heavy fog, some in the rain, some even in water. Whatever the case, the police force use cars, they don’t worry about their nature too much.
The body. Naming. Immortality. Identity.
The central detective story is about the hunt to find the child of a replicant. First to find him or her obtains the riches of the Replicant Industry, because they can apparently assist with the breeding and population. How? It’s not clear. If they start to populate themselves does that allow easier off-world breeding or something? Will Wallace be able to speed up the birthing process or will it slow down? Wallace wants to create breedable replicants. But it might have made more sense if he wanted to stop it. After all, he treats replicants as commodoties, new models and things that you can slice up moments after they are ‘born’. Why wouldn’t he want to stay with the old models?
Don’t be fooled by the trailers. The scenes of Drax the Destoyer (I mean, Dave Bautista, playing a character called Sapper) bashing through walls to get to Deckard/Harrison Ford are just edited sequences from disparate parts of the movie. This is part of a recent trend toward turning trailers into teasers to avoid giving too much plot away. Expect more for Star Wars 8.
For some reason, Los Angeles is the centre of making artificial people. The world in 2049 consists only of Los Angeles. No where else is of significance. Philip K Dick set his book that inspired the Movies (“Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep”) in the aftermath of global war, with poor atmosphere, and this film is faithful to those aspects of the story. But as viewers we are given what is both a panoramic but also insulated context for what the future is.
The story is slow, gradually building up the audience’s interest in who, what, when, where and why. It takes place in the urban sprawl of Los Angeles, California: the city with its giant advertisements and product placement for Sony and Peugeot, then the miles of human refuse, and the glimpse of old world beyond that. On earth real plants and animals are rare (except that Deckard apparently tends to bees and plants and a dog so he has a green thumb now.
So many characters could be human or replicant: even the AI programs are trying desperately to be human. The one exception to this is Jared Leto’s character Wallace, who is probably the most insipid megalomaniac artificial life creator ever seen on screen. He has no doubt programmed loyalty into the lethal killers that wait on him, but he also seems capable of making artificial humans with no ability to detect someone is about to shoot them, or knife them. They are so agreeable they seem worse than characters that are cold, psychopathic killers. The emotional range between getting your nails done and killing people is so small that it’s easy not to care about it.
There’s still some notional separation of Corporation and State, so the Police Force goes about their business. They want to kill the child, because apparently the police lieutenant Joshi is afraid enough to put an end to the idea of replicant reproduction. They are initially assisted by Wallace and his assistant (Luv), but they have their own motives. They break in and steal the mother’s bones and nothing happens, because Wallace is everywhere and beyond control of the police. In fact, the separation between Wallace and the police gets a bit blurry because the main Blade Runners are Wallace product, so it seems odd that he would tolerate human interference. Oddly, however, Joshi will die for what she believes in, which is protecting Officer K. It makes little sense. If she believes he has killed the child, then she loses her life for little reason. If she believes he has not killed the child, then she is celebrating the end of the human and replicant distinction, along reproductive lines at least.
Los Angeles, or WallaceLand, is run by Nialender Wallace of Wallace Corp, who has revived the replicant industry and apparently lives quite a wealthy life. There’s some subtext that new replicants will obey, but that’s hardly true. They are just introverts who have trouble expressing their emotions; but they still have them, and they still have thoughts that can steer toward rebellion.
Wallace is also very weird. He’s a bit of a stoner CEO, who wears his hair shoulder length and spends more time working through his existential crises with a quick knifing of a new-born replicant than he does entertaining with friends. He’s not out there inspecting the work areas, or looking out the window. Everything is a dramatic presentation to him. I feel like he’s been modelled on a fashion editor somewhere. The air of mystery seems to confirm Hollywood doesn’t know how to do megalomaniac corporate types except to paint them as almost-there enigmas. They might secretly hope that you can be a stoner CEO, but as far as we know you don’t get to be top of the pile without a lot of energy and personal time invested. Ask Jobs or Lucas or Musk or anyone who has maintained a personal involvement in a large corporation.
Because we’re not given any backstory to Wallace, we don’t know why he’s got frosted eyes, and if he’s somehow assisted to see in a particular manner by technology. There’s an element of expecting us to just watch, without trying to understand.
[THE BONES OF RACHEL]
I’m going to address this up front. People who knew her buried Rachel in a box, respectfully, but were otherwise at pains to protect the identity of her child. I’m not sure how far this goes. It’s a bit creepy if you think too much about it, because to arrange bones in a box you have to clean them up first, rather than just burying the body. Had the body been cremated or something, they would have tied up a few loose ends that were left open for plot purposes.
Disappointingly, Rachel in this movie is treated as a shell, a simulation of the original ‘replicant’ Rachel. Wallace seems to think that recreating the body of something is enough to bring back the person. He cannot possibly have recreated all of the memories of the original Rachel. Did he utilise the Bubble Girl-As-McGuffin as the memory maker? We don’t know, because McGuffin Girl has no serious plot moves except passing on information to K. It’s possible that she did the job for Rachel’s memories without knowing the purpose, in her dreamy way. One would hope she had a picture of her mother, but possibly not.
[THE TRANCE EFFECT: WAITING FOR GODOT?]
This film is long, and slow. Are you supposed to attempt philosophical enquiry or plot review in a kind of stupor?
Even the smartest of us might be so affected by the trance-like delivery of plot that they’ll forget the small bits of information because they’re separate by 45 minutes or more of aural and visual muzak. Sure, the movie has a careful pace of its own, and perhaps if you let yourself go you can appreciate the artifice of it all. But that’s merely a comment on our society, and our inability to create real worlds that capture quiet, reflective beauty.
In this film, we watch Wallace and his female offsider (“Gromit” for the purposes of this review) talk people to sleep, make little eye contact, and drop bombs while having nails painted. The association of austere architectural design, the vain pursuit of perfect beauty and youth with cold and inhuman types that think nothing of killing when it does not meet their short term agendas is something difficult to enjoy unconditionally. It takes such a lot of trouble to get a rise out of anyone, but then they snap in cold, controlled violence. This is exactly what happens when Gromit is left alone with Joshi, and she quietly kills her with a crush of broken glass. She sheds tears, but we are left to guess as to why. For all we know, they could be tears of joy, or relief.
That’s the end result of the film for me: you will sigh with relief when you’ve endured it.
[SIGNS AND MEANING]
Lieutenant Joshi speaks of watershed moments if replicants can conceive, and of stopping them, but she’s hardly passionate about it and the words come dryly from her mouth. Little does she know that it’s the mere fact that it happened that is enough to drive the revolution, not the identity of the baby that matters. Her view is that humans are defined in one way and replicants as ‘not human’. There is the notion of the ‘soul’ and ability to give life that exists in the human but not in the other. This ties in with a greater theme, perhaps encouraged by Wallace, that Replicants do not have a ‘Soul’. But what does that mean? In that era of science, is there still a notion of a spark that allows life to create life, but even if this practical function were realised, how does that instil a ‘Soul’. The potential religious or philosophical ideas that reside in society’s beliefs, particularly this one, are not sufficiently explored through the film. It might be an unnecessary question to ask.
Let’s say we do ask the question – what is a soul, or what do replicants need to do to demonstrate it (indirectly, circumstantially). K’s character is informed by Joi that memories are not important, it is what you do. These trite remarks actually have to do a lot more work to provide a rational answer than they ought to. There is a disconnect between the idea, the plot and the character. I think this is what me reticent to endorse it as a good film. It is a patchwork, a kind of visual collage where the audience is supposed to assemble disparate pieces and construct some kind of philosophical viewpoint about both the world of the film and as a secondary matter, the world we inhabit.
Although the lines between human and replicant were heavily geared toward a distinction based on emotion in the first film, there was no reference to reproductive inabilities. This film takes up that point of differences and develops the philosophical line of thought with the ability to give birth as a central focus. Even K’s AI girlfriend weighs in on the significance of reproduction for being ‘special’. I wonder how that will go down with all those women who have chosen not to conceive, or cannot for other reasons have a child. These ideas are not explored in the film.
[SOME MOOD THOUGHTS]
Be prepared for a long sit in some movie chairs, and for many shots of Ryan Gosling going about in a trenchcoat with a high collar. Yes, Harrison Ford has his collar up when he first accepted the ‘skin job’ assignment in the first Blade Runner movie. Fashion cycles every 30 years or so it seems. Visual rhymes, poetry – I think when George Lucas dropped these terms when explaining his way to make a prequel, it somehow got taken up in the ‘sequel’ guide as well.
The film doesn’t really convey the teeming throng of humanity that is out there colonising other worlds. It’s made the world smaller, urban, polluted and somewhat grubby, except in a few opulent interiors. The prediction of future societal decay is distopian – something that we’ve seen elsewhere, except conveyed in a monologue by Sam Worthington’s character in Avatar, as he describes the predicament on earth.
The tone and mood of the film are generally sombre. It’s about loss, mainly. Or the little joys that you take comfort in when you’re in a crap place. But mostly, people don’t panic, or get overly stressed. The most passionate action is the fighting, and it’s always a fight between superhumans, so you don’t expect it to go a couple of punches, or for anyone to die from a biro stuck in the eye like Jason Bourne. It’s a bit soulless in that respect. Life may be artificial, but death is hard to come by, and there are some excrutiatingly long drowning scenes to deal with.
“Sometimes you need to be a stranger to those that you love” says Deckard. Perhaps that is true of this film’s role in relation to the first movie too. Too long and arduous to easily recommend itself for escapist viewing, or as a date night flick, it’s something for those who aspire to be futurologists, or perhaps literary critics. It is more of a commentary on the soul-less, degrading world that is imagined for earth’s future: one where the urge is to populate new worlds rather than live with one that can support life here. So busy creating images of humans, or beings ‘more human than human”, the mantra has become a monoptic obsession: the kind of narrow mission statement that might easily transfix a global corporation into an endless pathology of turning stuff into people that are treated as disposable, scientific experiments. Deckard voices his concern when he says to K that he didn’t want his daughter found because it would not doubt lead to slicing and dicing. He would know, as would K, who have done their own share of crude slicing and dicing too.
Like a good detective story, Blade Runner 2049 carefully weaves its trance-like music of horns and rumbling, crashing waves into a tapestry of images: with a steady stream of fog-laden skies and cramped interiors. Whereas the most ornate interior of the first film was reserved for Tyrell’s office, where Deckard met Rachel, in this one there’s opulence in the Wallace HQ, but also a different kind of nostalgic opulence in the place where Officer K meets Deckard, although this place is past its prime but has whisky to burn.
[WELCOME TO PHILOSOPHY 101]
The plot is a simple detective story, where identity, self, the real and the unreal are all issues for the audience to interpret. That’s the point, isn’t it? What the characters do is hardly an aspirational existence: a distopian society where we are treated to the lives of the elite corporates and their products: the people that can be punched a dozen times and still get up again. Is the audience to cheer for them in any way? There’s a thick allusion to slavery to frame their position, but it doesn’t feel like an authentic oppression. The apparent class divide that exists barely registers in the reality of the city, where replicants mix with everyone else, and for all we know may be the majority. The real divide is the incapacity to have children, or be children, it seems. Lost innocence and care-giving
We’re treated to footage of Elvish Presley and Frank Sinatra: the past lives on; memories can be created and faked; actual people are replaced and recycled. Yes, the era of simulation is with us and everyone should be reaching for their copy of “Simulacra and Simulation”, by Baudrillard. The movie really requires a Bingo card with all the different manifestations or degrees of movement from object to pure symbol, so that the audience can spot them. There are a couple of times where the simulation is overlaid on reality – the first meal we see Officer K ‘eat’, and his intimate scene with his ‘girlfriend’ Joi. In both cases the real and the representation are overlaid with the image’s edges apparent. What’s odd about this is that the character is prepared to live with these two representations, plainly visible. One is not gradually merging into the other: one is the image fully formed, the other is reality, subordinated to the image, but still existing because it is necessary.
Ask anyone to summarise the film and they’ll be left with sketches of images, perhaps a few choices phrases. But this is really a character study, masguerading as a philosophical text, musing on the meaning of the real and unreal, of human and non-human. For some strange reason, it gives some elevated importance to natural birth (or Caesarian at least), perhaps because that ticks off what life as it has evolved and repeated on earth has to do. Artificial life, in which every new entity arrives as an adult human being, from a factory of some sort, is certainly given the rough treatment, even though the audience is expected to marvel in the ability that these artificial beings have for empathy.
Wallace Corp is the next big thing, after the demise of Tyrrell Corp. For some reason, there’s lots of money in replicants. Apparently, people will buy slaves to set up new worlds. Who has that sort of money if the manufacturers of the labour force are the ones making all the money? Luckily these economic questions are put far to the bottom of the deep questions. This film is concerned with much easier ones, like “Am I human?”, “Why am I here?” and “Should I get a real or a holographic girlfriend?”. Notice that lifestyle choices in this film are judged from a male perspective. More on that in a minute.
Why does Wallace bother to stay on earth? On an Earth with its devastated computer records, but one that happens to have the crucial moment when Deckard meets Rachel from the first film. Who would have thought?
This is still a man’s world: a man has become the progenitor of artificial life, but seemingly unable to have his female creations reproduce for him. We’re told a little of the history of Tyrell after the first movie, and it provides some clues as to why Wallace wants to track down some of the characters from the first film. Most of that grunt detective work is done by Officer K, who is truly “more than human” as he reads off DNA transcript and notices identical records without the aid of a computer.
[POLICING IN LA]
That casual, dusty, grimy and under-resourced policing of the first film is gone. Police headquarters looks more like the corner accountant’s office, except there’s a debriefing room that determines if you’re going to be fired for having second thoughts about your job.
The police force is still seemingly independent of Wallace corp, but barely. In the sequel, there’s been a disaster, wiping most of the records, and there is an air of menace in the air. The cops keep drones as pets for their cars.
This Blade Runner ‘K’ has a minder cop (Robin Wright Penn) with a new rank: Lieutenant Joshi. She’s no less an enforcer of the strict psychological routines that blade runners must maintain after each job: a process of repeating control words as an automoton (not unlike the control words that programmed the Winter Soldier in the Captain America films.). She’s surprisingly pleasant for someone that won’t let you work unless you pass the baseline. Eventually, your number is going to be up.
This is my name for the trash that is Wallace’s heavy-hitting PA, bomb dropper, cop killer and fashionista. She’s actually Slyvia Hoeks, and the character is called Luv, because she’s special. I like her kicks. Apparently, it takes 6 hours a day training to keep this up. If that were only true, Wallace would need more than one PA to keep his 9-world’s business running. That, really is the true miracle of this film. Don’t let Dave Batista tell you otherwise.
Luv is everybody’s friend until she needs to get her way. She epitomises the Wallace corporation’s ability to make replicants that ‘obey’ (or so we are told in the opening scrawl). She is a surprisingly vain and passive aggressive character. In the same way that Wallace is: quietly brooding and philosophical/poetical, then capable of sticking a knife in to his new creations and watching them die/cease to be or whatever word they come up with. Think of a slightly more introverted version of Joaquin Phoenix’s character in Gladiator and you will get the idea.
[K/JOE AND HIS GIRLFRIEND JOI]
The love interests of K (or “Joe” as he is sometimes called) are simply accessories for him. Yes, he buys his girl a present but basically she’s stuck with him, he purchased her and he gifts her a way for her to leave the building. Great guy.
His digital girl pines for some greater expression and play-acts a sex scene with a real woman (“real girl”), who is strangely committed to her role in getting closer to K, but nonetheless must feel a bit awkward being told what to do by a digital girlfriend. This depicted society is like a rabbit hole of slavery. How deep do you think it goes?
[GAFF AND THE ORIGAMI]
In this film we are once again treated to the paper animals of Gaff. During a very short meeting with K, Gaff creates a paper sheep, and places neatly on the table. Once again, Gaff seems desperate to be doing one thing whilst performing magic in creating a paper animal with effortless skill, producing the finished product without any obvious signs of having folded it himself. Did he buy it in advance? Did he use his powers of distraction and subterfuge? I can only imagine that anyone who had not seen the first film would be lost by the magical appearance of a paper sheep on the table, and dismiss it almost immediately.
Not me, I gravitated to Gaff’s need to communicate deeply, truthfully and to the emotional heart of a character in just a few folds. I remember seeing almost immediately that he was shouting “sheep” in the way only paper can. On second thoughts, where does he get all this paper? Given that Wallace has made a name out of creating safe replicants, that ‘obey’, calling a replicant a sheep is probably not a message designed to enlighten. Most likely, it’s just a subtle attempt at criticism. Like the chicken he made for Deckard in the first film. Here’s a sheep, how do you like those apples?
[McGUFFIN GIRL IN THE BUBBLE]
She’s introduced before we know who she is: the memory maker. She’s important. She’s one of a kind and she manages to stay outside the inner Wallace circle. Standing in full sight of him, she’s the one who makes dreams and illusions. The best one may be that she doesn’t actually have a deficiency in her DNA, but that’s just speculation on my part. It would be an interesting twist. The story, however, sets up that there was a genetic abnormality at birth, and the adult is living a life consistently with that. A life of privilege, nonetheless. Perhaps she was the god-daughter of Tyrell as well. Who knows? All we know is that she carried a little wooden horse around for a while. Can a central character be a McGuffin? She is it. The long sought after object of the quest from early in the movie, the girl turns out to be a disappointingly zen girl, meditating on pretend worlds. She lacks sufficient interest and scope for plot or drama that even her meeting with her own father is held until the final blackout, and occurs off camera. For all I know, the two actors involved never needed to meet, since the editing only shows images looking eah way for the glass.
McGufiin, McGuffin, where for art thou?
Would you, as a story teller, focus on the guy that is the Blade Runner instead of the apparently complex world that exists, or the poor girl captured like a budgie in a bubble, alone but with some mysterious support system? She might be off grid, but she’s unprepared for change. Can she even escape the bubble? Trapped in amber, it’s the audience that studies her clinically, even if Wallace does not.
Deckard’s daughter, the centre piece of the plot, is confined to a physical and metaphoric bubble. She can’t really participate in the real world. He job involves mediating reality for others. She is the ultimate social media person : injecting herself into other people’s minds the way that users of Instagram and Twitter might only dream of.
We meet her first as something like a ‘pleasure model’ like Pris form the first film, but we can’t be sure it’s supposed to be the same one. Who knows what proportion of Tyrrell’s original model’s survived?
The sub-plot that Real Girl forms part of is introduced only vaguely. A discussion amongst a group of women, to find out what the Blade Runner knows. The reveal of who she is, and the connection to the McGuffin Girl is held until later, but it’s an undramatic revelation. As always, it’s filtered by the barely emotional register of the Blade Runner K.
Real Girl’s character is called “Mariette” and is played by Mackenzie Davis. (She’s the girl who spotted Matt Damon on the satellite photos of Mars when everyone thought he was dead in the “Martian)”.
I though this whole dynamic was a bit flat. Real Girl never relates to K in an authentic manner. She’s either under-cover or subsumed inside some larger religious-type sect where she doesn’t get a larger role.
There’s a beautifully subtle nod to the original movie when Gosling’s character is referred to, by ‘real girl’ as a ‘guy that eats rice”, instead of a Blade Runner. It’s a nod to the scene in Blade Runner where we see Harrison Ford eating rice, but being asked to accompany the police officer back to the building. Blink and you’ll miss it.
I don’t think that we’re shown a bevy of great female characters with control over their lives: Joi, Joshi, Luv. As other reviewers eventually admit (https://www.hypable.com/blade-runner-2049-incredible-female-characters/), none of the female characters really has any agency. Consistently with this, female nudity seems more acceptable than male nudity in Hollywood: how else can Hollywood justify the 8-storey naked digital women that are advertising AI software?
[DECKARD AND K]
We’re treated to some ‘getting to know you’ violence between Deckard and K, a few Booby Traps and an odd scene with some disfunctional holograms in a theatre. Eventually, Harrison runs out of punches and the boys pop out for a drink. In a world of pollution, crazy replicants and megalomaniac dictators, the picture perfect view of retirement here is being able to pour whisky ont he floor for your dog, you have so much of it.
There’s a nod to scenes from Gattaca as K and Deckard swim in the surf, and one helps the other.
Harrison Ford asks K near the end why he has helped him and K doesn’t give a reason. What he meant to say was: if you’ve sat this long through the movie you’ll know, but Deckard doesn’t really deserve an explanation.
Who doesn’t like a pair of films to be joined by more rhyme and poetry? Instead of tears in the rain, and memories lost (Rutger Hauer’s fine writing in Blade Runner), this film’s conclusion has K finding some peace in falling snow. No tears this time.
Cutting to the chase, who doesn’t feel a little sad that Deckard is still separated from his daughter, unable to leave her bubble, a being unique for being the natural born child of a replicant, but unable to share the physical world? She lives in a fake world. She’s the child of a replicant playing in a replicated world.
It’s just so sad.
As Molly Meldrum might say, do yourself a favour, and go buy yourself a rice meal and a beer, and pick up a copy of Simulacra and Simulation It will be time well spent in the real world.
There are some very well written pieces inspired by this film. Kudos to the authors of these too: