I saw Blade Runner 2049 last night and though I would write some thoughts in the form of things I did and didn’t like about the film. This post will contain spoilers, particularly after the first point.
- Blade Runner 2049 is absolutely worth seeing on the big screen. Unlike some blockbusters that entice viewers to lay out cash with explosions, though, this film does with scale and attention to detail. This film clearly works from the same template as its predecessor and the overwhelming immensity of its world is a perfect match for for the theater. Most of the fight scenes are subdued, but it makes wonderful use of camera work, including an imaginative sense of scale, use of light and darkness, sound and silence, and an all-around immersive experience that conveyed depth. The same goes for small allusions where, for instance, Gaff (Edward James Olmos) makes an origami ram and Deckard (Harrison Ford) dreams of cheese. The run time is long, but all of that time is used.
- At their heart, the Blade Runner films are slave narratives. The replicants were designed as slaves for humanity because, as Wallace (Jared Leto) at one point says, society must be built on the backs of the exploited. Replicants exist in the world and look human, sometimes holding down jobs, but they are explicitly not human: enhanced physically, forbidden to lie and completely sterile. The plot unfolds as a replicant Blade Runner, an officer who hunts down and “retires” other replicants, K (Ryan Gosling), investigates an anomaly: a cold case where a replicant seems to have given birth. They have the body of the mother, but the open question is what happened to the child? The hunt is on. Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright) wants evidence of replicant humanity eliminated, the replicant resistance wants the child protected for the upcoming revolution, Wallace, whose company manufactures replicants, wants to unlock the secret of their reproduction for more efficient exploitation. K is caught in the middle.
- Blade Runner 2049 did a good job with questions of exploitation. Its treatment of replicants and the allegory for slavery was satisfying, and the grim future where little of the natural world remains, data can be lost through a blackout, and the dominant power in society is a corporation that controls labor appropriately terrifying. But I also appreciated how the filmmakers built in layers of exploitation. Particularly effective, I thought, was a subplot between K (replicant) and his holographic girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas). On the one hand, K is teased for preferring the digital girl to “real” women, but he and Joi seem to have a genuine emotional relationship. On the other, though, she remains a product of the Wallace corporation designed to please the customers and it is ambiguous how much of the little details are specific to her relationship with K or conditioned by the default settings of her programming. I am inclined to think that their emotional relationship was real, but in this techno-dystopia with an all-powerful corporation that may not be true.
- The thing that bothered me the most in Blade Runner 2049 was its casual attitude toward violence against women. Once again, this is a slave narrative that particularly deals with the issue of reproduction, so some of the violence is to be expected, but the scales were still tipped in that direction in this dystopian future. I don’t know that there was an easy fix to this issue since much of the violence was carried out by other women and the plot is set up so that even while K is the protagonist of the film, he is not the hero of the story. Some of the violence was necessary, but perhaps it could have been balanced by more explicit exploitation of men. As it stood, this was one of the instances where Blade Runner 2049 relied on dubious tropes: children are exploited in orphanages, women are victims, while the exploitation of men is such that they are able to fight back with at least a measure of success. There were slight shades of grey and, again, I believe that the film earned most of these moments, but it was nevertheless something that jumped out to me.
- I am not alone in thinking that Blade Runner had third act problems. My gripe was this: the ending played out as an “I am Spartacus” moment in reverse. The plot is built around the question of who the replicant child is, with the implication that it could be any number of characters. The existence of the child threatens the status quo because it proves that replicants are more human than machine. But instead of embracing the ambiguity as the ultimate point–as in, it doesn’t matter who the child is because she stands for us all–the film pulls the rug out from under our protagonist to say “no, dummy, it isn’t you.”
Let me be clear, the film has known who child born of immaculate conception is all along, but taking this from subtle clues to an overt resolution cheapens its overall impact by pointing out who this messiah is.