Film * Denis Villeneuve * Adventures of the Android Police * 2017
Okay, allow me to complain about one thing before I spend the rest of the time effusing over how wonderful this movie is. After I finished watching this and being pretty much stunned by the artistic brilliance on display the entire time, I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of disappointment. So much craft and creativity and talent clearly went into making this movie, why did it all need to be in service of a sequel to a movie that didn’t need any more of its story told? Blade Runner was great! Whichever ending we as a people have decided on is actually fine, there was no real reason to return to these characters. I’m not even convinced we need to return to this world. Not everything needs to be spun out into an infinite storytelling franchise, you know? Blade Runner was amazing and continues to function as a blurry glimpse into a nightmare world imagined in the early 1980’s. That glimpse can be far more effective than opening up the door wide open and staring at it in intricate detail. I mean, look at the Terminator movies. Those brief scenes of the future war in the first two movies were fascinating, and then they went and made a movie about just that. We do not speak of the result. Anyway, my preference is always going to be to see something new. That said, holy shit this movie.
I don’t do well with long movies. I get impatient and antsy and generally am easily distracted. I also don’t do well with slowly paced movies. Most of the time I just fall asleep, which I will admit was an issue with the first Blade Runner as well as various other films which prioritize atmosphere over action. Blade Runner 2049 is both of these things. When I saw the running time was fifteen minutes shy of three hours, I was immediately put off. So I didn’t watch it for a few months. I’m glad I set aside the time. Never mind that the movie is glacially paced. I had to double check to make sure there weren’t moraines piled on either side of my TV when I was done (that’s a little glacier humor for you). There are long, drawn out shots of Ryan Gosling looking bemused. There are long, drawn out shots of impossible cityscapes and dreary wastelands. There are long, drawn out shots of, well, pretty much everything in the movie. And I was totally fine with all of that because despite how obnoxiously handsome Ryan Gosling is, and how ridiculously attractive Ana de Armas is, the art direction is far and away the star of the show.
Blade Runner, both of them, are mostly about atmosphere and mood. The narrative, while compelling in its own right, is not as vital to the overall experience as the setting. This approach usually doesn’t work, for obvious reasons. Yet 2049 makes it work, and that’s because the art team was all-in on this vision of Blade Runner’s world. The story is a small one, even if there might be larger social repercussions as a result of what happens. If you’re unfamiliar, this is a future in which there are androids running around, known as Replicants. These androids are specifically made to be slave labor, which are used to colonize extraterrestrial worlds in order to spread humanity throughout the galaxy. Yes, 2049 is absurdly near-future for any of this to be plausible, but that’s an issue with the first film. Think of this as an alternate-reality story extrapolated from a 2019 that looks like the original Blade Runner and not whatever next year is going to look like. Anyway. The Replicants quickly became not only self-aware, but autonomous, which freaked out the company which made them. Blade Runners, then, are the specialized cops who hunt down the renegade androids and murder them. Ryan Gosling, known as “K,” is a new model Replicant with no free will. He’s also at the crux of a new conundrum surrounding the Replicants. Spoilers ahoy below the break.
I said something above which might seem counter-intuitive at first, which is that a story involving artificial humans is a small one. Obviously, the very notion of autonomous androids has huge ramifications for human society. Science fiction has been wrestling with the ethics of artificial intelligence and how they should be treated for time out of mind. Most of the time it’s a thinly veiled allegory for race relations, the result of which can be excruciatingly clumsy and embarrassing. The issue of android rights are front and center in Blade Runner 2049, and yet I still can’t help but think the story of K’s discoveries and autonomy takes a backseat to the world itself.
The focal point of the narrative is pretty simple. Jared Leto plays an evil corporate overlord who wishes to colonize the stars for obnoxiously philosophical reasons. Wallace has realized that his ambitions require more slave labor (which he justifies by essentially stating “everyone else did it so why shouldn’t I”) than his factories can produce. In order for android production to proceed according to Wallace’s dreams, they need to be able to breed, he just can’t seem to make it happen. However! Turns out, K’s been on the hunt for an android child born from the original Blade Runner’s dream couple, Deckard and Rachael. Procreating, autonomous androids would essentially be a new race of sentient being, so of course this is a huge deal. Especially since it seems that these androids are forming a union or something in order to overthrow the cruel limitations placed on most of their kind.
And yet, because of the size and scope of the world we are shown, this all feels like we’re missing the actual point. The world of Blade Runner 2049 is a nightmare. It sucks! Like, I know I’m biased being a park ranger and all, but a world in which trees do not exist is a world that has been destroyed. A world in which Los Angeles encompasses what’s left of the American Southwest is one which humanity is playing out its endgame. Sure, there’s the specious hope surrounding offworld colonies, but here’s the thing: we never see those. They’re rumor, conjecture, empty promise. While it’s pretty clear that these offworld projects exist – why else employ slave android labor? – their actual purpose is less obvious. The teeming masses who we see living out their lives in the sordid megalopolis of eternally rainy L.A. might think those colonies represent a future salvation, but it’s way more likely that said extraterrestrial worlds are simply being exploited for resources to maintain the status quo on Earth.
Blade Runner 2049 conveys all of this hopelessness with its rendition of this dystopic, post-ecology nightmare with a languid, loving eye. Most of the above is unspoken. There are establishing shots which pull back and back and back and all we see is more and more city. Dark and furtive, sprawling to every horizon, inert and lifeless, even if we know that the streets are teeming with human life. The scenes in post-nuclear (I think?) Las Vegas, where Deckard is hiding out, also convey this sense of post-peak humanity. The desiccated remains of an entertainment capital, even one as soulless and empty as Las Vegas, strike a chord of ultimate futility. The flickering hologram of Elvis at the height of his glory is a reminder of the transience of any society. At its heart, Blade Runner 2049 is about a society, no, a species that has failed. The evidence for this failure is the world which humanity has created, which the just wonderful art of this film revels in. The whole point of this film, and its predecessor, is that the Replicants are the only cause for hope in this entire bleak future.