Spoilers might make a holographic appearance. They will be big.
I hesitate to review classics. They’re products of their era, where their flaws have become so endearing as being considered happy accidents or even intentional features. They’ve been analyzed to death by people with lifelong film studies, credentials and film knowledge that I can claim. Plus we have all the people without credentials that are fanatically devoted to their own view of the film.
Director Denis Villeneuve has amazing credentials directing science fiction films. Keep in mind, though he’s dealing with a classic where studio executives and producers are wired to protect the beloved intellectual property. Blade Runner 2049 must walk a precarious tightrope between paying tribute to the original, a new creation and somehow become a blockbuster franchise. Let me cut to the chase here, I think he deserves much praise. It’s a good movie, it’s not an instant classic and it has several flaws but it does seem to share much, both good and bad with the original. It’s not going to live up to the original film or story, but it has the obvious implication of building on top of its predecessor.
K (Ryan Gosling) is a blade runner and a replicant. He’s not looking for a better life or seeks equality. He seems content with his life and often escapes reality with the help of his holographic companion, Joi (Ana de Armas). He obeys his superior, Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright) without question. After retiring a replicant gone rogue, K finds a buried box under an old tree that will lead him to remember something from his past that he thought was a fabricated memory.
The trail eventually leads to the characters of Rachael and Deckard, which means we get to hear audio from the first film played as a recorded conversation that survived a huge data wipe. I found it a little jarring to have new characters try to interpret events from the first movie. That happens again when meeting Wallace (Jared Leto), who is basically a new version of Tyrell. Seems like the huge Tyrell corporation from the first movie is gone and Wallace took over, but it’s basically the same thing with a new hand of paint. Leto gets to do his “eccentric-genious-psychopath” supervillain routine, which feels like what he wants to do in every movie now. To his credit, he’s more subdued than usual (i.e. he doesn’t go full Joker) but still feels a bit out of place.
The movie has considerable more female representation than the original, but the characters they play are problematic. Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) is Wallace’s enforcer. She’s ruthless, she gets things done, but she’s a killer. Robin Wright plays Joshi as the strong police lieutenant, although her character seems to be weakened when she can’t tell K is blatantly lying to her. Dr. Ana Stelling (Carla Juri) is a smart, sensible woman with a lot of charisma and a lot of relevance but she makes two short appearances and is literally locked away in a glass prison.
There’s a scene in which holographic women walk in the rain that is later mirrored in a deserted Las Vegas where K has to walk between the legs of giant naked women statues in sexual positions. You could argue this is all social commentary: a sex-crazed world that objectifies women becoming more technologically enhanced but morally decadent. If so, there’s a lot of it, shown often, and becoming the focus of the camera rather than the background. Is the blatant sexual message a critique of the oversexed world according to movies? I want to think so.
It gets even more problematic. Joi is a simulation holograph that obeys K unquestionably and can be purchased by anybody for their pleasure. The movie makes this extremely explicit when a giant naked Joi hologram from an ad tries to seduce K on the street. Mariette (Mackenzie Davis) is a prostitute that sells her body so that K can have the illusion of having sex with Joi. Rachael is recreated from scratch by Wallace for Deckard and with Sean Young’s face CGI’d on body double actress Loren Peta. Would it have been so terrible to have Sean Young play an older Rachael? Does the creative team thought we’d rather have a CGI composite of the younger version instead of the real actress showing up playing her character in real time the same way that Ford gets to do it?
The problem is that our POV heroes are all male and apparently deserve to live. Joshi dies, Luv is a killer who also dies and Joi is barely about a sex toy who also dies. Mariette plays a prostitute who only later turns out to be part of the Replicant revolution movement. That movement, by the way, is led by Freisa (Hiam Abass) who gets the Mon Mothma* treatment: she appears, introduces herself and never appears again. Rachael was fridged as part of the story so she is dead to begin with.
It really wouldn’t have been so complicated to feature a women in the story because the story already features women. Rachael gives birth to another replicant who turns out to be female. I’m not telling you who, but she doesn’t have a lot of lines in the film. Is director Villeneuve intentionally filming a story about women using men to do it? Our POV characters are K, who is not relevant, and Deckard who walked away from his child. The logic here of why he was the absent parent is as logical as the one in… Okey, I’m going to refrain from making another Star Wars reference here. Hollywood needs to write better fathers in science fiction and stop coming up with “valid” excuses for them to be absent from their kids’ lives.
Speaking about science fiction, we barely envision anything new that was not in the original film. We get artificial people, flying cars, huge sprawling cities and holographic ads that may be social commentary about sexual exploitation but linger on long after the point is made. The difference between the rich and the poor has grown so much as to put the rich close to godhood and relegate the poor as garbage scavengers who get blown up without a second thought. The birth of replicants by replicants is new, and not bad a concept but seems to be a plot device with its main players (mother and child) barely making an appearance.
The themes the movie touches are still relevant, but some stuff seems tacked on. K is a replicant that knows himself to be one yet he purchases a holographic companion because he feels lonely. In a world of Replicants, why is a holograph like Joi relevant? Why do we introduce a holographic entity as a concept when we already have Replicants? I’m not saying it’s impossible, and it doesn’t feel out of place in this world. Story-wise it doesn’t fit. It’s like adding a werewolf to a vampire movie (be honest now, which franchise comes to mind first when you read that?)
Recommended. As much as I take issue with a lot of the movie’s theme, it does remain a valid movie in science fiction. It doesn’t necessarily say anything new, but it’s well executed. None of the plot feels rushed, none of the action feels unnecessary or choreographed to appear every few beat. Decaying morals abounded in Blade Runner back in 1982 and continue here, as well as sexual exploitation. I’m less bothered with it than I am with the fact that the story puts women at the centre of the plot and then tells the story with men, which you could argue might be intentional. Was director Villeneuve trying to make a point? I want to believe he was. Or perhaps, I just don’t like the alternative.
That will do for now.
(*) Star Wars reference: Mon Mothma is the leader of the Rebellion in the original trilogy. She barely appears in any of the original movies, but at least she gets some lines in Rogue One.