BLADERUNNER 2049 (2017) – CINEMA REVIEW
**CONTAINS MILD SPOILERS**
Philip K. Dick’s dense, dystopic and futuristic novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (1968), is an ugly, beautiful, depressing, obtuse, hypnotic wade-through-treacle read full of incredible concepts relating to: Artificial Intelligence; robot technology; android simulacra; animal husbandry; apocalyptic disease; virtual reality/empathy mood tech; extinguished humanity; and ultimately, of course, mortality and death. The fact that Hampton Fancher and David Webb Peoples were able to fashion a workable screenplay for Ridley Scott to direct is a creative miracle in itself. Moreover, it is testament to the writing and Scott’s incredible production team that Bladerunner (1982) is held in such high esteem among cinema fans now.
The original Bladerunner, despite bombing at the box office and subsequently going through a number of cuts, re-cuts, final cuts and re-re-re-releases, has become a bona fide science fiction cinema classic. I watched the original theatrical version recently and despite the deadpan Harrison Ford voiceover and spurious, tacked on “happy” ending, it actually has a lot going for it. Obviously the ‘Unicorn Dream’ re-edits released under the guidance of Ridley Scott are the purer versions but the film holds up notably because of Ford’s gruff, depressive and world-weary performance as Rick Deckard; the imperious psychopathy of Rutger Hauer as android assassin Roy Batty; Scott’s glorious tech noir rendition of our desecrated future; as well as the evocation of Philip K Dick’s thematic existential power.
Thus, to offer up a near three-hour sequel to a box office bomb of an almost unfilmable novel was something I thought extremely brave from a creative and business perspective. However, as soon as I saw the director Denis Villeneuve was attached, I immediately knew that Bladerunner 2049 was a must-see! This filmmaker has elevated himself to the higher echelons of Hollywood directors with superlative work such as: Incendies (2010), Prisoners (2013), Enemy (2014), Sicario (2016) and Arrival (2016). In such films he was able to meld story, style, character and performance to create very accessible genre films which encapsulate the pain and drama of the human condition adroitly.
In Bladerunner 2049, the future’s orange but, like the original novel and film adaptation, it’s definitely not bright! We are in a sick, unforgiving and murderous world where a dying Earth, specifically California, is inhabited by killer replicants, pleasure models, and totalitarian law enforcement and overseen by the venal, profit driven capitalist oligarchic Wallace Corporation. In this vision of Earth, men, women, children, animals and robots are all slaves to be bought and sold to the highest bidder. I have seen some critique that the film is exploitative in its female representations but the films reflects much that is wrong with our world today and the original novel’s dystopic and misanthropic themes.
Both male and females are objectified and deemed commodities and alas that is true too of the sick world we live in today, yet perhaps just not as blatant? Bladerunner 2049, I does not offer solutions but depressingly mirrors society’s desire to sexualise and exploit others. Our “hero” the replicant cop ‘K’ (Ryan Gosling) is a victim of such exploitation in his touching relationship with A: I hologram Joi (Ana De Armas). Ultimately, he learns that they’re all being faked by the horrific technological nightmare they call existence. I think it extremely interesting that K’s wry smile when he realises he has been exploited by the Wallace Corp. product Joi; and paradoxically this demonstrates his humanity.
Villeneuve, aided with startling artistry by cinematographer Roger Deakins directs from a screenplay written by original writer Hampton Fancher, plus Michael Green. One could argue that the original Bladerunner is style over content, as the story was distilled to that of Deckard basically hunting down a bunch of outlaw robots. However, the style WAS the content along with the dense richness of the themes. Similarly, Bladerunner 2049 does not have a particularly complex plot, save for one fantastic thematic reversal, yet at its heart it explores the powerful question of what it means to be human? I think all intriguing narratives should ask this and explore important notions of existence. I mean, it’s not surprise Gosling’s character is called ‘K’ – because the story echoes Kafka’s The Trial in many ways. Indeed, is his seemingly futile search for meaning or humanity just a pointless pursuit or is it reward enough to delude oneself with the possibility of hope or love? Life and the decision whether to carry on regardless is therefore very much on trial.
I think this is a film which will benefit from further viewings. I felt like I was watching a Tarkovsky or Bergman film on a massive budget. It’s like Denis Villeneuve managed to combine, with the writers and designers, an indie-Hollywood-art film installation. I would say this is a character and theme led narrative rather than purely plot driven. Even Niander Wallace’s (Jared Leto) weirdness, while not essential for the plot, added to the depth of character and surface emotion. He felt like a Colonel Kurtz figure trapped in his own insane delusion and obsession. Could he have been a replicant too? Likewise, Harrison Ford’s reappearance as Deckard adds great flavour to a wonderful sci-fi broth. Yet, his aging persona is integral to the plot and not simply a meta-textual nod to the original film.
Ultimately, we mere mortals are arguably not worthy to critique this fantastic work of genre art cinema. I understand it was slow but that almost increased the joy for me. It moved glacially but with high confidence and in Ryan Gosling it had a bona fide star to guide us through this sick yet beautiful world. Moreover, the sound design and music from Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch was a powerful force which heightened the suspense and paranoia. While the visuals are absolutely breath-taking I was also drawn in by the existential intrigue of the themes. Technically, within the story, the replicants are not living people but we empathise with their plight nonetheless because THEY are US. There lies the paradox and beauty of this film, in that I cared and was fascinated by what happened to actors playing robots on the cinema screen.