Film review: Blade Runner 2049
For a Blade Runner obsessive like myself, Blade Runner 2049 is pretty uninspiring outcome from the decision to “reboot”.
It combines the slow pacing and an ultra-long run-time of an art-house movie, with the implausible action sequences of a mainstream blockbuster. It has intellectual pretensions, but no real ideas, other than some half-baked biblical referencing. It takes a lazy, hand-waving approach to its plot and world-building. The best scenes and ideas are nicked from other recent movies, in particular Spike Jonze’s brilliant Her.
Most of what made the original great has gone. Vangelis’ operatic multi-ethnic soundtrack is replaced by one absurdly loud and unoriginal. The witty, quotable dialogue is replaced by portentous or expository nonsense. A cast of morally ambiguous and interesting characters is replaced by cartoonish walking tropes. The cinematography is pretty, very well done, but far removed from the understated retro-future realism of the original.
There are plots holes you could fit the Tyrell Corporation's headquarters through. Most I can’t talk about without spoiling, but let's just note that the core premise of the movie as spelled out in the opening crawl, that replicants have been legalised on earth because the latest models have been proven to be unquestioningly obedient, is in direct contradiction to almost everything that follows, from small details - why does K get paid bonuses? to cornerstones of the plot, such as the latent fear of some kind of human/replicant conflict. For those of you who've already seen the film, this extremely spoilerific link details some, but not all, of the most glaring problems.
The acting is fine, good even, BUT the actors are doing their best with characters who constantly make decisions that are absurd, often in order to set up action scenes that shouldn’t logically occur. Where the original revelled in moral ambiguity, we get a cartoonish boss villain who looks and talks like an evil-yoga instructor and appears to live in a health spa, and an even more cartoonish hot-lady-assassin henchwoman. In keeping with that Holywoodisation, all the women in the film are presented as lust objects, either evil or victims, and not in the knowing sense of exploited Zhora or Rachel, but as sadistic titillation, often is scenes where the sadism runs contrary to the logic of the story.
Where the original asked genuinely profound philosophical questions about what it means to be human, this one has some quasi-religious guff about miracles and souls that jars badly with the paranoid, psychological Dickian source material and the post-religious bio-technological world that was presented in the first film.
The world building is terrible. It doesn’t tie in with the mostly deserted, “kibble” strewn dying earth of the original. That was a place where almost all the able-bodied have left for the off-world colonies and the only remaining animals were manufactured. Despite some kind of second eco-disaster and a tech disaster both fleetingly referred to in the opening crawl (and in Matrix2esque short films on youtube), the world presented here is less dilapidated, more progressive, more organised, etc. than in the original. Fading art -deco has been replaced by Scandinavian design. There are constant heavy handed and unconvincing analogies beween replicants, and real-world slavery and racism which the film then does nothing to explore.
Even if we ignore the lack of continuity with the original, and treat the film as a “stand alone”, the world described in it and the premises it supposes, don’t work.
The technology is all over the place. Again, that’s hard to talk about without getting into spoilers, but basically the film assumes that flawless AI’s and super functional “normal” robots/drones exist, and then doesn’t in any way address the ramifications of how those facts would impact the whole idea/purpose/issue of replicants, and how and why they are used, and how/why Blade Runners are used to track them down. I think that comes back to a recurring problem ideas being included because someone thought they were “cool” rather than being story/world driven.
In some ways it’s a bit like the Force Awakens, another recent reboot that I hated. It’s a technically competent film that heavily references the original, in terms of props, characters and art style. It even features Harrison Ford. It has a plot driven by a series of improbable coincidences and chance discoveries that seems more like an excuse for “cool visuals” than a logical, character driven progression. But whereas the Force Awakens knew exactly what it wanted to be, going unashamedly for a nostalgia-fuelled, international, mass market audience, B2049 falls between stools.
I feel a lot of people are going to disagree with my negativity on this one. There’s massive hype and hope around this movie, and it is mostly beautiful. Understandably, Blade Runner fans will want to like this movie. but going back to the Force Awakens comparison, after six months have passed, and people have moved through denial and anger stages, the sad reality of how average this film is will sink in.
I went in to this one with mixed expectations. I loved Arrival, the director’s previous foray into SF, but on the other hand I thought that a reboot of Blade Runner was an inherently bad idea. For me, this one failed hard, both as a sequel and as general entertainment.
Here are some proper critics, making similar points.