The way to make a sequel, and big budget movie, is to give the directing job to a non-American it seems. French-Canadian, Denis Villeneuve, who directed the superb Arrival and Incendies, takes a fair stab at this one and manages to equal the original in mood, visual impact, leisurely pace and partially clothed women.
I was not hopeful walking into this screening. There are so many sequels that ‘colour by numbers’ but miss what made the original so great (Star Wars, I’m talking to you). Some reinvent the original and pull it off – Aliens, Terminator 2 – but then slowly crumble under the irresistible lure of the franchise (hello every other Alien movie, yes I’m talking to you Ridley Scott).
So back to Blade Runner 2049, the follow-up, 35 years on, to the much loved and genre changing sci-fi that helped establish Harrison Ford as a serious actor. This one is set 30 years later where a young Blade Runner, Officer K (Ryan Gosling) is one of a new breed of replicants. He can only obey and works to hunt down and ‘retire’ older models. The problem with his predecessors is that they show an ability to think for themselves, something we know from the original film. The world in 2049 is blighted and under a constant haze of dust and pollution, though there is no real explanation why. People live lonely and isolated lives, cities lie crumbling and those who can afford it live ‘off world’.
When K retires protein farmer Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista), he serendipitously finds something significant buried under a tree. His boss Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright) sends him on a mission to find and destroy a secret that could destabilise the power structure that she and all other humans benefit from. Whereas in the original film there is a sense of hope that humans and replicants may understand what they have in common, in 2049 all replicants are slaves or outlaws.
Visually the film is stunning. Villeneuve uses monochromatic colour in greys, oranges and browns to show the alienness of the world in 2049. The scale of buildings and toppled statues shows how insignificant any single person is. Advertising is everywhere, invading your eyes and ears in a cacophony of sound and neon. The only pleasures left seem to be alcohol and sex. We don’t understand why the world is like this. There are hints that it is due to the hedonism of the past, icons of excess like Las Vegas lie in ruins, and of a fascist, capitalist leadership but there is nothing cohesive or meaningful about the context. It’s an easy read and formulaic dystopian world.
The film moves slowly, allowing the score and the stunning visuals to seep in as we watch the story unfold. Sometimes this drags a little and seems a vanity of the director to not shave a little off the 2 hours and 45 minute run time. It doesn’t have the poetry of the original, relying too much on visuals and special effects and not enough on language and depth of character. There are lots of plot holes that only become apparent when you try to make sense of the story line later. The feel is of lots of really great scenes stitched together with tenuous threads.
And this leads me to talk about the women in the film. I was surprised how many female characters there are. There is Joshi, K’s holographic girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas), evil replicant Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), rebel leader Freysa (Hiam Abbas), doxie (prostitute) Mariette (Mackenzie Davis) and Dr Stelline (Carla Juri). Not a bad count for a sci-fi which is usually wall-to-wall blokes. The narrative is not really theirs though and we find out little about them. They are mostly catalysts, there to meet the needs of K, either physically or to help his quest.
The objectification of women is pretty horrible. There are giant, naked women in electronic advertising and as grotesquely juxtaposed ‘fallen idols’. Joi is supposedly named after a porn acronym and is the clean, trouble-free and passive fantasy of that genre. In this way the film differs little from the original. Rewatching that last week I was aghast at the characterisation of women and the normalisation and celebration of sexual coercion. Thirty years ago this must have been an accepted norm, for me at least.
In 2049, there is also a rather problematic theme about reproduction and the significance of whether replicants can have children. The evil mastermind of the film is a rather ludicrous Niander Wallace (Jared Leto). We are left in no doubt that this man is bad although there is absolutely no depth to him or his motivations. He is wealthy, wasteful, cruel, has a God complex and a disability, a common signifier of evil in Hollywood. A big plot hole for me is his one-eyed (sorry!) obsession with designing a replicant woman who can gestate. Really? Because that is such a well-designed and controllable process. What becomes more troubling is what this narrative is saying about the role of women, where their purpose is only to reproduce.
And for K, his perfect relationship is with a woman who he can turn on and off with the press of a button, whose only thought is to please. So good on you Denis for providing more than the usual number of female characters, and allowing a couple of them to be played by women over 50. It distracts us for a moment from the reality that this is a film about men. Where Blade Runner explored what it means to be human, Blade Runner 2049 dials it back and asks only what it means to be a man. And I’m not so sure it answers the question.
Have you seen this film? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.