By Veer Sharma
On the shoulders of giants
Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner is regarded as something of a legendary film today, which would shock anyone who witnessed its arrival in theatres in 1982. Production strife, studio meddling and messy re-cutting led to a film that struggled to find its proper form. Though it gathered a steady cult following in the years since release, it was only after the misleadingly-named ‘Director’s Cut’ and definitively-named ‘Final Cut’ emerged in 1992 and 2007 respectively that the film cemented itself in critical and popular opinion as one of the all-time greats. Its troubled history may have been prophetic, as Blade Runner 2049 (produced by Scott and directed by rising star Denis Villeneuve) bears the marks of a confused production that doesn’t know quite what it wants to be, and as a result varies in quality and focus considerably throughout its bloated runtime.
Cogito ergo sum
Set 30 years after the events of Blade Runner, 2049 follows Officer K (Ryan Gosling), in a world where ‘replicants’ (human-like androids created to serve as slave labour) have been re-integrated into society as submissive workers. While the original had a noirish obsession with claustrophobia and darkness, 2049 inherits a modern fascination with space and light – but with greater light there are sharper shadows. K himself is a replicant from the get-go, and thus the story is intimately focused on the darker post-humanity of replicant ‘living’, the natural complement to Rick Deckard’s human struggle. This is where the film truly shines – the scenes with K ‘retiring’ rogue replicants, whiling away time with a virtual girlfriend and following the trail of a replicant child that may relate to his past are brilliant character studies of a being contemplating the boundaries of its existence. Gosling’s performance is greater than many will give him credit for – perhaps the role of an android does not demand much beyond staring blankly and walking slowly, but he does it pretty damn well. His restrained and careful (not slow) performance perfectly encapsulates the emotional immaturity of a replicant.
Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch’s score riffs Vangelis to a pleasing extent, and, though it sometimes overpowers, it generally enhances. Visual callbacks to the original (the close-up eye, the leering Coca-Cola ad, the origami unicorn etc.) are subtle and unobtrusive, yet enjoyable for die-hard fans. Incredible visual effects are undoubtedly the crowning achievement of the whole film. Each scene is a new collection of unbelievably detailed and lifelike futuristic gadgets, which Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins exploit to their fullest. The camera sits and lingers on incredible landscapes, allowing the film to unravel it’s world calmly; the images don’t drag, despite the long runtime, they float.
Trouble in dystopia
What does drag is the B-plot. Intertwined with the fascinating story of K is the rather less fascinating tale of Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), the uber-genius inventor of synthetic farming who seeks the new replicant baby as the secret to artificial reproduction, and his replicant enforcer Luv (Sylvia Hoeks). Luv and Wallace are an evil genius/femme fatale duo straight out of the Hollywood playbook – Luv’s interactions with other characters in particular falls into the trap of ‘brutalism because dramaticism’ – and Leto plays the maleficent manipulator with about as much subtlety as he’s known for. Their plot to locate Deckard (Harrison Ford) – now living in hiding after allying with a replicant resistance movement – and reap the secrets of his erstwhile love Rachael, a replicant who died in childbirth, should have presented a clever link to the events of the first film, and an organic extension of its themes to encompass the idea of being born and thus ‘[having] a soul’ as K notes. Yet this replicant offspring storyline is ultimately a McGuffin: the film loses sight of the intriguing questions thrown up by the premise, instead honing in on the depraved deeds of the dastardly duo as they sinisterly whisper (Wallace) or cut, stab and shoot (Luv) their way through the narrative. Their purely two-dimensional nature is embarrassing for antagonists following in the footsteps of Rutger Hauer’s brilliantly rounded and sympathetic Roy Batty. It’s telling that screenwriters Michael Green and Hampton Fancher assign some of the hammiest dialogue to both – ‘you will know pain’ promises a bearded Leto, presumably ignoring the muffled sniggering of the sound crew. To make matters worse, a further minor subplot throws a replicant resistance leader Freysa (Hiam Abbas) into the mix, whose only role is to deliver the blow that K is not the replicant offspring he has been hunting, and warn of the ‘storm that is coming’ (perhaps it’s too obvious that Green is used to writing for superhero flicks).
These palpably Hollywoodian cardboard cutouts symbolise the crux of the films problems: whose story are we telling here? The introspective K? The conniving Wallace, the revolutionary Freysa? Too many narrative loci spoil the broth. A film just shy of three hours long needs to justify its quantity as meat-on-the-bone and not flashy filler (or worse, sequel baiting), but neither meat nor justification present themselves. Neither the Wallace nor Freysa threads resolve themselves, and there is a sneaking suspicion that they do not want to. Could resurrecting the Blade Runner brand after 37 years have less to do with its ever-topical themes and more to do with its franchisable possibilities? The disappointing box-office performance of this iteration makes you want to laugh at the idea, then cry.
Days of future past
Ultimately, largely thanks to this muddled padding, 2049 is markedly less satisfying than its predecessor. This could be attributed to ambitious over-extension; on top of its predecessor’s themes of technological anxiety, late-stage capitalism, the nature of being, immigration, the rights of non-humans, technology as subjugation of women and an almost Cartesian skepticism of one’s own memories, 2049 adds VR relationships, drone warfare, artificial food, political uprising, and corporate violence to name a few. But the takeaway impression is that Villeneuve has accomplished less in 2017 with 163 minutes than Scott did with a paltry 117 over three decades ago. Such a step-down would probably be forgivable, if not for the sneaking suspicion that this is intentional on the part of Warner Bros. Though I want to be charitable to a mostly sincere and often beautiful production, it would not be outrageously unprecedented to suggest that elements of this film may have been cannibalised as fodder for future (now unlikely) sequels. At the time of writing, 2049 has finished its theatrical run and made back just over half of its combined production and advertising budget.
There is a good film in Blade Runner 2049. But it is surrounded by a bad one. If it was composed of one great story rather than one good and two mediocre stories, this film would be a modern masterpiece. But as it stands this is a mixed bag of visual splendour, confusing narrative focus and unexplored opportunities. If a Blade Runner Cinematic Universe does indeed materialise at some point, consider this film a prophesy of a future much darker off-screen than on.