Review:“Blade Runner: 2049” in Light of Original “Blade Runner”
Issue   |   Wed, 10/25/2017 - 10:06
As with its predecessor, monochromatic scenery dominates the city-scapes of “Bladerunner: 2049“ as a reminder of human numbness in the rise of technology.

With a runtime of nearly three hours, thanks to a trio of preceding short films which explained the thirty-year interlude between it and Ridley Scott’s seminal sci-fi masterpiece, “Blade Runner: 2049” arrived at the box office with fewer profitable rip- ples than its investors would have liked. But while its commercial underperformance is nothing notable in the post-summer daze when tentpole blockbusters fall like leaves, a deeper, closer view finds that Denis Villeneuve’s recent cyberpunk outing is his third consecutive home-run follow- ing “Sicario” and “Arrival”. Though it does not quite reach the heights of its Ridley Scott-helmed predecessor, “2049” can firmly assert itself as one of the brighter lights of the year’s palette.

“Brighter light” is a phrase perfect for any discussion of either Blade Runner film. Scott’s 1982 original soaked Los Angeles in a solemn blue, dis- coloring every neon declaration of technological progress with human sadness.

The loudest of these declarations was the gigantic geisha in the center of the cityscape, stand- ing tall yet seemingly submerged in some inarticulate and primal chrysalis it had not quite shed. The geisha was always smiling at the pinnacle of the world. Then we cut to a taller pyramid, occupied by a spry, bespectacled billionaire who turns out to have created life itself. It was the aggregate of these small and jarring transitions that comprised the hammerhead of the original film’s narrative power.

There was the upper class, predominantly and intentionally white, always silent and invisible in the darker recesses of their beautiful mansions that were arrayed as fortresses. There was the lower class, still selling street food, still being pounded by the ceaseless, merciless rain. Then there were the Replicants, artificially created human clones, whose only similarity to their upper-class makers was their general absence from the rest of society. But they did not live in splendor; they often did not live at all, thanks to the Blade Runners. Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), the original film’s Blade Runner, navigated these three spaces with the qui- et faith that his eyes could tell them apart. But just as the movie began with a close-up of the eye, it ended with one as well, specifically the eye’s smug supremacy, slowly bringing out that sad shade of blue lurking behind the appearance of a near future utopia.

“Blade Runner: 2049” too is blue, it making clear from the get-go that the preoccupations of the first movie are its own. The new Blade Runner, K (Ryan Gosling), is also a Replicant, hunting down the remnants of an older generation of Replicants who were never programmed to blindly obey orders. But as the old movie taught us, K is as much a product of his heart as much as his programming, a different protagonist in the same story. Even as he takes down his runaway kin, there is a resentment that grows uncontrollably, with his AI lover Joi (Ana de Armas) as an outlet. Next to her, his existence is bearable — bearably real; the strings that force him to track and kill are not so noticeable in their room. But not too far into the story, K learns of a secret about the Replicants that shakes the very foundations of this establishment. For once, hope glimmers that a protagonist of the “Blade Runner” films, after this long history of suffering, can finally become a hero.

K’s journey, riddled with too many juicy spoilers to discuss in detail, takes him outside the city, away from the control of his organic superiors and into the badlands, toward the anxiety of freedom. Blue no longer rules where K travels. It is red, that fiery cloud that envelops everything, in which K’s smallest steps slowly unveil a wasteland frontier untouched by the city’s evil. Here, K is free. But, simultaneously, there is nothing. The most powerful part of “Blade Runner: 2049” is this duality present in K’s freedom. A Replicant has finally found a way to become a hero, but every turn of the story dismantles that hope, bit by bit. How- ever, by its moving conclusion, the film arrives at a beautiful reconciliation between these poles.

It is almost enough to excuse the instrumental way Villeneuve uses the female characters to further K’s character arc. The geisha of the original film is replaced by the hologram of a giant purple woman, naked and nakedly promoting the more sensual services of the city’s underbelly. Then there is Joi, K’s female AI, both sexual and maternal, always beside or behind K, never far beyond his reach and comfort. Part of K’s intense attraction towards this role of hero is coded unmistakably a historically masculine desire for powerful independence, surrounded by and set apart from the caretaker feminine, as a Sun is by its planets. The film’s women never quite achieve K’s character depth, but the tail end of this film deconstructs K’s desire thoroughly enough to critique this un- spoken part of the film.

What does not get quite resolved by the film’s end is the over-emphasized presence of Deckard. Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford. The new and the old. The red and the blue, that never quite congeal into the perfect purple. The new additions and developments to Blade Runner’s world are rock sol- id, as discussed; K’s own arc may prove to be the most thoughtful piece of the two films. But when Harrison Ford brings his blues into this movie and his own story begins to run in parallel to Gosling’s, the tight narrative of the sequel unfurls.

The final leg of K’s spiritual journey sees him make peace with his ultimate inability to become a hero and human. He paradoxically discovers a heroism and humanity beyond the confines of the world and his imagination; A paradox that brings out irrational choice in a hyper-rational world, [the] ghost in the machine and depth in surfaces — a rote but resonant endgame to many a philosophical quandary in science fiction.

Deckard’s own arc grates against the message of K’s arc. It fixates on a search for a “real” some- one, and hastily rejects the unexamined “fake- ness” of someone to the point where the arc un- does some of the impact of K’s story. When these two plotlines intersect, the crime is doubled. The climax of the film features a bombastic fight to the death between Replicants that feels out of place in a film, which desires to echo the spirit of the original, the climax of which featured one of sci-fi cinema’s most moving moments of compassion and understanding.

But even the recent film’s closing scene is beautifully directed; if one gains nothing from this movie, they will at least find solace in its breathtaking images. The good the film accomplishes cannot be discussed in full without having seen it, and so the ultimately minor blemishes of the picture stand out, even in this review. Regard- less, there is little more to say about these films than to obey their oldest imperative found in their very first image of the eye. See the good, the bad, the city, the wasteland, the rich, the poor, the hu- man made inhuman, the inhuman made human, the rain, the snow, tears in the rain, tears in the snow — see the films, in their red-blue glory.