Spoilers. Watch first, then read.
Blade Runner is a diamond of a movie. A broken genius crazy novel, adapted into a mashup noir / scifi screenplay, directed by an auteur who had his main sight on other projects, vandalised by a studio who didn’t know what they had, with its best lines of dialogue improvised on set by a straight-to-video schlock horror actor.
This is where great art comes from, this space between chaos and order.
My worry for Blade Runner 2049 was that we would be given a chunk of cut glass, the looked enough like a diamond at first glance for people to buy it, but that would over time prove to be far less than the original.
Thankfully, that isn’t what direct Denis Villeneuve crafted.
Instead, Blade Runner 2049 is an artificial diamond up against the raw original. It’s a bigger movie than BR1, in both length and scale, and also in ambition. It’s visually a match for BR1, and from many angles, even more impressive to look at. Thematically, BR 2049 is more complex, some might even say deeper. But the accidents that formed the original Blade Runner did not repeat in this sequel, and the result is a upgraded movie, that still doesn’t quite beat the earlier model.
What BR2049 does do is very smartly choose when to imitate, and when to riff on, its predecessor. Every sequence in the sequel is paired to a sequence from the original, but in nothing like the original order. So when Ryan Gosling as K confronts a burly, escaped replicant in the movies opening scene, we’re watching a reprise of Deckard vs Leon Kowalski. Ks trip to Wallace Industries mirrors Deckard’s trip to Tyrell, and these parallels continue. The cast is also mirrored. There’s a kickass new version of Rachel, and a hooker replicant modeled after Pris.
The movies street scenes are pitch perfect recreations of the China town scenes in the original, while at other times, like the Las Vegas sequence, Villeneuve is keen to stamp his own highly distinctive style on things. The visual world of BR2049 is bigger than the original. Los Angeles is now inhumanly massive, with city blocks layered like a microchip. In one of the movies few moments of humour, San Diego is shown as now a wall to wall garbage dump for the LA conurbation. An event called the Black Out has pushed the cyberpunk dystopia of Blade Runner into something more like a post-apocalypse. But this isn’t a literal depiction of the future. Instead, it’s the symbolic fulfilment of the psychological state that Blade Runner is all about.
It’s on this level that BR2049 is at its most brilliant. K’s mission takes him through a series of one to one encounters with characters who, while they play a role in the plot, each have potent symbolic meaning. Ks hologram girlfriend Joi is the soul…innocent, fragile, but also immortal and beyond harm. The memory engineer who is later revealed as Deckard’s daughter is the human imagination, the source of creativity. K himself is the protector, who awakens to save humanity when needed. BR2049 weaves this mythic level of story beautifully, threading dozens of beautiful symbolic moment into a grand tapestry that is quite beyond the original. But, it does come at a cost.
Hampton Fancher’s screenplay is juggling so many balls, on so many levels, that he inevitably drops a few important ones. The plot, centred on Ks hunt for a replicant child, is all heavily contrived, as Fancher railroads his characters from one situation to the next. The twist of Ks identity, from replicant to human then back to replicant, is a little heavy handed. Wallace, in a career first of half decent acting by Jared Leto, remains an unfulfilled character. A much needed scene between K and Wallace, that would have mirrored the iconic scene between Roy Batty and Tyrell, never materialises. The chance to reprise “I want more life, father” is missed. (The dialogue never quite matches Rutger Hauers contributions to the original) The overall outcome is a brilliant screenplay on all the subtle levels, but a slightly clunky mechanical contraption on the surface level of plot.
The original Blade Runner is built around a simple idea. We are following the story’s antagonist, a merciless killer hunting down escaped slaves, who have every right to want to live, until he eventually confronts the protagonist and hero Roy Batty, who is desperately trying to save the people he loves from their predetermined death. This inverted narrative structure gives BR1 much of its diamond hardness.
BR 2049 plays a similar but less powerful trick. K is a nobody. His relevance to the story is random, and while he is brought to believe he may be both human, and Deckard’s son, this is only so that his later realisation that his memories are fake is all the more crushing. K makes the choice to give his life meaning through an act of self sacrifice. But it’s cold comfort as he faces death, having never experienced any true human connection. It’s a brilliant, brutal, emotional arc for a character. But that emotion struggles to carry through the contrived plotting and numerous set pieces.
So is there a heart to this artificial diamond?
The answer, I think, is yes. The Blade Runner mythos is, at its core, a story about human fragility. Blade Runner’s meditation on empathy and slavery, while vital, is ultimately secondary to its more basic question: how do we face our fragile, mortal, brief lives? How do we deal with the reality of being a speck of flesh, with a spark of of consciousness, and a few fading memories, in a vast universe that does not even comprehend we exist? In the allegory that is Blade Runner, we are all replicants, faced with the same horror and wonder of existence.
BR2049s post-apocalyptic vision is where our current inability to treat with our own existence is taking us. A place of collapse, of ever greater inhumanity to other life, and of our own divided psyche, unable to heal itself. Like the original, Blade Runner 2049 presents our existential crisis, in a raw and honest form, and offers few answers (the clear opening left for a sequel to the sequel may change that). Love is the only possible answer, but as both films reflect, love is the most fragile thing of all. BR2049 brings new power and vision to this message, for a new generation of audiences. Given that so little in our culture has the courage to face our reality at all, Blade Runner, both volumes, deserve all the praise they can be given.
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