Thoughts on Blade Runner 2049

I saw Blade Runner 2049 recently. I have some (not very original) thoughts to share. Spoilers ahead.

The original Blade Runner only really caught my attention in my adult years. Unlike, say, Back to the Future, Ferris Bueller's Day Off and Superman, it was not one of my "childhood movies". I saw it once when I was very young, found it boring and weird, and then promptly forgot about it until I was made to watch it sometime in my 20's or 30's with my eyes fully open.

Once I did, That movie drips atmosphere. I'd be lying if I said it's one of my favourite movies of all time - I feel like that kind of designation is less about the movie itself and more about my frame of mind at the time I see it - but it's definitely up there as one of the movies I admire most from a visual standpoint. It's still beautiful 35 years later.

When I heard that they were making a sequel, I was curious and apprehensive. When I heard Denis Villeneuve was directing it, I became less apprehensive; he also directed Arrival which, though flawed, was still a surprisingly competent adaptation of Story Of Your Life, an absolutely amazing short story that I had nonetheless written off as completely unfilmable.

So, how did the Blade Runner 2049 hold up? With caveats, the short answer is that it was pretty darn good and you should see it if you haven't already. For the longer answer, read on.

Zeerust, Everywhere!

If you're not familiar with the term, zeerust is, to quote Douglas Adams:

The particular kind of datedness which afflicts things that were originally designed to look futuristic.

Unsurprisingly, science fiction as a genre suffers from zeerust all the time, and the original Blade Runner is no exception. The movie, released in 1982, depicts a 2019 filled with button and dial encrusted technology that whirs and clicks audibly, and where Pan-Am, Atari and the Soviet Union are going concerns.

When faced with the prospect of creating a sequel to such a movie, there is a strong temptation to wipe the slate clean and start over, to update the in-universe history and technology to be more in line with present reality. The Star Trek franchise is particularly guilty of this. Star Trek: Discovery appears to have technology that looks suspiciously similar to a holodeck, despite taking place 10 years before the original series, where there was nary a holodeck in sight (and 80 years before Star Trek: The Next Generation, which gave the impression that the holodeck was a new technology). Star Trek: Enterprise takes place nearly 100 years before the original series and each episode suffers, to varying degrees, from Cosmetically Advanced Prequel syndrome.

So right off the bat, let me just say that Blade Runner 2049 doesn't do any of that. Blade Runner 2049 positively wallows in zeerust, and it's beautiful. The new movie does not try to retcon the original in any way; the zeerust is lovingly treated as canon. It's brilliant.

So Pan-Am, Atari, and the Soviet Union are still going concerns in 2049 if their neon and holographic billboards are any indication. The technology, though noticeably sleeker, is still clearly descended from the gadgets in the original movie. It's still satisfyingly chunky. The flying cars look like they were inspired by DeLoreans. The voice commands used to control the various devices sound vaguely like the sort you'd give to an Infocom game. I read an article which said that the tech in Blade Runner looks as if it were descended from the Walkman rather than the iPod, and truer words were never spoken (not surprising given that Sony is one of the backers of the movie).

So, yes, the movie, like its predecessor, is simply gorgeous. This is a luxurious film. You can sense the huge amount of thought and effort that went into the making of it. And you can sense someone behind the scenes arranging things just so. Nothing is there by accident.

Refrigerators, Everywhere!

With all that being said, the movie does have its flaws.

Some people focus on the film's rather gratuitous nudity in this regard, but I won't do that since I feel it's a symptom of a bigger problem. In any case, I'll note that while naked women parading about on gigantic, holographic billboards might be an utterly sexist form of advertising, it's also, unfortunately, a very realistic one and the kind of in-your-face t&a so prevalent in the world of Blade Runner 2049 is a simple, straightforward extrapolation of the kind of advertising one sees today. The future depicted in this world is not meant to be anything other than bleak.

No, the film's biggest problem revolves around the use of a trope called "Women in Refrigerators". If you're not familiar with the term, it's basically when a female character, with little or no back story, is introduced for the sole purpose of being killed off later for the sake of narrative drama or (invariably male) character growth.

Blade Runner 2049 makes liberal use of this trope, and it mars the film. The first example that comes to mind would be the scene near the beginning where an unnamed female replicant is brought out of stasis, in the nude, only to be stabbed in the belly a few minutes later, just to make it clear, in case we had any lingering doubts, that Niander Wallace (the movie's Big Bad) is a heartless asshole. It all seems so bewilderingly pointless, especially since Wallace manages to demonstrate how much of an asshole he is in later scenes just fine. To be honest, it just felt like an excuse to show off some boobs - and the fact that it ended in a bloodbath just made it all the more offensive.

The second example that comes to mind is Joi's death. At the beginning of the film, she's introduced as the protagonist's holographic AI girlfriend. Events eventually conspire to make it necessary to store her entire consciousness onto a rather fragile looking emitter stick. It was, of course, blindingly obvious to everyone in the theatre that her days were numbered as soon as this happened. No one was shocked when the Dragon of the story crushes the emitter later on. This is the "Woman in Refrigerator" trope par excellence - it felt like that entire subplot was set up just so that the protagonist could experience grief at Joi's death.

The last example, though, was the worst. Near the end of the movie, Deckard is tied to a chair by none other than Niander Wallace (of "I stab my replicants in the belly and leave them to die in a pool of their own blood because I care about the human race" fame). In an effort to show that he has more to offer than just pain, he trots out a fresh copy of Rachel from the original film. From a technical standpoint, it was amazingly done. Though I knew that it had to have been so, I simply could not tell that Sean Young's 20 year old face had been digitally grafted onto a completely different body. From a narrative standpoint, however, it was a completely wasted exercise since the character is summarily executed when Deckard refuses her advances.

Seriously, you go to all the trouble to bring such a significant character back from the dead, just so that you can shoot her in the head a couple of minutes later? For no other reason than to make Deckard suffer? Sean Young deserved better.

And while we're on the subject, why is it that Harrison Ford is allowed to age gracefully in this movie, but Sean Young isn't? I mean, they actually went to what I assume is a lot of trouble to CGI her younger face onto another body instead of just hiring the actress herself, and while I admire the technical prowess that went into such a feat, it boggles the mind that it was deemed necessary.

Was there really no way to make an older Rachel work? Here's a scene I've been toying with: Deckard is tied to a chair as before, but this time Wallace brings out an aged Rachel, played by a real Sean Young, and offers to implant memories of a full and happy life together if he just cooperates. And Deckard is sorely tempted.

I think I would have found that more satisfying.

Final Thoughts

I do have to say that, on the whole, I enjoyed the movie.

As a purely visual work of art, Blade Runner 2049 is amazing. If one watches it in that frame of mind, one won't be disappointed. It feels very much like it belongs in the Blade Runner world. The creative team behind it deserves major kudos.

But one should not expect anything particularly progressive or groundbreaking when it comes to plot or characterization. And that's disappointing. I wanted more.

It's weird, but who would have thought that Mad Max: Fury Road would actually come out ahead in this regard?