Thirty-five years ago, Blade Runner was a thrilling and potent sci-fi offering. But while its sequel is just as visually inviting, the film’s storyline is more replicant than cutting edge.By Christos Tsiolkas.
‘Blade Runner 2049’
I’m sure I am far from alone in having been very excited awaiting Blade Runner 2049, a sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner. Over the 35 years that separates the two, the original has very much become part of cinema lore, one of the great science-fiction films and a film whose dystopian aesthetic still thrills and influences. The knowledge that Scott has actively been involved in the genesis and production of the sequel, that Harrison Ford was reprising his role as Deckard, and the choice of Denis Villeneuve as director, all fed anticipation of the new movie.
Five years on from the cartoonish soap opera of Star Wars, the original Blade Runner returned popular science-fiction film to adults. Based on Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the original film was set in 2019 and featured a stunning production design that imagined a future landscape built from mashing together the then emerging Asian mega-metropolis and the shattered industrial cities of England’s north. A constant acid rain was a key component to the look of Blade Runner, and this awareness of ecological blight, alongside the far-sighted projection of a postcolonial urban world, is in part what gives the original its continuing potency.
There was brilliance, too, in utilising the tropes of film noir in telling the story about a group of renegade bioengineered androids – replicants – who needed to be hunted down in order to squash a slave rebellion of these almost-human machines. Noir paranoia infused the film, both in narrative and in design, and the noir conventions cut against some of the sentimentality implicit in Dick’s Manichean conception of human and replicant. Even as I’m writing about Blade Runner now, key visual moments return to my imagination, as does the rush of Vangelis’s music and the sound of the imagined Los Angeles. The way I look at my own city – noticing the magpie cobbling of styles or the insertion of capitalist exertions within the very architecture – is still influenced by that film.
It’s important to state from the outset that Blade Runner 2049 keeps faith with the original. There is a real artistry across this production, in all the massive visual and aural labour involved in making a contemporary work of science fiction, to ensure that the new film doesn’t obliterate our memories of Los Angeles imagined by Scott and his team. The world we see doesn’t jar with our own memories of the first film, but it is evident in both design and conception that this is a bleaker version of the future, one in which our present anxieties around climate change and the obscenity of increasing wealth inequality have been proved valid.
The shifts are subtle but effective: the LA of this film is not as much the awe-inspiring vision of a hyper-Tokyo or Hong Kong but an almost Soviet-era grimness in the misery of overpopulation and decay. Roger Deakins, the cinematographer, is a genius in finding still moments of beauty in such a grim reality, and although the CGI is among the most ravishing I have seen on screen, Deakins doesn’t allow the technology to undermine his framing and his choices. Villeneuve and his team are clearly aware of some of the best work being achieved at the frontiers of gaming and VR, but their influences also stretch across the art world. There are echoes of David Guttenfelder’s stirring but coldly despairing photographs of Pyongyang in the imagery we see.
If Scott in the original referenced the world of noir, of Fritz Lang and the paintings of Edward Hopper, Villeneuve’s version borrows heavily from the legacy of the Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky, in particular his Stalker and The Mirror. This is apt not only for a film that makes the question of memory central to a probing of what makes one human – always pivotal to Tarkovsky’s work – but also in the suggestion that capitalism has fallen into a feudal despair. It’s in this sense that the borrowing from across Soviet and post-communist history makes sense.
Unfortunately, it is when it comes to story that Blade Runner 2049 disappoints.
In the sequel, the pioneer replicants have been superseded by new versions. They have been bioengineered to safeguard against the possibility of rebellion. Ryan Gosling is K, a Blade Runner, employed by the LAPD to hunt down the rogue original replicants. If the question of whether Deckard was or was not a replicant himself was a teasing and open-ended question in the first Blade Runner, we know from the outset that K is not human. It took me some time to settle with Gosling’s playing of the role. Initially, I was reacting against his blankness and fighting my recollection of Harrison Ford’s charisma and dynamism as Deckard. But Gosling’s performance begins to make sense as the film progresses. Replicants are given imported memories and that remains a fundamental and haunting element in this film, the sense that memory itself may be more important to our understanding of self than lived experience. Gosling’s coldness masks that fear and we come to understand how crucial it is in his navigating of a world in which the separation between what is organic and sentient and of what is created and manufactured is constantly being undermined. Deckard fell in love with the replicant he was meant to hunt down – Rachael, played by Sean Young – and in the new film K’s most intimate relationship is with Joi, played by Ana de Armas, a hologram.
But the script by Hampton Fancher undermines the very thing that is startling and horrifying in the idea of this new version of the replicant, the engineering of a slave that has been annexed from free will. This very Christian speculation was also central to the original film, and to Dick’s novel, but both asserted the ability of replicants to express their will. Blade Runner 2049 refuses to take up the challenge of this audacious and frightening new premise, and so the film becomes increasingly illogical. Halfway through I felt as if I were watching a reprising of the original, and once that feeling set in, the film was lost to me. It remained ravishing to look at, particularly in a sequence set in a desolate and destroyed Las Vegas, a scene that felt as if we were placed at the very centre of Shelley’s great poem “Ozymandias”, but our investment in both story and character had dissipated.
Villeneuve has proved his skill as a director in films such as Incendies and Sicario, and, I think, in Arrival. The latter is a science-fiction film and it, too, is concerned with the question of what responsibility and care humans are obliged to offer other creatures. Unlike in the Blade Runner films, language rather than memory was the key to this understanding. This earlier film shows Villeneuve has the intelligence to treat this theme of free will seriously, even if that seems lost in Blade Runner 2049. It may be that the financial imperatives involved in mounting a sequel such as this, the need for constant spectacle, action and stimulation, work against allowing such difficult if potentially engrossing speculations. The tease in this new Blade Runner is the question of whether K’s relationship with Joi replicates the master and servant relationships between humans and replicants. But the potent inquiries concerning memory and will are foreclosed by Joi being a completely sacrificing martyr to K. Here, we are back in the familiar science-fiction terrain of evil humans oppressing their creations. That’s not an unimportant story, but it was told better in the original. I don’t think we needed another version of it.
Blade Runner 2049 also doesn’t have the breathtaking audacity of the original film, the representation of a future that felt real and visionary all at the same time. A film such as Andrew Stanton’s animation WALL-E has already given us the dystopian vision of an ecologically destroyed Earth, and Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men has already imagined the bleakness and spiritual entropy of our migrant and refugee future. And Spike Jonze’s Her examined the troubling possibilities of post-human relationships with greater fidelity and curiosity. If in Blade Runner we experienced the shock of the new, we spend our time in the sequel nodding at the references to earlier films and to earlier visions. The film looks stunning, and I urge you to see it on a big screen. But there are no surprises in it. Blade Runner 2049 is absolutely beautiful and absolutely boring.
MUSIC Port Fairy Spring Music Festival
Venues throughout Port Fairy, Victoria, October 13-15
Theatre Royal, Hobart, October 11-13
PHOTOGRAPHY Dombrovskis: Journeys Into the Wild
National Library of Australia, Canberra, until January 30
VISUAL ART Tarananthi Festival of Contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art
Venues throughout Adelaide, October 13-22
Melbourne Museum, until June
CINEMA Environmental Film Festival
Cinemas throughout Melbourne, October 12-19
MUSIC AC/DShe present Back in Black
Satellite Lounge, Melbourne, October 13
PHOTOGRAPHY Mervyn Bishop
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, until October 8
THEATRE Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets
Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne, until October 8
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 6, 2017 as "Runner the mill". Subscribe here.