Film Reviews

The Complicated Birth of Blade Runner 2049

The rumors were always held in high caution. First there was the intention of Ridley Scott to revisit a painful project, having been fired from Blade Runner after principal photography went over budget and over schedule in 1981. This caused an initial good feeling followed by a sigh among fans who were greatly disappointed in Prometheus:  Scott’s attempt to revisit the Alien franchise that made him one of the most respected contemporary commercial/cult directors. The salt in the wound was Scott taking the Alien production out of the hands of Neill Blomkamp, whose involvement spurred outrageously good feelings among those who thought the District 9 director was a perfect choice to helm the project. The result was a Scott movie Scott fans didn’t want, and the fear was Blade Runner would go the same route. To everyone’s surprise, perhaps because Scott’s Alien occupation was more fruitful than he thought, or maybe he just wasn’t that jazzed about arguing with Harrison Ford for another three months, Scott passed the project to Denis Villaneuve, the Quebecois extraordinaire who hit the ball out of the park with the cheaply made Arrival which took everyone, including the box office and awards season, by storm. Could this truly be it, fans like me asked. Could I finally get a modern Blade Runner with all the charms of the first movie and hopefully none of the baggage?

We’ve all been down that path in bars and in the backs of cabs. I myself had an extended discussion on a rig in the Mediterranean once, trying to explain the major differences between the Theatrical Version (worshipped in my grad school), the Director’s Cut which cleaned up a lot for its time that was possible, and the near perfect Final Cut, which streamlines the story and sanitizes the continuity errors so that you can finally, after thirty years, enjoy the story. The great fear is that we would spend another thirty years hoping to see another Blade Runner that hopefully would be better than the ‘Denis’ sequel. So when the initial reviews came out, I was nervous that critics thought it was so good. I did the same thing with The Force Awakens. I was so used to expecting a bad Star Wars film, my hopes ran the ropes when it could be…just could it be possible, that it wasn’t going to suck? Then the week long media blitz Ford did with Ryan Gosling, in which Ford looked like not only was he pushing the film hard, but that he actually liked doing it. Weird… So I went to go see Blade Runner 2049 with my son, a week after he saw the Final Cut for the first time and was mesmerized, and we both held our breath.

I think the tension is fair. For those of us cinemaniacs, Blade Runner is a milestone standing in a junction of Sci-Fi Street and IT Avenue. The 3-D camera technology, the floating spinners, not to mention the replicants themselves, are just small examples of hope in a dystopian world. Video phones would be pretty cool, but paying 1.25 to call my girlfriend would still suck. This cross pollination of the future was termed CyberPunk, and Future Noir was born. I have so many books on Blade Runner, I’m almost embarrassed. When I found the original film on laser disc in the Half-Priced Book Store in the Montrose, I instantly paid the high sticker price so I could have the hard to find digital version. There is nothing special about me. There are thousands of us, enough to make an entire subreddit on the film, which is now ballooned to thousands of subscribers.

2049 was more than awesome; it was everything the first film wanted to be. On the surface were all the cool items we were expecting: the tube technology retrofitted much like the cars in the background of Ridleyville. The imaging teamed with optometry optics much like the 3-D photography. JOI was more than a stand-in for Rachel, but integral to the story of the film’s main theme: More Human Than Human. Like 1982, 2049 asks us very important questions about what life is, how we should treat it, and when do you start to call something alive as opposed to programmed. If you do,  then do you you, stop being human yourself? What is an Ubermench? What do we consider to be sub-human, or not human at all. The religious debate about souls is tiring, but everyone in the theater I was in felt a chill in their spine when K thought about what it would be like to be ‘born.’ It is a world of a new type of racism, a different world of environmental disasters but familiar enemies (Product of CCCP), and to sell it all it takes the familiar and repackages it not for the nostalgic but for the nostalgia of meaning. There’s a bunch of shit on screens these days, and I am happy 2049 does not get lumped in with that lot. There also seems to be a dichotomy of science fiction now, which is either the sci-fi fantasy type that Star Wars and even the Marvel Universe lives in, or the dark, brooding, catastrophic apocalypse that seemingly gets worse and worse with every Mad Max sequel or Walking Dead episode. Inside the latter, Blade Runner seemingly stands alone. Like 2019, 2049 is primarily a mystery, a detective story, a Future Noir; original in its intent, harsh in its ardor. I don’t buy into everything, the scheduled predisposition of Deckard and Rachel for example, surely is a throwaway line that distracts everyone, but the main theme of the film, that to be human and to protect life is still something worth fighting for… in some cases worth dying for… even by someone whom does not stand to benefit from a system tilted to the born… is intact.

What is 2049, then? A dystopian future? A Film Noir? A Sci-Fi masterpiece? A contemplation on the Human Condition? For those of us who were afraid to admit to ourselves it just might be good, it just might be everything we were waiting for, it was all of these things. The Baseline Test. The wooden horse (note, not a unicorn). The badass Spinner, the entire idea of JOI and everything good and bad it says about artificial people, the real people they copy, and the replication of the evils of the male gaze. I recently read an article about the low box office performance of the film being directly related to the laziness of the audience. In the era of super hero films, people didn’t want to think during a sci fi like this. They just wanted to be entertained. I think this is harsh on the audience, but I also think like a lot of criticism there might be some truth to this. Blade Runner was never meant to be a fun passover. It was always meant to challenge, and like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, it has invited praise, scorn, scrutiny, and wonderment at why it was attempted in the first place. 2049 is not a perfect film, as pretty as it is. I do not believe it was ever meant to be. 2049 is just as loaded with problems as 2019 is, only we get to enjoy it way, way more.