Sunday, October 8, 2017

Non-Spoilery Thoughts on Blade Runner 2049

After 35 years the iconic science fiction classic Blade Runner has a sequel in Blade Runner 2049. Should you see it?  Is it any good?  What's it about (without spoilers)?  Check out my non-spoilery thoughts for answers!

  • You should definitely see Blade Runner 2049 if you like the original.  Or if you don't.  Or if you've never seen the original (my wife has never seen Blade Runner, but she still enjoyed 2049).  If anything, you should see it to appreciate the visual spectacle, which is why it should be viewed in IMAX or other large formats if possible.  
  • Even if you don't like science fiction or you detest the characters, plot, or ideas of the original, Blade Runner 2049 is simply a beautiful film.  You will probably agree, especially if you liked director Denis Villeneuve's previous film Arrival (which was my favorite film of 2016).
  • Is it any good?  I thought so.  I wouldn't go quite so far as some reviewers have to say that it's better than the original, but it's a worthy sequel that delves into the same questions and themes of the original while deepening and expanding them in interesting ways.
  • As with the original, Blade Runner 2049 prompts philosophical questions such as: What does it mean to be human?  What does it mean to have a mind or soul?  Where do we draw the line between real and artificial, organic and technological?  What does it mean for mortal creatures to contemplate their mortality?  Is a society necessarily stratified into haves and have-nots, and what does a society owe its least powerful members?  Might our non-human others, be they robots, aliens, or apes, be better people than we are?
  • There are even some newer (or at least differently focused) questions in 2049.
  • A deeper meta-question is: Why do we still crave dystopias 35 years after the original, perhaps even more so?  (See some interesting responses here and here.)
  • What is Blade Runner 2049 about?  Without giving anything away, here's the set up.  As the title indicates, it takes place in 2049, which fans of the original will remember is exactly 30 years after the events of Blade Runner.  This also means that we're no longer talking about our future in a way that would have seemed more plausible to audiences of Blade Runner in 1982 (unless we're going to get replicants and off-world colonies in less than two years).  In 2049 there are still blade runners, that is, bounty hunters who hunt down rogue replicants (i.e., robots).  2049 follows the blade runner simply named K (Ryan Gosling) as he goes to "retire" a long lost older model.  Of course, he discovers something mysterious, which is where the film takes off and goes for awhile at two hours, 44 minutes.  Sure, it's long, but c'mon, if you don't like moody, slow-moving cerebral SF movies, you're probably not a fan of the original and better off watching one of those shiny, silly Transformers movies instead.  
  • As he's featured in the promotional material, it's no spoiler to say that Harrison Ford makes an appearance.  If you thought his reprisal of Han Solo in 2015's Star Wars: The Force Awakens was curmudgeonly, just you wait.  You might see at least one other original cast member.
  • If you want to know what I think about the relationship between Blade Runner and its source material (Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?), see my contribution to the book Philip K. Dick and Philosophy.  Blade Runner 2049 is definitely a sequel to the film and not to Dick's novel.  For one thing, it takes place in Los Angeles rather than San Francisco.  It also lacks the subtle humor of Dick's novels (few Hollywood adaptations manage to capture it -- with the possible exception of Paul Verhoeven's Total Recall).  While 2049 for the most part takes on the somber, serious business of the original, there are a few humorous moments.  I think 2049 also develops an idea central to the book that the original somewhat under-developed about the significance of compassion.
  • Curiously, another thing 2049 picks up from Dick and the original film is a bit of a retrograde place for women in the future.  As this piece by Helen O'Hara points out, a lot of the women in 2049 are viewed as sex objects of various sorts, not to mention the giant porn-o-rific advertising images everywhere in the background.  Some of this could, I suppose, be a statement about the commodification of straight male sexuality.  And there are some great women characters like Robin Wright's hard boiled police chief or, probably my favorite character of the film, Sylvia Hoeks as an intense, intrepid antagonist.
  • One thing that always bothered me about the original is weirdly also a problem with 2049: there's a lot of Japanese or other Asian language, but few Japanese or other Asian major characters.  People of color populate the background, but rarely the foreground (with a few exceptions).
  • Fresh off of saving jazz in La La Land, Ryan Gosling does a great job in 2049.  I thought the performances were great overall.  I particularly enjoyed Sylvia Hoeks (as mentioned above) and Dave Bautista (whose few minutes of screen time feel like a lot more).
  • The score by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch is not quite as iconic as the original score by Vangelis, but it sets the mood and has some nice echoes of the original.
  • So, to sum up: Yes, you should see Blade Runner 2049.  It's not perfect, but it's really good, probably my favorite movie since either Arrival or War for the Planet of the Apes (not coincidentally also films that touch on Big Ideas about humanity and otherness).  The debate about whether the original Blade Runner needed a sequel may continue, but if we're going to have a sequel, then Blade Runner 2049 is a worthy one.

(I plan to write a full-spoiler review soon that will dive more into the philosophical aspects, but I suspect I'll need to see it again to do an adequate job of it.  Stay tuned!)


  1. How do you feel about Denis Villeneuve taking on Dune? His work on Blade Runner makes me very optimistic.

    1. Thanks!

      I think there will always be elements of the Dune novels that will never translate to film. They're too internal and psychological. Also part of the fun of reading them is that Herbert doesn't describe the physical aspects of the setting in extensive detail so the reader can use their imagination a lot. That said, I think David Lynch's Dune is, while a terrible adaptation of the novel, a really weird and interesting film on its own that captured some of the weirdness of Herbert's world. The SciFi Channel miniseries worked better as an adaptation and was okay, but wasn't as interesting.

      As for Villeneuve, I'll be curious about what he could do. If anyone can make Dune into a decent movie, he could. At the very least it will be a visually interesting film. And Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 show that he can capture the philosophical aspects of a story. So I will definitely see it, but I will probably retain a bit of skepticism about whether Dune could really be adapted to film. But maybe I'll be proven wrong.

    2. Yea they'll have to find a way to externalize all the inner philosophical monologues. But short of boring scenes of characters dictating their thoughts to a journal, I don't see it happening. There is enough going on in the plot to make for a great movie though, at least the first one. I had a brief fantasy that the film would be a huge hit and they would adapt the original 6 books, but I doubt they could squeeze more than 20 minutes of "action" out of God Emperor or Messiah.

    3. Ha! God-Emperor is my favorite Dune sequel, but it probably wouldn't make for a very good movie. On the other hand, Arrival hardly had any action (and only one explosion!), so maybe Villeneuve could do it. I doubt they could make Leto II as a worm-human look good. Even with good CGI it would probably be hard for most audiences to take seriously.