Style and Substance
Warning: This review contains spoilers. If you’ve read it before seeing this title, please arrange to have the memory removed.
Blade Runner, Ridley Scott’s 1982 cult sci-fi, is 35 years old. A small but vocal minority think it’s an empty vessel, but by common consent it’s a beautiful mood piece with a philosophical coda; a classic film noir. The movie’s aesthetic, score and open questions – “is Deckard is a replicant?” – are indelible parts of popular culture. This presents a problem for anyone mounting a serious attempt at a belated sequel. Forget more human than human, you’re more knowing than knowing, more self-conscious than self-conscious. How do you make an organic continuation of the story without retrospectively destroying the ambiguity that gives the original its intrigue? How do you make a movie that isn’t a replicant?
Denis Villeneuve’s sequel has its flaws but let’s give him and original screenwriter Hampton Fancher some credit. First and foremost, the film extends the ambiguity around Deckard’s origin – no act of desecration here. Second, they take the question of how you make a sequel that isn’t just a lifelike synthetic, head on. In fact, Blade Runner 2049 dares to suggest it’s not a fair question.
A replicant may know it’s a replicant but perhaps it can have a soul nonetheless. The movie, like other long gestating sequels to genre mainstays, may be designed around the principle of using our intimate knowledge of the parent to set up and invert expectations; in this way the original’s pop cultural cachet effectively writes the sequel; but the Blade Runner follow up manages to use this modern bit of received screenplay writing wisdom (Syd Field, Hollywood’s script writing guru gets a thank you in the end credits) to expand on the questions thrown up first time around.
So after 35 years of arguing about whether Harrison Ford had been grown in a lab, we begin with a Blade Runner who is unambiguously a replicant. Ryan Gosling’s Agent K knows what he is and seems content murdering his own kind (the great thing about hiring Gosling and his strong and silent shtick is that you can project onto him any thought you like). But the opening “retirement” of a fellow skinjob leads to him pulling the thread that closed the first movie and considering the possibility that he may be a new type of artificial life form – one born of replicant (possibly two). In this way Blade Runner 2049 literalises the first film’s investigation into the nature of self. Gosling’s concerned with who he is and where he came from, but also the existential fallout from that discovery. He’s Harrison Ford’s character from the first film if said character had seen Blade Runner.
Villeneuve’s film is self-aware then, but how, after all this time, could it be otherwise? Art can’t exist in a vacuum, and this kind of generational revival isn’t immune from the thinking that shapes many a disguised remake masquerading as sequel in the dystopian world of reboots. 2049 isn’t a reboot, it’s every bit the sequel, aesthetically, thematically, aurally, right down to the meditative pacing and noir-inspired concentration on mood and texture over plot mechanics, but it does use tried and tested parts of the reboot toolkit.
There’s the legacy character as maguffin and a story focused on the children of said characters, featuring actors of bankable age. These have become clichés, and are somewhat turgid, as they often feature in sequels that seem designed by computer and shot by robots, but the Blade Runner sequel stands alone in cladding those tired storytelling devices with the greatest finery money can buy. Mesmeric and melancholy, a true feast for the senses, this is a film that’s stunning and knows it. It even has the moxie to end with the words, “beautiful isn’t it?” Few will argue.
However, 2049’s fidelity to the original – fawning reverence, extends beyond its lush photography and reworking of Vangelis’s musical cues – it encompasses the movie’s sexual politics. Rightly, attention will focus on the film’s unapologetic retro-representations of women – here either highly objectified male fantasies of one stripe or another (whores, holographic, synthetic creations of a genius with a God Complex), mothers or victims. This could be the old school scribbling of a geriatric screenwriter (Hampton Fancher is 79) or simply an extension of the first film’s 40’s inspired universe – a world of hardboiled men, femme fatales and love interests, but it jars, even in a hermetically sealed alternate timeline where the likes of Pan Am and Atari are prospering megabrands.
Nevertheless, Blade Runner 2049 is a remarkably assured and meticulously crafted sequel – a minor miracle given how much creative capital’s taken flight in the intervening decades (not unlike affluent humanity’s flight to the off-world colonies). It’s a thematic extension of the original movie – the most expensive coda ever made, rather than a story in its own right, and Ryan Gosling, though starring in perhaps the purest Ryan Gosling part ever devised, doesn’t have the bad tempered edge Ford brought to the original (the old man’s reprise here is largely superfluous – the film, fractionally retooled, would just about worked without him).
Ultimately, we get a movie that appropriates the look and character of its predecessor, daring to vie for equal status. Whether it will ever be accepted as a movie in its own right is hard to say, but it has a claim for having a soul. More sequel than sequel, then.