Tom Richards takes a deeper look at Blade Runner 2049, comparing it to the original Blade Runner. Did the new movie expand upon the first? Or did it cheapen it?
Who is not guilty of nostalgia now and then? I am, of course; we all are at times. I anticipated, hope against hope, that Blade Runner 2049 would be a worthy sequel. When word first came out of its upcoming production (in the latter part of 2016), I searched YouTube for clips and clues, but then at some point I stopped watching them. I thought maybe, just maybe, it will be good and I refused all viewings of 2049-related materials. I knew that it was coming and when, and that was enough. And so, on October 6th of this year, I trotted on down to the Baghdad Theater in Portland, Oregon, and found the perfect cushioned seat somewhere near the middle on the theatre.
For me, the original Blade Runner was a near perfect movie going experience. Back in ’82, it was new and all so hauntingly perfect in its dystopian beauty. I was/am nostalgic for its Tokyo’d Los Angeles with its tortuous alley-rows in its cluttered street market stalls. I loved the rain. I loved the rain-shined streets and neon bouncing from billboard to puddle. I loved the coldness and fractured childlike souls of the replicants and the deeply imperfect Deckard and his style of whiskey consumption. The makers of Blade Runner 2049 are also lovers of nostalgia. They are also users of nostalgia to sell their product and, like the witch of Hansel and Gretel, they invited us in and sweetened our vision with the white-powdered sugar of old memories. There is nothing inherently wrong with the continuity of themes in Blade Runner 2049, but these moviemakers painted this nostalgia on as a simulacrum. I knew I was being used, but I stayed hoping the original feeling of true love would return. I should have known, shouldn’t I?
Late in the film, there is a scene that could stand in for the entire movie. Our new corporate villain, Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), parades out the beautiful Rachael (Sean Young/Loren Peta) for the captured Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford). She is exactly as she was in the original, but now she is only here as bait to bribe Deckard to the dark side. What any of us would do to bring back the one true love of our lives? But, of course, the new Rachael is not the old Rachael and Deckard rejects her. It was easy for him to do, the new Rachael, seemingly identical to the old Rachael, is also another simulacrum. He didn’t need or want an imitation, no matter how exact. And, we don’t need it either. Well, that is, we didn’t need it to complete our love of the original Blade Runner. Unfortunately, I didn’t know that until I saw Blade Runner 2049 and now both are cheapened.
It is not a terrible film at all and it ends up pleasantly settling some of the questions we had when Blade Runner (1982) ended. (Well, at least it answered the questions we asked at the end of the original theatrical release.) 2049 is a beautiful movie. But it is almost too beautiful, too perfect, too Blade Runner-ish. Blade Runner is not Star Wars, it is not Indiana Jones. It was/is more 2001: A Space Odyssey … no sequel required. Midway through 2049, our new hero, K (Ryan Gosling), tracks down Rick Deckard and for a while it turns into a kind of schlocky buddy movie, but with the ominous shadow of The Empire Strikes Back lurking around its dark edges. People have said that there is too little action in 2049 for a real blockbuster, but the movie relies too much on action, too much on set up, and, most of all, too much on nostalgia. It is still raining on the neon streets of Los Angeles in 2049. There are still giant sexy video billboards and flying cars in 2049. There is still an evil and ugly corporate villain in 2049. There is a plethora of strong, and I mean very strong, sexy female villains again. And there are still nice, mild-mannered, and confused android replicants getting shot to pieces in 2049.
The questions asked in the original movie are first-rate philosophical questions: What does it mean to exist? What does it mean to be human? And they are asked again in 2049. There are myriad other questions the original Blade Runner posed that are ignored in 2049. Why do they make all the female robots stereotypically beautiful? Why did society let a single corporation from Los Angeles have all the power … AGAIN?! Why isn’t there any tension between humans and replicants when it comes to sexual partners? Why do they feel the need to continue tricking the replicants? Why do they give the replicants evolving emotions and super strength? (That seems like a really bad combination!) And why is there still no Mexican food in the new Los Angeles?
Some things did work in this version. It was a beautiful movie even though the dystopian tropes were fairly obvious. The Dr. Ana Stelline character was well crafted into the script and very clever. The relationship between K and his replicant partner/lover Joi (Ana de Armas) was compelling, but the nostalgia was a killer for me. Jared Leto as Niander Wallace, savior gone bad, seemed cut out and glued in directly from some random 1950s serial. As much as I like Edward James Olmos, his one-minute cameo as Gaff looked like a promotion for the movie stuck in the middle of the movie and/or a thinly-disguised payday for a friend.
Go see Blade Runner 2049 but adjust your expectations accordingly. And you might want to get some chocolate-covered bonbons like in the good old days.