Somewhat recently, The Dark ran a successful Kickstarter campaign that not only secured funding for two more years, but also raised their pay rates from .03 to .06 cents a word, making them a pro-paying magazine. This is awesome news because The Dark is a fantastic magazine publishing awesome work you should definitely check out, but I’m mostly bringing it up now because I–with a lack of cool crafty skills or, honestly, much else to offer–once again volunteered a movie review or pop culture essay as one of the possible Kickstarter rewards. Alas, there really is only one person out there who has both the interest and the means to purchase these reviews.
And that person, once again, is Tom.
Tom, the fiend, spent a good twenty minutes gleefully telling me about all the movies he almost made me watch. Honestly, I was kinda hoping he’d land on Cannonball Run II, mostly because I’ve never seen the first one and I thought that could be pretty funny. Finally, however, he told it to me straight: of all the horrible films he could’ve chosen, Tom actually picked a movie he thought I would like and was shocked I hadn’t seen yet: Blade Runner 2049.
And I was grateful for that . . . until I saw the run time was 2 hours and 44 minutes long.
I’m afraid there will be SPOILERS for this film and its predecessor, so if you haven’t seen these movies, maybe hold off until you do? My genius will wait for you, I promise.
Also, potential trigger warning: Note 3 discusses a rape scene from Blade Runner in some detail–and if you don’t think it’s a rape scene, please do me a favor and don’t comment to argue your case. Cause we probably aren’t going to convince one another, and I’m not really looking for the headache, thanks. (I’m also going to discuss some shitty Youtube comments from people who clearly struggle with the concept of consent.)
30 years after the events of Blade Runner, a replicant named K (Ryan Gosling) stumbles onto a secret that could potentially rip the fragile world order between humans and robots apart. Harrison Ford co-stars, eventually.
1. Before we even get into Blade Runner 2049, I’m gonna need to discuss plain old Blade Runner for a hot sec. If you have absolutely no interest in that, feel free to skip on to Note 2. (Although, being honest, comparisons are probably going to abound throughout this review. Cause, me.)
Blade Runner isn’t one of those movies I grew up on, so I don’t have the same nostalgia factor that a lot of SF fans have for it. Prior to receiving this assignment, I’d only seen it once, years and years ago. As such, I figured I should probably watch it again to refresh myself on basic plot events before checking out the sequel. This is how I discovered that there are roughly a bajillion different cuts of Blade Runner; in fact, there are so many cuts that Amazon actually has a video describing the differences between them for all those confused nerds like me who can’t remember which version they’ve seen. Unfortunately, I didn’t see this video until later, so Mek and I ended up checking out the theatrical cut.
People. This was the wrong decision.
There is no version of Blade Runner that I would consider a perfect film–like, I enjoy it, but I also think it’s more interesting due to its aesthetics and cinematic influence, rather than actual narrative–but the edits made to the theatrical cut (namely the voiceover narration) are just so awful. I sincerely hope that everyone involved is ashamed of themselves because whether you think a VO was necessary or not (and I don’t), there’s absolutely no reason it needed to be this bad, like, this is easily one of the worst voiceovers I’ve ever heard, ever ever ever. Why, why do people act like you can’t provide exposition and character work simultaneously? Tone is a thing. Inflection is a thing. Use them.
None of this, mind you, is terribly relevant to Blade Runner 2049. I just wanted my personal pain to be a matter of public record.
2. Here’s something that is relevant and also appropriately blasphemous: overall, I think I liked Blade Runner 2049 more than Blade Runner itself.
Honestly, I was surprised too, mostly because I didn’t go into 2049 really expecting to like the movie, due to a) the excessive run time, b) my lack of emotional involvement with the Blade Runner universe, c) my lukewarm reaction to Arrival, Denis Villeneuve’s other much-beloved SF film, and d) Tom’s well-documented terrible movie opinions. But despite all of these things and a few disappointments with the film itself, I found most of the characters, relationships, and storylines all considerably more compelling in 2049 than in its predecessor.
To begin, let’s compare protagonists.
So, I definitely find K a more interesting protagonist than Deckard, mostly because there isn’t all that much to Deckard, other than the fact that he’s an asshole. (More on this shortly.) There is, of course, the never-ending debate on whether Deckard’s a replicant or not, but it’s a debate, sorry to say, that I have almost zero interest in and won’t be speculating on now. (If you’d like to see more of the arguments for and against, though, you can check them out here.)
Meanwhile, K is definitely a replicant, one who politely if reluctantly hunts down his own kind and secretly comes to hope that he’s human, or at least half-human. Much like the little mermaid, K desperately wants a soul, and while I’m not usually a huge fan of “robot wants to be a real boy” stories–Marina J. Lostetter has a good essay on the subject–this one surprisingly does work for me. This is partially because I find K’s secret hopes here somewhat relatable, at least, if I generalize the very specific desire to be “the one and only, half-replicant miracle baby” with the less specific desire of “being special.” Mostly, though, K interests me because of his relationships to other characters in this movie, especially to his holographic, A.I. girlfriend, Joi (Ana de Armas).
People. I am ALL ABOUT a romance between an AI hologram and an android, like, I genuinely shipped these two. I’m fascinated by the idea of a romantic relationship between two sentient, non-human beings, a relationship between two creations that were specifically made and not born. Which is funny because the takeaway message, presumably, is that Joi isn’t as sentient as K, that her feelings for him were strictly programming and that everything she said to him were things she probably would’ve or did say to other clients. Also, most feminist reviews I saw for this movie weren’t exactly kind to Joi; I read “manic pixie dream girl” more than once.
And yet, that’s not the impression that personally stuck with me. Part of that, I suppose, is how–perhaps optimistically–Joi very much struck me as a character still on a journey towards self-autonomy, a journey she might have eventually completed if Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) hadn’t murdered her. But also, I just really like this scene when Joi tells K that she’s happy when she’s with him, and he immediately and sincerely tells her she doesn’t have to say that. Not because he doesn’t want her to be happy–he obviously does. But he also doesn’t want her to feel compelled to lie to him, either. Simultaneously, while K clearly wants Joi’s feelings to be real, I never once got the impression that he’d have blamed her if they weren’t, like, K wouldn’t be some creepy misogynistic guest at Westworld who violently abused a host when he realized she didn’t love him back or something. K is respectful. K actually seems concerned with consent. That’s a lot more than some people I could mention, Deckard.
3. Okay, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, but I just have to go back to the original movie because GAH. The “love scene” in Blade Runner is so rapey and gross, and if you click on the link and read the Youtube comments–like where people say that if this is rape, then Harrison Ford can rape them anytime or argue that Rachael obviously provided consent because, you know, she took down her hair–well, it’s just even more appalling.
Here’s a refresher of how this scene goes down, if it’s been a while since you’ve seen Blade Runner and you can’t or don’t wanna click on the link:
Deckard kisses Rachael at the piano. She pulls back and tries to leave. He forcibly and aggressively blocks her from doing so. He then violently takes her by the shoulders, shoves her into a wall, and kisses her again. Afterwards, he tells her to kiss him. She tries to say no and he cuts her off, insisting that she needs to say “kiss me.” Unhappily, she does, and he kisses her. Then he tells her to say “I want you.” She does, all the while looking miserable and confined and the exact opposite of turned on–but don’t worry. The sounds of smooth sax are here to tell you how romantic and hot this all is.
The thing about this scene, too–other than just how awful it is on every level–is that it completely detracts from the whole point of the movie. Like, this is supposed to be a turning point for Deckard, right, where his love for this one particular replicant really allows him to see robots as actual people and not just as pieces of machinery for him to hunt down. But what this scene actually illustrates for me is a turning point in the opposite direction, that while he seemingly has some surface-level sympathy for their plight, Deckard ultimately views the replicants as little more than objects, as evidenced by how he treats Rachael here.
We’re going to come back to Deckard and Rachael later to discuss the One Big Plot change that I think could’ve made 2049 a great movie instead of merely a good one. For now, though, let’s discuss Twists.
4. One of the things I genuinely liked about this movie is how it constantly subverted my expectations by immediately revealing plot twists that I assumed would be tediously withheld for at least an hour. Like, I knew nothing about this movie when I sat down to watch it, but my immediate prediction before the credits even rolled was this: “Okay, so, 2049 will talk a big game about how Deckard’s a replicant, when actually it’s K all along.” And then five minutes into the movie, boom! K’s a replicant. It wasn’t even a twist at all.
Shortly thereafter, K finds a buried body. Considering how Replicant Drax was going on about the “miracle of life” or whatever, I was immediately all, “Oh, it’s going to be a replicant who gave birth, and–shit, that replicant is going to be Rachael, isn’t it?” And again, instead of unnecessarily drawing this revelation out, 2049 tells us immediately.
The real Big Twist, of course, is “Who is the Miracle Child?” Initially, I was like, “Well, it’s totally K,” but when K actually started to consider this possibility roughly 45 minutes before I expected him to, I was like, “Oh, okay, it’s totally not K.” Sadly, I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t guess Miracle Child’s identity correctly, probably because I was kinda stuck on the idea that it would end up being Luv, as I thought that could provide her with a really interesting character arc. (And also because Mek and I thought it’d be hilarious if Harrison Ford’s Movie Children always turned out evil and/or annoying. To be clear, Luv’s just the former here, not the latter.)
Still, I’m particularly frustrated with myself because while I enjoyed the coolness of the Memory Maker scene, I specifically paused to note that it should’ve been cut from the film because it didn’t introduce any new information: it didn’t tell us if K’s memory was his or not, only that it wasn’t manufactured, which we totally already knew. I assumed this was due to sloppy writing, rather than hiding a clue in plain sight. Curse my brain!
5. Speaking of Luv and Dr. Ana Stelline, let’s talk a little more about the female characters in 2049 because if I was splitting this movie into a list of pros and cons, “female representation” would manage to end up in both columns.
Only the plus side: there are a lot of female characters in this movie, and I find many of them interesting. There are morally dubious cops and straight-up villains and isolated artists and intriguing love interests and secret replicant resistance leaders. That’s cool. A lot of movies don’t provide that many varied roles for ladies.
On the negative side: shit, we kill an awful lot of them.
Joi dies. Luv dies. Joshi dies. Rachael dies (off-screen, no less). A cloned version of Rachael dies (that one’s on screen). There’s even one naked replicant lady who’s only there to show how evil Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) is, and yeah, she dies too. The only female characters who live are either the least interesting ones (Mariette) or the ones we spend less than five minutes with (Freysa, who has maybe a handful of lines), and Dr. Ana Stelline, who–despite being Miracle Baby–really only has two scenes.)
We also have to deal with Rachael cause man. Rachael deserves so much better than this movie.
As mentioned, Rachael dies offscreen. Which, I suppose, isn’t shocking, as this all does happen thirty years later, but it is disappointing. And it’s especially disappointing here because Rachael dies in childbirth.
(Princess Leia has apparently become my go-to for exasperated, shocked, or indignant reaction faces. I’m okay with this turn of events.)
Here’s my thing about this trope: in real life? Dying in childbirth is totally a thing that happens, even in the modern age, even in first world countries and especially in America, which has a maternal death rate that’s actually on the rise. Childbirth can be beautiful. It can be a wonderful, weird, messy thing–but it can also be dangerous. Theoretically, stories where women die in childbirth should be important to see.
Unfortunately, stories where women die in childbirth are also basically never about the actual women. They’re about the grieving husbands or motherless children they leave behind. They’re about tragic prologues. They’re a way to both kill off a character and strip that character of all personality at the same time: Rachael is no longer a badass replicant with awesome hair who has her own existential crisis to deal with and still saves Deckard’s worthless ass by taking down one of his own targets for him. No, Rachael is just a plot device. She’s an expository line. She is a dead mom, a dead girlfriend, and absolutely nothing else.
So, this is what I wish Blade Runner 2049 had done instead, and I wish this so much that I would’ve sacrificed a small goat–or at least my third favorite pair of Converse–to see it: kill off Deckard in that 30-year gap and let Rachael have his role instead.
Yes, I know it would never happen. You really don’t need to comment to tell me how it would never happen. Harrison Ford is a huge A-lister, while Sean Young is, well, not. Rick Deckard is the main character of Blade Runner, while Rachael is just the
girl love interest. And the fanboys would absolutely fucking riot if you killed Deckard off screen, something I’d have much more sympathy with if this shit didn’t happen to female characters all the time, and if Rick Deckard actually displayed anything close to a personality in Blade Runner and, oh yeah, wasn’t a rapist.
But come on, how exciting would that twist be? After all, Rachael’s no longer just a badass with killer hair; she’s also the first and only replicant to ever give birth, like, forget Miracle Child; how does Rachael feel about that? Like, to me, that’s a story which is actually worth exploring. How does she feel about motherhood, especially considering she never had a mother herself and all her childhood memories are implants? Did she actually want the child? Does she feel cursed or blessed? Could she even have another kid? Has she tried?
I’m saying, the father-daughter reunion at the end of this movie is nice enough, but man, I’d have been so much more excited about seeing a mother-daughter reunion here.
6. And while I’m busy making dream changes, let’s just go ahead and cut Jared Leto out of the movie, shall we? Not just because the actor squicks me out–although after everything I read about his behavior during Suicide Squad, he kind of does–but because Niander Wallace is absurdly easy to take out of the film. And for a movie that’s nearly three hours long, like, that extraneous shit just needs to go. Besides, even for his limited screen time, Wallace is a supremely dull character.
Here is what I wrote about this guy while taking notes during the movie:
Stabs her, kisses her. So, he’s gross. I know he’s supposed to be, but ugh. Do we have to spend much time with this guy? Like, there’s nothing new about his creep.
I’d much rather let Luv be the unequivocal Big Bad of this movie, considering she’s more interesting and her character does all the work anyway. Wallace only really works for me if we’re setting up for another sequel, and if we are setting up for another sequel, then we really just need, like, one scene where we briefly hear his voice or something. Shit, 2049 wouldn’t have even needed to cast Wallace yet. He could just have been a mystery cameo teasing the inevitable follow-up film.
7. Finally, here are a bunch of random notes thrown in your general direction:
7A. 2049 is a gorgeous film with a cool futuristic feel and stunning cinematography. I’m thrilled Roger Deakins finally won an Oscar for it. The city looks amazing, the colors are gorgeous, and that final shot of Ryan Gosling lying down in the snow works perfectly.
I will say, though, that I probably could’ve done without the gigantic holographic tits, like, come on. Always, always with the tits. Also, I kind of can’t help but miss the 80’s punk aesthetic from the first film, considering that’s literally my favorite thing about Blade Runner. I miss the glow stick umbrellas. I miss how Edward James Olmos once looked like a futuristic noir vampire with a weird affinity for bow ties. I miss, with all my heart and soul, Pris’s fantastic makeup and hair.
Like, I know culture and fashion change over time and all, but . . . still. Sadface.
7B. Also, this movie uses absurdly small letters to introduce you to new locations. While I’m relating movie notes I jotted down, here is the very first one:
TINY FUCKING FONT, JESUS.
Follow-up notes included Sweet Jesus, there’s presumably an official building name above Earth HQ. Who knows, though, b/c it’s red on black and you can’t read it and DO YOU NOT WANT US TO KNOW WHERE THINGS ARE?
7C. It’s a tiny thing, but I loved both the idea and the feel of the ‘replicant psychological baseline’ test. Of course, once you introduce it, you’re basically just waiting for K to fail it, and boy, does he.
7D. One of the things I wish both this movie and its predecessor did? Had the protagonist speak a language other than English. Like, not just understand non-English languages. I wish they actually spoke them out loud. Cause it doesn’t quite feel casual, like when Han responds to Chewbacca in English. Here, it feels deliberate and off-putting. Maybe that’s just me?
7E. Finally, I also wish this cast wasn’t so blindingly white. Like, it’s super white. Egregiously white. The world doesn’t look like this now, and the future sure as hell shouldn’t, either.
Come on, fellow white people. Do better.
Joi: “Mere data makes a man: A and C and T and G, the alphabet of you. All from four symbols. I am only two: 1 and 0.”
K: “Half as much but twice as elegant, sweetheart.”
K: “I’ve never retired something that was born before.”
Joshi: “What’s the difference?”
K: “To be born is to have a soul, I guess.”
Joshi: “Are you telling me no?”
K: “I wasn’t aware that was an option, ma’am.”
Joshi: “Attaboy . . . hey. You’ve been getting on fine without one.”
K: “What’s that, madame?”
Joshi: “A soul.”
Luv: “You can’t hold the tide with a broom.”
Joi: “I’m so happy when I’m with you.”
K: “You don’t have to say that.”
Despite how I annoyed I am about what happened to Rachael, I generally enjoyed this movie: it surprised me on multiple occasions, I liked K, and I was really into the idea of an android/AI romantic relationship. It’s not something I’m dying to check out again, but I’m also glad I sat down and watched it. (At home, though. The quiet pacing of the film worked for me when I could pause and stretch and take snack breaks, but I have to admit I’m seriously happy I didn’t see this in theater.)
B+ (It might sink to a B; I’m not sure. I don’t think it’ll go lower than that, but I’m pretty positive it will never hit an A-, either.)
Sometimes, despite all your secret hopes, you are not, in fact, The Special.