Masterful cyberpunk or boring slog? A debate.
Image: Warner Bros.
These columns contain spoilers for 'Blade Runner: 2049.'
'Blade Runner 2049' is GOOD
Blade Runner 2049, it is very, very GOOD. Possibly better than Blade Runner (sorry!). I've seen it twice now, and will admit it is a nearly perfect film.
To quote Neander Wallace's assistant, Luv, the world of Replicants and their hunters—still reeling from some environmental Armageddon—has been revivified. Director Denis Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins masterfully resurrected the post-apocalyptic Los Angeles we came to know in Blade Runner. This film is gorgeous. Futuristic, but not unfamiliar. That is to say, a future we can all imagine if we don't curb carbon emissions, halt urban sprawl, or stop poisoning our waters. I especially liked the leviathan walls that kept back the ocean; an unspoken nod at today's rising sea levels. Unlike the sleek hellscape of Blade Runner, the ecological wasteland in 2049 felt real, almost inevitable. Something that should scare us because it's not so impossible as we think.
For what it's worth, the hologram-Replicant threesome is surprisingly well done
But beyond aesthetics, the characters, too, were a pleasant development from the original Blade Runner. I think the sequel more successfully used noir elements than its predecessor. A better antihero. A more fleshed-out femme fatale. The double reveal of K's identity (he is! he isn't!) was a deliciously satisfying plot twist. And his apparent death, so reminiscent of Roy Batty's own sad demise, introduced similarly unanswered questions. Did he find his humanity? Or was he following protocol to the end? Does it even matter?
The creators of 2049 also made it feel new without breaking the universe. Joi the AI hologram, for instance, added a new layer of complexity. Her relationship with K was thoughtfully rendered. And unlike the master-slave dynamic between humans and Replicants, Joi and K's bond was one of mutual insecurity, discovery, and vulnerability. Their lack of realness didn't matter to each other because their emotions, at least K's, were authentic. (Still, the extent of Joi's agency is unknown. We only briefly saw the settings behind her simulacrum, and a later scene suggests some of her quirks were a feature, not feelings.)
For what it's worth, the hologram-Replicant threesome is surprisingly well done. It was seemingly consensual, not like the forced sex scene between Rick Deckard and Rachael. We can assume that Mariette enjoyed sex with K and Joi. Her Blade Runner counterpart, Pris, also a "pleasure model," could only rebel against her programming by performing sexual violence.
The film's weakness, however, lies within its use of the superfluous. Like other cyberpunk dystopias, 2049 heavily relies on Asian aesthetics to indicate the future. The neon kanji signs, the bustling Chinatown, Neander Wallace's yukata, Joi's cheongsam. LAPD's crime scene materials are labeled in English and Japanese. At some point, Los Angeles became a multicultural city, even more so than today, but where are its non-white citizens? I spotted maybe one or two Asians in passing when K was eating (a bento box!) in Chinatown. And have we ever seen a Replicant of color? If not, why is that? Whose future is this? Would non-white robot slaves be too on-the-nose, too uncomfortable for Hollywood to handle?
Overall, 2049 is very GOOD, and can be appreciated by anyone who enjoyed the original. It seems to have bombed at the box office, which underscores that point, but in true Blade Runner form, has all the makings of a cult favorite, just maybe ten or twenty years down the line.
- Sarah Emerson
'Blade Runner: 2049' is BAD
If the goal of Blade Runner: 2049 was to make a movie that was spiritually similar to Blade Runner, mission accomplished. While watching the genre-defining Blade Runner for the first time last year, I fell asleep somewhere toward the beginning of the third act. Last weekend, I found myself nodding off a few times while watching the sequel sober at 4 PM.
It doesn't help that there are thousands of different cuts of the original Blade Runner, which left me wondering whether I was starting Blade Runner: 2049 with the prerequisite experience necessary to Get It (I wasn't). But either way, Blade Runner: 2049 strikes me as more of a tech demo than anything. When you strip the movie of its awe-inspiring cinematography, its engrossing sound, and impressive special effects, you are left with a plot that makes no sense and 45 minutes of panning shots that lack both action and dialogue, which those in the movie business probably call "world building."
If the point of Blade Runner: 2049 is to warn us that unregulated technology might be bad, it's being done better right now by "real life"
Multiple times during Blade Runner: 2049, I leaned over to the person I saw it with and whispered "this is boring," which I understand is a highly annoying thing to do but is the truth. As a concept and aesthetic, I love Blade Runner. I think, in general, that the technologically induced inequality and limitless corporate power imagined in cyberpunk films and novels comes closest to nailing the future we're rapidly hurtling toward. But Blade Runner: 2049 retreads ground that's already been covered by other films in the genre and introduces almost nothing new.
As sci-fi inquiry, the deepest this film gets is: "Will clones want to fuck humanity's sex robots?"
If the point of Blade Runner: 2049 is to examine what happens when clones/artificial intelligence gain sentience and the ability to reproduce, it's already been explored much better by Ex Machina and Westworld. If the point of Blade Runner: 2049 is to suggest that it might be unpleasant to live in an environmental wasteland, let's just say I have high hopes for Geostorm. If the point of Blade Runner: 2049 is to warn us that unregulated technology might be bad, it's being done better right now by REAL LIFE and by Black Mirror in science fiction.
The film lacks coherence: Ryan Gosling is a replicant who discovers he might actually be a Real Boy who proceeds to have sex with his holographic Amazon Alexa and then goes on a big adventure to find Gepetto and is devastated to learn he was actually Pinocchio all along and I suppose this is sad but strikes me (EVERYONE) as desperate screenwriting to allow Harrison Ford to close out his reunion tour. The film also lacks anything resembling a developed female character.
As sci-fi inquiry, the deepest this film gets is: "Will clones want to fuck humanity's sex robots?" And if so, will AI be able to mind meld with corporeal bodies? This, to me, is worth at least a short discussion at a bar or a Twitter thread and for this reason alone I do not wholly regret seeing the film.
My suggestion is, if you're really baked one day, go see Blade Runner: 2049 if you want to let Denis Villeneuve's cyberpunk dreams wash over you for roughly three hours. Otherwise, skip the film, for it is BAD.
- Jason Koebler