Chris­tos Tsi­olkas on Blade Run­ner 2049’s failed story

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I’m sure I am far from alone in hav­ing been very ex­cited await­ing Blade Run­ner 2049, a se­quel to Ri­d­ley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Run­ner. Over the 35 years that sep­a­rates the two, the orig­i­nal has very much be­come part of cin­ema lore, one of the great science-fic­tion films and a film whose dystopian aes­thetic still thrills and in­flu­ences. The knowl­edge that Scott has ac­tively been in­volved in the ge­n­e­sis and pro­duc­tion of the se­quel, that Har­ri­son Ford was repris­ing his role as Deckard, and the choice of De­nis Vil­leneuve as di­rec­tor, all fed an­tic­i­pa­tion of the new movie.

Five years on from the car­toon­ish soap opera of Star Wars, the orig­i­nal Blade Run­ner re­turned pop­u­lar science-fic­tion film to adults. Based on Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel Do An­droids Dream of Elec­tric Sheep?, the orig­i­nal film was set in 2019 and fea­tured a stun­ning pro­duc­tion de­sign that imag­ined a fu­ture land­scape built from mash­ing to­gether the then emerg­ing

Asian mega-me­trop­o­lis and the shat­tered in­dus­trial cities of Eng­land’s north. A con­stant acid rain was a key com­po­nent to the look of Blade Run­ner, and this aware­ness of eco­log­i­cal blight, along­side the far-sighted pro­jec­tion of a post­colo­nial ur­ban world, is in part what gives the orig­i­nal its con­tin­u­ing po­tency.

There was bril­liance, too, in util­is­ing the tropes of film noir in telling the story about a group of rene­gade bio­engi­neered an­droids – repli­cants – who needed to be hunted down in or­der to squash a slave re­bel­lion of these al­most-hu­man ma­chines. Noir para­noia in­fused the film, both in nar­ra­tive and in de­sign, and the noir con­ven­tions cut against some of the sen­ti­men­tal­ity im­plicit in Dick’s Manichean con­cep­tion of hu­man and repli­cant. Even as I’m writ­ing about Blade Run­ner now, key vis­ual mo­ments re­turn to my imag­i­na­tion, as does the rush of Van­ge­lis’s mu­sic and the sound of the imag­ined Los An­ge­les. The way I look at my own city – notic­ing the mag­pie cob­bling of styles or the in­ser­tion of cap­i­tal­ist ex­er­tions within the very ar­chi­tec­ture – is still in­flu­enced by that film.

It’s im­por­tant to state from the out­set that Blade Run­ner 2049 keeps faith with the orig­i­nal. There is a real artistry across this pro­duc­tion, in all the mas­sive vis­ual and au­ral labour in­volved in mak­ing a con­tem­po­rary work of science fic­tion, to en­sure that the new film doesn’t oblit­er­ate our mem­o­ries of Los An­ge­les imag­ined by Scott and his team. The world we see doesn’t jar with our own mem­o­ries of the first film, but it is ev­i­dent in both de­sign and con­cep­tion that this is a bleaker ver­sion of the fu­ture, one in which our present anx­i­eties around cli­mate change and the ob­scen­ity of in­creas­ing wealth in­equal­ity have been proved valid.

The shifts are sub­tle but ef­fec­tive: the LA of this film is not as much the awe-in­spir­ing vi­sion of a hy­per-Tokyo or Hong Kong but an al­most Soviet-era grim­ness in the mis­ery of over­pop­u­la­tion and de­cay. Roger Deakins, the cin­e­matog­ra­pher, is a ge­nius in find­ing still mo­ments of beauty in such a grim re­al­ity, and al­though the CGI is among the most rav­ish­ing I have seen on screen, Deakins doesn’t al­low the tech­nol­ogy to un­der­mine his fram­ing and his choices. Vil­leneuve and his team are clearly aware of some of the best work be­ing achieved at the fron­tiers of gam­ing and VR, but their in­flu­ences also stretch across the art world. There are echoes of David Gut­ten­felder’s stir­ring but coldly de­spair­ing pho­to­graphs of Py­ongyang in the im­agery we see.

If Scott in the orig­i­nal ref­er­enced the world of noir, of Fritz Lang and the paint­ings of Ed­ward Hop­per, Vil­leneuve’s ver­sion bor­rows heav­ily from the legacy of the Rus­sian di­rec­tor An­drei Tarkovsky, in par­tic­u­lar his Stalker and The Mir­ror. This is apt not only for a film that makes the ques­tion of mem­ory cen­tral to a prob­ing of what makes one hu­man – al­ways piv­otal to Tarkovsky’s work – but also in the sug­ges­tion that cap­i­tal­ism has fallen into a feu­dal de­spair. It’s in this sense that the bor­row­ing from across Soviet and post-com­mu­nist his­tory makes sense.

Un­for­tu­nately, it is when it comes to story that Blade Run­ner 2049 dis­ap­points.

In the se­quel, the pi­o­neer repli­cants have been su­per­seded by new ver­sions. They have been bio­engi­neered to safe­guard against the pos­si­bil­ity of re­bel­lion. Ryan Gosling is K, a Blade Run­ner, em­ployed by the LAPD to hunt down the rogue orig­i­nal repli­cants. If the ques­tion of whether Deckard was or was not a repli­cant him­self was a teas­ing and open-ended ques­tion in the first Blade Run­ner, we know from the out­set that K is not hu­man. It took me some time to set­tle with Gosling’s play­ing of the role. Ini­tially, I was re­act­ing against his blank­ness and fight­ing my rec­ol­lec­tion of Har­ri­son

Ford’s charisma and dy­namism as Deckard. But Gosling’s per­for­mance be­gins to make sense as the film pro­gresses. Repli­cants are given im­ported mem­o­ries and that re­mains a fun­da­men­tal and haunt­ing el­e­ment in this film, the sense that mem­ory it­self may be more im­por­tant to our un­der­stand­ing of self than lived ex­pe­ri­ence. Gosling ’s cold­ness masks that fear and we come to un­der­stand how cru­cial it is in his nav­i­gat­ing of a world in which the sep­a­ra­tion be­tween what is or­ganic and sen­tient and of what is cre­ated and man­u­fac­tured is con­stantly be­ing un­der­mined. Deckard fell in love with the repli­cant he was meant to hunt down – Rachael, played by Sean Young – and in the new film K’s most in­ti­mate re­la­tion­ship is with Joi, played by Ana de Ar­mas, a holo­gram.

But the script by Hamp­ton Fancher un­der­mines the very thing that is star­tling and hor­ri­fy­ing in the idea of this new ver­sion of the repli­cant, the en­gi­neer­ing of a slave that has been an­nexed from free will. This very Chris­tian spec­u­la­tion was also cen­tral to the orig­i­nal film, and to Dick’s novel, but both as­serted the abil­ity of repli­cants to ex­press their will. Blade Run­ner 2049 re­fuses to take up the chal­lenge of this au­da­cious and fright­en­ing new premise, and so the film be­comes in­creas­ingly il­log­i­cal. Half­way through I felt as if I were watch­ing a repris­ing of the orig­i­nal, and once that feel­ing set in, the film was lost to me. It re­mained rav­ish­ing to look at, par­tic­u­larly in a se­quence set in a des­o­late and de­stroyed Las Ve­gas, a scene that felt as if we were placed at the very cen­tre of Shel­ley’s great poem “Ozy­man­dias”, but our

CHRIS­TOS TSI­OLKAS is the au­thor of The Slap and Bar­racuda. He is The Satur­day Pa­per’s film critic.

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