I admit to a certain level of despair when reboot culture caught up with Blade Runner and this sequel was announced. I’d long held the original close as a piece of cinematic perfection; science fiction at its absolute zenith; a flawed gem, endlessly fascinating and, in its various iterations, strangely mercurial. But in the intervening years, my reification of Blade Runner has softened as other precious gems of my youth were taken to the rebooters and emerged unscathed and, at times, evolved. The Force Awakens was a triumph, the Ghostbusters all-female remake a complete (and necessary) joy. Even Jurassic World, which I didn’t particularly enjoy, certainly didn’t ‘ruin’ Jurassic Park. If anything, it made it shine brighter.
So, I’ve revised my position on reboot culture. One of the many great things about Blade Runner is its singular vision of a dystopian sprawl – a world which is huge, full of potential, but barely explored. Of course there are further stories to tell. In fact, it is perhaps heretical of us to want to deny further expeditions. All these moments will be lost, and all that.
My only hope for Blade Runner 2049 was that it too would get beyond a reification of the original and focus on moving the story and the world forward – that it would, like its replicants, be on the quest for its own life. It nearly gets there, but doesn’t quite. There are, for me, one too many heavy-handed nods to its predecessor. Take the appearance of Edward James Olmos, who played Gaff in the original, Rick Deckard’s (Harrison Ford) detective partner who followed him around making origami animals. Gaff reflects on that archaic question of Deckard’s identity, and places an origami sheep on the table, referencing not only the original film but also the book on which it was based, Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? This is despite the lack of any sheep in Blade Runner which deviates quite substantially from the source novel. It was all Olmos could do without looking down the camera and giving us a wink. And does every character have to drink iconic whiskey from iconic cuboid tumblers?
But where Blade Runner 2049 lacked confidence to avoid nostalgic signalling, it fared better with its own narrative. Set thirty years after the events of the first film, the Tyrell Corporation has collapsed and a new agricultural tycoon has risen to take the seat in the pyramids. Niander Wallace (Jared Leto summoning his inner Bond villain) makes improvements to replicant production, accelerates it and cuts out the limited life-span creating a ready-made slave workforce. The old Tyrell-made iterations are outlawed and the blade runners of the LAPD continue to scour the blasted lands in pursuit.
K (Ryan Gosling), is one such blade runner and, in a neat narrative move, is himself a replicant. He is disparaged by colleagues, humiliated by neighbours and lives a relatively lonely existence. His only companion is Joi (a doe-eyed Ana de Armas), a holographic live-in vision of sexiness or wifeliness, depending, presumably, on mood or occasion. Together K and Joi yearn for emotional understanding and connection, feeling their way through a set of desires and longings of which neither should be capable. These are the stories science-fiction was made for.
Out on the job, K discovers the bones of a dead replicant who, after further investigation, seems to have given birth a miraculous android child. K’s new task is to seek out and destroy the offspring, a quest slightly scuppered by his (it has to be said, wildly coincidental) concerns that the child may in fact be him. Thus triggers a meditative path of investigation which tussles between K endeavouring his own identity and the nostalgia of the film reaching out for Deckard and thirty-year-old resolutions.
It is a gorgeous process to watch, of course. Denis Villeneuve’s visuals are astounding; not just in the sweeping cityscapes of absurdly large advertising and choking sprawl, but also in the details of Wallace’s sparse temple and the stark, lifeless farmlands. Each and every frame is beautifully constructed and future California continues to feel as enormous and claustrophobic as it did before. The spectacle of the film has gained it its highest praises, and they are more than well deserved. It’s just a shame the story couldn’t have been as equally controlled.
Ultimately, Blade Runner 2049 feels bloated. There are too many plot lines contending for attention and, by the end a lot of detritus lies uncleared. A scene suggesting an uprising for the replicants feels shoe-horned in and never resurfaces. Leto’s Wallace gets to proselytize about his maniacal visions, but remains a stilted villain with no resolution, and he is neither as casually chilling as Eldon Tyrell nor demonically grandiose as Roy Batty. And while the film tries very hard to make something of K and Joi’s relationship, it stutters and falters and falls flat, leaving the larger reflection on the future of femininity in a masculine dystopia somewhat flailing and confused. In the end, Joi is just a bitter-tasting male fantasy: a subservient woman who can be turned off at will with very little of her own agency. See Spike Jonze’s Her for explorations more fulfilling.
At the conclusion, the ‘Tears in Rain’ Vangelis melody is given a triumphant airing, but it doesn’t feel particularly earned. The genius of the original Blade Runner was the telling of a microcosm story swelled by vision and sound to a biblical grandeur which burrowed deep into the soul of humanity and its ugly progression. In Blade Runner 2049, the story and its implications are epic, but it can’t sustain the weight of itself and relies too heavily on the mastery of its predecessor to seek out its point. Somewhere in the rain-soaked depths of this film is a decent story which takes on the burden of a genre-defining world and goes to some genuinely interesting places. But the lip-service to its master hampers it from ever carving out its own true vision.