Let's talk about the Blade Runners

In an attempt to stay (as the twitter kids say) "fresh with the discourse", I rewatched the original Blade Runner for the first time in about six years, then went to see Blade Runner 2049. This was a minor victory for me, since unlike my last two cinema attempts, I managed to get through the whole thing without either suffering migraines or feeling as though the room was being tossed around in a giant bingo machine.

But what did I think of 2049? And how does the original hold up, anyway?

Note: Blade Runner 2049 is being presented as a super-secretive mystery box full of amazing twists that you don't want to be spoiled (it's actually not, but that's the way it's being marketed) so this post will be spoiler free.

I was never a huge fan of the 1987 original. I like it a lot, minus some unfortunate elements (Harrison Ford's flat performance, the...let's say "questionable" romance between Deckard and Rachel), but I didn't fall in love with it like some people did.

Watching it now, two things stood out to me: how fucking weird it is, and the way its aesthetic doesn't actually resemble the cyberpunk stylings it helped inspire as much as most people think. The things about Blade Runner everyone remembers--and the things that imitators would go on to emulate--are the rain-drenched mega-city and the holographic neon billboards, not the garish, clown-like multi-coloured clothes everyone wears or the glowing umbrellas.

And then there are elements of the movie that are just strange in a way that would never get greenlit today, like the Tyrell employee's unsettling genetically engineered toys, or Rutger Hauer running shirtless through an abandoned hotel while howling. I would argue that these surreal elements are at least as prominent in the movie as the cyberpunk trappings, but they're the part that history has redacted, probably because today they come off as kind of stupid.

Another thing that hasn't aged well is the movie's cyber-orientalism, where a future in which Los Angeles is seemingly 70-80% Asian and the fact that you might find yourself unable to communicate with people on the street if you only speak English is presented as really strange and exotic. This probably wouldn't come across as uncomfortable as it does if there were any actual named Asian characters, but of course there aren't.

On the other hand, one thing I was pleasantly surprised by is the movie's willingness to throw out big world-building concepts in dialogue that never actually factor into the plot, which instead focuses on a much smaller story. This is something that sci-fi movies of the era did quite often--Alien and the first Terminator movie come to mind as examples--and it's a knack that modern films seem to have forgotten. In a sci-fi blockbuster made today, if space colonies are mentioned, the story will somehow conspire to get the protagonists onto a space colony, probably because the space colony FX shots were made before the script was finished and they're too expensive to discard.

Jumping over to 2049, we get a modern continuation of the first movie's cyberpunk vision, stripped of its 80s weirdness. The first movie famously opens with a flyover of a bleak industrial wasteland dotted with plumes of erupting fire; its sequel opens with a flyover of a grey, ashen landscape threaded with neon-tinged veins of life, like lichen surviving in the cracks of an arctic cliffside. Even the polluting industrial fires have gone out, leaving the Earth to slowly sink into embers and dust. This is a world too tired and beaten-down for the colourful eccentricity of the original.

If you've been following the buzz around this movie, you probably know that it's both very long and a lot slower-paced than the action-packed trailers would suggest. Both of these things are true--it actually reminded me a fair bit of No Country For Old Men, even down to having an ending that kind of makes you re-evaluate what the movie's main focus was. This is a movie concerned far more with visuals and atmosphere and presenting a series of minimalist images in stark, near-mythic framing than it is with story. I suspect that part of Denis Villenueve wanted to dispense with most of the dialogue and make a completely inscrutable arthouse tone piece, except the executives at Columbia (who I'm kind of astonished approved the film's runtime as it is) wouldn't let him.

Mind you, maybe they should have. 2049's story has a lot of cool twisty turny bits and some engaging backstory off in the periphery (although, again, there is nothing in the movie that justifies the heightened secrecy surrounding it) and the way it continues the first movie's plot is smart, but it also runs into some choppiness in the second half, in that it feels simultaneously slight and over-complicated.

The biggest problem is how the story handles a certain plot element and the way its true nature is revealed to both the characters and the viewer; as a novice writer who cut their teeth on NaNoWriMo projects, I can spot a clumsy last-minute plot patch when I see one, and Blade Runner 2049 has one of the most egregious examples I've ever seen outside of bad summer blockbusters. I can't get into specifics without spoiling the entire movie, but it's very obvious that the writers got themselves into a major jam somewhere in the screen-writing process, and cut their way out with a singular lack of finesse.

Also, there's a central romance that I did not have one iota of emotional investment in even though a big part of the movie kind of rests on the assumption that you will, although in this regard 2049 is just walking in its predecessor's footsteps.

I realize all of that sounds quite negative, but I'm focusing on the story flaws mostly because 2049's real appeal is in its visuals and aesthetics, elements which can't really be endorsed that well in text. At the same time, that recommendation alone should give you an idea of whether this is a movie for you--ie, whether you're willing or able to look past one or two really heavy story flaws in favour of beautiful images and an atmosphere you can practically drown in. I should make it clear at this point that I actually liked 2049 quite a bit more than the original, flaws and all.

(And for what it's worth, in between seeing the movie and writing this review, I reconsidered a single line of dialogue that might actually fix the story issue I discussed--it's one of those movies)

The biggest comparison I can make Blade Runner and its sequel is that the first ends with a surprisingly emotional verbal soliloquy, whereas Blade Runner 2049 achieves an equal emotional resonance with no words at all, but instead a single, impactful image. The take away is of two different creative approaches achieving a roughly equal level of success in parallel--which is probably the most we can hope for when it comes to a distant sequel of a famous movie.