Well, Blade Runner 2049 is certainly something. At nearly three hours long, the film finds its own pace, happy to slowly gaze across a grim futuristic vista whilst a fantastically unconventional Hans Zimmer score roars in the background. Its capacity to generate mood is beyond question. More comfortable pontificating about the human condition than in portraying action set pieces, this isn’t your average blockbuster. It’s a bold, risky piece of art that provides a truly unique cinema experience. They really don’t make them like this anymore.
So, I ask myself, why twenty-four hours later do I feel so indifferent towards it?
I’ve got to preface this review with a guilty admission. I don’t love the original Blade Runner. Sure, I get why people do – just look at it, it’s gorgeous! – but it always left me a bit cold. In many ways this is probably a product of watching something thirty plus years after it was originally released. There’s no denying that Blade Runner had a huge influence on a lot of the science fiction that came after it, both aesthetically and intellectually, but perhaps that’s the problem. When you’ve consumed so much of the inspired media, the inspiration can feel slightly underwhelming. Everything that once felt so original and exciting had been picked clean.
Yet I was fairly optimistic that Blade Runner 2049 would deliver something fresh and new…and it kind of does, in a skin deep way. This isn’t a hokey sequel shat out for a few bucks, it’s very much the work of a visionary, keen to evoke your memories of the original movie while also offering up a new experience with fresh characters.
But let’s get to the crux of my disenchantment. Blade Runner 2049 thinks it’s ever so clever, positively dripping in pretension, to the point that Jarod Leto’s pseudo-intellectual ramblings about angels entering Eden never feel out of place (gee, do you think he, a creator, has some kind of…God complex? Deep, right!)
Okay, I’m admittedly being facetious and slightly overstating the point. Blade Runner 2049 certainly does have a lot more on its mind than your average blockbuster, but it seems, to me anyway, lacking in its ability to say anything all that interesting. The key questions, ‘What does it mean to be human?’ and ‘To what extent do our memories define us?’ are great age old thought provokers, but I never felt the movie had much in the way of an answer or even a unique perspective.
For all intents and purposes, replicants are so human that any differences between the two species is negligible. Whether a character is replicant or not virtually doesn’t matter – I guess that’s kind of the whole point. The only real difference is how they came into being; one is born, the other created (the film’s whole plot hinges on this). These concepts might have been challenging to a religious generation who believed in a soul, but in an increasingly secular world ‘the soul’ has come to mean something entirely metaphorical to most people. Post-Darwin, mankind has had to re-evaluate itself. We’re no-longer the divine worker’s greatest creation, but another animal, just a biological machine. Fretting about our ‘uniqueness’ feels rather antiquated.
Similarly, the concept of memory is explored but again to not much effect. As a child I used to wonder how I could be sure I wasn’t created that day, with all my memories just implanted. Once you’ve experienced that existential worry, I don’t think there’s much more Blade Runner 2049 has left to say.
It’s not that these questions have lost their probing power, it’s more the film just tosses around all these big thoughts without either answer or thematic culmination. This wouldn’t be a problem if there was more left to offer than its beautiful visuals but there isn’t, at least not beyond further narrative questions that are only as interesting as the world that is portrayed. Because all the characters are so fundamentally unengaging and thinly written, the big questions blow around in the breeze and we, the audience, simply observe, detached from any real meaning, wondering what it’s all about.
There are two films I’ve seen this year that have done a much better job of asking big questions by anchoring them in character and theme. The first is Mother!, a fantastic horror by Aronofsky, and one of my favourite films of the year. The biblical symbolism of Mother! may be pretentious, but it’s so on the nose that it almost eventually ceases to be symbolism, dissolving to give way to Aronofsky’s true focus; the relationship between God, man and nature (there are other readings, of course, but there is surely no doubt this is the primary intent.)
On paper, exploring how God and man act indifferently towards nature is the exact kind of empty posturing I accuse Blade Runner 2049 of, an interesting question that has been thoroughly exhausted. And yet where Mother! succeeds is it’s not dispassionate at all. Far from it. As the horror grows, Aronofsky posits that humanity (you and me!) are the evil and any redemption we may have isn’t just difficult but unjustified. This isn’t some glib ‘humans are the real monsters’ though, Aronofsky means it. Far from sitting back and posturing on some abstract ideas, this is full blown rage, and it’s magnificent and unsettling all at once.
The second film that handles the relationship of creator and creation really well is Alien Covenant, from none other than the original Blade Runner director, Ridley Scott. Yes, I know, we’re all meant to say it sucked because it fucked up the Xenomorph’s origin story (I agree with that point, by the way) but Alien Covenant really isn’t about the Alien at all, at least not directly. The film constantly gravitates to and eventually orbits the character of David, an android who finds himself utterly disappointed with his creator. From his anger comes his own act of creations, arising themselves from destruction. He sees humanity as a failed species and indifferently orchestrates their removal as if they were nothing more than bacteria.
Covenant doesn’t really answer the questions it poses any more than Blade Runner 2049, but it locates them in character. Even if most of the other characters are two-dimensional at best, David really stands out as a fascinating fictional creation. The questions aren’t merely posed as hypotheticals but contextualised in David’s motivations, and you can feel the existential questioning of Scott, the film’s creator, pulling the strings. Covenant works because it is an artist grappling with their own thoughts about creation.
As Film Crit Hulk puts it (the best film critic out there, for my money):
‘I first harped on Prometheus because it seemed equally obsessed with answering an unanswerable question, failing to realize the simplest truth that knows that God, whether you believe or not, is unknowable. And in Alien: Covenant we finally get the believer’s reaction to that answer. It’s an angry screed of vengeance.’
The difference between Bladerunner 2049 on the one hand, and Mother! and Alien Covenant on the other, is the difference between an armchair philosopher asking abstract metaphysical questions, and an artist truly wrestling with their existence. Perhaps it’s just me, but I don’t want a filmmaker to ask me to engage with their dry questions, but instead I want to be right in the middle of the director’s existential nightmare. That, to me, makes better art.
After all, most of the best dystopian stories are those that capture the real fears of the author. By the time you’re in Room 101, I think it’s clear that Nineteen Eighty-Four isn’t just a hypothetical musing on human society, but a reflection of some of Orwell’s greatest fears about the future. Much the same, The Handmaid’s Tale seems born out of genuine concerns with the inherent patriarchy and self-destructive purity systems within American Christianity and the very real threat they pose to a civilised society.
Perhaps it’s just me, but I didn’t for one moment believe that Denis Villeneuve, 2049’s director, is truly struggling with the questions he’s raising. Maybe that’s why there’s so little thematic coherence. When push comes to shove, there’s not much in the way of closure, emotionally or intellectually.
Yet Villeneuve has shown how capable he is of making a good, thoughtful sci-fi movie in the practically perfect Arrival. Perhaps thanks to fantastic (and unspoilt) source material, he not only is able to highlight an interesting question (to what extent does our language determine the way we think?), but brings it forward into the plot (spoilers!) enabling Amy Adams to see into the future using an alien language. This then has thematic and emotional pay-off by letting her character freely choose to pursue a family, fully knowing it will end in grief and heartache. That says more about what it means to be human than anything Blade Runner 2049 musters in its near three hour running time.
This is not to say I don’t admire the film, because I really do. The cinematography is staggeringly beautiful, the lingering sense of despair tangible. The fact it’s performing pretty poorly at the box office is a terrible shame, because cinema needs more risk-taking pieces of art that don’t follow the Hollywood cookie cutter approach to blockbusters.
But when it comes to the questions raised, I find the film unsatisfying. And yes, it’s probably personal preference. I’m sure many enjoy dreamy sci-fi, awash with big detached questions, the way one may observe a magnificent painting. But when wrestling with the big issues, Villeneuve is merely asking questions and, frankly, we can ask the questions ourselves. I want a filmmaker’s unique perspective, I want to feel their despair and get lost in their own existential turmoil. That, to me, is what gives a piece of art a soul. That’s when a movie is more than a movie.