Blade Runner 2049

Philip K Dick was a truly visionary writer whose massive oeuvre of science fiction novels has proved fertile ground for film-makers. Ridley Scott’s 1982 re-telling of Dick’s novel ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep’ – filmed as Blade Runner – has gained cult status over the years for its beautifully realised post-apocalyptic Los Angeles landscape, beautiful and mesmerising leading lady Rachael (played by Sean Young), Harrison Ford in a thoughtful role as Deckard (the Blade Runner of the title) and Rutger Hauer as a rogue, marauding, killer replicant with an ultimately tragic demise. It is a measure of a film’s cult following when it commands a ‘Director’s Cut’ to restore a vision which the director feels has been changed by the studio.

Dick’s central idea (although the book is different to the film) is to explore the very notion of what it means to be human. In a world where robots are outwardly indistinguishable from humans, how do you tell a human from a robot? Dick’s belief was that it was through an ability to show empathy for the plight or sorrows of others that was ultimately the true test of humanity. And so a test was devised to allow Blade Runners (policemen employed to hunt down and destroy rogue replicants) to identify whether their target was a replicant or a human. Deckard’s salvation and tragedy was to fall in love with a replicant, Rachael, played by Sean Young. The great mystery of the original Blade Runner was whether Deckard himself was also a replicant (and if he was, did he know he was) and, before the coming of the internet, the internet was awash with rumour, conjecture, argument and dispute as students sought to resolve this thorny issue. Where once intellectuals debated how many angels could dance on the head of a pin, we now debate whether a fictional character in a fictional vision of a fictional future is real, or not. I suppose we must call that progress.

The original Blade Runner was made in 1982 and it has taken 35 years to release this follow-up. Why the wait? I can’t answer that but if they were waiting for a decent script – by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green – then it was worth the wait as Blade Runner 2049 is, in almost all respects, a triumph.

It is difficult to explain too much of the story without giving away the plot and this is one film that deserves to have its plot left unrevealed but suffice to say that it does an excellent job of updating and developing the story as it seeks to explain what became of Deckard and Rachel.

The film stars Ryan Gosling as a Blade Runner in Los Angeles in (yes) 2049. He works for the LAPD and (as with Deckard) his job is to hunt down and ‘retire’ (ie kill) rogue replicants. Replicants are mainly used as slave labour to build new colonies in space but sometimes they go wrong and mis-behave. This Los Angeles is very similar to the future vision portrayed in the original film. It is a place of darkness and garish neon lighting, of teeming masses of people, of damp, rainy streets, a world of (self-driving) flying cars.

Reassuringly, despite the changes the world has gone through, some of the big multi-national brands have survived and their giant signs illuminate the sky – Sony (of course, after all they made the film), Coca Cola (which will survive when all of civilisation has gone), Atari (oddly) and, equally oddly – Peugeot (of all the car makers to survive, who would have thought that it would be Peugeot to make Gosling’s flying car)?

Having retired the bad replicant (should one be reassured that even 30 years into the future the LAPD are still shooting to kill?), Gosling discovers a buried coffin. Reporting back to his boss – played by Robin Wright – the coffin is examined and found to contain the bones of a woman. Who is the woman, how and why she died and what is the cause and meaning of her untimely death is the reason for the film.

Blade Runner 2049 – superbly directed by Denis Villeneuve – is visually stunning and the music (by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch) matches the visuals perfectly. It is a thoughtful film which (like the original film) poses interesting questions about what it means to be human and about what is real and what is not real. Would we rather live in a world that is unreal but seems real, or a world that is real but seems unreal?

Gosling makes a workmanlike and believable character. He is by no means a great actor; his face has a limited range of expressions but it suits the role. He’s pleasant enough to look at and makes a very good replicant (yes, he is). Ana de Armas plays his love interest but whether she is a replicant, a hologram or an implanted memory I was never entirely sure. Suffice to say that, in the future, the love interest is reassuringly easy on the eye.

Harrison Ford reprises his original role as Deckard and seems to be making a habit of cropping up in sequels of films in which he was the star. He did the same in Star Wars and they killed him off – here he survives and maybe still has another sequel in his contract. He’s grizzled and grey with a face full of stubble and a voice full of attitude. He still does good fight and seems to have his own teeth. Surprisingly, he’s very good. Edward James Olmos, who appeared in the original film, briefly appears, living in a care home (they don’t change) and (plot spoiler), he’s still doing his origami.

There are two aspects of the film with which I was less comfortable. Robin Wright’s role and performance is odd. She has a washed out, colourless face with fiercely brushed back hair, wears an odd black leather coat even when inside, and ends up being killed in a rather unpleasant way. She’s famous now after House of Cards, but her choice of roles (she also appeared in Wonder Woman), are not doing her skills justice.

The film is also uncomfortably sexist and sexualised. There are hot girls in hot pants and mini-skirts and quite a lot of bare flesh is shown – although it’s exclusively female (of course). The original film suffered in the same way – made in 1982, it was set in 2019 and while it envisioned flying cars, they still believed that in 2019 actual photographs would still be taken! Philip K Dick was a writer of the 1950s and 60s and his books reflect his own and the time’s attitudes – they are uncomfortably sexist and often mysoginist; his vision of the future did not include equality for women. It is unfortunate that the film-makers chose not to update this vision.

Sean Young appears briefly although it’s hard to work out whether it’s actually her or a CGI version of her (or is it both – see the film) – after all she must be getting on a bit now (as of course is Harrison Ford) and yet she’s just the same as in the original film. Maybe she’s a replicant.

It’s a very long film but the time is well-used and I didn’t once  look at my watch or wish it was shorter.

And they left room for another film as the story is unfinished. I’ll look forward to it.


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