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A little cheese and a little whine

Why I Didn’t Like Blade Runner 2049

Let me say at the start that there is a lot to like about this film. It’s visually wonderful, and the soundtrack is perfectly suited to the mood throughout. There is some depth to the character of the lead, and the generally understated script is carried off well by the cast. If you haven’t seen it, then despite what I say in the following, I’d encourage you to do so.

So what’s the problem?

Warning: What follows contains spoilers in spades, and won’t make much sense if you haven’t seen the film.

Let’s begin about two-thirds of the way through the film where we have what was for me a pivotally problematic scene, in which K has sex with a prostitute who is made to resemble Joi, his digital assistant. Having an intimate relationship with a non-human counterpart (as K has with Joi) is more-or-less messed up whichever way you look at it, laying on a spectrum between bestiality and droit de signeur, but the film does nothing to explore this either morally or psychologically. This is forgivable, though; it’s plausible that in some future the practice would be normalised. But a scene in which a man has sex with one woman while literally projecting his preferred partner onto her – with her complicit in the projection – invites a whole stream of commentary on the nature of intimate relationships which should be irresistible.

To its credit, the film makes it clear that it is Joi, and not K, who has hired the prostitute and has control over the situation, but this only raised in my mind quite why she has so much autonomy in the way she spends K’s money.

The scene, however, serves two purposes in the narrative. First, it consolidates the position of Joi in K’s emotions, setting up her later destruction at the nadir in the casino. Second, it allows the prostitute to plant a tracker on K allowing the replicant army to follow him to Las Vegas later in the film.

The problem with the replicant army is that they are basically redundant. They do three things: first, they patch K up after the nadir; second, they tell K he is not the replicant child; third, they ask K to kill Deckard. K doesn’t kill Deckard, would have found out from Deckard that he wasn’t the child, and could presumably have patched himself up, being a replicant and all.

Worse, the motivations of the replicant army make no sense. If Wallace Corporation find the replicant child, the result will be replicants having children, which will bring about (ostensibly) the revolution the replicants want. In fact, it will do so much more convincingly than the replicants holding up one example and saying “honest, guv, she was born not made.” This redundancy is emphasised by the somewhat “tacked-on” feel to their involvement – they are hinted at a couple of times before the nadir, make one appearance after it, and are never heard from again.

By the time the identity of the replicant child is revealed (a clever twist which I didn’t see coming despite it being clearly signposted), Deckard is in the hands of Wallace, and things become more problematic still. It appears that Rachel and Deckard were matched by the Tyrell Corporation in the original film precisely with the intention that they should have a child. With certain assumptions about the relationship between Tyrell and Wallace, this explains why Rachel’s file is tagged for special attention when K makes his visit at the start of the investigation, but leaves us puzzled as to why these organisations lost track of the technology which Wallace is now hoping to recover, and, come to think of it, how finding the child – rather than the parents – will help him.

A more satisfactory setup (IMHO) would be Wallace to take the view that replicants having children threatens his bottom line, and therefore seeking to kill the child. This would have given two clear forces in the narrative – K, Deckard and the replicant army fighting to keep the child hidden and alive, and Joshi and Wallace fighting to find and kill her.

Let’s return to the nadir, though, and the problematic status of Joi. The aim with the nadir in a narrative like this is to make us watch the hero stripped of everything – he is left battered and bruised by our enemies with no hope of accomplishing the goal we are invested in. This allows us to watch him make one final resolve, risk one final sacrifice, to bring about the conclusion we are hoping for.

When Luv destroys Joi, then, we are witnessing another thing being taken from K as part of this process. However, we don’t really have a sense that the assistant is actually a person for whom we have independent regard and concern, perhaps because she is acorporeal but also perhaps because in the set-up for her demise she speaks of herself as a piece of software. This means that this scene feels more like the Doctor losing his Sonic Screwdriver than a man witnessing the death of his partner. There is, though, a much deeper problem in that while by this stage in the film, it’s rather unclear what it is K wants – what conclusion we are supposed to be hoping for –it is clear that Joi isn’t relevant to bringing it about. While we might feel a little sorry for K – assuming we’re not ambivalent about his dysfunctional relationship with Joi in the first place – nothing happens here which really develops the plot.

It’s part of the narrative form that at the nadir the hero is left for dead rather than actually killed, but there are more convincing ways to accomplish this than having the villain simply not bothering to kill him. Luv is revealed in this scene as the cardboard cut-out sadistic sidekick – she destroys Joi just to torment K, but inexplicably, leaves K alive.

On this note, it’s worth pointing out that, similarly, Wallace is a cardboard cut-out supervillain, only a slip of the pen away from sucking his pinky and asking why he should make billions when he could make millions. Certainly he offers us neither the disinterested poise of Tyrell nor the artless menace of Roy.

Luv’s sadism, of course, is there to give us a sense of satisfaction when K finally kills her. I liked the idea, in this scene, of setting the final conflict against the sea wall (an echo of the rain in the final scenes of the original), but I found the whole thing a bit confusing. It seemed to me that the water level in the craft was at times higher than the water level outside, despite being on level ground. I might just have been tired. However, I was more distracted by a deeper problem with this scene, which is that the detail of the action depends crucially on the limits of the special powers of the replicants, which are never properly established. The tension in the scene depends on Deckard’s inability to break free of his bonds, so we need to know just how replicant-proof these are. In the end, Deckard seems unable to free his hands but K is able to break the restraints with only a little effort. At one point, Luv succeeds in stabbing K which would be a decisive blow in a fight between a replicant and a human, but in this case we have no way of knowing if it is a mortal wound or an uncomfortable scratch.

Most of all, though, by this time I’d more or less lost track of why I was supposed to be rooting for K. K’s character is very likeable, and has the same workaday, pragmatic non-hero feel that Deckard offers us in the original, and Gosling carries it off superbly. The lack of overt heroism makes it difficult, perhaps, for us to root for him in a simple, cheerleadery sort of way; our engagement with him, and his goals, is necessarily richer but for that reason more ambivalent.

At the start of the film we see a policeman trying to do a good job which is not the stuff of epic tales but gives us plenty to admire and engage with. As the film progresses, this turns into a man trying to establish his identity. I had genuine difficulty caring about this. Questions of personal identity are not the things of which gripping drama is made. Ostensibly, the film addresses this by making K’s survival contingent to the answer to this question, and for a while (between his discovery of the date carved into the tree and his failing the baseline test) this works well, although the threat is never very clearly articulated and certainly never very present. Once he fails the baseline test, though, it doesn’t matter whether he is the replicant child or not, from this point of view; it’s just something he wants to know. However, he doesn’t seem to want to know it very much. Joi makes the case that the possibility of him being the child makes him special, but he resists this (in a way which is beautifully consistent with his character); and when he meets Deckard, his questions are cautious and circumspect, rather than direct and urgent.

By the nadir, then, we have in K a very likeable character (despite the whole abusive cybersex thing) with whom we’ve built up a relationship but whose goals aren’t especially exciting for us. Even if we are captivated by his rather muted ambition to discover whether or not he is the replicant child, immediately after the nadir, both we and he have the answer to this question. Mission accomplished: he isn’t the child, he’s just part of the cover.

At this point, K is somewhat perfunctorily and ambiguously enlisted into the replicant rebellion. This has had little or no setup, and (as noted above) nothing the replicants are doing makes strategic sense. It isn’t clear to what extent K really signs on here; certainly, he doesn’t follow through on the replicants’ request to kill Deckard. Instead, he does what the narrative requires, which is to rescue Deckard, despite having no particular reason to do so. Worse, though, we have no particular reason to want to see him do this. We’ve only spent ten minutes with Deckard on screen; he isn’t particularly likeable; he isn’t trying to accomplish anything we particularly care about other than protecting a child who he has never met. If, at this point, K had decided to leave Deckard and the replicants to their own devices and concentrate on not being killed by his colleagues at the LAPD, we couldn’t really blame him.

Instead he sets about rescuing Deckard and reuniting him with his child. We’ve been in the cinema for three hours, and instead of seeing our hero getting what he wants – and indeed what we want – we get to see someone we’ve spent ten minutes watching get to meet an estranged family member he presumably never had any expectation of meeting, and who we care even less about than we care about him. He has made no sacrifice for this, suffered no hardship, and generally done nothing to make us think he deserves it. Perhaps here we are supposed to feel some sympathy for Deckard from the original, the iconic figure of Harrison Ford providing the continuity. Meanwhile, the man we have come to know and like and sympathise with is lying outside in the snow, maybe dying or not (because we don’t know quite how resilient replicants are), maybe in danger or not (where did the car come from? Can it be traced? Are the LAPD looking for him yet?), but presumably only just able to restrain himself from turning to the director and saying, “again, what’s my motivation?”

What is truly, madly irritating about this conclusion is that it takes a basically sound sci-fi premise, builds an interesting, slightly dystopian vision of the future around it, and then bottles out and becomes a film about how great it is having kids. I don’t have kids; I don’t empathise with this premise; I wanted something more for my three hours.

Now, all these criticisms can be dismissed by saying that Blade Runner simply didn’t set out to be the sort of film I am asking it to be. This is not supposed to be an edge-of-the-seat-Bruce-Willis-with-a-big-gun action flick. This is a science fiction dystopia with philosophical pretensions, a work of art combining elegant, beautiful images with an innovative, captivating soundtrack. And I have to admit that on the last two points, the film succeeds.

Were it not for the philosophically empty, family values conclusion, this response might have some weight, but in the end, it doesn’t bear analysis. The film starts very well from a philosophical point of view, establishing in the opening scenes that it will not retread the ground of the original. K is a replicant, and knows he’s a replicant, and that’s that. In an early scene between K and Joshi, the film sets out some interesting problems. How are we to maintain a distinction, morally, between replicants and humans? How do we justify summary execution of the former while protecting the rights of the latter? Is the matter of genesis – “born not made” – part of the answer? If so, is K right to accept the mission he accepts? And what sort of choice does he have? We are told in the very opening moments of the film that obedience is built into replicants of K’s design, but how is this enforced? When he says he doesn’t know that disobedience is an option, is he speaking literally, or alluding to some possible (and presumably terminal) punitive consequence? How are we to feel about Joshi, and the society portrayed, in either case? If K concludes that “born not made” is critical in the assignment of rights, does he have sufficient autonomy for this to constitute a moral dilemma, or does his nature mean he is bound (physically) to obey and is, as an agent, simply along for the ride?

Having alluded to all these exciting and interesting questions, the film does absolutely nothing to explore any of them. Instead, it follows all the tropes of a Bruce-Willis-with-a-big-gun action flick – the hero has a quest, the quest puts him in danger, he gets beaten up and stripped of the things he loves, makes a resolve to strike back at the villain and ultimately triumphs. Having failed to explore its philosophical potential in favour of these things, though, the film does them in a rather second-rate way.

There are lots of obvious ways a sequel to Blade Runner might have been a failure. A thoroughgoing attempt to make this into an action flick would have been disappointing and tasteless, and a simple repetition of the material of the first film pointless. This film does not fail in any of those ways – it displays imagination and a great deal of art. It is, in many ways, a beautiful film. While it succeeds, I think, in its aesthetic and historical ambitions, for me it failed in its emotional and intellectual ones. I spent three hours in the cinema; I wanted to see something more satisfying than Harrison Ford meeting his daughter.

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Filed under: Film + TV

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My Bookshelf

The Golden Bough
The Value of Nothing
The Fire
A Wolf at the Table
Devil Bones

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