Sound Off! Blade Runner 2049

Welcome back to Sound Off!, a semi-regular column where members of Speculative Chic gather together to chat about the latest BIG THING in entertainment. This time, revisit a favorite dystopian cityscape and discuss Blade Runner 2049, which premiered in the United States on Friday, October 6, 2017.

Sound Off! is meant to be a reaction, but not necessarily a review. After all, while we are all individuals, even mutual love of something (or hate) can come from different places: you may find everything from critique to fangirling to maybe even hate-watching.

Now, join J.L. Gribble, Shara White, Carey M. Ballard, K. Ceres Wright, and Howard Kleinman as they talk about Blade Runner 2049[Note: This film is difficult to unpack without taking it as a whole; some contributions below contain references that are spoilers to the story, thought not necessarily the plot.]

J.L.: Too often, sequels are made as a money grab by the studio. They slap a movie together that’s all surface and spectacle, banking on the name recognition of the original, maybe with a famous actor attached to the project to attract attention. Blade Runner 2049 was all of these things, with the added bonus of being a quality, well-done movie that I enjoyed in its own right.

The best part about the movie is how it expanded upon everything that was lacking in the first film. K does active detective work in the service of a detailed story. We see more of this dystopian future beyond Los Angeles to include San Diego and Las Vegas. More hints are given as to why the ridiculous weather is the way it is, and why replicants are actually needed when it seems like there’s already a massive over-population problem on Earth. I especially appreciate that we see how tech has improved over the past 30 years while still being recognizably true to the roots we see in the original Blade Runner.

I’m very glad that my husband and I sat down to view the original Blade Runner the night before seeing the new one, especially since I hadn’t watched it since a required viewing for a film genre class in college over 15 years ago. This allowed me to really appreciate the finer details that acted in homage to the first film, such as the music and many background details of the cityscape.

On the other hand, the questionable consent issues between Deckard and Rachel in the first film are also “updated” in the form of the strange relationship between K and his AI companion. How much autonomy do things created in service to other beings really have, whether replicant or hologram?

Thanks to the exceedingly long running time, this film included a multitude of secondary characters who might not have had full character arcs of their own, but they came across as fully fleshed-out personas in their own right. Because of that, I felt that this movie even passed the Bechdel Test! The cameo by Edward James Olmos, returning as his previous character, was also a treat.

I’m not sure that this film necessarily answered any of the questions posed by the first film. Though it contains a fairly satisfying conclusion, room was definitely left for yet another sequel. Hopefully that potential film is treated fairly by the production company as well.

Shara: I’m no die-hard fan of Blade Runner. In fact, I’ve never even seen the theatrical cut, though I can’t tell you if the first version I saw was the Director’s Cut or the Final Cut of the film, because the BluRay I own has five different cuts on it. But I have seen the film twice, and earlier this year I watched the Final Cut in preparation of Blade Runner 2049’s release. And, because I couldn’t resist, I sat down and watched the three short films that connected the two movies. They were well done and provided an extra bit of reinforcement to the backstory of what the world has become in Blade Runner 2049, and I’m grateful for the extra bit of knowledge they gave me.

I knew going in that Blade Runner 2049 was a beast in terms of length, which was probably a good thing. It’s also a good thing that my absolute favorite part of the movie was the worldbuilding itself, because if the movie excelled anywhere, it was there. Every detail was lovingly rendered, and even if a scene didn’t move the plot forward, it relished in the worldbuilding’s glorious detail. I loved this. I loved seeing where the technology moved forward and where it stayed the same. I loved seeing the nods to science fiction films from our recent past, even if it jarred me momentarily (Her, anyone?). I loved how in this movie, the director took some of the theories of the original and twisted them. Thought Deckard was a replicant? Nope, he wasn’t, but look who actually is (or is he? Maybe? Maybe not? Oh, we know by the end of it, and that’s what counts). I loved how despite that, the film couldn’t resist the little jabs at the theory with Edward James Olmos’ cameo and the careful choice of words in the script. I also loved how if you removed K, Deckard, and Wallace, all the power players in the movie were women, and isn’t that fascinating? Which means the movie ends on a rather interesting note, because where the movie relishes in its world, the plot is rather thin and simple, isn’t it? Nor does it really resolve. Yes, the immediate threat is eliminated (or is she?), but we still have our big bad out there, and the big bad is still the most powerful man in the universe. Then you have to consider the replicants themselves: Tyrell’s versus Wallace’s. It appears free will is more readily available to Wallace’s than the movie wanted us to believe, and if we’re indeed going to get a sequel (I hope we do), then I hope that gets explored in more detail.

Because plot-wise, there are so many questions. But I was fascinated for the entire length of the movie. Yes, the movie had its flaws, as well as a few problematic questions, but I was fascinated for the length of it. It felt like smart, albeit rather pretentious, science fiction, for all that it was paying homage to the past 35 years’ worth of science fiction, including its predecessor. Blade Runner 2049 was a feast for the eyes in a beautiful and gritty way, and I’ll forgive it a lot for that alone. I’ll forgive it more for not killing the dog.

Carey: I grew up with Blade Runner, and my family owns three DVD versions of it — director’s cut, final cut, theatrical cut. Never in my life did I think Blade Runner would spawn a sequel, never did I think Ryan Gosling would be in it, and never did I think I would like Ryan Gosling in it. I know reactions to the sequel are very mixed, and though I could draft an entire academic thesis around the theme of “women in boxes” perpetuated throughout the movie, overall I thought this was a masterpiece. Only Denis Villeneuve (Arrival) and cinematographer Roger Deakins (Sicario; No Country for Old Men) could have pulled this off.

Thematically and atmospherically, 2049 is akin to its predecessor’s (Villeneuve has said he took inspiration from the theatrical cut and the final cut); it’s a slow-burn mystery set in an overcrowded, dark, bleak future Los Angeles. But even though it’s dark and bleak in its cinematography, I’d argue it’s not as “noir” as its source material (yes, I know Hampton Fancher had a hand in writing both films). But I also don’t care. Some argue that 2049 is soulless compared to Blade Runner; I thought it was all about the search for soul. What I saw was Villeneuve expanding on the original world and story by giving us a new but parallel story to the 1982 film (whichever cut you like the best). That said, halfway through I realized the identity of K’s mystery person, but I wanted to see what happened when K realized that identity himself. How K comes to terms with that ultimate revelation echoes, I think, the average film-goer’s reaction to the revelations of the different Blade Runner versions. So 2049 manages to be a wee bit meta. 2049 also manages to answer questions from the first film while remaining ambiguous with other answers (I am squarely in the “Deckard is a replicant!” camp even if Harrison Ford is not).

Seeing 2049 reminds me that the 2010s are a good time to be a science fiction fan — the technology to make these films and/or contribute to their settings is catching up with what’s portrayed on screen. (But nobody try to remake Metropolis, okay?) Knowing that 2049 is set 30 years after the original means fictional advances in that technology as well. Other people have remarked on our proximity to the events, both environmental and robotic, portrayed in both films; that 2049 isn’t as futuristic as Blade Runner. And likely that’s true. I was also impressed to see that the film avoided the “uncanny valley” issue so noticeable in the recent entries in the Star Wars franchise.

Combined with the jarringly eerie soundtrack, watching the film makes for an otherworldly experience. If Denis Villeneuve and Ridley Scott team up for another entry, not gonna lie, I’ll be right there. (Not sure I can say the same for more Alien prequels, though.)

CeresBlade Runner 2049 is atmospheric, visually stunning, and expands on the concepts introduced in the original movie. It is also sexist. There is much material to analyze, ponder, and argue over. This movie will require repeated viewing in order to solidify an opinion. I would encourage you to see it on as large a screen as possible. I saw it at the Uptown in DC, where the screen is 70 feet wide and 40 feet high.

In the original Blade Runner, the movie opens onto a night scene, with fire leaping into the sky, from the point of view of a hovercar. 2049 also opens with a view from a hovercar, but it’s daytime and it’s flying over what looks like a futuristic solar farm. This scene offers a more hopeful view for the future. A mellower and more expansive view of cyberpunk. Postmodern. Still, cyberpunk (high tech, low life) is supposed to be dystopian, of which the movie has many elements, a good number of which touch on the abysmal treatment of women and children.

The cinematography rules over the movie, along with high concepts, foreshadowing, and metaphor. Most of the scenes could be crafted into separate works of art, apart from the movie, which masterfully uses color and movement to provide an aesthetic backdrop. The most likeable characters in this movie are replicants, which presents a bleak future for humans and a hopeful one for replicants, especially since they can reproduce (yes, I’m an advocate of Deckard being a replicant). I also found this movie incredibly sexist, where most of the women — or women-like figures — were either subservient to men or had their agency constrained in some way. The one Black woman (unnamed) in the movie was a prostitute, and the one disabled person (Leto) was a sociopathic megalomaniac. I am unsure if the director intentionally reflected dystopia through the absence of women’s agency, or a sparse depiction of people of color, but that’s one possible filter through which to view the movie. This movie goes above and beyond a detective noir film, exploring the idea of replicants replacing humans (More Human Than Human) and the world being better off for it. The movie leaves a lot for the audience to interpret, drawing upon concepts introduced in the original Blade Runner, dialogue that foreshadows events, and K’s sympathetic characteristics. I consider this movie as a different one from the original, with 2049 taking a larger, more expansive view of the interplay between replicant and human and the implications for the future of the dominant form of life on this planet.

HowardBlade Runner is on the short list of my all time favorite movies, and I am a self-proclaimed film snob with a BA in Cinema Studies, so to say I have strong feelings about the film would be an understatement. I first saw the original theatrical cut when I was a kid and have seen the three major cuts (theatrical, Director’s, Final) multiple times each. I’ve also read Philip K. Dick’s original novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep twice. So, once again, strong feelings.

That is to say that Blade Runner 2049 put me in an odd position of both really liking the film and thinking it’s a poor sequel to a great film. I guess I’d compare it to Godfather III if you were to go with Coppola’s original plan and have the capable Winona Ryder playing Michael’s daughter instead of Sophia Coppola whose true talents were behind the camera rather than in front of it. If this film had anything other than “Blade Runner” in its title I probably would’ve enjoyed it a lot but would’ve considered it “Gourmet Popcorn.” That is to say, excellently made entertainment that succeeds despite being derivative. And, oh boy, is Blade Runner 2049 derivative.

It would probably take me a month to pull out all the obvious lifts from other science fiction works of the past 30 years other than the original Blade Runner, which ironically only serves to further extend the original film’s long shadow while showing how few ideas of its own 2049 has. But let’s just say fans of the reimagined Battlestar Galactica, Her, Fallout 4 and New Vegas, Children of Men, and even House of Flying Daggers will find much to be incredibly familiar about this film.

While the morality of the original film was quite ambiguous, with the “villain” Roy Batty being arguably the most “human” and relatable character in a film that takes place in a cold and unfeeling universe, Blade Runner 2049  is a Manichaean narrative with clear heroes and villains peppered with easy emotional catharsis and heroic sacrifices for a greater purpose. None of this is “bad” per se, but I expected something more from a Blade Runner sequel and 2049 only rarely even teased at that kind of depth.

That’s not to say the film isn’t worth watching. It is beautifully shot (seriously, the movie is a sight to behold), wonderfully acted (though it doesn’t have a performance for the ages like Rutger Hauer’s in the original), and is entertaining throughout. But I’d actually recommend the movie more to casual fans or non-fans of the original film than to die-hards like me. This isn’t a welcome return like The Force Awakens was for Star Wars fans. This is Godfather III and, I suspect, unlike its predecessor, its legacy will be lost in time like tears in rain.


  • Heidi Ruby Miller October 16, 2017 at 9:47 am

    We’re seeing Bladerunner 2049 again this week, and will probably see it several more times before it leaves the theaters because as Ceres said, you must see this one on the big screen. The world is so immersive and so sublime. Oddly enough, I find it all very hopeful. And the colors and lights…I was mesmerized. I think it’s a world I could spend lots of time in. Nice discussion, J.L., Shara, Carey, and Ceres!

  • Nicole Taft October 16, 2017 at 11:21 pm

    Just got done watching it and overall my feelings on it are that it’s…meh. Yes, visually it’s a treat, but I have questions (why is Vegas yellow aside from artistic license?). Yes, the plot is interesting, but I have more questions (they can genetically design an entire human brain but not how to make them reproduce? Really?). Yes, the characters are engaging, but still have more questions (why is I-don’t-even-remember-crazy-replicant-woman’s-name so freaking CRAZY?).

    Overall it felt like if the original Blade Runner were a steak dinner with potatoes and gravy, this movie was the same plate, but someone just kept adding more gravy and didn’t know when to stop. Even the music was just too much. I could easily love the soundtrack for what it was, and chances are I’m going to get it, but paired with the movie it just needed to chill out a little bit. I get it, you’re trying to be dramatic and interesting like the first one, but now you’ve overdone it – so STOP. I was able to enjoy it (mostly) for what it was, though I didn’t appreciate or go for what it was trying to be – if that makes sense.

    Solid B- all the way around.


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