The following has been written with the assumption that you’ve seen Blade Runner 2049 (and, presumably, the original), so I’m not going to do a great deal of articulation where the plot is concerned. Caution this piece contains spoilers.
So, with critics falling over themselves in praise of Blade Runner 2049, and with many regular cinemagoers who have seen it doing likewise, I have found myself feeling like an utter grump because I did not enjoy it at all and am sort of rolling around the “Why?” in my head.
I was very excited – though cautious – to watch this 35 years later sequel to Ridley Scott‘s 1982 original / 25 years later sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1992 director’s cut / 10 years later sequel to Ridley Scott’s 2007 final cut.
I had largely avoided trailers, and stayed away from my twitter once I knew critics I follow had seen it and could start voicing their opinions. I wanted to go in fresh.
I’m a huge fan of Denis Villeneuve‘s, his 2013 film Enemy is one of my favourite films, and I’ve enoyed every single film of his that I’ve seen since then. I felt like this film was in the best possible hands directorially speaking.
So, there I was, Friday night, opening weekend…
I’ll start with what I liked; I felt like it was a really nice pace, it wasn’t slow, it was just considered, it ramped up when it needed to, but it knew to pause, to take its time when necessary. I enjoyed its tempo and was happy to see a film confident in its own sense of time-keeping that it told its story at the speed it wanted, with little to no regard of making sure they could cram enough screenings into a day in order to boost box office returns.
And that’s probably about it.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying the rest was terrible, but it just didn’t really do anything for me from – for example – an acting point of view, or with its design, or cinematography (which all felt a tad too clean for my tastes), or aurally (the music was serviceable, but nothing truly special), and then there’s the story and what – supposedly – lies beneath that.
I found myself sat there, watching the film, feeling a little unmoved by absolutely everything that was going on, it all just seemed like a big shrug of the shoulders to me. Things were happening, people made grand statements about the importance of the things happening, but I didn’t feel any of that, I was being told how important everything was.
I remember thinking to myself’ “I’m sure, come the end, this will all have some value either plot-wise or thematically”, and yet, when the film finished it just felt like it had run out of tape, like, oops, that’s all the time we’ve got for today, sorry about that I was just about to get to my point.
Now, I can imagine that some of you are nodding sagely;
However the story K was still embroiled in was, y’know, important, revolutionary, it would blow the world apart, and other characters in the film were – as K hoped he was – special. Yet nothing, to me, felt important or special, everything – I was told – was big, earth-shattering, life or death, and yet… Meh.
What worked so well about the original Blade Runner for me was that the film’s greater mysteries were almost like an after-thought on top of a really bog-standard cop thriller.
Here are these replicants that have escaped, find them.
Everything else, the magic, the wonder, the existensialism, all sort of feels like happy accidents born of great casting and conflicting ideas (see the ongoing debate about whether Deckard is a replicant even amongst the directors of the original and its sequel).
Part of the problem with this sequel is that it feels like it has to make the story BIG, that is has to be about something earth-shattering, that it repurposes characters from the original to now be important and special (I know the “twist” with K is that he thinks he’s special but then he isn’t, however people still are special within the narrative, and I’ll get to that later).
Suddenly we’re dealing with a plot that is IMPORTANT, but not really in a neat plot-propelling way, as everyone’s reasoning for why the replicant baby must be found / erased is a little vague at best.
What really seemed to emphasise the crucial difference between the two films, for me, was the cast and – more explicity – how in the original each scene, each new encounter, is enthralling because of the range of performances, the wonderful, strange, unique touch each actor brings to their part and then – from there – the joy of combining these characters in different ways, playing them off each other.
Yet in Blade Runner 2049 everyone seems to be cut from the same cloth, speaking in similar cadences, making similar pronouncements, giving us elliptical little “quotes”. They’re all at service of the thematic conceits, rather than their characters and actions drawing these ideas out of the text.
It only served to stress the lack of “character” in this film, and though that complaint might tie in to your particular thematic analysis or not it doesn’t really make for a good film.
So, speaking of analysis…
I’ve been intrigued to start hearing people’s interpretations of the film, as I’m wondering if any of them will, for me, make the film start to feel like it had something to say, some purpose beyond themes already articulated far better – and far more casually – by the original film and other sci-fi films in the intervening years.
I read this (https://www.newstatesman.com/culture/film/2017/10/blade-runner-2049-uneasy-feminist-parable-about-controlling-means-reproduction) article debating the feminist merits – or failings – of the film, that was an interesting take, however one that seemed to overlook a key piece of the script for me in its discussion of the character of Joi…
The marketing for Joi within the film is that she will tell you “Everything you want to hear” and, as far as I can recall, she says to Ryan Gosling‘s K at one point in the film “I’m just telling you what you want to hear” – or words to that effect.
My understanding of how this artificial, holographic character works for its owners is that she is both a representation of how K imagines his ideal woman would behave, but also, more than that, a reflection of himself, the little voice inside of him that wants to make him feel better, that wants him to be more than he is. She is, for lack of a better way of explaining it, him. This is made even more explicit by the fact that she “names” him Joe, a vowel’s difference from her name.
Joi becomes a handy way for the film-makers to have K/Joe explain what he’s doing or articulate his thought process, and once he – internally – starts believing that he may be the “special replicant”, that’s exactly when Joi starts telling him, reinforcing his belief, that he *is* special.
When Mariette tells Joi, after she and Joi have sex with K, that she’s “been inside” her and “there’s not as much there as you think” she’s actually talking to K / Joe, telling him through her that he isn’t special.
I’ve also read some of the rather redundant and tedious fan theories that everyone in the film is in fact a replicant, or, at least, Jared Leto‘s Niander Wallace is.
More mystery replicants just seems boring to me, and once we start making this a bigger fertility issue picture due to Wallace’s need to control birth for his own ends then this film has to be held alongside the likes of Alfonso Cuaron’s Children Of Men (there are many similarities) and, in that comparison, Blade Runner 2049 is going to crash and burn by the wayside, because Cuaron’s film is an absolute masterpiece.
I even got into a slight Twitter thing with Phyllis Nagy, the screenwriter of Todd Hayne’s Carol, regarding her interpretation of why the film hadn’t done as well as expected at the box office…
“No surprise BLADERUNNER 2049 isn’t a BO hit,” she tweeted. “A culture of narcissists does not take kindly to a You-Are-Not-Special subtext. Terrific film.” (https://twitter.com/PhyllisNagy/status/917162453288468480)
A lot to unpack in this tweet, but what I first argued was that a subtext one could only interpret (whether accurate or not) from having seen the film does not explain why people didn’t go to see the film.
Eventually Phyllis replied and said: “Huge effect on word of mouth- and thus on bodies in seats. Multiply the numbers of first-day movie-goers passing on the “downer” hero.”
Which, whilst not engaging with the point I made, raised more questions for me.
Firstly, a “downer hero” and a “culture of narcissists” are two very different things. Most reviews had been careful to leave out details of the plot and especially any interpretations – I hadn’t heard this kind of analysis until this tweet for example – and most reviews focused on the broad strokes, the positives they saw such as the visuals. Finally, the word of mouth on the film was actually very, very good (an A- Cinemascore), so, this left only half of Phyllis’s tweet worthy of attention, the half where she refers to a “a culture of narcissits” feeling slighted by a film’s anti “Chosen One” narrative.
Just as you could read it as a “downer hero” discovering they are ultimately not a beautiful and unique snowflake and therefore a “culture of narcissists” might allegedly decide to reject the film, you could also interpret it thus:
A film so in awe of 1982’s Blade Runner (albeit funnelled through the latter Director and Final cuts) that it decides to ret-con that film’s plot to suggest that its – very questionable – romance was in fact the machinations of a genius mastermind and ultimately the MOST IMPORTANT RELATIONSHIP EVER because it would herald the emancipation of all replicant-kind.
You could go further and suggest that the film was about a character – K – who apathetically trudges through a largely meaningless existence, their only joy comes from a mobile app called Joi who validates them by telling them only what they want to hear, who starts to harbour delusions of grandeur, that maybe they – this new generation of Blade Runner – are very important and worthwhile, only to find out that – no – the original Blade Runner was the most important one.
However, to attempt to try and actually engage with part of the original tweet (regardless of the fact that it seems to say more about how sometimes film interpretations often say more about the person doing the interpreting than the film itself) there are reasons why Blade Runner 2049 didn’t do “as well” at the box office as estimates predicted, and it’s probably more to do with over-stating the importance of a 35 years later sequel to a well respected film that, if we’re honest, has its merits but isn’t as great as a lot of people are trying to tell us it is.
For one thing, as Max Landis pointed out in a series of tweets (https://twitter.com/Uptomyknees/status/917446483040804869), the concept of the film was not well articulated by the marketing. And you can slap positive quotes all over your trailers and posters, most films do, but it doesn’t mean people are going to see it.
Secondly, there could be a case of burn-out and fatigue on these “Years later…” sequels / prequels / reboots, etc. This year Alien: Covenant has already fared poorly at the box office, and the third Planet Of The Apes prequel didn’t do too great either.
However people using Blade Runner 2049‘s supposed lack of financial success as a stick to beat modern audiences are kind of looking at the box office of days gone by through rose-tinted spectacles where – in 1982 – the likes of Porky’s, The Toy, and Firefox bested Blade Runner at the box office, not to mention that less films were being released on a weekly basis and the lure of other ways to watch stuff wasn’t as prevalent, and also ignoring the fact that films like Get Out, Baby Driver, The Big Sick have done incredibly well at the box office this year. So it’s not all doom and gloom.
Is Blade Runner 2049‘s opening weekend returns a sign of audience’s not wanting smart, cerebral cinema?
Well, to me, no, because I don’t think the film is that smart or thoughtful.
But, it hasn’t actually done terribly at the box office, I just think the expectations were over-optimistic and based on a certain type of nostalgia that, is quite clearly, not there where massively wide audiences are concerned, and that makes sense to me, the first Blade Runner is not the Holy Grail of cinema, it’s just an impeccably designed movie that benefited from charismatic supporting performances, an iconic score and a few little wisps of thought-provoking ideas that have been stretched and magnified over the intervening years.
In short, maybe Blade Runner wasn’t as special as you thought it was.