Review: Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

Roger Deakins: holy shit. Gender and race: hmmm.

First impressions

Blade Runner 2049 is beautiful. Every frame is gorgeous, immersive, rich, sublime. Come for the visuals, stay for the themes, and don’t squint too hard at the story – in other words, this truly is a Blade Runner.

On the plus side, story-wise: 2049 expands to embrace other, newer characters, because its message / themes / world / mythology is bigger than Deckard / Roy / Tyrell / even Gaff (whom I thought would have a bigger role – which perhaps speaks to the whole Deckard-replicant mystery remaining… they somehow managed to find a way to trump that, which in itself is miraculous).

While the mood is thick with dread and claustrophobia, character motivations and ideologies are a little less vividly-defined. In some cases, this seems to come down, more than anything else, to story omission. The opening scene plays very differently if you’ve seen Dave Bautista‘s prequel short. While I was more critical about the other two prequel shorts, 2048: Nowhere to Run gives us some character insight that evidently couldn’t fit into an already-nearly-three-hour opus:

Denis Villeneuve did what we hoped he would and believed he could: create a new mythology from the altar of the cult of fandom. The sense of tension and dread is true to the original, and while there’s no Roy Batty-level iconic character in 2049, most of the performances are solid: villain Luv is truly terrifying, and Harrison Ford had some moments I found surprisingly heartfelt (in stark contrast with scene partner Jared Leto, who seemed to be in another movie altogether).

While I think I understand what Blade Runner 2049 is trying to say about the commodification of women’s bodies in this future, I’m not sure the film’s language was all that different from that of its own villains.

Later impressions

A re-watch and several discussions with female friends later, it’s becoming apparent there’s a lot to unpack in 2049‘s treatment of women and race. Perhaps I’d thought (hoped?) I’d seen everything wrong in Ghost in the Shell‘s mishandling (and several steps backward from its source material) of both, particularly regarding ideas of gender in a future where consciousness is transferrable and our “shells” are arbitrary… but I guess not.

Gender

While I think I understand what Blade Runner 2049 is trying to say about the commodification of women’s bodies in this future, I’m not sure the film’s language was all that different from that of its own villains. The image of Jared Leto’s fingers on the naked, shivering body (and specifically, womb) of the newborn replicant he ultimately violently rejects made me uncomfortable, but I put that down to “well he’s the bad guy, this is to make you feel bad”. But when you add to it that Rachel is essentially fridge’d, it becomes harder to deny a possible problem. So by the time I found myself squirming at the sight of a giant naked hologram Joi, I had to (belatedly) acknowledge that the nude body of the third fridge’d female was designed to be in-yr-face and overwhelming (literally, in terms of how much of the frame it took up, dwarfing a contemplative K, in a moment which made it overly clear that her body was about his mentality).

Now, the female characters in 2049 aren’t only portrayed as sexual or maternal objects, nor are women the only sexual objects in the world of the film. Luv mentions male “pleasure model” replicants to a client, and there is a suggestion that Robin Wright’s commander may take (or have already taken) her own pleasure from Gosling’s “K” – but this is merely text, and possibly even subtext. As Lindsay Ellis succinctly puts it in her analysis of Megan Fox in the Transformers movies, “Framing and aesthetics supercede the rest of the text. Always. Always. Always.” And that couldn’t be more relevant than to a (stunningly) visual film like 2049:

Countering this in interesting ways is the wrinkle in Luv’s otherwise straight-up T-1000-ness in the film: specifically, her tears. Luv’s displays of emotion are less to do with human emotion and more to do with robotic programming (albeit as dictated by her male master, Leto’s Niander Wallace): she becomes angry when someone stands between her and her mission; and she “cries” twice, once when confronted with her master’s failure in his mission, and once more when she has decided to go against her programming (not killing, telling her master the truth / whole story) in order to fulfil her own mission. Sylvia Hoeks’ performance is complex and otherworldly – providing visuals which also, in their own ways, supercede the text.

Race

When it comes to race in modern dystopia science fiction films, whitewashing and narratives which exclude other races altogether are problematically common – to the point where I found myself rationalising the fact that the two people of colour with the most lines of dialogue in 2049 were shady characters. The original Blade Runner at least addresses race in this world: Deckard’s voice-over narration in the original theatrical release describes how races and languages have coalesced into a “mish mash” and that, with the Earth’s ecosystem breaking down, only the affluent classes of society able to relocate to off-world colonies, the “little people” left behind are either too poor or genetically inferior (as embodied most prominently by JF Sebastian). And sure, while 2049 makes passing reference to health and fitness for space travel (again, only in a line of dialogue from dream designer Ana, essentially this film’s JF), the film is still a story about only white faces.

Considering how much room this movie had to push beyond the commercial constraints that other studio movies might have, much less the groundwork already laid in its predecessor, it could be argued that it was even a necessity for 2049 to be more challenging than it’s turned out to be.

Further viewing

WETA workshop, the New Zealand company behind the effects of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, created miniatures for locations and sets on Blade Runner 2049. You thought they were all CGI? Me too:

More on the surprisingly limited use of green screen (via Cinema Tyler):

wolfcrow looks at the slightly-askew horizon lines, VFX-extended corridors, and other techniques employed by Villeneuve and Deakins to create the unsettling mood of Blade Runner 2049: