Massachusetts Daily Collegian

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A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

‘Blade Runner 2049’ has a lot of ideas that it fails to develop

(Warner Bros. Pictures/mctdirect)

The time has come for me to reveal one of my greatest cineaste confessions: I find the original “Blade Runner” to be boring as tar. And before you ask, yes, I have seen the director’s cut and the final cut (the “good” version, I’m told), and my impression was muted all the same. The aesthetic influence the movie has had on science fiction the last few decades is undeniable, yet when it comes to real emotional resonance, I find that “Blade Runner” leaves me cold.

Of course, this review is not of “Blade Runner.” It’s a review of its sequel released three whole decades later, “Blade Runner 2049” (cue the dad joke about how that’s A LOT of Blade Runner movies). Has this film warmed my feelings toward the “Blade Runner” mythos? Well, I’d say yes. While after eight viewings, I can safely and persuasively explain why the original “Blade Runner” is simply bad. The best word I have to summarize my feelings toward “Blade Runner 2049” is a definitive… “eh.”

There’s a certain flavor of ambivalence one often gets while watching a just okay movie that is indescribably frustrating. It is the type of movie with arresting imagery, a distinct mood and memorable scenes, yet the core of the film is an inscrutable mess that never adds up to much of anything. Consider this review an unofficial sequel to my piece on “American Honey,” because much of feelings on “Blade Runner 2049” are the same. Both are tales of sound and fury, and I respect their craft, yet they signify nothing.

Set in an Asian-themed world without any Asians, the film focuses on a replicant detective (replicants are artificial intelligence units whose skin grafts make them visually indistinguishable from humans) named K (played by the ever stony-faced and dreamy Ryan Gosling). K essentially functions as a class traitor designed to hunt down his own kind and “retire them.”

During one of his assassination missions, K discovers the remains of a female replicant who had inexplicably given birth. K is tasked with destroying evidence of the child’s existence and to hunt down the famous Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford, the protagonist of the previous film). K’s angst over hunting down a human (yes, we have finally dispensed with that irrelevant, pointless debate over whether Deckard is a replicant) is compounded by the fact that business magnate Niander Wallace (Jared Leto at his Leto-est) wants to harvest the technology behind replicant reproduction to expand his empire.

One of the funniest things that happens during discussions of the original film is when fans expound all of the “great themes” of “Blade Runner.” Oh, the film is all about mortality. This is evidenced when characters say stuff like “I don’t want to die so soon.” Oh, the film is all about the nature of humanity. This is evidenced when characters ask, “am I human?” The film has great themes because it has people literally just say what they are for the audience. All of these are interesting concepts to explore, but none of it is shown within the text. “Blade Runner 2049” is a little more skilled at embedding ideas into its narrative, but similar problems still arise.

Director Denis Villeneuve continues to show his deft hand at characterization (certainly better than Ridley Scott, a filmmaker whose total disinterest in human psychology made him a poor fit for the original), as well as his shaky hand at story structure (although “Arrival” is still a perfect movie). K’s uneasiness with his own sense of purpose make him an intriguing figure, but there’s no clear through line between his thoughts and actions, so the audience has no real sense of what K wants or why he commits the actions that he does.

One vast improvement from the original film is, believe it or not, the romance. Yes, I’m aware that I’m not reviewing the original film, but I would be remiss not to point out that the central romance between Deckard and Rachael—complete with the decidedly non-consensual “love scene” set to tone-deaf smooth jazz—is completely repulsive and atrocious.

The love affair between K and Joi, his holographic girlfriend, is genuinely much sweeter. Although Joi is a Manic Pixie Dream Girl to some extent, this tired trope is complicated by the fact that she is literally designed to revolve herself around K’s self-determination. The agony one feels to be in love with someone you cannot touch, compounded by the doubt over whether that love is even real or pre-programmed, is indescribably painful and powerful, even if these are ideas that are articulated more at greater length and nuance in Spike Jonze’s “Her.” (There’s one scene where Joi hires a sex worker that is practically straight-up plagiarism of a scene in the aforementioned film.)

Still, this romance, at its core, only hints at greater insight, and that’s the central problem of the “Blade Runner” franchise. While I do not stray far from the film geek party line that says “Roger Deakins is god,” his hyper-saturated cinematography feels mismatched with the cold, lifeless tone of the film. There’s so many fascinating ideas that “Blade Runner 2049” introduces like the nature of sentience, whether love is meaningful beyond biological imperatives to reproduce, the increasing commodification of real human moments and expanding eye of the surveillance state. But it never follows up on these concepts and then has to gall to try to masquerade this absence as profundity.

Ultimately, my evaluation of “Blade Runner 2049” is the same one that my mother gave to me when I was afraid to leave the shallow end of the pool:

“It’s not that deep.”


Nate Taskin can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @nate_taskin.

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