The one thing a Blade Runner sequel absolutely had to be was visually beautiful: architecture, wardrobe, cinematography, atmosphere. That mission is handily accomplished by 2049. It’s a gorgeous film. Despite the odds of living in squalor or in a dangerously polluted or radioactive part of the planet, the future looks incredibly stylish. If there must be another attempt to film Dune (or a first attempt to film Neuromancer), I would happily trust this team to handle it.
The scenes feel underpopulated even when they are crowded with people. You’d almost think the LAPD station was deserted most of the time apart from the chief, Officer K (Ryan Gosling), and a single doomed forensic examiner. Likewise the story is straightforward and streamlined. It never really feels like a noir, even though several key motifs are there on paper: the eccentric rich, colorful consultants, trips to the underworld, questions of parentage, femmes fatales. Are the institutions corrupt? One is concerned with maintaining the social status quo, the other in obtaining legitimately valuable intellectual property, but neither seems exactly venal in that noirish way.
And sometime in the last hour or so it turns decisively away from noir to a more optimistic, revolution-oriented story. Perhaps the times demand this; it’s not fashionable to accept the noir axiom and thermodynamic law that entropy increases, corruption always wins, and we must take our small victories where we can and duck out of sight before the hammer falls. 2017 audiences are literal-minded and moralistic; depiction of evil unpunished is read as endorsement of that evil. Fiction is a voodoo doll, stuck with pins in the childish hope that the stories we tell will curse our enemies in real life. It’s laughable to think that the writers of noir fiction felt they lived in the best of all possible worlds, or that they believed one detective trying to do good could bring down an empire. This loss of sophistication on the part of audiences explains the ending of Blade Runner and the ending of Blade Runner 2049. But for anyone who doesn’t really care about this film being noir, this doesn’t matter much, and maybe 2017 needs hope more than sophistication, even if that hope is vague and somewhat contradicts the exposition that opens the film.
There are, however, two significant problems that, however much I admired the film’s execution, limited the appeal of its concept for me. The first is that this is yet again the only android story that seems to exist: they’re just like us! Viewed as allegory, this is perhaps the only morally sound approach to the theme: the slave and the master are one flesh, and the one must not be forced to serve the other, etc. If androids represent the working classes and the downtrodden, to emphasize their inhumanity seems to endorse these class divisions. But viewed as science fiction, this is the least interesting direction to take; why not explore the ways in which androids would be unlike us? What could we learn about the way our abilities and limitations have shaped us by seeing the ways those of different types of beings have shaped them? We can still respect them as our equals without taking the condescending position that every android’s highest aspiration is to be human. With the exception of Ex Machina (and probably Futurama), we see this over and over and it’s devoid of further interest.
The other problem is that Blade Runner did not need or even invite a sequel. Its story was complete. Even if you feel it was slightly overrated as a film, there was really nothing more to tell. 2049 continues the story with as much dignity as possible, except that it substitutes for the existential “humanity” of androids in the original a more biological self-determination. Worse, it answers the question no one really needed answered: what happened to Rachel and Deckard? Even if you were desperate for that answer, it’s hard to believe this was the most interesting answer to it. Arguably it has the effect of diluting the original in much the same way that Prometheus and Covenant have diluted Alien, or that (I have to imagine) Love Never Dies dilutes Phantom of the Opera.
Despite the film’s glacial pace, every frame is beautiful enough that the 164 minutes feel like 124 (you know, a reasonable length of time for a movie, especially one with this simple a plot), and most of the performances are quite good. I never quite believed Robin Wright, and Jared Leto is a ham playing a ham, but Harrison Ford is magnetic (if not quite the same character he played before), and I did not regret finally seeing my first movie starring Ryan Gosling. There are even two genuine jokes. So even if it’s an unnecessary film, it’s not an unpleasant one. Let’s just leave it at one sequel, though, huh?