People, the future is boring. I know this because I’ve seen the new Blade Runner movie. And, after seeing it once, I felt like I had seen it around two thousand and forty-nine times.
In the year 2049, after agricultural devastation, a changing climate and new laws about the enslavement of robots, the divide between humans and machines is greater than ever before. It’s awful, guys. Most people have fled off-world and what’s left is plunged into a perennial slum. When Officer K (Ryan Gosling), a newer model blade runner for the Los Angeles Police Department, uncovers a hidden truth about the divide between replicants and humans, it could not come at a worse time. Any change in the relationship between men and machines is likely to result in warfare and revolution. K’s journey leads him deep into the past, to missing Agent Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), and a helluva lot of existential doubt – playing out against a backdrop of beauty and Hans Zimmer’s earth-shattering scores.
As with most of Denis Villeneuve’s films, this feature is visually stunning. From the opening scene, the colour grading will have you enraptured – a stark grey landscape that is both entirely compelling and entirely empty. It signifies the same dystopian tone as it’s predecessor, but amplified, as is Villeneuve’s style, by further colour saturations across neon cityscapes and desert wastelands where the air is thick and red, and Mad Max could burst through on a chainsaw motorbike. This atmosphere never lets up, and the pure stylishness of the movie can at times be blinding. So blindingly stylish, in fact, that you might miss its underlying lack of substance.
While you don’t need to have seen the original Blade Runner to enjoy 2049, it certainly helps. There are nostalgic Easter eggs dotted left and right, and much of the storyline piggybacks somewhat disappointingly on what’s come before it. In fact, under a microscope, there’s very little originality in 2049. Much like the most recent Alien Covenant, it tries and fails to misdirect you. It relies heavily on rose-tinted glasses and the ooh-ah of cool technology to paint itself as visionary. But it simply isn’t.
Don’t get me wrong, there are thrills and awesome fight scenes. Sylvia Hoeks is a scene-stealer of the first degree as bad-bitch “Luv”, a replicant whose smile somehow remains flawless even as she crushes your hand into a puddle. Her eyes physically twitch with anger, a much-needed contrast to Gosling whose performance for most of the movie consists of a blank but beautiful bloody face.
Gosling’s introduction as Agent K harks back to the very essence of the Blade Runner franchise. He comes as a harbinger of death, a replicant strong enough to punch through walls and hunt with inhuman precision. He is a model of restraint, carrying out orders for Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright) and coming home at night to an empty apartment with only a hologram for company. And yet, fresh from killing and taking the eye from one of his victims, he tenderly collects a trodden yellow flower. When praised for his work, and his lack of soul, he flinches. This is Blade Runner: questioning the nature of what it means to be human. And, sadly, this is ultimately how it destroys itself.
Because, while Blade Runner 2049 purports itself as a movie about bringing out humanity in the inhuman, it is fundamentally dehumanising. And not in a smart way.
If you aren’t Agent K, you’re not worth characterisation. Even if you are Agent K, you don’t get that much of it. Instead of the writers actively building compelling characters to interact with, K has to try to create himself throughout the story. He clearly follows the lone-saviour trope – a journey of discovery that has been rooted in the sci-fi genre since the beginning and comes across as just too predictable. He’s an interchangeable figure within the dystopian landscape, one that could have a different face or name, but still act the exact same way. He’s bland and so is his story – just another skulking figure, wandering through a wasteland where loneliness is communal. It’s emptiness isn’t philosophical, or political. It doesn’t move you, or inspire you.
Science fiction is supposed to create and to challenge, but moreover, to be inclusive of ideas and people. Instead, what Blade Runner 2049 presents is a brooding Gosling amidst a stale offering of gyrating holographic naked women; giant statues of naked women in radioactive deserts and, you probably guessed it, holographic women who do little more than serve holographic steak and pout “I love you”. There are Sony brand record players and the DeLorean-esque hover-car he rides has a touchscreen that flashes the Peugeot logo. All the interesting parts of Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams, have had the life thoroughly squeezed out of them. What’s left is tired, unchallenging and unimaginative stuff, probably derived from a 50s ad campaign for cigarettes.
Aside from its obvious beauty, Blade Runner 2049 lacks power. It builds up for a miracle but never quite reaches one. Maybe that’s intentional, but I doubt it. It’s compiled of moments – some that will stun you, others that could easily be replaced with empty space. The original Blade Runner gave us one of the greatest (and improvised) lines in modern cinematic history:
Hopefully, Blade Runner 2049 will soon drizzle back to someplace more imaginative.