You may have heard something about the instructions to critics from director Denis Villeneuve that were passed along at some press screenings of Blade Runner 2049. One critic shared a redacted version:
— Dustin Chase (@TexasArtFilm) October 2, 2017
(Click here for a screengrab if the tweet has been deleted.)
This is bizarre for many reasons; for one, filmmakers should not be dictating how critics frame their reviews or structure their sentences. (I attended a public multiplex screening, by the way, and am not beholden to those instructions. But don’t worry: I am not going to ruin the experience of the film for you.) Mostly it’s bizarre, though, because there’s almost no aspect of the film that could be spoiled that isn’t either fairly predictable or an extremely modest extrapolation of the story that was presented in Blade Runner in 1982. There’s nothing groundbreaking here, not in the context of the world of Blade Runner and not in the context of science fiction storytelling. There’s nothing mind-blowing like there was in 1982.
And this is my very big disappointment with 2049: there’s almost nothing surprising in it. Ryan Gosling turns in a terrifically subtle performance, and the film looks fantastic; legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins confirms his legend once more. But anything I could say about this sequel — 30 years on in its internal world, 35 years on for us — even if I spoiled almost everything about the plot and the characters, could just as easily be said about the original film. How do memories create identity? What does it mean to be human? From the broad scope of how both films deal with such matters to the nitty-grittiest of detail, they cover much the same territory, and from the exact same narrow perspective. (Is this yet another story about oppression that centers white men? Yup.)
But our cultural conversation about such questions has evolved significantly in the last 35 years, primarily but not solely through science fiction, and yet 2049 acts like that is not the case. Just a few years after Blade Runner we met Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Data, and followed his years-long exploration of his identity, his quest to experience emotion, and his longing to understand humanity. The 2000s introduced us to the “skin jobs” of Battlestar Galactica, which borrowed that term from the 1982 film and ran with it in ways that 2049 seems like it might be contemplating taking on two or three Blade Runner sequels down the line. A subplot with a holographic AI/companion (Ana de Armas: Overdrive, War Dogs) plays like a straight-up rerun of 2014’s Her (only it embraces the associated clichés instead of upending them).
No genre storytelling exists in a vacuum: it responds to and expands upon what has come before… or at least it does if it wants to be seen as serious and significant and adding to that ongoing conversation. Blade Runner helped start this conversation, and this new film — written by 1982 original screenwriter Hampton Fancher with Michael Green (Alien: Covenant, Logan) — pretends as if the conversation doesn’t even exist.
So here were have another “blade runner,” K (Gosling: La La Land, The Nice Guys), a cop whose job it is to hunt down rogue replicants, enslaved artificial humans genetically modified for strength. That the replicants — such as Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, The Boss), whom K seeks out in the opening sequence — consider themselves beings worthy of dignity and self-determination is something we already knew from the 1982 film. The world K and Sapper exist in seems static with regard to the status of the replicants: there was no hint in the original film of the larger societal context in which humans coexist with replicants, and there is none here, either. What does anybody whose job isn’t about either creating replicants or hunting them down when they go rogue think about replicants? In a world in which human life is so cheap — we get a sequence here featuring child laborers toiling at nasty, dangerous jobs — why are the replicants even necessary? Humanity itself seems perfectly capable of providing the “disposable workforce” civilization requires.
When K’s LAPD boss, Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright: Wonder Woman, House of Cards), worries that something unexpected that K stumbles over in his Sapper Morton case “breaks the world,” it’s that paradigm-shifting, we kinda don’t know what she means. We know what she thinks she’s saying, but it also seems like the sort of brokenness she is worried about is something that we already understood was broken back in the original film. She’s worried that replicants will think they are people, but it’s pretty plain that was already the case when Rick Deckard was hunting replicants in the year 2019. They wouldn’t need to be hunted otherwise! They’d be the compliant, obedient slaves they are meant to be.
The world of 2049 does seem to have moved on by 30 years or so. The planet is dirtier, grimier, hazier, deader. (The film has a bleak beauty, especially in 3D IMAX; it is foully immersive.) Los Angeles looks like it’s covered in neonoir cyberpunk favelas. There’s a massive seawall holding back the Pacific. The whitish stuff that falls from the sky: sometimes it looks like snow, but more often it looks like dust or ash drifting in from who knows what distant hellscape. San Diego is LA’s garbage dump. (It could be Wall-E’s home town.) The 2019 world of the 1982 film might have been our future, but now the 2049 world is clearly alt: we see an ad that references “CCCP” and “Soviet,” so they’re still around. The only food available seems to be fake Soylent Green-type stuff. (Not made from people. Or even replicants. At least not that we see. But who knows.)
But 2049 is unpleasantly retro in its depiction of women, too many of whom are literally slavishly devoted to men: the AI companion, whose name is Joi, who adores K, and a replicant named Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), who is programmed so that she cannot disobey her creator, Niander Wallace (Jared Leto: Suicide Squad, Dallas Buyers Club), the new replicant slavemaster, replacing Tyrell of the original film. (Really? Joi and Luv? Come on. Oh, and there’s also a female prostitute character, hooker with a heart of gold Mariette [Mackenzie Davis: The Martian, Smashed], because of course there is. If there are any male sex workers or male devoted-AI-companions in 2049 Los Angeles, we never meet them.)
Pretty trite, too, is the backstory we get when K roots out a retired and in-hiding Deckard (Harrison Ford: Star Wars: The Force Awakens, The Age of Adaline), and learns what the old blade runner has been up to for the past 35 years. The key elements of it are meant to be part of that “it breaks the world” thing, but mostly it sounds like a bad fan-fiction continuation of Deckard’s story.
Blade Runner 2049 is an emotionally cold movie, as the first Blade Runner was, but the original film did engage on an intellectual level. I expected at least that much again from its sequel, and I don’t think that it would have been too much to hope that Denis Villeneuve might have managed emotion and intellect, as he did with his previous film, the marvelous and moving Arrival. But pretty much all I’ve been turning over in my mind since I saw 2049 is this conundrum: If the people of this world don’t want replicants to be able to do the certain macguffin thing that drives the mystery here, how the hell do these constructed beings have the capability to do just that?