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My problems with ‘Blade Runner 2049’

Blade Runner 2049 is one of the most visually arresting films I’ve ever seen. Director Dennis Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins have created a film that is chock full of spectacular shots and breathtaking tableaus.

But for all that the film does to try to explore the nature of man’s relationship to technology, I was still left cold at the end. I didn’t leave the movie with chills (as I did when I saw the original Blade Runner earlier this week), nor with exuberant joy (as I did when I watched a blockbuster like, say, Spider-Man: Homecoming). I wanted to love it…but I didn’t. I try to grapple with my feelings about in this Periscope broadcast.

As I reflected more about the movie this morning, I wanted to quickly jot down some of my issues with the film. MASSIVE SPOILERS FOR THE FILM FOLLOW: 

  • Freysa: I don’t think it’s a good sign when your film only gives a proper introduction to a seemingly major character when you are 2 hours and 20 minutes into a 2 hour and 45 minute long film. It reeks of either attempted serialization (i.e. crazy stuff we might see in the NEXT Blade Runner that will probably never come), or just plain bad storytelling. On that note…
  • Skins vs. Humans: At the end of the film, Freysa makes a big pitch to Joe: Come join our robot uprising. My response to this: Who gives a crap? The movie has done virtually nothing to establish the conflict between replicants and humans. While Blade Runners still exist and retire replicants with some regularity (memorably so in the opening scene of the film), we see virtually zero indication in populated areas that the human/replicant relationship is fraught with tension (exception: Other cops hate on Ryan Gosling’s character at the beginning of the film, and he has graffiti are on his door). How many replicants are even left? Do all humans hate them? Are there any replicant sympathizers? What level of danger does an uprising hold? None of these parameters are established in the film. As a result, I just couldn’t find it in myself to care about the stakes.
  • The very last shot: One of the things that makes the original Blade Runner so effective is the fact that we are on Deckard’s journey with him. We see virtually everything from his perspective. That’s why I think the last shot of that film is so great: Deckard has come full circle and realized some truth about his situation. Blade Runner 2049 tries to shift that focus onto Ryan Gosling’s character, Joe. And while the shot of him dying on the steps as snow falls on him is gorgeous, the last shot of Deckard and his child kind of left me in a weird place. Deckard himself doesn’t even appear until 2/3rds of the way through this film, but when he does show up, his journey seemingly supplants that of Joe. While I think many will love that last shot, I just didn’t like how it didn’t match the emotional arc of the majority of the film.

I know some people love this movie (see: Matt Singer’s review). I think it’s awesome that the writer/director tried to take the story in totally different directions than the first film. That said, a day later, I still don’t think I connected with it as well as I wanted to and I’m still trying to figure out why.

  • Luke Murray

    I loved it for the audacity but I’m not effusive because the film is turgid. I love all of Villeneuve’s work that I’ve seen but his sedate style bloated 2 hours of story to almost 3. This is great for drinking in the visuals and the design but takes the life out of the movie. It’s masterful, but I can’t shake how hollow so much of it felt.

  • Your description reminds me of “Barry Lyndon”. Beautiful film. Amazing cinematography. Depressing, weird plot.

  • DaanishSyed

    I want to respond to your comments about Freysa, but first I want to talk about why I loved this movie. A couple things weighed heavy on my mind as I watched the film…

    This week, Ta-Nehisi Coates was on Colbert and made some news when expressing his lack of hope for the future of the country.

    From the Vice write-up:

    What about the coming demographic change to America, Colbert asked. White people will soon be a numerical minority in America: Won’t things change then?

    “Your question presumes that there is a static definition of whiteness,” Coates said. “And that this is the first time that there’s been a demographic change.” The Irish, he argues, weren’t always considered white; neither were the Italians or the Jews. America, by implication, is perfectly happy to change the definition of whiteness if it means the country can remain a majority-white nation.

    “In addition to the very definition of whiteness being malleable,” Coates added, “the ability to vote is also a malleable thing. So you might have the possibility of the demographics actually changing, but who has the ability to use those demographics in an electoral system might also change too.”

    Somewhat related, years ago on the Tobolowsky Files, Stephen once told a story from his childhood about racism. In an all-white school, a group of kids were chasing around an Italian boy, terrorizing him, calling him a nigger. He would cry out “but im not!”, but they didn’t stop, they just replied, “yeah, but you’re all we got”. That story left a profound impression on me, and I think about it often.

    All throughout watching Bladerunner 2049, those two stories were on the forefront of my mind. The subjugation of Replicants was not a (just) mirror to our current state of inequality, but a powerful commentary of the moving goal-post Coates eludes to, and the need to subjugate as told by Tobolowsky. Replicants are just the most recent subclass. There were many before and there will be many more to come. And whats absolutely brilliant is we also see Joi, a completely artificial non-biological AI as a glipse of the next.

    K’s entire arc throughout the film, as he uncovers a series of truths about himself and about society, is what makes this movie so powerful. We follow him in his job as a subservient Replicant Bladerunner. We see him carry out orders, take abuse, and live life as a second class citizen. In one of the most breathtaking scenes in any movie this year, K visits the memory artist and learns that his memories were real, and he was biologically-born human boy raised to think he was a Replicant (a brilliant reversal of the first film). In that moment, those arbitrary social lines are thrown into harsh relief. For the first time, K’s stoic exterior shatters. The artificial constructs that placed him in the lower caste are wiped clean and all that remains is the pain and unfairness of it all – the lies and manipulation, the pointless, arbitrary nature of inequality. It’s no longer necessary to actually be different from anybody else, they just need to think you are.

    If that’s all it was, it would have already been a brilliant, moving arc. But the film takes it even further. K becomes involves in the intimate human story of a family trying the protect their child. A child he believes to be himself. When it’s revealed that K is NOT actually a biologically born child, but rather a cloned decoy, the social constructs return – he’s not special, he’s just another replicant; but the pain of a broken family and the injustices of an unfair caste still linger. What remains is empathy and purpose.

    Love it.

    And here’s where Freysa comes in. Her character, and the entire concept of the Replicant revolution has always been simmering under the surface, but we are not privy to it. It’s seeded throughout in small references – (Robin Wright’s character eludes to the chaos that would ensue if the child is found), but is not a focus in any way. We know exactly what K knows – and it’s given about as much development and backstory to us as it has to K. That’s because it doesn’t matter, at least not immediately. What matters is what K has gone through, his newfound humanity. What matter’s is K’s “twin” sister and her father. The global machinations of the Williams Corporation and the Replicant Revolution are secondary to the simple struggle of a family trying to protect one another. All Freysa represents is that his struggle is universal and has a potential endgame.

    As for skins vs humans – I disagree that the human/replicant strife is under-defined. It’s played out in short-hand, but honestly, graffiti on a door is all I need to see. We only catch glimpses of the conflict, but we see the effects of it on full display. A solitary lifestyle, a soulless dedication to the work killing his own kind, the only companionship is that of a store bought pleasure ai. All the aforementioned parallels to our world are just as clear now as they would be if we spent hours exhausting the specifics.

    On the ending – You say Deckard journey supplants that of Joe. Youre not wrong, but I don’t see them as different.

    Before I end this rambling thread, I do want to touch on a couple things that didn’t work for me.

    The main antagonist of Luv was a wasted opportunity. It’s a tall order to try to live up to Roy Batty, but it felt like they didnt even try.

    And an extension of that, I thought the final showdown in the water was HUGELY anti-climactic in every way, especially coming off of every other scene in the movie being executed at such a high level, I was left wondering what the hell happened. Did they suddenly run out of time, money, and ideas? So disappointing. Again, hard to live up to the final confrontation from the original Bladerunner, but this was such a whimper of a climax.

    Finally, I love Joi as a concept, but as a character I think she worked about 70%. So many of her scenes were very poetic and visually stunning – and the sex scene was actually pretty beautiful, but when she was killed, I didnt care that much.

    Woof, that was a long post. Sorry about that.

    • Brian

      Freysa was also in the food court when she asked 3 women to investigate K. Two of them recoiled upon the realization that K was a Blade Runner. Mariette stayed as we were introduced to someone that would eventually be unveiled as a replicant/recruiter for the freedom movement.

  • PN

    I posted the below a few places, and wanted to post here as I think some of what I’m saying response to some of your issues (how many replicants are there?? Better question – how many humans are there?). I had these thoughts as soon as I left the movie, and I already see some fan theories taking off that connect some of the same dots I do (though I think Denis V is making a point that’s more amorphous than “this is Deckard’s memories”). Let me know what you think, Dave?

    I have a lot of thoughts on this film, which are long-winded but I needed to get out somewhere. I apologize that this may seem more like random bullet points than an actual review. The below post comes with a lot of caveats, which I’ll throw at the bottom, so people can read my overall point first and then read the context if they don’t immediately think my brain has jumped the shark. Basically, my feelings on how much I like this movie come down to this: was Blade Runner: 2049 depicting a simulated reality? Was the film set entirely in the mind of an android/replicant [Note 1]? Though I generally hate people who try to “explain” movies, I think there’s some evidence for this:

    · Are any of the characters in this film human? Certainly, the line is often blurry. For example, MacKenzie Davis’ character is at first presented as a “human” (she says to K, “You don’t like real girls”), but, as it turns out, she’s a replicant. Robin Wright’s character is also to me clearly a replicant – her lack of pain when the glass is crushed in her hand calls back to K’s ability to take punishment in the opening scene [Note 2]. This of course all ties back to the question in the original as to whether Deckard is himself a replicant – issues of identity are baked into the Blade Runner series.

    · The notion of “reality” was very slippery in this movie. The obvious example is when K walks through a memory he has, but a memory which might be someone else’s. But it was interesting at the end when we cut directly (I think) from K dying in the snow to a shot of Deckard’s daughter simulating snow in real time. This, to me, was a clear hint that we’re watching a world that is, in of itself, manufactured/simulated. Add to this the entire Vegas scene, which includes not one, but two overt references to the Voight-Kampf test ((1) K is “in a desert, walking alone in the sand”; and (2) there’s a “wasp, suddenly on your arm”), suggesting K is living in the VK test. I think there’s enough there to argue that the line between real/unreality is blurry.

    · The movie begins with a shot of an eye. Yes, this is a callback to the original, but also an image we see prominently whenever replicants take the VK test. Might this be the movie’s way of tipping us off that we are watching the mind of an android as it takes VK?

    · One of the main scenes in the film, the sex scene, involves a replicant, an A.I. hologram, and another replicant (who, I believe, at this point in the movie we think is real but is actually not) having sex, i.e., mimicking a human act. But all three characters are synthetic, the act they’re partaking in a constructed version of a human thing – what does this tell us about the theme of the film and the possibility that everything in the film is “constructed”? K’s girlfriend is also projected throughout the city, adding weight to the notion that the city is his subconscious writ large.

    · During the Vegas scene, the Elvis projector is glitching out big time – might this be a subtle way to hint at the fact that this film is depicting the “brain” of a replicant glitching as it tries to become self-aware?

    · Though I know the concept of “off world” is well established in the BR universe, I found it curious that Wallace mentioned having to take Deckard off world to inflict pain on him. Might off world actually be Earth (i.e., he has to bring him home to fix him)? Could we be watching a planet entirely populated by replicants that don’t know it? Though LA seemed like the LA of the original, there was something less populated about it, like it was a bizarre copy (same goes for Vegas). Something about the whole world felt off (understood this might just be a passage of time thing).

    · K’s girlfriend prepares a meal for him that superimposes a “good” meal over a bowl of synthetic noodles – again, a fictional construct over a reality, but one that K struggles to understand.

    · If the majority of the characters are replicant, is the world of BR: 2049 a future wherein replicants have actually eliminated humans, but are now caught in an existential loop wherein they cannot find meaning because they’re all constructed beings implanted with the memories of another constructed being? The idea that this world is a reconstructed version of a former one is baked right into the opening text – the Wallace Corporation is the Tyrell Corp, reconstructed from the ashes. So, are we just watching a world where every layer of reality is a construct? It just seems like there’s a bottomless Russian nesting doll of realities going on here, like Villeneuve became obsessed with peeling back the existential onion even further.

    · The original Blade Runner creates tension out of the idea that it would be horrible to think you’re human but actually be a robot. This movie inverts that – what if you were aware/comfortable being a robot, but might actually be a human? In some ways, though, the question of human/not human is beside the point, as the central question has been moved to real/not real.

    · If the original Blade Runner was about what it means to be human, has the sequel deepened the existential loop by asking what is real, or, by asking whether human/robot matters in a world that’s entirely synthetic?

    · There was also some neat inversion/subversion of the original Blade Runner – the opening being in daylight, the central question being reversed, etc. Even establishing early that K is a replicant almost seems to be telling you “the question of replicant/not replicant is not what’s at play in this movie”.

    · re: Robin Wright’s character – it’s not 100% clear (IMO), that either her or Wallace (the other “clearly” human character) are human. It’s a world where there are more and more advanced replicants, so what if it’s just an infinite regression of replicants who are closer to human and thus believe themselves to be? I also found it interesting she tried to sleep with K. Almost every woman in the film functions as some kind of male wish fulfillment. It’s less offensive to me if the entire reality is a fictional construct where we could chop this up to being a man’s construct of “women” playing out in a replicant’s subconscious.

    I found myself really struggling with the movie (I can’t think of many movies that were more paradoxical in their ability to pull me completely into its world and yet also leave me kind of uninterested in the story), and I’m frankly not sure if I really liked it or just wanted to really like it. Below are my caveats:

    · I don’t particularly love the original Blade Runner, excepting the production design/cinematography, score, and some of the ideological questions it’s probing. I re-watched it recently, and found things in it I had never noticed before (Deckard, always listening to tapes of the VK test, subtly suggesting he’s administering the test to himself), but still find Alien to be the far superior of Scott’s two “masterpieces” (and think Scott is, on average, a garbage man).
    · I love Denis V, a love compounded by being Canadian and being in awe of how this guy has managed his career to now end up on top of Hollywood. I had HUGE expectations for this movie, and probably 90% of that was due to it being a new Villeneuve movie. I was also pretty sure I would love it, since I’ve previously liked movies of his that had mediocre scripts he managed to make compelling (Prisoners). For the record, my Denis V rankings go: 1) Enemy; 2) Sicario; 3) Arrival; 4) Prisoners; and 5) Incendies. Can’t rank BR: 2049 yet.
    · Because of my love for Denis V, I’m not sure if all of the above are incoherent ramblings of a guy looking to will a movie he didn’t like into “interesting” territory.
    · Bottom line, this movie at least did right by Blade Runner in presenting a movie that I found both totally engrossing and totally confounding/boring. I want to see it again.
    · I was in an altered state, and so perhaps there were elements I saw as ambiguous that weren’t really.

    Those are my thoughts – I seem to be the only person so far who picked up on much of this, which makes me think I’ve lost my mind, but thought it was worth throwing out there. The truth is, if none of the above is possible, I don’t know how good this movie was – the idea that this is all a mystery about a robot uprising and Deckard finding his daughter is kind of terrible.

    [Note 1] There’s precedent for this in the Denis V catalogue – Enemy is set entirely in Jake G’s subconscious.
    [Note 2] Again, I was not in a normal frame of mind. The friend I saw this with seemed to think she reacted in pain to the glass crushing, so maybe I was just completely missing things.

  • Joe Janca

    It didn’t bother me that we didn’t spend much time with the revolutionary replicants, because that’s not what the movie is about. I think it all goes back to Robin Wright’s speech about humanity being built on a wall. Humans hate replicants. Replicants hate humans. Sure, the film could have delved into the tensions, but why does it need to? We’ve seen it countless times before. The important part isn’t any big, looming conflict. It’s K. It’s the individual and the choices he must make. It’s the fact that he sees both sides of the coin, and decides to go down his own path.

  • Brian

    Unorganized Responses

    Freysa was quietly introduced in the food court scene when she sent 3 escorts over to K. We didn’t know it at the time, but one of them (Mackenzie Davis’ Mariette) was also a replicant that belonged to Freysa’s Replicant Freedom Movement. Keep in mind, 2 of the 3 escorts walked off once they heard K was a Blade Runner. Lennie James’ character also recoiled at the sight of K, a blade runner. Coco, the murdered pathologist, also made a derogatory comment against “skin jobs” in front of K for which he apologized.

    K was tasked with retiring Nexus 8s, like Dave Bautista’s Sapper. Robin Wright’s character said there were only a few left like him that she wanted K to retire. The screen in K’s car showed 5-6 of them.

    Wallace has millions of replicants off-world while Freysa has been building her own army underground. Obviously, Deckard’s daughter Ana will be her biggest recruitment tool once she’s ready to reveal her and “break the world.” I don’t blame the filmmakers for establishing a thread that they could pursue in another film. It didn’t take away from the primary story/K’s journey and I kinda like knowing that a war is escalating (even if we never see it).

    I’d say that Robin Wright’s character sympathized with K. She best relayed the divide between the two sides while showing that she’d cross that line if the feeling was returned.

    I understand your issue with the last scene, however, it reminds me a lot of what VIlleneuve did in Sicario as Emily Blunt functioned as the audience’s surrogate. Once she (we) learned about del Toro’s character and her own role in his mission, the movie passed the baton between characters. In 2049’s case, we learned as K learned until he ultimately reunited us with Deckard. Once we were reunited with a character we already knew, the movie felt it could pivot between Deckard and K until K’s mission was complete (getting Deckard to his daughter).

    What I like most about K’s arc is that he was given orders the entire movie, whether it was Robin Wright’s character or Freysa (kill Deckard). Instead, he took the words that Freysa left him with (dying for the right cause is the most human thing replicants can do) and used them to do what HE felt was right: save Deckard and reunite him with Ana. He also realized that he has seen “a miracle” since he met Ana face to face.

    I encourage you to see the movie a second time as I picked up a lot more in my second viewing (as well as my third and fourth). There’s a brilliant touch in the last scene that I’ve yet to see anyone talk about yet.

  • Anthroman78

    Saying your opinion is invalid because you praised X film and now you’re hating on (or in Dave’s case have some problem with) Y film is the laziest of film critique responses. Homecoming and Blade Runner are two very different types of movies, it would surprise me if they didn’t elicit distinct responses, even in people who loved both of them.

  • Michael Kraig

    I agree with the total lack of context (emotional and narrative) given for Human Power Structure – versus – Replicants, and let me add something more fundamentally flawed: Luv’s killing of a police officer (and earlier, a autopsy specialist) in the HEART OF THE LAPD with no consequences or seeming difficulty in navigating what is earlier shown to be a very, very constrained place for K (those nerve-jamming white-room sessions for instance). and it’s not just the sloppiness of how easy it is for a very-violent, sociopathic replicant to kill in the heart of the organization THAT IS SHOWN AT THE BEGINNING TO BE A SPECIALIST IN KILLING REPLlCIANTS (!) far more peaceful and unassuming than her – it’s not just that, but to get to your critique: this is, seemingly, a an extremely acute power-play, factional fight between two opposed “factions” of Humanity: the police commander’s “don’t give an inch as an inch will break everything in Human’s mastery”, versus Wallace’s more ruthless and heartless, “I want them to have this one, last, human trait and quality….so that we can make them a slave class to build an empire upon.” Indeed, this “Human factional” or “civil” fight is SO under-explained and contextualized….that I have friends on FB, right now, claiming Wallace is himself a Replicant! And why not be this confused, when Luv kills one powerful human, to back up seemingly the agenda of ANOTHER powerful, yes, Human? To confuse things further: if Luv is enraged by the police commander’s throwing away of replicant birthing abilities — then where, how, why, does this counterpose her to the REVOLUTIONARY movement you find under-explained? Cuz, THEY are replicanst…and SHE is a replicant…AND BOTH are concerned with birthing capabilities….yet one is the enemy to the other, with one serving a human focused on teeming millions in servitude, and the others with simply replacing the police commander with themselves. Overall: it’s just damned sloppy storytelling, unfortunately.