Dueling Reviews: Blade Runner 2049: The Edge of Human

Brian Russell:

I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time… like tears in rain… Time to die.

Blade Runner 2049 is Denis Villeneuve’s follow-up to the beloved classic, and he has created a visual and storytelling masterpiece. It is not a franchise film but big budget art house. Our hero, the replicant K (Ryan Gosling,) muses about having a soul and his boss, Madame (Robin Wright,) stops him cold: “You’re doing just fine without one,” she says. It isn’t really plot that drives this film, but questions: What does it mean to be human? Where does our soul come from?

The original Blade Runner (1982) failed in movie theaters in large measure because it is a slow reflection on humanity and not an action space opera. It discovered its audience with the dawn of home video, and with people who were willing to take their time digesting ideas. I myself first experienced it on VHS. It’s neo-noir depiction of the dystopian future entranced me and made me feel conflict and hope at the same time. It’s a picture I have seen maybe 20 or 30 times, and at least twice in theaters for re-releases. I never tire of it, and for me it is a near perfect story. And I never wanted a sequel … in fact feared a sequel would ruin the original. You don’t need to see it to appreciate the new film, but you should. And if you remember it being slow, know it is still slow but in such a deliberate and necessary way. You need to feel what Deckard (Harrison Ford) feels and you need to understand that being human may not be so clear cut as we have always been taught.

2049 picks up 30 years after the original … Deckard is missing, replicants have been refined, we have experienced complete planetary ecological collapse, and humanity appears to be … well, losing its humanness. New replicants hunt old replicants. The old are not hunted  because they have the homicidal tendencies of Roy and the Nexus-6 batch, but because they are just a little too human for comfort.

A central mystery confronts K early on … a mystery promising to reveal the essence of who he is (beyond a manufactured being,) both in the specific and the general. At the core, the mystery is made up of questions: How does artificial life affect our place in the world? When is it no longer artificial? These questions obviously have direct links and implications on my previous queries about humanity.

The pursuit of answers brings us to our antagonists. The Wallace Corporation (headed up by Jared Leto and a most fabulous Sylvia Hoeks as his number one henchwoman) takes over for the Tyrell Corporation, and races K for the answer to the mystery. And while this kind of plot can really destroy a movie, in this case it provides a compelling visual framework for K’s own self-discovery without sucking us into any kind of traditional “save the world” action extravaganza.

K pursues the mystery like a steady detective. Quiet, measured, one foot in front of the other. Ryan Gosling is not an actor I particularly like all that much. Strange since I have liked a bunch of his movies (Drive, La La Land, The Big Short, The Notebook.) His eternal calm, low & steady cadence, and non-traditional good looks ARE the reasons I don’t like him. Yet these very qualities make him the perfect man-machine. Like many of the very best actors, he conveys feelings and emotions and moves the plot along without the need to spew endless lines of dialogue. He is Spock and Data and Samantha (from Her) and Roy Batty all rolled into one. All he really wants is to find the soul he is doing fine without.

Everything about this film creates an experience meant to envelop us, make us part of K’s journey to unravel the quandry. And to make us want to know the answers — both K’s questions, and our own general wonderings regarding fate and future. The Vangelis-inspired score by Hanz Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch combined with Roger Deakins visuals create one of the most immersive world’s I have experienced on film.  More than Avatar’s 3D and perhaps on par with the IMAX version of Dunkirk, Blade Runner 2049 takes it’s time and let’s us live with K. The score is less music and more like punctuation and emotional outbursts. In other films I would find this musical texture grating, here it creates immediacy and nuance and creates emotional resonance.

As much as the score goes with the cinematography, the edit really is the connective tissue. The pace is slow, deliberate and gives you time to study everything. All the shots are beautiful, and many could be pulled as stills, framed and hung on the wall.

The rich textured cities of LA and Las Vegas feel real and unearthly at the same time.  The environment has collapsed after all, so this feels like a beautiful version of what that might look like.  Sometimes too beautiful … even the garbage looks spectacular. Hues of blue and orange set the mood, and we are never lost. I have no idea what is real and what is digital in this movie, and I never cared … I never felt at odds with the screen … while almost surreal at times, the environments felt present and tangible.

And perhaps I save the best for last:  Unless you have been living under a literal rock, you all know that Harrison Ford is back as Rick Deckard. Unlike my experience with Gosling, I have always loved Ford. But I can also say this is the first time I would call him a “good actor.” Not good … great.  He was the most believable he has ever been. He provides the emotional center. We believe in the sacrifices Deckard has made, and we believe he loves.

In the intervening years between the first film and this one, there have been many heated discussions surrounding the possibility that Deckard is a replicant. This movie will do nothing to stem those debates. In fact perhaps the best thing about this move is the same best thing about the original. I never wanted a sequel. A sequel could only ruin the most perfect ambiguity of the original. Technology meets nature.  Perhaps nature drives technology. Who is God? Does God guide nature or technology or people or replicants? Maybe we are all right at the edge of human. And to be ambiguous is to be human.

I give this movie Nexus 9.5 out of 10!

Christopher Maher:few weeks back I wrote this Blade Runner would ruin the original, and, as you said, to its credit it didn’t – or at least it ruined it in the most minimal ways possible (an ending will always be robbed of some impact if it is no longer an ending). So, without being overly concerned over the original Blade Runner, we can view this as its own movie (a sequel, but it’s own), and ask the more important questions: did it push new ground? Blade Runner asks, slowly but thoughtfully, how we’re going to be able to tell ourselves apart from machines (and if that really matters). Do humans have an exclusive right to the soul? Blade Runner: 2049 continues that discussion, and it’s smart to place the burden of that storytelling on a replicant this time.

Villenueve is a clever filmmaker and his follow up feels like a smart expansion of the original. As you noted, LA is crumbling, and the rest of the world seems even worse. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep Earth is nearly totally abandoned in favor of the off-world colonies, and while Blade Runner hinted at the beginning of this exodus, 2049 pushes it, hard, with San Diego and Las Vegas both essentially fallout zones. When Madame insists (in regards to the central mystery): “This breaks the world” you understand where she’s coming from. She looks around and sees a world dangerously close to collapse, while we may see a world already collapsed.

And it’s this beautiful dying world that makes me wish Blade Runner: 2049 spent a little more time outside, like it’s predecessor. As I felt with Arrival, and as I feared I’d feel going in with this, Villeneuve is almost too competent a filmmaker. His movies are too polished, too compact, and to borrow my analogy from my Arrival review, without any rough edges to catch yourself on, the movie almost slips out of your head when it’s done. I don’t love the original Blade Runner as much as most people I know, but Ridley Scott always makes movies that stick with you, that feel gangly and rough enough that your thoughts keep returning to them. Only time will tell if this gorgeous, sleek sequel will be able to do the same. Maybe I just bristle at idea of anything being an “instant-classic” – the last time we had dueling reviews I bashed Rogue One, which has only grown on me, so perhaps you will win once again.

BR:  Now, now Chris — it’s not about winning and losing! It’s about connecting with our human audience and making sure we still have our souls!

CM: Regardless of its staying power, Blade Runner: 2049 was a gorgeously shot film and a beautifully realized extension of the original. I was on the edge of my seat for most of the movie (except a rather slow beginning) and it wasn’t because of big action sequences, as with most big budget movies in recent years, but because of the movie’s introspection and thoughtfulness (and tense noir style plot). Maybe if it stays with me is inconsequential, too much to ask, but I’m hopeful in the end it does because it did explore difficult themes of soul, autonomy, and “humanness” with grace and style.

Blade Runner: 2049 was 9 humans out of 10 replicants.

OTHER THOUGHTS

BR: This movie is long — really long.  2 hours and 43 minutes long.  Villeneuve often lingers on transitional shots, journey shots or even characters just staring for as much as 20 or 30 seconds.  These shots look really cool but don’t really advance the story in any meaningful way. They may help give us the time we need to process. I think it’s worth it, it was worth it for me.  But in truth the film may not be for everyone. I’m sure many will argue the film could have easily been tightened up a good 45 minutes. That would fundamentally alter the pace and the feel though.

CM: I was reminded frequently throughout the movie of two books: G.E.B. by Douglas Hofstadter and Consciousness by Susan Blackmore (and of course Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep). In G.E.B.‘s conclusion Hofstadter argues that as we approach more human-like computers we will inherently be creating things with souls and selves – essentially that our “humanness” is a byproduct of our complex thinking systems, and one cannot exist without the other. Blackmore’s book examines a similar question: where does the “I” arise from? Is it a evolutional necessity, a byproduct of our intelligence, or something else? And finally, if you’ve never read the original book… well, I simply can’t recommend it enough. It is nearly nothing like either movie, and is a trip unto itself.

BR: There are three prequels that were produced in the lead up to 2049.  The are pretty cool:

CM: There’s one sort of vague plot point at the end of the movie that took me out of it, only because a lot of the conclusion hinged on it. To try to stay as vague as possible, there is a group who assures someone “we will reveal this to the world when the time is right”. But, honoring the trope, they never specify what the right time is, or even what they think the reveal will accomplish, or who the reveal is aimed at, etc.

BR: I haven’t read it, but my headline is borrowed from K.W. Jeter’s Novel Blade Runner 2: The Edge of Human. Also, the 1998 film Soldier starring Kurt Russell is weird and fun and according to the writer is intended to take place in the Blade Runner universe.

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