Some thoughts on Bladerunner 2049 (with spoilers clearly marked)

This isn’t a comprehensive review, more an attempt to record my initial impressions after seeing the film last night. I’m sure there’s plenty of stuff I missed or misinterpreted on first viewing.

First off, there will be further viewings, because – thank ghu! – it was essentially sound. I liked it. I did not love it, but I didn’t expect to.

The original is my favourite film, by a long chalk. This may be due in part to seeing it not long after it came out, before the many later films it influenced. After moving out of Middle Earth in my early teens, this version of Los Angeles in 2019 became my creative heartland. I re-watched Bladerunner this weekend and was pleased, as I always am, both to rediscover how good it is – and not just the awesome cinematography and world-building, the whole damn thing – and to discover nuances I’d missed before. I don’t expect to still be doing that with the sequel after a dozen or more viewings. For the record, I watched the original, rather than any of the later cuts. I did this because that’s the version I know best, and also because his voice-over is the only way I can accept Deckard as a remotely sympathetic character, and I knew he would make an appearance in 2049; when he turned up I wanted to be glad to see him.

The plot of the new movie is a logical consequence of what went before, which is good. Those of us who know the story to date can work out where it’s going for ourselves before the answers are served up with accompanying diagrams for the non-geeks. There is a thing you don’t see coming and that’s good too, because a completely predictable story is boring. Having said that, I had a number of plot provisos/niggles which appear below, underneath the ‘spoiler’ banner.

It is also a visual and aural feast, though some people feel that makes the film too slow. Seeing it for the first time, on a big screen, I was fine with being immersed in the landscape for long periods of time. Or rather landscapes, plural: I love the Bladerunner version of LA, and I was comfortable with how the new film subtly updated it (although perhaps it didn’t need quite so many giant holographic feet), but much of the film takes place in other locations, and the main aesthetic influence beyond LA seems to be Mad Max. Which makes sense given the dystopia being explored, and gives more varied stuff to look at, though I was ambivalent about the other settings myself; the sense of claustrophobia in the original was one of its plus points for me. And I suspect that on re-watching, the excessive dwelling on scenery and slow panning shots might become boring. Irritating, even.

The world-building was generally good, with nice touches which credited the general audience with a good grasp of the genre, or perhaps just showed how far geek culture has penetrated the mainstream in the age of Hollywood ‘sci-fi’ blockbusters. Those touches and set-pieces largely worked, though again, there were some niggles and exceptions, mainly where style had triumphed over substance. These are pointed out in spoiler country, which you are about to enter…

========= (BELOW) HERE BE SPOILERS ============

So, what wasn’t so good? Firstly, outbreaks of that popular Hollywood disease, ‘the-plot-made-me-do-it’. Characters do stuff that doesn’t make sense for them, because they have to in order for the plot to make sense. Examples: Wallace eviscerating the faulty replicant (because it shows he’s Proper Evil); the wooden horse was Stelline’s most valued possession, yet she never recovered it from its hiding place (because K needs to find it later); Luv doesn’t just shoot K in the head and be done with it when she takes him out in Las Vegas (because he’s a Hero, and Can’t Die Yet). This latter led to some discussion in the household, as Himself, ever the romantic, thought Luv had a thing for K, which I don’t buy. More subtle but more damning is the resolution – or not – of a couple of the ambiguities from the first film.

It was those ambiguities, which I reminded myself of on the pre-cinema re-watch, that made the original really great as a film, not just as an SF film. One of them is whether Rachael loves Deckard: his seduction of her is unhealthy going on abusive, and though the common interpretation at the time was that she was just playing hard to get, I don’t think that’s it at all: sleeping with him is a matter of survival, but that doesn’t mean she enjoys it. We will, of course, never have that ambiguity resolved, and I’m fine with that, though her fate makes me even more sympathetic to her. Which made the scene where her V-K session with Deckard is replayed in the new film problematic for me, as K claimed she was leading Deckard on during it. Well that’s not how I see it. But I might be wrong.

(A quick interlude. One of the non-geek and rather hostile reviewers on radio 4 condemned the film as anti-feminist because all the female characters lack agency – they don’t, even if the protagonist and antagonist happen to be male – and because all the women are either cold bitches or powerless sex objects. And so they often are, in that commodified world. That’s part of the point. In that world women are (often but not always) either defined by or fighting against their identification as sex objects, while the men are (often but not always) cold bastards or psychos. Welcome to dystopia…)

With Deckard, the re-watch had me asking whether, as per the book, he’s a replicant too. His responses are so off, his people skills so appalling, that I concluded he must be. And now Wallace implies he is. Not that Wallace knows, thanks to the convenient data loss in the Blackout. But whether he is or not is way more important to the overall plot than any of the above glitches because the whole conceit here is ‘replicants can breed: this changes everything’ (not that it really does, given most cultures who used slaves breed them). It takes two to make a baby, so Deckard’s humanity – or not – is vital to Wallace’s Evil Plan. But we never see Deckard taking the test…

This brings me on to the set-up of the world. So replicants are more compliant now … except they aren’t. A whole lot of them have escaped to form the underground/rebel alliance and no one seems to have noticed. K is hated for being a ‘skin-job’ but is given no protection or support – not that such would be given out of kindness, but out of efficiency; if his neighbours had killed him as opposed to just graffiti-ing his door, LAPD would need to invest in a replacement Bladerunner. And I didn’t get how his conditioning test worked at all, though I might on a second viewing.

I liked some of the little back-references – like the piano key – but others bugged me; the photo enhancement unit is one of the cooler bits of tech in the orignal, but every other scene in 2049 seems to have someone asking tech to ‘track right and stop’ or suchlike. Having said that, the scene where Luv is controlling drone-strikes while getting a manicure did make me smile, or possibly grimace.

One last word on world-building – and this was the ultimate style over substance or rather style over world-logic: the change in the weather, with snow replacing rain, was apparently due to a nuclear winter, because there’s been a war (that no one mentions). That’s going to change rather more then the weather, isn’t it? Oh, and presumably all those bees in Las Vegas were living off a diet of radioactive sand…

So, that’s my initial brian-splurge. Do feel free to argue with any of the above.

 

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20 Responses to Some thoughts on Bladerunner 2049 (with spoilers clearly marked)

  1. cDave 10 October 2017 at 3:16 pm #

    My thought on the “Replicants are more compliant” thing is that that’s just marketing spiel. What’s really happened is that the Voight-Kampff test has been enhanced to the point where it can not only distinguish between replicants and humans, but tell something about a replicant’s state of mind. If it’s ‘off baseline’, it’s harbouring independent thoughts, and will be “retired” before it can act on them.

    • Jaine 10 October 2017 at 5:38 pm #

      Good point. I didn’t really get the regular tests K underwent on first viewing, but that makes sense of them.

      • c_Dave 10 October 2017 at 5:48 pm #

        I’d just finished reading Zendegi by Greg Egan, so was kinda prompted with the idea of using seemingly random images to trigger brain responses for mapping in a fancy FMRI machine.

        • Jaine 10 October 2017 at 6:17 pm #

          Yes, that is a fun trope, but the machine they used didn’t appear to be projecting images – unless they were direct to K’s retina, perhaps?

          • Ellie 10 October 2017 at 8:47 pm #

            If you can use images what’s to stop you using trigger words to re-enforce programming (this is the future after all) and evaluate their emotional state? fMRI can be done with words even intonation of spoken words and mapping the different areas that respond to the subtle differences in intoned speech patterns.

          • Jaine 10 October 2017 at 10:11 pm #

            Yes indeed. They could certainly do that with the level of tech shown. And that’s another plot wobble right there: if they could programme replicants that efficiently, K (and all those revels) would never break the programming.

          • Eleanor Winpenny 12 October 2017 at 8:24 am #

            Don’t read this if you don’t want some spoilers of the plot.

            Well the way I see it, and of course I could be wrong, but as they are given memories to cushion their cognitive existence, as was explained in the first movie, this leaves some room for the compliance programming to be negated. As the memories are programmed in, as is their base programme to be compliant, but as the memory designer had been putting in real, lived memories (as she points out, it’s illegal to do) this might be something that allows the base programming to be countered, like a virus. I don’t know really, I’m hypothesising on how the state of free will is coming about. this does play into the plot of the memory designer being the “messiah” of the piece, to free the replicants from the yoke of their existence, as Moses freed his people and Jesus died to free us all (from sin this time), remember her birth is referred to as “a miracle” at the start by a replicant. It’s an old story and Hollywood seems to be unable to get away from it, perhaps on purpose, or more likely, as they have lazy writers, There are many other things in the film that strike me as biblical in message in the film and the representation of women in the film is laughably biblical and two dimensional, but that’s just me opinion.

          • Jaine 12 October 2017 at 9:10 am #

            I hadn’t really picked up on the biblical underpinnings of the film, but now you point it out, they’re certainly there. Inevitably, as you say. I find I’m OK with that whole messianic resonance in a work that has the scope and breadth to accommodate it, and this film does.

            The implanted memory thing is a whole can of worms, and something I’ll be considering for a while to come I suspect, certainly when I re-watch the film. My initial thoughts are that giving replicants implanted memories to keep them stable is an exercise in futility if they know they memories are false and implanted, not real. I can’t see this making them more stable and compliant – quite the opposite. Yes, I need to think about this… might need to write a story of my own to work through it.

          • Eleanor Winpenny 12 October 2017 at 10:17 am #

            Well it is discussed in the first movie that without the implanted memories the replicants were unstable, so that’s just an established fact for the film, and as such, you just for to go with the logic. Whether it’s false in reality or not. Of course K does have the conversation with his boss about what’s the point of his memories if he knows their false, but on a sub-conscious level at least, going by the first film’s “logic” these serve a purpose to keep the replicant stable and allow them to be compliant to the wills of humans. It’s the implantation of “real, lived” memories that has caused issues. In the first film Rachel has real memories, those of Tyrell’s niece, remember the “and a hundred little baby spiders came out”, perhaps, and again, I am, hypotheising here, it was this implantation of real memories that could cause problems with the compliance and programming, as it is later banned and made illegal, as the memory programmer states, even though it’s her memory that she must have put into K memory, as she herself says “this memory has been lived”, perhaps she put this, or other memories into the replicants who abduct K, and so giving rise to the replicants that appear to have broken their compliance programme. As to her motivation do to this, if she did it consciously or unconsciously, we do not know. This is one of the reason I am wondering if they are setting up for another film, a sort of “Rise of the Replicant” job.

          • Jaine 12 October 2017 at 5:15 pm #

            Ah yes, of course Rachael’s memories were real and she went off piste, though the fact that she didn’t realise she was a replicant until Deckard told her can’t have helped there. I do like the idea that our possible-messiah is using real memories to subvert replicants. That’s a whole new ambiguity right there – which will hopefully developed.

          • Eleanor Winpenny 12 October 2017 at 6:44 pm #

            It is indeed. I wonder how they deal with the ethics of the replicants that are now there own species, in a way their own lifeform , biologically speaking, without the ability to reproduce you’re not “life” even viruses are not classed as life or part of the animal kingdom as they must use another species cellular machinery to reproduce. So they are definitely self-aware and self-determining, interesting questions that neither films actually answer but then they weren’t making that kind of film, of course we empathise with them, with their “more human than human” but humans are rightly afraid of them, they’re stronger and faster, having being built as slaves, to expand human horizons into new planets and wage wars, (the first replicant in the new film is a military medical replicant, but what happens when your slave race can breed for themselves and want their freedom? We’ll see if they do another film.

          • Jaine 13 October 2017 at 9:33 am #

            I hope they do – and I think they will, this being part of the Hollywood machine. And if so I hope they up the thought-provoking-to-prettiness-ration though, being part of the Hollywood machine, I’m not holding my breath on that.

  2. Lilian 10 October 2017 at 8:10 pm #

    I assumed the bees were robot bees along with usual Dickian tropes – they didnt seem to sting for example. I was more bothered about the dead tree at the start. Wood is more valuable than luve animals and no one came and scavenged it before K cane back to burn everything down?

    • Jaine 10 October 2017 at 10:09 pm #

      I must admit I assumed they did sting but K didn’t care/ feel it. The bees did seem pointless though – if they were robots, who made/maintains them? I’ve just chalked that one up to gratuitous prettiness. But that’s a good point about the tree – harvesting dead trees would be a lucrative business if wood was that rare. Again: I think they didn’t think this through in the way we do.

  3. Niall 12 October 2017 at 12:12 am #

    My thoughts after re-watching the original was mostly about the influence it had on Shadowrun, while watching the new one you can see the influence Shadowrun had on it.

    • Jaine 12 October 2017 at 9:04 am #

      Yes to the former. Oh yes, both generally and in my version of the game. Not sure about the other way round though, as I doubt most Hollywood types have even heard of Shadowrun.

      • Niall 13 October 2017 at 7:15 am #

        Shadowrun has been around for nearly 40 years now, so the younger ones could very well have encountered it at school or college. And the whole business of something happened and things changed and we’ve lost many records from before sounds so very close to the Shadowrun backstory.

        • Jaine 13 October 2017 at 9:34 am #

          The Blackout did remind me of the Shdaowrun Crash, yes. Happened about the same time too…

  4. Chris Turner 15 October 2017 at 8:44 pm #

    There is an official short Anime that explains some of what happened in between the two films, notably the Blackout which is also probably the cause of the snow

    • Jaine 17 October 2017 at 6:44 pm #

      Thanks for the link. Given I’m an anime fan, it was most pleasing to see the Bladerunner universe in anime format. I’m still not completely convinced by the logic though, as you’d need multiple airbursts to cause a global EMP wipe-out, and if it just hit the West Coast of the US, that would screw the US economy compared as to the rest of the world. Then again, for Hollywood movies, the world is the West Coast of the US, plus occasional brief trips to Paris or London.

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