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.