Directed by Denis Villeneuve
by Sandy DeVito
A preface to my review (please read this, thanks): at the beginning and the end of the screener I attended, me and my fellow critics in attendance were read a statement by director Villenueve (at the beginning) and a list (at the end) of things he requested we not discuss in our reviews about the inner workings of this film, namely, virtually every major plot point. If I recall correctly, his reasoning was he wished all moviegoers to see this organically, without knowing the details, the way he says he intended it to be seen. Between the time I saw the film and now, writing this review (about 18 hours later or so), I've thought carefully about how I want to proceed with it. Since many of my issues with this film have to do with the inner workings of the plot that Villeneuve seems so intent on safeguarding, I feel I'm at an impasse. I can't write an honest review of this film without bringing up those plot points and their problems - therefore, I will do what I can to be respectful to the filmmakers' wishes without compromising my own objectives by writing this warning. If you don't want to be spoiled - if you want to go into this film not knowing anything about the plot, the characters, or the exposition, please, do not read my review. It will spoil some things for you. It will take away some surprises and secrets that Villeneuve seems so desperate to maintain. Why would he ask this of us, a group of film critics, two days before the wide release of this film? I have no idea. It seemed anticlimactic and excessive to me, if I'm being totally honest. He's within his rights to ask this, but I'm also within mine to talk about the film as honestly as I feel I need to. So there. That's that. Read my review if you want to. Don't read it if you are avoiding spoilers. But I need to write the review that is true to my feelings.
This movie has problems. There is much in the way of visual wonder here, and I can see that Roger Deakins' work on this, which is undoubtedly masterful, will be lauded for years to come. He deserves that praise. His eye for the beauty in color, light, and composition is second to none and puts most of the cinematographers working today to shame. I'm a great admirer of his work on the films of the Coen Brothers, and on a more personal note, of his beautiful work on Agnieszka Holland's The Secret Garden, a gothic masterpiece wrapped in a children's story. As film is a visual art form, I don't wish to sell the visual beauty of this film short. It's beautiful to look at, and in a theater, it's sometimes breathtaking. If marveling at its optic delights was all this film asked of us, I would've been happy in the journey. Alas, there is a story here that wants us to immerse ourselves in it, actively wants us to care. And I cared; maybe just not the way this movie wanted me to. I cared that I felt exploited and uncomfortable in its world, I cared that it rang hollow and felt unfair when it was prodding me to feel emotions, I cared that almost every woman, whether she's human or Replicant, dies badly, I cared that every actor of color was shunted to a side-role, I cared that the only Replicants who were humanized and given nuance were the males. I cared that in a fictional world that's meant to be some shade of a parallel future, nothing has really gotten better for women or people of color. In this world, we're still side-characters. We're still exploited for whatever a white, male world sees fit to use us for. Women's bodies are still manipulated and splashed across buildings, nipples erect, just bigger, brighter and more 3-D than ever before. I cared that in this world, we are more objectified than even in the Blade Runner universe's past.
One of my major complaints about this film is what felt like an active commodification and exploitation of the female body. A major point is made that the Replicants only feel human now that it's clear two Replicants made a child together. That Replicants can, apparently, only be autonomous and worthy if they can have offspring, regardless of their programming. Villeneuve seems to have a strange running discourse in his films about the female body being "magical" because it can bear children; Arrival has the same strange undertone. It's as if women are important and special only insomuch as we can be serviceable to greater mankind - that our own desires and dreams are irrelevant next to certain necessities, especially our "destinies" as mothers. There's a scene where Jared Leto's villain, Niander Wallace, creates a new, female Replicant whose confusion and pain at her strange birth he seems indifferent to. He gives a lengthy monologue about her, circling her and prodding her, before making a point about the bearing of children, grabbing her womb and abdomen, before gutting her with a knife. It's not enough that Leto is clearly supposed to be amoral in the context of the scene; we are forced to be his accomplice, objectifying the Replicant and her naked body through his words and the eye of the camera. She serves no purpose but to service the scene. Likewise the AI, non-corporeal Joi (Ana de Armas), exists only to please K (Ryan Gosling), literally a gift from his work. Her function in the narrative is to be a caregiver to him, to be nurturing and sweet, to be his comfort, never to be autonomous but to follow him and keep him company. Her form, later, is emblazoned in pink on the side of a skyscraper, her breasts huge and nipples pointed, her buttocks emphasized. When K goes to an area where it's rumored he can find Deckard (Harrison Ford), now in hiding, we learn through later exposition it used to be a pleasure resort, where patrons would gamble, drink, and seek prostitutes. When we enter this deserted place for the first time, however, we don't know where we are - we're just privy to giant states of open-mouthed women, their nipples parallel to each other, giant legs in high heels, and other statues resembling women in compromising, seductive positions. Why showcase these statues? To ogle at the feminine form. We aren't given a choice in the matter: we're forced to gaze upon them, for that's where the camera lingers. The female body is an object in the world in Blade Runner 2049 - and though its male Replicants can feel pain, nobility, righteous anger, and sadness, its women are always one-dimensional or far away from us, beautiful, cold dolls, distant and untouchable, silent, or in the case of Sylvia Hoeks' Luv (a name that only further drives home her dehumanization rather than making her more real), nefarious and unfeeling. Even the Red Herring, Stelline (Carla Juri), as integral as she ends up being to the plot, is given only one real scene, where she speaks very softly, and acts very quietly. Robin Wright's Joshi is steely and speaks in clipped sentences, or shouts, before being violently murdered. Mackenzie Davis' Mariette is pushed from scene to scene, appearing conveniently at K's apartment to have strange holographic sex with him and Joi, a scene I could not fathom the use of to the audience beyond some bizarre male threesome fantasy. Hiam Abbass' Freysa appears only to deliver one monologue that moves the narrative from point A to point B. Sean Young is present only as yet another nostalgic CGI creation, her real face never visible to us (though the story has no problem showcasing the craggy, deepening lines of Harrison Ford's), merely the afterimage of celluloid. Deckard knows she isn't the real Rachel, and I'm afraid we do too; Sean Young is a real person, and she's still alive, and her name is in the credits, but you wouldn't know it from the scene. In the context of this story she's dead, because this perpetuates the tired trope that old women have no place in history or in fantasy beyond their status as crones or caregivers.
This movie is about an hour too long. At two hours and 43 minutes, this approaches mini-series territory. There was a point where, after a long day of work and two hours sitting in a dark theater with endlessly impressive shots playing out before me, another third of the film still to go, my eyes started to get excessively dry and my vision began to blur. I'm of the mind that a film shouldn't exceed two hours unless there's a dire need for it; two and a half hours is the cut off point for the medium. If the story can't be told in two and a half hours, the art of the INTERMISSION needs to be brought back, or the creators need to seriously consider if it should be a series. I need to pee sometimes, drink some water occasionally. I'm human, and I've not yet transcended these earthly coils. TV is now just as impressive and big-budget as film - the final season of Game of Thrones will have a reported budget of $15 million per episode. If you want to invest in highly artistic long-form storytelling, you can do that in ways you never could in the past - but it's kinder to your audience if you give them a break now and then. I'm sure there are also some people out there who love really long films. Who really love every long-ass moment of McConaughey staring at things in space in Interstellar. I am not that person. There's a point where I can no longer focus on what's happening and my brain starts to feel like a Jell-O cake, but this is a film where there's constant expository dialogue. I held my pee and didn't look away for three hours because I felt that if I stepped out for even a minute, the rest of the film just wouldn't make any sense. In a film this long, that's a shortcoming.
Writing this review is a slog for me so far, honestly, and watching this film held a certain despair. As beautiful as it was to stare at, my heart sank again and again. "Gee, how awful," I thought. "This is supposed to be the future, but things certainly haven't gotten any better for women or people of color." White men are still in charge of everything, at the end of the day. White men are still doing the "important" work, even the robot men. Are there even any female Blade Runners? Who knows! We never see them. The only black man to have extended dialogue, Cotton (Lennie James) is hit in the face by K within moments of meeting him, blood streaming down from his nose. Other people of color appear now and then, scattered about, with a line or two of dialogue, but they only serve to further the ends of the white characters, and then they disappear like puffs of smoke. Who are they? What are their stories? Who knows. Who cares, the narrative seems to say to us. This is about a handsome white robot man looking for this magical child. Maybe somebody else will give these other people a story to be in. Maybe some other day. Hey, let's get back to what's important. K wants to have a dad. He wants to be a real boy! Feel sad for him.
Ryan Gosling is perfectly serviceable regarding what this role asks of him (some strategic mist and a high collar also help with a general air of mysteriousness), but Ryan Gosling is not Harrison Ford. Over the course of the half hour or so Ford appears in this film in his best grass-cutting clothes (yeah, he's splashed all over the promotional material, but for almost two hours, he's nowhere to be seen), I realized that few contemporary actors could ever hope to be half as good as emoting with a small shift in their facial expression as Harrison Ford. Gosling spends most of the film wearing one expression that I interpreted mostly as sleepiness. His face just isn't very expressive. Ford can make you feel four emotions over the course of 20 seconds. Where in the original, his Rick Deckard can seem to burst with virile anger or cry or laugh within moments, his eyes sparkling above a smirk of wry humor, Gosling's K seems unsure if he's even real himself. He's a Replicant, right? Isn't that just normal? But the narrative emphasizes again and again that Replicants do, in fact, feel, and suffer, and are, for all intents and purposes, real in that they experience much in the way of emotion as humans do. When K finally does scream in anguish, it feels like too little, too late. It feels contrived.
I'd be interested in Villeneuve's justification for Joi as a character in the context of the film, but since she was on the list of things he asked us not to talk about, I'm not sure when or if this explanation from him will ever materialize. I thought long and hard about her place in the story from the way she's written, beyond being a love interest for K, and couldn't come up with one. I don't care what anyone says, it was absolutely possible to give her a wider role in this film - after all, Rachel is such an integral, real part of the original Blade Runner. Then again, Ridley Scott makes spaces in his films for real, nuanced women, women who remind me of women I know in my daily life, strong and complex and emotional and brave and so much more than their bodies or their faces or their ability to make children. Villeneuve seems to struggle to create similar spaces - just having female bodies in your film is not enough, and making every narrative about a moral woman centered on the idea of childbirth or caregiving is antiquated and misguided at best, dehumanizing at worst.
Whenever I watch this film again, I have a feeling most of the initial visual blinders will fall off on a smaller, home-sized TV screen, and the flaws that are abundant here will become all the more glaringly obvious. Try as it might to blind us from the story's problems with an intense visual splendor, Blade Runner 2049 cannot hide its gaping, hollow center. Empty is our grasping, nostalgic, patina-tinted desire for the past; Blade Runner 2049 is that desperate nostalgia, without the nuance of its predecessor and twice as much problematic junk, because lightning in a bottle can only be captured once, and neon boobs are a poor substitute for well-written female characters. At least they didn't slap a CGI Rutger Hauer in here, too.