It’s been more than 1 year since the sequel of the legendary Blade Runner was released. I loved the original, even if I discovered it late in life. I did love the sequel too, for most different reasons compared to the 1982’s one. I didn’t review 2049 when I first saw it in the cinemas last year as I wanted to check how it would withstand the passing of time and a first rewatch, duly done now.
It is time for some observations then.
Not many movies have been reviewed on Paper Sounds. Actually, this is the first one. I don’t personally have a long list of movies I love, being more a music+book fan. Yet from time to time a movie that touches the right cords and stays with me for a long time comes out.
Blade Runner was one. And Blade Runner 2049 matched the original in this. Yet there are a lot of things, feelings, hints, technical aspects that felt missing in the sequel while the original achieved; many critics and fans alike missed a few very important nuances and messages of 2049 that make it the greatest sci-fi movie of this century.
There it is. I said it. Feel free to disagree in the comments 🙂
But clearly it isn’t perfect. I won’t dwell too much on the diatribe about which is better, the original or the sequel. Each has some advantages over the other. I’ll briefly go over these in the next section and then move to the meat of the article.
Blade Runner can’t be surpassed
The original Blade Runner is one of those very few movies that can’t truly be beaten by any sequel. It’s like listening to a Queen cover, no matter how well executed you’ll always end up thinking “oh yes, it’s good, but, you know, there’s no Freddie…”.
Blade Runner had that “Freddie element”. That you can’t exactly pinpoint what it is but it envelopes the whole movie and make it sort of “magical”, different, outside of comparisons, impossible to remake in the same way later.
Personally I believe it is a mix of a few components. A giant of cinematography in his prime, Ridley Scott, a giant of sci-fi with one of his more endearing and philosophical stories, Philip K. Dick, a massively talented composer, Vangelis, Harrison Ford in one of his best roles, Rutger Hauer with that legendary tears in rain monologue. All things combined, it was like a football team where 5-6 of the best players of the epoch were reunited for a single, brilliant, season.
It doesn’t happen often and when it does masterpiece is the word we give to the result. That means that the original Blade Runner, as far as sci-fi movies with a noir, steampunk feeling can’t really be surpassed. Not in our lifetime, most probably.
Therefore Blade Runner 2049 was up against a giant of a movie and one born under special circumstances, perhaps unique. It couldn’t best it, it didn’t. It lacked the marvelous Vangelis soundtrack and the visionary atmosphere of the original movie, of which it missed the scope and originality. The sequel was born out of a different era of movies and it shows: it is less “japanesque” than the original, less steampunk, less noir, more polished, slightly more gritty and a bit more action movie. It is what an audience of post 2000s would expect from a movie but that meant aiming lower than the original, which instead tried to be different and managed to. Critics didn’t like it, nor public did, nor until much later. It was misunderstood. Partly the fate that 2049 faced too but on a lower grade, as it was more in accord with what the public expected of a movie.
Audience liked 2049 more than the original. Critics too. Considering the first months after its release. Yet it wasn’t a resounding success in term of public nor of cult status. I fear it may never reach it as the first one did over time. For the reasons stated above but not only.
What actually missed Blade Runner 2049?
A few aspects. Firstly, it couldn’t be as original as the 1982 masterpiece, being a sequel. Villeneuve did introduce motifs, and one in particular, that are innovative yet plenty of those who watched the movie failed to catch them. I’ll return on this later.
The soundtrack was subpar compared to the scope of the movie. Slower and without instruments that would pinpoint key moments of the movie, it mostly flows undetected. While Vangelis’ soundtrack was part of the movie, and enhanced it, Zimmer’s accompanies it, without adding any theme. This is the main mistake and component missing from 2049 in my opinion.
Secondly, the sequel is way less gritty and comes across as more “polished” than the original. Only 30 years passed from the first movie to the second in the internal timeline, yet there’s a great deal less of poverty, sociopaths, disorganization, raunchy advertisement (with Joi’s huge exception). The slums of the 2049 Los Angeles look less like an Hong Kong of the future and more like a 1984 society where more is under control, more is technologically-based, more is regimented, more is put under the light of the state and less hidden from it. Everything is more empty also, which probably was a precise choice to enhance the, stunning, visual effects of the city and its surroundings.
All this creates a feeling of a colder world, leading to less empathy towards it from the viewers. Humans may have more control over the replicants, the world has made important technological advancements but humans are still a sorry bunch, scrounging day after day. But this last image lacks in 2049, it is hinted at, perhaps take for granted, but shown less. A number of scenes of Deckard walking the streets, eating at fast food joints, interacting with the lowborns and the lunatics gave the spectator a fuller image of Blade Runner’s world, even more realistic.
A sheer difference in this regard can be noticed from the police station in the 2 movies: Robin Wright seems a lieutenant of Waffen-SS directing a spaceship; compare her with the humbler, overweight, smoking police officer talking with Deckard in the original movie. A wholly different visual experience.
This is a much bigger component that is missing in 2049 than most acknowledged. There are a handful of main characters moving on a background that is more empty of realism than in the first movie.
Again, this is another result of being a movie of a wholly different era. 2049 is a child of post 2000s scifi movies, in good and bad. Can’t escape it. Nor it wanted to.
Third, but probably not least component missing in 2049: Roy Batty. Let me get this straight: no movie can survive a truly bad evil character. Roy was not the evilest one, not at all, but had a lot of personality, partly due to the purpose he had, surviving its programmed death, that made him immediately relatable. In 2049 a similar purpose is on the main character, K, but it is different: whereas Roy wanted to be better than humans by not having to die, K wanted to be an human, 100%, by experiencing life in full, with sex, romance and childhood memories.
Both are quite relatable objectives but the fact that the original put this end in the main antagonist made it more encompassing and the movie more nuanced.
In 2049 the antagonist is Luv, another replicant, totally the opposite of Roy: cold, containing her feelings, not doubting orders given, relentless. In a word, cold as ice, again. Not a match for the personality of Roy. Jared Leto‘s character, Niander Wallace, would have had the potential for matching Roy’s personality but it mostly lurks around the story, appearing more in the role of a visionary than a true evil agent. Perhaps a third Blade Runner will have him as main antagonist?
Ah, and, obviously, in favor of Roy played his Tears in rain monologue. Straight into iconic material from the first airing.
Blade Runner 2049 missed these aspects of the original yet it is by no means a less than great movie. No. Technically superior to the original, it also adds new themes, one in particular, that are innovative and intriguing, perhaps so innovative that most fans missed it. That alone redeems any mistakes or missed aspects.
What fans missed about Blade Runner 2049
We’re entering straight spoiler area here so, even if I doubt anybody hasn’t watched it yet, stop reading if you plan to watch the sequel.
For everybody else, let’s get into what it is the main theme of Blade Runner 2049 and what most of the public missed.
Blade Runner 2049 turns the page compared to the original. Whereas in 1982 the theme was if replicants could be considered humans, if they held the same rights, experienced the same feelings and were a perfect reproduction of humans, or perhaps better than, in the 2017’s movie the question is: what makes us humans?
We have a completely different perspective. The original granted “humanity” to humans, never doubted we were the paragon against which all other living beings, artificial life included obviously, was compared with; in the sequel we have replicants that have a vast range of feelings, rage, sadness, love, self-sacrifice etc., replicants that can have sex, can reproduce themselves, can have children, can collaborate among themselves for a greater objective than their immediate needs, can disobey orders and show having a conscience.
What is left to us humans? What is the exception that makes us consider ourselves different, and inherently superiors, to artificial life?
2049 challenges this assumption. 2049 dares us to think as not special, not superior, not an exception in the universe, not even on our own Earth. Replicants have become humans, or perhaps humans were always like replicants. There’s no more any justification from humanity to treat artificial life as slaves to our needs, sacrificable, dispensable, a tool that is subject to our own rules. No. They are like us now, they can’t be disregarded anymore.
Be aware that this is very different from other scifi movies where alien form of life show the same empathy, conscience, intelligence and morality of humans. Those proved that another, different, form of life, elsewhere, could be born outside of our control, outside of our knowing, with separate objectives, needs, ethics and culture. As a New World with different precolombian cultures didn’t change what those in the Old World considered themselves to be, didn’t change their own identity, or consideration of, in Blade Runner 2049 we have artificial life in the semblance of humans proving that they are utterly identical with us, challenging thus our own identity, our own feelings of unicity. We created something that is actually us, no more and no less. Talk about shattering one’s identity.
It isn’t about Engineers creating Xenomorphs, it isn’t about E.T. visiting us, it isn’t about intelligent aliens trying to establish a contact by learning our language, a la Arrival. It is about us. Blade Runner 2049 is a scifi movie that actually uses scifi tropes to make us reflect on our own existence. It goes beyond mere scifi then.
It is more a nephew of 2001 A Space Odissey than of Aliens, Arrival or Avatar. The only recent comparison is A.I. but that was not so ambitious in scope. Blade Runner 2049 feasts upon the rich world of the original and dares to go beyond it.
It’s pretty sad that most critics and the general public missed the important theme underlining the whole movie. Lack of self-reflection perhaps? Who knows. Yet it pains me that Blade Runner 2049 may end up being considered just a good sequel of the original Blade Runner. It advances not only the story but also the themes of it in a deep manner, without being excessively pensive or philosophical. Just enough to make you think. If it didn’t, you did miss out the message of the movie. Go rewatch it then. It is head, and definitely also shoulders, above any other scifi movie of the last 20 years.