Boy oh boy it’s been awhile since I’ve written one of these. My last post was in January, about 3 and a half months ago. I took a pause on the blog so that I could focus on my dissertation. And it paid off! I finished the dissertation, and just went through graduation. I still need to defend, but I don’t expect that to be a problem. I intended to come back to this a lot sooner, but I’m also job hunting, and planning to move whenever I get a job, so I’ve got a lot of things to do before that happens. And not knowing when it’s going to happen is not helping. So I don’t have anywhere to go, but I have to prep like I have to be on the other side of the country in a couple weeks. But regardless, I’m ready and excited for this post. This week’s films are:
Ridley Scott – Blade Runner (1982)
Denis Villeneuve – Blade Runner 2049 (2019)
I decided to do a series of films, mostly because I hadn’t yet seen Blade Runner 2049, and I was interested to sit down and watch it. I hadn’t heard a lot of raves about the newer film, so I was very curious about how it stood up to the original science fiction classic.
Let’s get into it.
Blade Runner (1982)
In the future, human cloning has been perfected. These clones, called Replicants, are carefully controlled and separated from the human population, mainly used as slave labor on developing worlds. After a Replicant uprising, they are limited to a 4 year life-span, and they are no longer allowed on Earth. Any that are found on Earth are hunted down and ‘retired’ by a specialized police force called Blade Runners. One of the best, Deckard, is called in to hunt down 4 Replicants that have recently been discovered on Earth: Roy Batty, Leon Kowalski, Pris, and Zhora. Deckard must discover their plan, and retire them before they complete it.
The film is directed by Ridley Scott as his follow-up to another all-time classic, Alien. It stars Harrison Ford, who was following up Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Empire Strikes Back. It also stars Sean Young, Rutger Hauer, and Edward James Olmos. Since there are several versions of the film out in the world, I should describe the various iterations. This film initially came out in 1982, but creative control was taken away from Ridley Scott during the editing process. The producers added a voiceover from Harrison Ford which they assumed made the film make more sense, and also included a ‘happy’ ending for the main characters. There was also an international version which included more violent scenes. About 10 years later, some new footage was discovered and a ‘director’s cut’ was produced, although Ridley Scott never officially approved the film. Finally, after another decade had passed, Scott was able to create his official preferred version, which removed the voiceovers along with some other changes. This was called “The Final Cut”. There is another version, called The Workprint, which was Scott’s last edited version before it was taken out of his hand during the original production. I am watching The Final Cut from the 2007 Blu-ray edition.
The film is a straight neo-noir detective story, but set in a near-future world in which Earth appears to be environmentally ravaged, and humans are moving off-world. Scott makes heavy use of noir lighting and themes, including the hard-boiled detective (Deckard), the femme fatale (Sean Young’s Rachel), and a seedy world with morality challenged characters.
When we first meet Deckard, he’s a retired Blade Runner, called in by his old boss, Bryant, for one last important case. Four Replicants have returned to Earth for unknown reasons, but one has been discovered working at the Tyrell corporation, which is the company that makes the Replicants. Byrant assumes they have some sort of plan involving their creator. Deckard does a standard call refusal before being strong armed into taking the case.
The Replicants are various model types, but all built with superhuman strength and abilities. Roy, the leader, is a soldier, built to be a fighter. Leon is designed as a worker, able to lift massive crates all day, and essentially invulnerable to standard damage. Zhora is some kind of entertainer, while Pris is a pleasure model (read: sex robot).
Accompanying him as his minder is Edward James Olmos’ character Gaff. Gaff is interesting, as he doesn’t talk much, but as other people are talking, he creates little origami creatures that are related to what’s happening. While Deckard and Bryant are talking, he creates a small origami chicken, we assume related to Deckard being afraid to take the case. This character trait will become important later on as the film progresses.
The rest of the story follows a fairly standard detective storyline. Deckard searches for clues, tracks down the Replicants, and retires them, sometimes with the help of others. But Deckard isn’t actually the most interesting character here. For that we have to turn to the Replicants.
The Replicants are very clearly a slave race. It’s not a metaphor, it’s stated plainly in the film. Society doesn’t seem to have any problem with this, even though Replicants look human and act human. We are told that they are designed without emotions, but might develop their own as they reach the end of their 4-year lifespan. Much like any oppressed people, their oppressors live in constant fear of an uprising, and carefully guard against their slaves gaining any kind of agency.
Another indictment of this separation between humans and Replicants is that the only way to tell the difference between human and Replicant with certainty is a complicated personality test designed to evoke emotional responses, which the Replicants should fail. This Voight-Kampff test involves a machine registering pupil and blood vessel response while an operator asks a series of questions like “You see a turtle on it’s back, it can’t get up without your help, but you aren’t helping it. Why aren’t you helping it?”
But in this world, humans are taught that Replicants aren’t real, and therefore it doesn’t matter what happens to them. Their creation is kept fairly vague in the film, but we do meet several ‘genetic engineers’ who create various parts of Replicants. In one instance, we meet J.F. Sebastian, who creates what he calls toys, but are living beings that he simply hasn’t given enough intelligence to question their existence. He doesn’t seem bothered by the ethical implications of his creations.
In addition to humans, animals are constantly replicated. It seems clear that real animals are either extinct or so rare that they might as well be.
Further complicating the Replicants is Rachel, a new ‘experiment’ created by Tyrell himself to be more human-like than other Replicants. When Deckard meets her, he is able to identify her as a Replicant, but not without extensive testing. Further, Rachel doesn’t know she’s a Replicant. The film invites us to consider the philosophical implications of these creations, and how they are treated through Deckard, who eventually falls in love with and protects Rachel. Because she is a Replicant on Earth, his duty is to ‘retire’ her. But as the film progresses he refuses to do so.
As the film progresses, Deckard is able to retire Zhora and Leon, but Roy and Pris gain the help of a genetic engineer named J.F. Sebastian and gain access to Tyrell himself. Roy’s goal is revealed. He is close to the end of his lifespan, and wants it to be extended. In the scene, he essentially asks his creator for a new life. He is told that a candle that burns twice as hot burns twice as fast. He is refused, and in response, he kills his creator. It’s a rare occurrence that anyone gets to meet their god, but Roy manages it, and by killing him, he takes his fate into his own hands.
The film ends with Deckard tracking down Pris and Roy, and having a final battle, which Deckard actually loses badly, but he is saved by the fact that Roy’s lifespan ends before he can kill Deckard. It’s never even clear that Roy wanted to kill Deckard. He makes one of the most famous film speeches of all time before he dies, the “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe…” speech.
The speech is a lamentation for how disposable the Replicants are, and an appeal for their value. It’s haunting, and Rutger Hauer is amazing as the Replicant Roy Batty. The acting in general is stellar in the film, and even Harrison Ford’s stoic delivery ends up working within the context of the world. Edward James Olmos in particular is wonderful in a small, but memorable and crucial role as Gaff. He had done a lot of TV work before this, but he hadn’t become the actor he’s known as today. Here he’s given bright blue contact lenses, and he adds a lot of physicality to the role, relying on a cane. He doesn’t have many lines, but he makes the most of all of them.
When the film initially came out, there was a popular fan theory that Deckard himself was a Replicant. This is enshrined as canon in our second film, so it’s worth exploring the clues that the film lays out to reveal this to us. The most obvious clue comes from Gaff, with his origami figures. As Deckard escapes with Rachel to their new life, he finds an origami unicorn. This seems to signify that a unicorn is something that isn’t real, but has to be manufactured just like Deckard. Deckard also has a dream about a unicorn earlier in the film. It is unclear whether it is his own dream, or if it was implanted. Rachel herself insists that she has her own memories of her mother, but of course, they were implanted by others. In addition, Rachel asks Deckard at one point if he’s ever taken the Voight-Kampff test himself, which he doesn’t answer.
Another clue might be considered the fact that while Deckard seems perfectly healthy, even though he spends a lot of the movie being beaten up and abused by Replicants with super strength, he seems to be fine, while other characters in the film either have serious developmental diseases, or other issues. J.F. Sebastian has a disorder that keeps him from moving off-world, while Gaff hobbles around on a cane the entire film. Earth is a broken world, slowly being deserted, but all the healthiest people seem to be Replicants, including Deckard.
Regardless, this film is an all-time science fiction classic. It’s been reworked and picked apart for decades. Will a sequel be able to hold up to the original?
Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
After the death of Tyrell in 2019 and more rebellions, the manufacture of Replicants was outlawed, ending the Tyrell Corporation. After the total collapse of ecosystems, an industrialist named Wallace perfected synthetic farming, saving society. Using this goodwill, he bought the remains of the Tyrell corporation, and invented a new Replicant that was perfectly obedient. Those remaining Replicants without a lifespan limit still survive 30 years after the death of Tyrell, and are still hunted by Blade Runners. This story focuses on a Replicant Blade Runner with a serial number instead of a name. After retiring a Blade Runner, he discovers a grave of another Replicant who appears to have gone through childbirth. He is tasked with finding this child of Replicants in order to maintain the status quo, but there are other people looking for the child, and whoever finds them first could control the future.
The film is directed by Denis Villeneuve, also known for the excellent alien encounter film Arrival from a few years ago, and stars Ryan Gosling as the Replicant detective. Harrison Ford returns as Deckard, and the film also includes Robin Wright, Jared Leto, Mackenzie Davis and Ana De Armas, along with a great cameo from Dave Bautista, who continually impresses me with his range as an actor.
Much like the first movie, this movie plays out like a detective story, without leaning as heavily on the noir themes as the first film. We still get some great cinematography, which is probably the strongest aspect of the film, but it isn’t immediately recognizable as a noir film.
Unlike the first movie, we’re told immediately that the Gosling character ‘K’ is a Replicant. We first see him as he is hunting down another older Replicant, played by Dave Bautista. Instead of some of his earlier roles where he’s essentially playing a bombastic action star, here he’s playing an old farmer, trying to live a quiet life away from the rest of the world.
This further indicts the system this society has put in place. Bautista’s character Sapper Morton isn’t planning a rebellion, or subverting the power structure, he’s contributing to society by producing much needed food. But K is not a judge, he’s just an officer of the law, there to complete his duty. According to some reports, this scene was meant to be in the original Blade Runner, as Deckard’s introduction, but was never shot.
As he leaves, he scans the area, discovering a suspicious box buried under a tree. Upon extracting it, they discover the bones of a Replicant, one that turns out to be Rachel, from the first film. Upon examining the body, they find evidence that she gave birth, something Replicant’s shouldn’t be able to do. It is revealed that at some point after the events of the first film, Deckard and Rachel had a child together, but Rachel died in childbirth, and the child was hidden away, for fear of what would happen to it if society discovered it. This creates the motivation for every character in the film.
Robin Wright’s character Lieutenant Joshi wants the child found and retired, to avoid the chaos that would ensue if humans discovered that Replicants could reproduce. We also meet Wallace, played by Jared Leto, the head of the corporation that now produces Replicants. He laments that he can’t produce Replicants fast enough, and that with more of his ‘slave race’, humans could conquer the stars completely. He wants the child to discover how Tyrell made Replicants that could reproduce so that he can more easily produce Replicants than his traditional manufacturing process.
While both sides are looking, we really only spend time with the process of K. Like the first film, it plays out like a standard detective story. He continually follows the clues, eventually leading him to Deckard. Unlike the first film, he is being monitored by the Wallace corporation, which captures Deckard in order to continue their work.
While Deckard appeared in charge of his own actions during the first film, K seems to be pulled along by events out of his control. The film does a great job of misdirecting us here, leading K to clues which seem to indicate that he might be the missing child. He has a memory of a wooden horse that he hid from children when he was a child. He assumed that it was implanted, but later on, when investigating an orphanage, he finds the place where he hid it, and it is still there. Visiting an individual who creates the memories to be implanted in Replicants, she confirms that someone lived that memory.
This is all finally revealed when K meets a resistance group of Replicants, who are keeping the child secret until the right moment to reveal her to the world. Upon hearing that the child is a female, it becomes clear to K and the audience that the actual hidden Replicant child is the memory expert that K has met earlier. He has the memory because she implanted her own memory into his mind, and perhaps the minds of many other Replicants.
The character of K is the main character, and the film spends a lot of time exploring his life outside of his work. He has a holographic girlfriend named Joi which seems to be one of his main character traits. This holographic character is his constant companion, particularly after he installs a device that allows her to appear wherever he is.
She is something of a sounding board, and a connection to a kind of humanity that he embodies. Even though he isn’t human, and knows he isn’t human, he still strives for various aspects of humanity. When he comes home, Joi greets him, and though he doesn’t appear to have access to well-prepared food, Joi puts a holographic steak dinner in front of him, over the top of his bowl of mush.
The film seems very interested in this aspect of K’s life, but we get just one scene with the resistance fighters that are attempting to change society. In this way, the film becomes less about the world, and much more personal to K, and even Deckard, who now has a chance to meet his daughter once he comes back from his self-imposed exile in an irradiated Las Vegas.
The setpieces are well-done, but the film falls down in a few important aspects, which I’ll discuss in the next section.
The Double Feature
The first film is an acknowledged film classic. It gives the audience enough information to understand the plot, but creates important subtext that rewards deeper viewing. The film is a story that reveals the world surrounding it.
The second film tries to reveal the inner world of a single character, K. But it doesn’t do a good job of revealing the world surrounding it. We get glimpses of it, when K goes to investigate an orphanage/work camp that used to house the missing child, and some glimpses of the life of Wallace along with his motivations.
But these scenes aren’t that interesting. When Wallace meets a newly created Replicant, still unaware of their surroundings, he lays out his entire motivation, that he wants to create these Replicants faster, so that they can help humans colonize the galaxy, but then he kills the one in front of him, for a reason that’s completely unclear to me. Later, he confronts Deckard, and shows him that he has recreated Rachel, exactly as she was when he first met her. The face replacement special effects are exceptional, but it doesn’t amount to much.
Likewise, the scenes revealing K’s inner-world are drawn out and excessive. We get many scenes of his interactions with Joi, including a sex scene which he shares with a prostitute played by Mackenzie Davis. Joi essentially overlays herself with Davis’ character, creating an effect where K can imagine he’s sleeping with a physical version of his holographic girlfriend. It’s an interesting idea, but it was more interesting when it was done by Her several years ago, and besides some neat visual effects, this version pales in comparison.
Taken by itself, the film is not bad, but needs to be cut-down considerably. Even with all the various version of the original film out there, they generally only differ by a few minutes in either direction. These are small tweaks to an already great film. Blade Runner 2049 might never be a great film, but it could be greatly improved by paring down scenes and dumping other scenes altogether.
In the end, while it stays in the same world, it’s a stark contrast, becoming a very personal artifact exploring the life of a Replicant, but fails to build an understanding of the characters in that world.
It’s been months since I’ve written one of these, and I really enjoyed sitting down and just focusing in on a pair of movies. It’s a really different experience from just watching a film casually, pausing it in the middle to get a drink or go to the bathroom, answering a text quickly while it runs. Really focusing changes the experience.
I’m not sure if I’m going to continue this as a weekly series, it’s a lot of effort, and takes up most of my Sunday to write these. But I’m going to proceed as if it will be a weekly occurrence.
For next week’s films, I’m going to be dipping into the newly created Criterion Channel. I was really upset with the loss of FilmStruck last year, but Criterion has made a new channel which largely follows the spirit of the original venture. Next weeks films will be:
Don Siegel – The Lineup (1958)
Blake Edwards – Experiment in Terror (1962)
These are both noir films, and I haven’t seen either. I’m looking forward to checking them out.
See you then.