Dennis Villeneuve (Sicario , Arrival  and many other features) has taken up the Ridley Scott torch with confidence and precise attention to detail. Blade Runner 2049 (2017) interrogates the central question of the original Blade Runner (1982), but insistently presses the questions of human versus technology-based life, responsibility for creations, consumption and resource-stripping. Simultaneously it honours the original film without stomping all over the territory the 1982 classic marked out.
Examining Blade Runner 2049 brings to the fore of discussion the divergence of sequels, a bivalve opening in cinema of late. Sequels tend to go either by way of Marvel-mode franchises (branching from root stock films such as Thor [Kenneth Branagh, 2011], The Avengers [Joss Whedon, 2012]). The second branch is mad eup of those that expand the peripheries of their predecessors into new territories — arguably exemplified by films such as 28 Weeks Later (Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, 2007), the series Fargo (FX, 2014) spin off of the Coen brothers’ 1996 film of the same name, Mad Mad II: The Road Warrior(George Miller, 1981), Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015) and now Blade Runner 2049. It’s difficult to honor an artwork by recreating it in near replica in the Marvel-mode of sequels, though it is arguable financially ‘safe’. Instead, to produce divergent sequels, concessions must be made around screen-time and centrality of the previous protagonists (e.g. Harrison Ford’s character, Rachel, and minor characters beyond) must be shifted aside to peripheral, retrospective weight-bearers rather than the same characters found ~yet again~ in the pickle they were last time. Motivation-less overlords threaten the future of humanity, again.
Blade Runner 2049 has a twofold strength as both a sequel and a dystopian film that undercuts the mucky coating that gets left in your mouth after most recent blockbusters, these being a) attention to detail and b) writing strength.
A) Never underestimate the importance of a few dents, some dust and some reality in your scenes. Living in the years predicted by Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner now –where we can call someone on the other side of the planet — is by no means a slick clean one, but is instead filthy, gutter-garbage-clogged, rude, prejudice riddled and inhabited by an incoherent garble of cultural clashes. So, too, should the world of the near future be. Goddamned production value is high in this film (meaning, namely, the effects are nuanced, realistic, gritty-real and not overrun with digital fingerprints. Let me sniff the stink, not feel the slick cold press of CGI.) No film is limited by the era in which it is made, only by the methods of production it uses. To illustrate, the practical effects of Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993) stand the tests of time well, and remains true to the context of the film’s time without being rendered unbelievable by Gameboy-sized, pixelated raptors. In contrast, Avatar (James Cameron, 2009) is so densely saturated by the CGI that was limited by its time of production aged so rapidly that romantic dramas have employed similar quality computer generated images.
B) The writing worked with believable — expectable stakes. This is not a direct world ender in the form of a laser-beam wielded by a cackling super-villain. The notion of ‘Super’ (which has been rendered bland and definition-less in a backdrop of films where, as Dash of The Incredibles (Brad Bird, 2004) says miserably, ‘if everyone’s special, then nobody is.’ The endless drive for distinct and fear-awe-love-inducing characters (an endless battle which is a central tenet of cinema — creating relate-ability and inspiration, escapism in one) has recently created the flux of large-budget, CGI, tech and star-studded films. These films I refer to include Marvel’s The Avengers and other branches of superhero films, but ‘super’ as a high-concept character trait has crept into other non-superhero media, including John Wick (Chad Stahelski and Davud Leitch, 2014), BBC’s Sherlock (2010), Lucy (2014), throwing off the baseline’s for accessible protagonists. We can never match them on the ‘super’ level. Somehow our characters are only worthy of admiration or able to rise above the tide of supervlllains by their own non-normative traits, be it photographic memory, physical strength or fighting prowess.
In Blade Runner 2049, K is pressed upon by a complex political situation of which he is a pawn. The stakes are felt viscerally precisely because he is largely helpless within the ‘race’ system that dominates the Earth of 2049. Instead of being above and untouched by the rising political complexities (as say Tony Stark would remain exempt, as would Thor and others), K is tossed in the tide of prejudice directly. He is hit and bleeds, feels pain. Paradoxically, the ‘skin walker’ robot of the Blade Runner dystopia triggered more empathetic pain in me than the ‘human’ protagonists of many films of late.
I hope that Blade Runner 2049 can set a precedent for the allocation of film budgets to tell stories that interrogate our representation of women, our use of technology, and our consumption practices (food and resources and commodities all). The fetishized world of Marvel and other franchises obscure any potential the films have for productive storytelling. Instead they remain hollow vessels for the parasitic side-products of the franchise to travel onwards. Film as host, consumption as parasite.