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On Blade Runner 2049

Spoilers ahead, obviously. Although I don’t go into much detail.

We saw it in the Rio in Dalston, because all the Hackney Picturehouse showings were full (or at least just had a couple of separated seats left). Which makes me surprised to read these stories about it not doing very well on opening weekend. And weirdly, from the balcony. I don’t know when I was last in a cinema with a balcony. I mean, the Rio, obviously, though probably not since Harry Potter 8; but I hadn’t been in the balcony before, and I don’t think I even realised that it had one.

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But to the film of the moment. I tried to lower my expectations, I really did. But I’d read that Guardian review, which was so unbelievably glowing. I listened to Mitch Benn hoping they wouldn’t fuck it up and believed that they hadn’t.

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But…

OK, they haven’t fucked it up. But I’m going to have to break ranks with all the legions of of newspaper reviewers who love it to death & back (honestly, I can hardly find a bad, or even a mixed, review), and nearly everyone else.

Because I didn’t enjoy it all that much. I spent a lot of the time (of which there is a lot) saying, “What the fuck is going on here? Why did they do that?” The former is fine, as long as it becomes clear over time, which it generally did. The latter less so: understanding characters’ motivations is fundamental to understanding and enjoying a work of fiction.

But much worse than those: I spent some of the time bored.

The main reason for that is that it’s paced like an 80s movie. Which is to say, much more slowly than we are used to today.

I should have expected that, I suppose. The original Blade Runner moves slowly even by 80s standards. That’s part of its visual and storytelling style. So it’s reasonable that a sequel, even one thirty years later, should follow suit. But they could have picked the pace up a bit.

The reviews all describe it as “thought-provoking” or similar and it’s true that the questions of what it means to be human or to be artificial are in there. But to my mind there’s not enough of that. Which in a way is linked to another problem: world-building.

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As before the world is very visually striking. What we have is the world of Blade Runner with thirty years of technological advancements. Like the film, the pace of advancement has been slow, but I suppose that’s not surprising, given how damaged the world is.

But slowly or quickly, technology advances in parallel with a conversation about that technology. What’s missing here is any in-world debate about the legal and ethical status of replicants. Certainly there’s a nod to the idea that the casual use of “skin-job” is insulting and shouldn’t be used. But it never seemed that insulting anyway — indeed I think it’s only the voiceover version of the original that tells us it is an insult. Deckard likens it to the n-word. (He does so using that word, which, rightly, would not happen today.)

In a more realistic world there would be a debate about replicants. There would be rights groups campaigning against using them as slaves, and even for them to be given full citizenship status. And from others there would be discrimination against them, abuse of them. That could all be going on in the background of this society — and the debate is not what the film is about — but I think a small acknowledgement that the debate existed would at least hint at a richer society.

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That all applies to the original too, of course, but now it’s much more common for the replicants to be living among humans on Earth, so the conversation would be that much more active.

And speaking of that commonality of the replicants on Earth, one question you might ask is, are there any humans actually left on Earth? Because only two characters appear to be unambiguously human.

One is K’s boss in the LAPD, Lt Joshi, who could unknowingly be a replicant, though nothing suggests that. The other, Ana Stelline, who creates the memories that are implanted in replicants. She lives in isolation because of sensitivity to the environment, and the implication is that only a human can provide the memories. But since not all of the memories are actually hers, all that needs is gift for imaginative imagery. And, now that we know that replicants are fully-biological beings who can reproduce (whether only with each other or also with humans is unknown), then anything is possible.

The situation appears to be that anyone with the money and without any disqualifying problem has left Earth. “A new life awaits you in the offworld colonies,” after all. I always suspected that the colonies would consist of grinding hardship based on subsistence farming, but I suppose the idea is you have replicant slaves to do the work.

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The Earth that we see is incredibly empty. The original’s LA streets were packed with people, but now it seems sparsely populated at best. Empty highways — because of course nobody’s driving cars anymore. But the air is empty too. Mostly there’s only ever one car flying at a time. All those giant buildings might be filled with people, but you don’t get any sense of them being there.

San Diego is a literal dump, and Las Vegas a nuclear wasteland. Apart from the still-standing casino hotel, of course. A million bottles of whisky and you choose Johnnie Walker Black Label? Come on. (That brand is owned by Diageo, though, which is the first of the big neon advertising signs you see.)

I don’t know, I wonder if it was just my expectation of something more striking, more startling. Don’t get me wrong: I didn’t hate it, or even dislike it. I was just disappointed by it. Yet I think I want to see it again.

I loved the music, by the way, though it was perhaps a bit overwhelming in places.

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And as a last thought: I still see people talking about the replicants being ‘robots’ or ‘androids.’ If it wasn’t clear from the first film, where they bled what seemed to be blood, it is powerfully obvious now: there are no robots in these films. The replicants are fully biological. They are probably more like clones, genetically engineered for enhanced strength and stamina.

The original book had androids (the clue was in the title); but not these films.

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