Friday, 6 October 2017
Blade Runner 2049 | review by Rafe McGregor
I qualified my review of The Voyage of the Moonstone in TQF 55 with the admission that my emotional and financial investment in the late Joe Dever’s gamebook series precluded any objectivity in my review. I must make a similar disclaimer here, although it’s more of an emotional and intellectual investment. Watching Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner at the drive-in – probably in late 1982, the year of its release – is one of my first memories of the big screen. At the time, my main interest on the small screen was cop shows rather than sci-fi, more Miami Vice than Star Trek, and my parents had told me that Blade Runner was a cop film set in the future in order to pique my interest. Strictly speaking, they were right – blade runners are police officers – and part of the film’s continuing appeal is the way it merges elements from the crime, romance, and speculative genres. Another reason for its first cult and then mainstream popularity is the number of versions that have been screened from 1982 to 2007. If we exclude those edited for television and minor alterations in the Swedish release, the IMDb lists six. Excluding the two shown as previews in 1982 leaves: the International Cut (1982), the Domestic Cut (1982), the Director’s Cut (1992), and the Final Cut (2007). The Domestic Cut is the International Cut edited for graphic violence and the Final Cut is billed as the definitive Director’s Cut, so we can concentrate on two distinct cuts, International (which was very likely the one I saw in 1982) and Final (Blade Runner: The Final Cut [5-Disc Ultimate Collectors’ Edition] has pride of place in my DVD collection).
What is particularly remarkable about these two cuts is that although they are the same length (113 minutes) and have only minor alterations, the story they tell is almost completely different. The changes are: the removal of Deckard’s voiceover narration, the change of a single word in Batty’s dialogue, the insertion of a short dream sequence, and the removal of the happy ending. The removal of the voiceover and the insertion of the dream about a unicorn combine to represent blade runner Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) as a replicant (androids that are almost identical to human beings) rather than a human being. Significantly, he does not know that he is a replicant until the final few seconds of the film, before he escapes with Rachael (Sean Young), who is also a replicant who thinks she is a human being. The narrative of the Final Cut puts the film firmly in the speculative rather than crime genre and given my early exposure to and enjoyment of the International Cut, I was deeply disappointed when I first saw the Director’s Cut at the movies in 1992. I could see how the change improved the story in some ways, but was adamant that the original combination of detective character and science fiction setting was superior in all those that mattered. Nearly twenty years later, I attended a symposium on Film, Philosophy, and Death at the University of York where a professor from St Andrews was speaking on the themes of empathy and mortality in Blade Runner. One lecture and a brief conversation later, I was convinced I’d been wrong and eventually wrote a short essay on the merits of the Final Cut for the journal Aesthetic Investigations.
Having finally (no pun intended) wrestled the problem of the better Blade Runner into submission, I was disconcerted to hear that Ford had a role in the sequel – to the Final Cut, we presume – Blade Runner 2049. Because of their potential threat to human beings replicants are constructed with a built-in failsafe, a lifespan that is limited to four years from inception. If one watches the Final Cut after the International Cut, as many viewers will have, one may carry the suggestion from the earlier film that the latest version of replicant has been allotted a longer lifespan, but one thing that replicants do not do is age. Short or long, they are automatons rather than organisms and, as the famous scene in which Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) expires shows, they simply short-circuit and become inanimate. So, if Deckard is indeed a replicant, which was the whole point of the change from International Cut to Final Cut, then whether or not he is still alive in 2049, one thing he should not be is thirty years older. Ford was forty in 1982 and is now seventy-five, reflecting the apparent aging of Deckard thirty years after all the versions of the first film, which is set in 2019. If Deckard has aged, then Blade Runner 2049 appeared to be a retcon (short for retroactive continuity) rather than a sequel or reboot. My concerns were amplified by Alien: Covenant (reviewed in TQF 60), where Scott (credited as executive producer of Blade Runner 2049) almost completely disregarded the narrative arc set up by Prometheus in the alleged sequel to the Alien prequel. As the opening date of the Blade Runner sequel drew nearer, further alarm bells were sounded with the release of Nexus: 2036, a six minute short that explained what had happened in the thirty years between the two films. I studiously avoided watching or reading about this, all the while wondering why, if there was no retcon, any explanation was required. When Digital Spy chipped in with ‘Rutger Hauer doesn’t understand why a Blade Runner sequel even exists’ (20 September 2017), I feared all was lost, and settled on the tagline: Ridley ruins reviewer’s childhood...
A more appropriate tagline might be Ridley obsessed by original as much as reviewer. Blade Runner 2049 is both a replication (pun intended) and reversal of the Final Cut, a classic dismantling and rebuilding of a narrative that raised more questions than it answered. The protagonist of the sequel is K (Ryan Gosling) and in 2049 Los Angeles all blade runners are replicants known by serial numbers rather than names. Although there is less philosophical concern with identity in this film, there is commentary on what philosopher Kelly Oliver calls the grown-made binary opposition, where priority (humanity in this case) is always accorded to the organic over the automated. The discovery that replicants – or at least Deckard and Rachael – can reproduce is the inciting incident of the film. While hunting a rogue replicant, K discovers a buried box of bones. An autopsy identifies the cause of death as childbirth. The science of replicant reproduction is never explained – indeed, unlike HBO’s Westworld for example, there was very little scientific explanation or under-the-skin revelation in The Final Cut – so it seems we must rely on a kind of Jurassic Park-style “life will find a way” to suspend disbelief. In an even closer combination of replication and reversal, Deckard’s discovery that he is really a replicant courtesy of an origami unicorn is mirrored here courtesy of a toy horse (relatively early in the film).
Blade Runner 2049 constantly refers back to the Final Cut, to such an extent that my concerns about it merely being part of a franchise are entirely unfounded. If anything, the only potentially significant fault in the film is that it is too obviously, faithfully, and closely a sequel. In consequence, I find it hard to imagine a viewer who hasn’t seen (or doesn’t remember) either the Final or International Cuts being able to appreciate (and perhaps even understand) Blade Runner 2049. This is not merely the case for the represented sequence of events, but for the shots, scenes, settings, music, mood, and characters. Dennis Villeneuve has been particularly ingenious with respect to character, performing a complex and satisfying deconstruction of the roles in the prequel such that, for example, K is not only a replication of (or equivalent to) Deckard, but a hybrid of Deckard and Batty. Similarly, Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) – personal-assistant-cum-chief-of-staff to Niander Wallace (the new Tyrell, played by Jared Leto) – combines Rachael’s vulnerability with Pris’s (Daryl Hannah) deadliness in combat (although there is also a Pris look-alike who appears to share her predecessor’s function as a “pleasure model”). The revisiting and inversion twists and turns in on itself so that where Deckard was supposed to hunt Rachael but helped her, Luv is supposed to help K but hunts him. In yet another success, the story engages as both science and detective fiction, with the mystery of the replicant child becoming more complicated as the narrative progresses. Like the various Blade Runners, the film is deeply philosophical, exploring less the question of what it means to be human and more the question of how to be human: how memory, perspective, and psychological reality construct and sustain individuality.
There is a hint of retcon when Wallace confronts Deckard, but this is merely a tantalising suggestion rather than a second undoing of the plot of the International Cut and Blade Runner 2049 is ultimately a paradigmatic sequel, a model to which future directors and authors should aspire. The work provides an almost continuous and near perfect play of similarity and difference that is both similar enough to capture all that audiences enjoyed about the originals and different enough to delight, intrigue, and compel. Blade Runner 2049 is so essentially a sequel, however, that it is likely to leave most if not all new viewers nonplussed, as I noted above. The only fault from my personal point of view is that the appearance of the septuagenarian Ford is neither explained nor even commented upon. Perhaps those replicants who can reproduce must also suffer the indignities of old age and even the despair of death? Life has, it seems, found a way with one hand and taken away with the other.*****