Most of the time when I watch a movie I do so in a vacuum. It’s my preference to go into a film or game or book knowing as little as I possibly can; once I’ve heard enough to convince me to engage with a certain piece of media, I put up blinders so I can experience it free from other people’s opinions. I know myself, and I know I’m very much influenced by what other people think. This process was not possible with Blade Runner 2049.
Obviously, the film is a sequel so there’s already a lot of context around it. We know the world it will be set in, and we can pretty safely assume the year as well. And of course this is Blade Runner we’re talking about, as the original film showcases some of the most original world-building and special effects Hollywood has known, the sequel has been much talked about in mainstream and indie circles alike. I know a fair amount of people who saw it opening night, and it was even assigned viewing for this class, one that isn't even specifically about film. Those friends were saying that the plot and score were serviceable if lack-luster, but that the effects were great. Having watched the original 1982 film (or I guess the 2007 director's cut) just before checking out 2049, those observations ring true. While the original film has these soaring synths that are really impossible to ignore, and maybe even make the viewer uncomfortable at times, 2049 pulled those punches significantly. I know it’s not the 80s anymore, but while there were nods to those original sounds, the modern take ultimately sounded a lot like most contemporary action films which is a real loss in my book.
The musical difference between the films is I think indicative of many of my gripes with 2049, which is to say it just wasn’t weird enough. I mean the first film is downright strange, the characters are genuinely unnerving, and the mere presence of an android on screen often makes the hairs on your neck stand on end. Remember J.F. Sebastian? The engineer with all those creepy toys? Nothing in 2049 even comes close to being that freaky. Jared Leto’s performance as the android mogul Niander Wallace is fine, but he’s on screen briefly, and his desires as a character are so charged with patriarchal ambitions that any strangeness present left me more frustrated with society in 2017 than unnerved at the state of bio-engineering in 2049.
Which leads us to the biggest, and plenty talked about, flaw of the film: it completely drops the ball when it comes to the representation of race and gender. I got the first inkling of this quality in a class on the Arabian Nights. As we were discussing the various ways in which that text involves violence perpetrated by and against women, a student mentioned that despite it being hundreds of years old, the Arabian Nights often did a better job in that regard than most films, specifically mentioning how shocked they were while watching Blade Runner 2049. That comment in mind, I paid special attention to the relationship the female characters of 2049 have with violence. As it happens, all but two major female characters in the film die. Even the holographic love interest is crushed to bits. To circle back to Wallace’s desires, his, and indeed the plot’s, focus is on android fertility. Wallace wants to create androids that can give birth, and when one is created that cannot, he brutally slits open her stomach dropping her dead to the floor only minutes after she came into existence. For Wallace, a female android that can’t give birth is useless, and while yes he’s the villain and we’re supposed to hate him, what kind of message does that send? While I cannot personally identify with this problem, I can’t imagine that scene is very pleasant for sterile women.
All of this is to say nothing of how the film handles race. There are three named actors of color in the cast, all of them are men, and none of them appear for more than a scene or two. You can argue that this film is merely building on the world depicted in the original, but to do so suggests only that the filmmakers lacked imagination pertaining to the thirty years that take place between the two stories. Maybe that’s true, at least when it comes to the societal changes that would have taken place. Just because there were relatively few women and people of color in the first film does not mean that the same must be true for its sequel. But maybe that’s optimistic, it’s been thirty years for us too and how far have we come?
These serious issues of representation vastly overshadow what is otherwise a beautiful movie. There is no arguing with the visual talent put on display here. Blade Runner 2049 is one of those films that reminds me just how powerful “movie magic” can be, and at several points in the film I found myself in awe of that spectacle. The colors, the light, the set design are all masterworks, but it’s hard to appreciate them when the rest of the film remains so socially tone-deaf.