A friend of mine who likes to point out how often critics get it wrong will note the chilly reception THE THING and BLADE RUNNER received during their inaugural releases. In the case of THE THING -- a film Rex Reed called “a truly inhuman attack on human decency” not once, but twice in his hysterical review -- critics seemed to be a bit too distracted by Rob Bottin’s gooey creature effects to notice there was a film happening around them. Critics were also beholden to the inert Christian Nyby (but, c’mon we all know it was really Howard Hawks) helmed original and punished John Carpenter for tearing the rose colored glasses off of their nostalgic heads. There’s a sense of anger and confusion to these critiques, as if they were all still processing what they had just seen. That inevitably turned out to be the case when just a few years later THE THING was finally recognized for what it had always been: a modern horror classic.
On the other hand, those same people who missed the point of THE THING really understood what a vapid, self-important slog BLADE RUNNER was. Their negative reviews are as relevant today as they were in 1982.
A majority of BLADE RUNNER fans will tell you the main reason they love the movie is because of how it looks and sounds. But mostly its because of how it looks. It’s telling when art direction is the sole contribution a film can bring to its medium and art direction will always be BLADE RUNNER’s true legacy. The work of production designer Lawrence G. Paull and art director David L. Snyder defined the term dystopian future and was copied so frequently -- especially throughout the 90s -- the idea of a cramped, neon-infused megalopolis became an art department cliché. But without Paull, Snyder, DP Jordan Cronenweth or even Vangelis’ haunting soundtrack, BLADE RUNNER would be emptier than it already is. The story, characterization and “heavy thematic elements” are underdeveloped, shallow and so cursory they don’t seem inspired by the writings of Philip K. Dick as much as the hacked out ad copy on the back of a Philip K. Dick novel. Additionally, Ridley Scott’s George Lucas-ian compulsion to tinker with and otherwise revise BLADE RUNNER every few years has stepped on the obvious point the film was trying to make. Batty isn’t “more human than human” if he spares the life of a Deckard replicant. He’s just a killbot protecting another killbot. For those who whine about Greedo firing first, at least Lucas didn’t throw in an additional twist that not only revealed Greedo didn’t actually shoot first but was actually Princess Leia in an alien mask. Lucas’ stupid creative decisions may slightly effect characterization but they don’t negate the film’s reason for existing. I won’t say that BLADE RUNNER is all style and no substance, but I will note that it’s a Patrick Nagel print in a trench coat. It’s that bad Nighthawk Diner homage in which Elvis is serving Bogart a frosty vanilla milkshake once a green LED strip was artlessly placed in the middle of it. It’s rag-weed and condescending guys with chain wallets who carefully explain to me why I’m stupid for disliking GHOST IN THE SHELL. In essence, BLADE RUNNER encapsulates everything regretful and embarrassing about my early twenties.
BLADE RUNNER 2049 is more of the same.
Now before I continue to rub my hate into the open wounds of its fanbase, I want to point out what I did like about BLADE RUNNER 2049. To start with, Ryan Gosling is good in it. An air of defeat hangs around his replicant character and Gosling plays him like a man whose reasons for living dwindle every day. Unlike Harrison Ford whose acting choices always seemed to be dictated around how much diarrhea he currently has and whatever gets him back to the hotel room quick enough to glumly stare into the darkness until he falls asleep on the toilet, Gosling brings depth to his android detective; not a sense of annoyed distraction. Incredible set-pieces emerge from the film. A sequence where Ford and Gosling fight each other in an abandoned Vegas lounge as malfunctioning holograms of Elvis and Liberace eerily blink in and out of existence around them is both otherworldly and knowingly silly. There’s also a surreal moment in which a replicant sex worker (HALT AND CATCH FIRE’s Mackenzie Davis) is hired to join Gosling and his girlfriend -- a sentient hologram named Joi (Ana de Armas) that is programmed to unconditionally love its owner. To BLADE RUNNER 2049’s credit, there’s a subtle emptiness in the way this relationship is depicted -- in a trippy, awkward threeway. And, of course, there’s Roger Deakins’ stunning cinematography which manages to outdo Cronenweth’s work in the original, not just in the way he photographs sweeping irradiated Vegas desert vistas but the way he depicts people slowly walking through ultra-modern office buildings or talking to receptionists in orange-hued waiting rooms. Which is great, because there’s much more footage of people slowly walking through office buildings than there are of the sweeping desert vistas. But take away Deakins’ lyrical photography and you’re left with a half-finished film noir padded out with surveillance footage of people dejectedly wandering around a parkade. Speaking of dejected people, Gosling’s performance, as good as it is, is somewhat muted by the fact that his depressed character is adrift in a sea of the saddest faces imaginable. Everybody’s sad even though they managed to live through a famine. Even Dave Bautista is sad and this is a man who should always be photographed laughing his head off as he tries to eat a melting ice cream cone. If you cut out every scene where sad faces stare purposefully out a window or at their feet, BLADE RUNNER 2049 would barely be feature length. If Scott’s BLADE RUNNER was the video for Murray Head’s "One Night in Bangkok" if it was filled with flying cars, BLADE RUNNER 2049 is R.E.M.’s "Everybody Hurts" video recast with Neuromancer cosplayers.
Like every movie Denis Villeneuve has directed, BLADE RUNNER 2049 is hauntingly beautiful but that’s it. The experience of watching this movie in theaters could be replicated by having a friend hold an "Art of BLADE RUNNER 2049" coffee table book in front of you, have them turn the page once every twenty minutes and, every so often tell them to make dumb-guy profundities about how technology is dehumanizing us and how people stare at their phones even when nothing is on the screen and, “Hey! Who’s the real phone here? You or your phone? Think about it, bro!” Villeneuve was the perfect choice to pick up Scott’s directorial reins because, much like Scott, Villeneuve’s films imply depth without actually having any. SICARIO was alternately naive and obvious, ARRIVAL was cloying and derivative, and his breakthrough film PRISONERS was an affecting film about loss until it suddenly morphed into something resembling a Riddler origin movie. BLADE RUNNER 2049 is Villeneuve’s most bloated and facile movie to date. Like its predecessor, BLADE RUNNER 2049 feints towards a deeper meaning without bothering to develop or even dwell upon its themes. Fans will tell you that Scott was asking his audience what makes us human but it’s a question he neither adequately addressed nor seemed to have much interest in answering. Especially after watching his various director’s cuts. Villeneuve seems to be saying even less as he halfheartedly rehashes Scott’s freshman dorm deep thoughts but with the addition of pseudo-intellectual red herrings, like a character waving around a copy of Nabokov’s Pale Fire. It’s JOHNNY MNEMONIC after it got kicked in the head by a mule and thought it was a Tarkovsky movie because it didn’t move as fast as it used to. But still, it’s a genre movie with the appearance of meaning so people will continue to dissect it much in the way people dissect THE SHINING even though Kubrick’s message was never deeper than, “I needed a fucking hit after BARRY LYNDON ate shit at the box office!”
Yet, in addition to regurgitating Scott’s vague themes, BLADE RUNNER 2049 perpetuates the dimwitted sexism of the original (every female character in this is never anything more than a bitch, a killer, a prostitute, a victim or arm candy) as well as its tone deaf racial politics (why are the WASPiest individuals outside of a Coachella concert portraying an oppressed minority?). The film also gives us a Sean Young cartoon from an unmade SHREK sequel to unnaturally shamble through the uncanniest valley and take up a permanent residence in our nightmares (although, I’m hoping the CGI Sean Young can eventually team-up with the creepy plasticine Peter Cushing from ROGUE ONE for a romantic comedy). And if all of that still wasn’t enough, Jared Leto is here to remind us how truly awful he is. In spite of his method actor bullshittery the guy still plays every one of his roles like that hyper dude at the Halloween party who is dressed as the Joker and, goddammit, will BE the fucking Joker until that clock strikes midnight! Sweet Christ, only Eddie Redmayne is worse.
I realize I’m in the minority with this. Disliking BLADE RUNNER is as loaded as disliking CITIZEN KANE or The Beatles in that people see it as trolling. Nobody has to agree with my thoughts about BLADE RUNNER nor do I expect anyone to agree with me. All I ask is for people to give BLADE RUNNER 2049 a little more time before they start calling it a masterpiece or even the best film of the year. I can only assume that seeing a big budget sequel to a movie everybody thought would never have a sequel created a kind of false positive in its viewer’s brains preventing them from seeing just how thin and portentous BLADE RUNNER 2049 is. Even compared to its predecessor.
Maybe you genuinely believe BLADE RUNNER 2049 is masterpiece. If so, I hope you realize how much you sound like every STAR WARS fan in 1999 who insisted that THE PHANTOM MENACE was every bit as good as THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. Critics aren’t the only ones that can get it wrong.