Blade Runner 2049 – The Evil of Heartless Sequels

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Normally I don’t write “reviews” of works I dislike. Why waste time on bad art, huh? I prefer to promote creative work I admire. However, in trying to understand why I disliked Blade Runner 2049 I asked myself, “What did I love about the original?” It came to me instantly – the voiceover. In that moment I realized Harrison’s Ford narration in the original film was the heart of the story. That insight also explained why Ridley Scott detested the voiceover. The narration must come from a human, and Scott wanted Deckard to be a replicant.

Blade Runner 2049-2

Before seeing Blade Runner 2049 I watched Blade Runner (final cut) with a friend. I explained the history of all the versions to her and offered to show her whichever one she wanted. She picked the final cut. Normally, I always rewatch the theatrical version, which is how I first saw the film back in 1982. Whenever I see one of the director’s cuts the viewing is always a letdown. They have the same sterile quality Blade Runner 2049 has.

Blade Runner 2049 is directed by Denis Villeneuve, with the story by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green. However, it feels like a Ridley Scott baby. Scott has always argued that Rick Deckard was a replicant and Blade Runner 2049 vindicates that idea to the point that I think of this film as an expression of his ideas.

Back in 2008, I wrote “Is It Time To Remake Blade Runner?” which was really a plea to film Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? as the story was written by Philip K. Dick. I believe the book deserves a truer conversion to film than Blade Runner. I can’t document this, but I believe Ridley Scott bragged that he hadn’t even read the novel when making the movie. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the original theatrical version of Blade Runner, but I don’t consider it very PKD.

When the screenwriters changed androids to replicants something else got changed. In the book, androids are soulless creatures who look like humans but completely lack empathy. They are self-aware but are also psychopathic sociopaths. I believe PKD intended them to be symbolic of inhuman humans. Blade Runner is about artificial creatures that were meant to be soulless slaves that have accidentally evolved empathy. We’re supposed to feel for them. And I did with the Harrison Ford voiceover.

Without the voiceover, both films are just action flicks of heartless machines killing heartless machines. Why has Riddley Scott never understood the Romeo and Juliet beauty of having a love story between lovers from two opposing houses? In Blade Runner 2049 we are taken on a meaningless thrill ride where it’s impossible to tell human from replicant – and I really didn’t give a shit either. There are a few touching scenes in Blade Runner 2049, but they are so artificial as to cause existential angst. At times we feel for K, our replicant protagonist, but the scenes are so obviously manipulating us that it’s hard to genuinely care.

In Blade Runner 2049 it becomes obvious the real problem is our lack of understanding of replicants. They are called skin jobs. That implies they are machines covered in skin. But that’s not true. In both movies, they bleed. In Blade Runner 2049 they seem to be artificially produced biological creatures that can’t reproduce on their own, and the goal of the mad scientist Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) is to create a Nexus model that is self-replicating. But what’s the fucking point of that? Humans are self-replicating, and we have plenty of them.

Wallace wants a new process to produce less costly slaves. The government obviously backs him as long as replicants don’t act like real humans. However, we also learn replicants have secretly organized into a slave rebellion. But why secret? What good is a secret mass-movement? Isn’t it obvious that replicants aren’t soulless machines?  Do any moviegoers feel the replicants aren’t equal to people? That makes the whole point of the film a straw man argument. Truly pointless. It’s funny, but Jared Leto’s character is the most inhuman character in the film and he’s supposed to be human. Or will Ridley Scott pull another juvenile joke and claim everyone in this film was a replicant.

Our world is full of robotic slaves now. They don’t have consciousness. They don’t look human. They lack any kind of consciousness. A major theme of science fiction has always been about when robots become conscious. Generally, these science fictional robots are shown as looking human. I guess SF writers assume we can’t empathize with them if they don’t look like us. By the way, the film Her did a fantastic job of overcoming this problem.

We’ve always wanted to build robots that look like us, and that’s a problem. We want them to do our work, but we worry about robots becoming self-aware as us. If they do, we can’t keep them as slaves, and we fear they may become better than us. The TV show Humans is exploring this same topic. The trouble is Blade Runner 2049 adds absolutely nothing to this topic. The film only confuses the issues in its razzle-dazzle. It lacks both a heart and a brain. Almost every character is violent and action-oriented.

Blade Runner 2049

PKD’s original novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? isn’t about action. His androids are conscious, self-aware beings that lack empathy. Rachel is alluring and beautiful, but a cold-blooded killer. Dick’s theme wasn’t robot suffrage. PKD believed the androids in his story deserved to be destroyed because without empathy they are evil, and in doing so infers that humans without empathy are evil too. PKD’s story wasn’t about killing androids but identifying inhuman humans.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is vastly more complicated than Blade Runner. If I could film it I would give it the look of 1959 films, because I believe PKD formative decades were the 1940s and 1950s. Its future setting would be very retro-future. It would have the Penfield mood organs and Mercerism. And the story would focus on philosophy and psychology rather than fights and shooting. The film must keep Iran, Deckard’s wife. And it needs the fake police station, having Deckard doubt himself, and eventually proving he’s human. And it needs the artificial religion of Mercerism.

Blade Runner leaves so many fascinating concepts out from the original novel. First off, Rick Deckard isn’t a tough-guy like Harrison Ford, but a married man trying to save his marriage. Their livelihood depended on the bounty from killing androids. The novel opens with their marital squabbling, and the use of mood organs. Mood organs are personal devices for controlling psychological states. People in this future use them to subtly control how they interact with other people, cope at home and work, and explore hundreds of emotional states. PKD uses this imaginary device to dissect human nature. The book is stuffed with observations about what it means to be human. Blade Runner uses none of that. PKD was obsessed with psychiatry, psychology and philosophy and his stories constantly explore those subjects. The Blade Runner movies only faintly hint at the issues PKD brought up in endless ways.

Blade Runner 2049 does not define humans or replicants. We can’t tell them apart. In fact, the evil scientist who creates the replicants acts like a heartless AI, and K, the Ryan Gossling character, who we know is a replicant, when left alone is humanly hung up on an AI girlfriend (who may be a future descendant of Alexa).

Blade Runner 2049 fails horribly if you need a human story. For moviegoers who love eye candy, violence, and a rollercoaster plot, you’ll probably be happy enough.

What’s evil is trying to make millions by making a movie that lacks heart, based on a novel that struggles to define our hearts. Seems kind of heartless, don’t you think?

Blade Runner 2049 is chock full of touchstone analogs from the original Blade Runner. That felt manipulative like Ridley Scott wanted to push our emotional buttons as if we were replicants. Did he expect us to emotionally resonate with air hoses being pulled out, yucky eyeballs, pianos, giant billboards animated with Japanese women, microscopic photo scanning machines, bicyclists riding in parallel formation, machines that measure artificial minds, old abandoned apartment buildings, drinking whiskey from squarish glasses, women dressed like 1970s hookers, giant pyramid-shaped buildings, flying cars, sentimental photographs, umbrellas and rain, and so on.

Everything in Blade Runner 2049 seems set-up for additional sequels, but like his Alien franchise, they will probably continue to abuse the original. I’ve gotten so I hate sequels to books and films. There are few exceptions, but for the most part, sequels feel like they are conning me for my money.

JWH

 

26 thoughts on “Blade Runner 2049 – The Evil of Heartless Sequels”

  1. Totally disagree with your review. Was not soulless to me. Was not made with more sequels in mind either. I liked the replicant’s arc very much and i thought that it added to the discussion and even that this film added to or even improved on the first film. Also, you seem to be under the impression that this was directed by Ridley Scott, which is not true.

    1. But Ridley Scott was the executive producer and the story feels like how he sees this fictional universe working.

      But I’m glad you like the film. It needs all the fans it can get. I went to your blog Jeroen but you haven’t written about the movie yet. I’d like to know more details about how you liked it and why. I wonder if it’s an age difference, for one thing. I’m wondering if I’m getting too old for modern movies.

      How do you feel this story about intelligent artificial beings says anything new that hasn’t already been said in other science fiction stories? All of them are so repetitive anyway. They can’t get beyond what if robots could think and feel like humans? I’d like to see them explore, how robots might think and feel different from humans. Or how will humans react when they discover conscious beings that look like giant mechanical insects?

      Movies can’t get beyond sexy women robots. Fritz Lang did that back in 1927 with Metropolis. Why do replicants look like humans. There’s no reason for them to do so.

      1. I haven’t had any time yet to write about the film.

        But I think that you’re asking some weird questions of it. The film is a love letter by Villeneuve you the first film, and he wanted to recreate the mood and atmosphere of the first. You seem to be looking for SF, while the director and the rest of the world were looking for mood and immersion. A story about a sad human robot is perfect because it clicks perfectly with the rest of the mood of the film. PKD and more innovative sf concepts are not relevant here.

      2. Jeroen, your observations are a beautiful insight. What you’re saying is sequels are their own genre. That’s very interesting – and I think valid. Whereas I deride sequels as shadows of the originals, you suggest they are original in their own way. I can accept that.

        We judge art in two ways. First as a standalone work. Second, in context. Millions of people will see Blade Runner 2049 and they will also judge it by their own reactions and what they know. What you are suggesting is sequels are art inspired by art. And that’s a cool idea. But to judge a sequel that way requires judging it in context only – by comparing it to the original. I’d say Villeneuve’s film offers endless delights in this reguard. But for the people who haven’t seen the original, Blade Runner 2049 must work as a standalone movie.

        Is that how you saw K, as a sad being? I saw Ryan Gosling’s performance differently. He was a new model that was not supposed to have a will of his own. Most of his actions were from orders. When he had free time he was concerned with his girlfriend. This is one of the areas of the movie I had problems with. K was designed and controlled to follow orders, so how did he develop his own desires? And if replicants don’t reproduce, why would they have a sex drive? Also, why do replicants have implanted memories? What’s their purpose? Why would replicants have young and old phases? The one we see in the film being born is fully grown. We assume the replicants from the original film were created fully grown. Why did K have a child phase? Why did Rick Deckard age if he’s a replicant.

        Within the boundaries of Blade Runner 2049 being a standalone work, separate from science fiction and Philip K. Dick, it needs to be consistent. Any fantasy world must function under its own set of rules that hold together. This movie throws out countless ideas that don’t make sense within its own worldbuilding. Introducing the idea that replicants can reproduce through mating is absurd. The story is shape-shifting replicants into clones. That’s part of my complaint above. We’re never given a real picture of what a replicant is, how it was created, what it can be. The story keeps shifting this for its own needs. That’s unfair storytelling.

    2. Jeroen, I updated the essay to point out Ridley Scott did not direct the film. I know the movie wasn’t directed or written by Scott, but it feels like it’s his story. I’ve been reading reviews and discussions of this movie for weeks, and so I’ve seen Villeneuve’s name over and over again, but I just can’t associate him with the story, or even the writers. Which is unfair, but Ridley Scott has been talking about Blade Runner so many years its impossible for me to mentally disassociate him from it.

  2. Whatever you think,science fiction films never get the respect that’s given mainstream cinema.Nobody would ever think of nominating them for an Oscar.I feel uncomfortable about this.I prefer to stay with the written genre,that has a particular audience and has it’s own awards that are the equivalent within their field of those in the film industry.I suppose the same reasons why you criticise films like “Blade Runner” and it’s sequel though,is why they don’t get any recognition.If they were made exactly like the books however,would it make them any better? Can they be successfully translated to the screen and receive the same mainstream recognition given ordinary movies? I don’t think so.There’s a general ignorance of the written genre that would leave most of the audience baffled I think.This also includes the makers of films.It seems the films have to be different,given the difficulties of turning science fiction’s written word into celluloid,even though that means making poor films.

    The roots of “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep”,as I suppose you know,were formally in the short story “The Little Black Box”,which was about Mercerism.This,with it’s emphasis on empathy,was of course the key theme of “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”,not androids and their inhuman ways.They provided the neccessary focus for exploring the differences for exploring what makes real humanity though.

  3. I’m not sure PKD’s androids lack empathy. They fail a rather stupid, unscientific test, yes, but to me they simply feel human. However it may be, the book is a conceptual mess.

    1. Well,I don’t think so.Buster Friendly doesn’t like Wilber Mercer and there’s that disturbing scene with the androids and the spider.I think that helps to clarify the matter.

      1. It’s crucial thematically and to the plot.It brings the novel to an elegant climax,as you’ll remember.It’s one of the most memorable scenes in any of his books.

    2. Bart, are you referring to the book’s androids, or the movie’s replicants? In the book, we know the androids lack empathy because of the cold way they kill. Remember Rachael kills the goat.

  4. Oh dear…I just saw the movie and loved it! Great special effects, CG, and superb music! And watching Ryan Gosling is eye candy! As for the plot, I still liked it. I found it very entertaining and well done. Emotions make us human even when we’re non human.

    1. I’m glad you loved the movie, Mary. Were you a big fan of the original? Did you prefer the theatrical release or the director’s cut?

      I worry that I’m growing old and becoming grumpy about new stuff. I found Blade Runner 2049 painfully boring, and thought about walking out, but I was afraid I’d upset my friends. I’ve always loved the original theatrical release version, but I hated many of the plot elements in the new film because follows along with Ridley Scott’s belief that Deckard is a replicant. So, I guess I’m just philosophically against this film.

      1. I saw the original at the movies, so I’m not sure what version it was. But I watched the directors cut a few days before I saw the new one. I think I like the idea that “life” whether it be biological, robotic or even just a simulation is still “life” and the distinctions blur. I’m aware of the difference of opinion of Ford and Scott on the replicant issue. I like thinking Deckard is a human, personally. These futuristic movies always paint a darker and grittier picture, but giving the current state of affairs, they may not be too far off the mark. I personally have a fascination of “we are living in a simulation.” Maybe that explains the craziness.

      2. Mary, have you seen the recent news reports about how scientists have proved we’re not living in a simulation?

        I think exploring the evolution of consciousness in these films and science fiction is the most important topic we can address. That’s why I don’t care for the action-oriented plots.

      3. I really don’t believe we are living in a simulation. I just think the idea is cool. Consciousness is the big mystery isn’t it or to be more precise self consciousness. Is it just memories with filling in some of the spaces by the brain? Is it a form of energy? Is there a quantum component? And of course, does it go “on”? Action films are done to attract younger people because that’s what sells. Hanz Zimmer did a magnificent musical soundtrack on this movie. That alone was worth it to me.

  5. It’s fun, that this new Blade Runner is so polarizing. People seem to really dislike it , or love it. I loved it. Yes, there was plenty of nitpick (Jared Leto’s scenes went on WAY to long, and wow, so many naked women), but overall I loved it. I loved the atmosphere, the oppressive soundtrack full of distortion, the mirror-ish narrative, Luv was great, Harrison Ford was amazing. Although I was waiting for an origami horse!

    I am a huge fan of the original – I can’t tell you which versions I’ve seen, edited versions were on TV throughout the 90s, we’d rent whatever version was at Blockbuster, and I have a version on DVD that was a gift about 15 years ago. These movies have basically nothing to do with Dick’s original Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep – basically a few character’s names and uncanny valley androids, and that’s about it. I have a sneaky suspicion the upcoming film version of Annihilation with spark many similar conversations – that it is too different from Jeff Vandermeer’s book, that it didn’t borrow the right elements, that it goes in too different of a direction, etc.

    1. Redhead, the original theatrical version had Harrison Ford narrating the story in a voiceover. I thought it added a lot to the story. It was added after Ridley Scott was fired from the production and Harrison Ford was made to do it. Ford now says he was against the idea too. I thought it was the best thing about the original movie.

      I’m really looking forward to Annihilation. I don’t mind moviemakers interpreting books. However, I wish books would get more film interpretations. I don’t see why other filmmakers can’t make their versions of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. As Richard says elsewhere in these comments there are whole elements that were important to the book that was left out of the movie.

  6. This is a great review – and not only because it confirms my own fears about the new film.
    I had started to re-read the PKD source book, and yes, as you say yes, yes – I could tick off all the points you make: Mercerism needed, the whole intent of the original film, and the voice-over I had not realised the Scott attitude to that.
    And I feel Ford has more facial and expression texture than Ryan Gosling: I believed in Ford’s part from the word go. The whole mood of the film is still with me.
    From what I have seen of the trailers there does seem a lot more action and shoot-em-up-scenes.
    Still, can’t be as bad as the Total Recall remake – Arno was a cartoon, but at least he was a perplexed cartoon.

  7. I’ll probably see this only in a year’s time, when it come to satellite TV for me.

    But last night, I watched the original again. I had seen it in 1982 but don’t remember it very well. The DVD version I have now is one I picked up at a budget price about a year ago. I made one previous attempt to watch it, and lasted about 25 minutes. It was just to dark and grimy for me (the same thing that put me off the original ALIEN), and suffered from the particular sci-fi quirk of simultaneous over-
    and underprediction (lots of smoking; no cellphones).

    Anyway, the point: I finished it last night, but there was no voiceover at all! I’m really confoozled now.

    1. Piet, you watched one of the many director cut versions. The theatrical release has the voiceover, plus the ending is very positive. We see Deckard and Rachael flying above a beautiful landscape, running away together, to Oregon I think, with Harrison Ford telling us the Rachael was different, she had no expiration date like the other replicants.

      Ridley Scott wants you to believe Deckard is a replicant, and they will both die soon.

  8. I totally agree with your review of BLADE RUNNER 2049. Does anyone really believe we’ll have flying cars in 30 years? BLADE RUNNER 2049 looks great, it looks like a dystopian future. But the movie meanders around, lurching from one subplot to another. Too many flashbacks. I’ve watched the original BLADE RUNNING (in its various forms) many times. I doubt if I’ll watch BLADE RUNNER 2049 ever again.

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