As someone who loves Cinema, I've lately been jaded by the awful mainstream productions that have been released to entertain the masses. Watered down "products" produced with the intention of capitalizing on the disaster/action/sci-fi movie formulas, as a strategy to sell the most seats, and get the most on their return. Hollywood is a business after all. And so, as a result, these big blockbusters are often action-packed, yet bland, with little to non sensical storylines, and an abundance of stereotypical flat characters whose sole purpose is to serve the action, and visual effects, at the expense of creative story-telling, and a meaningful experience. Needless to say, I came into Blade Runner 2049 with minimal expectations, only to be surprised to find my faith in filmmaking regained, and my belief in cinema as a powerful form of visual story-telling, redeemed. This is not to say that I didn't still have a few issues with the film as a whole, but let's not get ahead of ourselves....one thing at a time.
Story. Tone. Pacing.
Many reviewers have complained that the film's pacing is slow, and the 2h45m experience is a deterrent for most modern viewers who'd have to be willing to give up 3hrs of their time to indulge in this sci-fi sequel. And, although the pacing is certainly slow, it's a technique used by director Denis Villeneuve, to tell a visually poetic narrative. The pacing helps set the tone for the overall style of the film, and it seems to add to the "experience" rather than take away from it, or make it drag. With the exception of a few scenes where you can see the indulgence of the filmmaker, 1) the sex scene of course went on for longer than it needed to --- ok, we get it, you're super into this visual effect you figured out, but by lengthening it, it just diminishes it's power and overall effect on the viewer; and 2) when Gosling returns to the orphanage and makes a discovery in the furnace -- ok, we get it, this is an important reveal, however, the build up to this moment is so long, that the audience has already imagined what is next, before it's revealed to us, and so we're sitting in our seats thinking, just show us already (what we already know is coming), and get on with the story. These are just two examples of the filmmaker's hand getting in the way of the story; but otherwise a really strong solid structure, and a great example of the classic "hero's journey" with plenty of surprises, revelations, twists and turns.
I'm going to attempt to break down the film without giving too to many spoilers, but rather just in terms of the writing structure:
Three Act Structure.
In Act 1: Blade Runner 2049 sets up of the world, the power structures at be, and establishes the "norm." We meet our protagonist and his role in this society. About an hour into the film, a seed of doubt is planted in the protagonist, and his "norm" is disrupted. Act 2: is the hero's journey to resolve what has been disrupted. He goes on an odyssey to find out the truth about himself and his past. The more he digs, the more he gains awareness of himself, and a new perspective on the world which lead him to Deckard (Harrison Ford). This Act takes about an hour and fifteen minutes. It ends with a climactic dramatic moment of "all is doomed", and "only the god's can intervene" to save the day. And surely enough, in Act 3, the "gods" (or rather a group of revolutionary prostitutes) intervene, cutting the hero a break, so he can save the day. More doubt and paranoia is put in place, followed by a few clever twists nearing the end of the journey; all of which lead to a surprising, yet beautiful ending. The hero has completely transformed, he has a cathartic moment with snowflakes, and accepts his new role, in the revolution that is to come. A really well crafter/well written structure.
Male Gazing. Lack of Imagination.
Unfortunately, while the structure itself is solid, and the transformation of the main character feels like a natural evolution (from beginning to end), it still remains an issue that most women characters were either one dimensional stereotypes, or just flat and purely for the purpose of being objectified by the male gaze. So while I was admiring the elements of story present in the film, I could not help but be hyper aware of the objectification of women and women's bodies. While they did "try" to show powerful white women in the roles of Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright), Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) and the brief introduction of Freysa (Israeli actress Hiam Abbass) in Act 3. This desire to "show" powerful white women, was offset by the blatant objectification of women's naked bodies: from holograms, to prostitutes, to statues. This shows a lack of creativity and a lack of awareness in social politics for the filmmaker, either he's completely and utterly ignorant, or just doesn't really care. No wonder we have the Harvey Weinstein's of the world believing, and acting as if women were objects for the male gaze, when we continue to perpetuate these images in even the best Hollywood films of our time. If we think about a dystopian post-apocalyptic future like the one presented in BR2049, why can't men also be the object of the male/female gaze? I would ask, why is there such a disproportionate number of naked women's bodies in relation to the number of naked men's bodies, but I can't even really ask that, because --- well there were just no naked men's bodies at all. Why couldn't there be male prostitutes? or naked male holograms on the street? When I become aware of this lack of creativity and originality, which only further perpetuates the status quo of misogyny, patriarchy, and objectification of women's bodies, then I become somewhat removed and disinterested in the philosophy of the film. Even though it tries to be very intellectual, profound and buddhist, I lack to see depth, when all it's doing is regurgitating and perpetuating the current structure of domination, and power. For all of its buddhist dialogue, and its message of revolution, humanity and social justice, I become skeptical of romantic ideologies that uphold oppressive systems toward minorities.
Here are some images of how women are portrayed for 2h45m in Blade Runner 2049:
Lack of Diversity. Lack of Imagination.
A second issue I had with the film, was it's lack of imagination when it comes to diversity. This is also a story issue, and the writer's (and possibly casting directors) lack of imagination when casting a sci-fi film about the future. Given that this film was written recently, and given the major changes in Hollywood calling for more diversity and awareness, why wouldn't the film chose to represent a more diverse cast? According to the US Census, and several research studies, and news articles (including CNN article "Minorities expected to be Minorities in 2050") why would the writers and creators of Blade Runner 2049, lack the imagination and creativity to propose a world that isn't so---what's the word--- oh yeah---WHITE. Furthermore, in a beautifully designed world that was clearly inspired by Brutalist architecture, and modern Asian architecture, why, if you are using Japan/Korea/China as inspirational springboards for the backdrop of your world, why would you not chose to include Japanese/Korean/Chinese characters into this world? Oh, because it takes place in Los Angeles? In an article published by the Center for American Progress titled "Toward 2050 in California" the caucasian population of California will continue to decrease consistently to 46% of the population, meaning less than half of California's population will be white by 2050, so why wouldn't a film titled Blade Runner 2049, chose to reflect this? The film really is doing its part to transform film and cinema audiences. By choosing to tell a more philosophical narrative, rather than succumb to the dumbing down of a story packed with action, BR2049 is making waves in Hollywood. By slowing down the pace, and choosing to coat their product with intellectuality rather than superficiality, BR2049 is being pretty bold and brave in its message; so why wouldn't it be equally bold, imaginative, and creative when it comes to it's women characters? or its characters of color?
Here are the main characters in Blade Runner 2049: An all white cast of leads (with the exception of Ana de Armas, a very fair skinned, green eyed, gorgeous Cuban).
Now, here are the few actors of color, playing secondary/minor roles (each appearing in one single scene):
While i am not a Ryan Gosling groupie, I was sucked in by his acting. His character ("K") has colors and beats throughout, and Gosling is able to deliver a beautiful, yet subtle transformation as his identity is shaped by the events that occur, and the information that is revealed about who he is, his changing role in this society, and who he is to become. Ana de Armas (as Joi), though cast in a stereotypical role, literally created for an array of colors and subtle emotions and responses for her character, exposing her talent on the big screen. Jared Leto was also convincingly menacing as Wallace. A loyal fan of Robin Wright since her role in "House of Cards" her representation of Joshi, was only a slight deviation from her role as Claire Underwood, so although it was well acted, her choices were expected, and seen-before. The biggest standout in the film by far, is newcomer Sylvia Hoeks in the role of Luv, who's role demanded a lot of emotional and physical effort (and restraint). She delivered effortlessly, in what will likely be her breakout role, for a long career ahead. Mackenzie Davis was forgettable, though she delivered a powerful role in Black Mirror's San Junipero, her role in Blade Runner 2049, as a street hooker/revolutionary had zero range. Equally bad were Carla Juri's character choices that were at times laughable. It's hard to speak on the other characters acting chops, given that their characters existed mainly for the purpose of pushing the plot forward.
Art and Design.
The Art Direction and Production design of the film is a reason alone to pay the admission ticket. Inspired by Russian brutalist architecture, computer circuit boards, steampunk culture, and Japan/Korea/China's asian metropolis, and a play on light and water reminiscent of Artist James Turrell and Barozzi Veiga. Blade Runner 2049 is undoubtedly a visual masterpiece. Every set is a work of art, some made to appear seemingly endless, as if they go on forever. Gorgeous use of color and lighting as elements of wealth and beauty in this futuristic dystopian world where nature seems to have died long ago.
As for the costumes, these were not as inspiring as those of the original. A CNN article "Blade Runner influenced 35 years of fashion. Can the sequel do the same?" compares the iconic fashions from the original movie, to the fashions of the sequel. While the clothes weren't awful, they did lack originality, and didn't stand out as a highlight in the film. In fact, they were pretty simplistic and again, were influenced by an Asian aesthetic which was very present in the world and in the fashions, but very lacking in character representation. Neander Wallace (Jared Letto)'s Japanese Kimono, and Luv (Sylvia Hoek)'s white suit inspired by a chinese Cheongsam, are just two examples of cultural appropriation.