Neil Bahadur’s review published on Letterboxd:
"More human than human."
Blade Runner 2049 is 2017's cinema in microcosm for me - the perfect example of a film whose quality as a cohesive whole I am uncertain of, yet the ideas which exist just on the peripheral remain far more interesting than what most of what the more 'acceptable' films of 2017 had to offer. I think one of the reasons (among many) I am so impressed with this is that rather than show the future as a metaphor for the present, as is so often in sci-fi, Villeneuve (who with this and Arrival appears to have grown from "bargain-bin David Fincher" to "what if Ridley Scott was good?") seems to genuinely think through and visualise a possible vision of the future - something that I think this film is considerably more successful at than its predecessor. Granted - some of the ideas and metaphor border on the absurdly cliche - the lone tree in a technocratic landscape, or the single daisy that Gosling finds, for example. But these moments seemed far and few between for me, and what remains is a distinct and clear vision of the dynamics of a possible world. In this regard, it is a true triumph of design.
I wonder if the reason many colleagues have been hostile to this one is because perhaps that this vision doesn't necessarily build on much resembling a present situation but rather that of the original film - which actually doesn't leave much to go off of, given its apparent first grader level of philosophy. So I think that leaves Villeneuve a surprising amount of leeway to work on defining this world on his own terms - and what he seems to do is let the design choices from the prior work determine the social dynamics of what we see here - as well as expand on them. This opens itself up within say, the character of Joi - essentially a holographic sexbot, who nevertheless appears to contain a self-determining personality - only for both us and Gosling to find out later that Joi is one of many manufactured. Cliched as it is, this vision of the future is one of a capitalistic technocracy, and what has been proven to be more profitable than the selling of sex? But Joi is not a body, she is an image - a walking, talking, thinking, manufactured one. Mind, this is not an argument for the holographic sexbot - merely a musing on how it is a central dynamic of this possible future. This world seemingly sustains itself through sexualized images/holographs of women dominating the landscape of the city (Los Angeles) - but it's perhaps a shame that the film does not delve into this more. Still - I don't believe this is necessarily prejudiced - this is a portrayal of a dystopia after all. And it is fascinating that Leto as the films villain is one that, having already the means of production, now deigns to control the means of reproduction.
The question of AI is what remains most intriguing about 2049 - this is the rare film at this kind of budgetary level which invites the viewer to use their imagination as they watch: we constantly must recalibrate ourselves to remember that we are not watching actors playing humans, but actors playing artificial intelligence. On revisiting, this makes Gosling's character trajectory even more interesting - because we know for certain that he is a replicant. On initial viewing, the Pinocchio analogy seems almost too easy - so it's important that Gosling actually turn out to be wrong. But knowing the turn of events lets us envision a future where a programmed figure begins to think, doubt, make decisions on its own terms, and turn against its own programmed trajectory if they determine it is the wrong one on moral grounds. We will learn that Gosling is not special but just ANOTHER one - but as we see that there are other Replicants who have decided to revolt, this is no cause for alarm but rather the possibility for positive change.
The fact that we know Gosling is a replicant also halts us from identifying with him, which is a decision that I was impressed by for a film of this budget and magnitude. The sex scene, apparently one of the most commonly discussed aspects of this film, becomes another point of interest in this regard - because we are being pushed to not identity with the protagonist. A colleague pointed out that this might be the least sexy sex scene they'd ever witnessed - which it certainly is, but that might be the point? After all, these are robots and holograms having sex (I can't believe I'm writing this, lol) - and frankly in this regard I found it more touching than sexy - because they are non-human, yet trying to find pleasure in ways that are irrevocably human.
I won't deny that the pacing is often perhaps...a little off at times. But I think this speaks more to the blank check Villeneuve seems to have been given as director - this resembles the more languid pacing that many "director's cuts" end up having - I'm actually uncertain if I find this an issue because the pacing is not pandering in anyways - one either takes the film on the creator's terms or doesn't. That being said - I think at least twenty minutes could have been lopped off - particularly at the child slavery factory - after Gosling enters this space, the film doesn't have many ideas pushing it for some time - Gosling wandering around a factory space where he finds something he saw in a dream or something is kind of uninteresting. Well composed and nice to see in a theatre surely, but going back to it, this section adds little. Also - again, I'm uncertain how much of a problem this is, given that I liked the film so much - but I wonder if this may be why a good bit of people turned on this one as well: the film's ideas are not necessarily expressed visually but rather work in tandem with what we see through visual design. It's maybe a bit unsophisticated - talking heads and spaces around them can only push for so long, but the concepts are interesting enough that I can hold on, and again, it seems that the design is not building off from the ideas but rather the ideas are building off from the design.
Back to AI, I like that essentially, Gosling is AI that is ultimately in search for truth. This is rather fascinating to me. Meeting Ford, Gosling says "I want to ask you some questions." - we never hear the questions asked, but they would boil down too: "Am I real? Am I human or robot?" Again, these things lie on the peripheral, but where we end from this becomes a question of what can be determined as "human," given its attributes. The film oddly breaks with its nearly snails-pace for the action sequences - where the film weirdly takes on the Neu-Bauhaus formal qualities that this dystopia takes place in. I don't really understand this decision - but I kind of liked it? Either way, perhaps it's superficial to be impressed by something almost entirely by virtue by the way it simply **looks** (the fight between Gosling and Sylvia Hoeks at the films end is a perfect example) - but it was striking enough for me to take note of it, more note than usual.
It's fascinating that ultimately Gosling takes the martyr route - even for a replicant, to die with purpose is to end ones slavery. Even a revolution can take place internally for artificial intelligence. Who's to say that AI can't possibly become more human than human?