I’ve made a promise to myself to stop apologizing for my choice in blog topics, tweets, or basically anything else I want to write, as long as it’s not hurting anyone. So I’m going to write…
A GIANT POST ABOUT BLADE RUNNER.
Because I went to see Blade Runner 2049 (after rewatching the original the night before) and I don’t know if I’ve ever been so confused about my feelings towards a movie. Although now I’ve had some time to sit with it and think it over and let it sink in and… I loved it. Yes.
Accordingly, this post will be spoiler-ific as hell, for both the original, and the new movie. Also, it’ll probably have no actual point—I just want to work out my feelings about Blade Runner in a public space. Who doesn’t? I mean.
I actually… probably have more thoughts about the original movie than the sequel. I grew up with sci-fi—our Christmas movies are Star Wars and The Terminator—but Blade Runner wasn’t something I’d ever seen until a few years ago. I watched it on TV, with ads, and it was the theatrical cut and it just… Okay, to be totally honest, it didn’t make a big impression on me. Which was disappointing because I FUCKING LOVE SCI-FI. And there’s absolutely nothing about Blade Runner that I shouldn’t love. So I figured the problem wasn’t the movie, but me.
But I was absolutely thrilled to see the new movie. Like, jumping up and down, how soon can we get to the theater thrilled. Because I fucking love sci-fi. And I love the premise. And I love love love the director, Denis Villeneuve, and the cinematographer, Roger Deakins. And Harrison Ford and Ryan Gosling and Jared Leto. Yes, I am shallow. So I decided I wanted to watch the older movie again, without ads, and I wanted to see the final cut, which is what 2049 is based off of as a sequel.
Also, I… I read this review online of the original movie, and it was actually quite a good review, and made a lot of good points, but it pissed me off because the reviewer was shocked at what Blade Runner is about. Like. It’s obvious what Blade Runner’s about. It’s about people who believe they are superior hunting down and killing people who are considered inferior. Non-human. And the reviewer was all, ‘Does this sound familiar?’ and yes, it sounds very fucking familiar, and that’s the whole point of the story. The whole point. And maybe if we stopped and took sci-fi as a serious medium instead of something that must be consistently farfetched and/or fun, (not that it can’t be farfetched or fun, but just… that it can be many things) we could, you know, use it as a tool to view ourselves and our actions and our world. Which is what stories, all stories, including sci-fi ones, are for. It’s one of the reasons I love science fiction so much—because it is a reflection of ourselves. It’s like… a wide angle lens through which to view ourselves and our world and our culture and our rights and wrongs. And some stories, like Blade Runner, are unfortunately and horrifically pretty damn evergreen in a number of ways.
I do get the point of the review—that when we talk about Blade Runner, we talk about Harrison Ford, or the effects, or how weird the movie is, and not about the fact that it’s… people killing other people who have been labeled as less-than. I just… I was just angry that it was so shocking to anyone to discover that a sci-fi story could be making that point.
ANYWAY. I watched the final cut. I hated it. I really… it was not my cup of tea. And yet… I had many thoughts.
(I was going to use subheadings here and I was totally nerding out with excitement… and then I realized I have no idea how to break this into chunks. /o\ So, wall of text it is.)
Blade Runner, the final cut, was as boring and poorly edited as the theatrical version, as far as I’m concerned. I realize I just… dissed one of the most beloved and important science fiction films ever, and I’m sorry about that, but it’s… well. There’s so much that could have been so amazing! But instead we get forty thousand shots of an owl with robotic eyes! And a romance that’s basically rape! And what’s up with the dove at the end that appears from absolutely nowhere and is the most cliché and obvious, overblown metaphor of all time?
But despite having just negged the movie completely, and despite never, ever wanting to watch it again, I actually… I actually do feel that it’s incredibly important, because of what it is, and the questions it raises with its story.
The thing is, I’m probably completely spoiled as far as science fiction movies, and in particular, movies (or books or manga or whatever) that ask whether manmade… people are actually people, go, because I’ve gotten to watch and read stuff like Terminator and Westworld and Eve no Jikan (seriously, if you haven’t seen this, go now. It’s an anime that’s maybe six episodes, and it’s brilliant) and Gangsta (which is also just… mindblowingly good and closer to Blade Runner in that they’re genetically engineered people and not robots.) And these things do a superb job of asking a question that gets asked over and over and over in stories, and we never seem to tire of—do machines have souls? Can they feel and love and grieve and hope?
Blade Runner, of course, takes it even further—the replicants are manmade, but they’re not robots. They’re humans—enhanced, but human. Except that they’re not human because they’ve been told they’re not, because they’re told they have no souls, and everyone who isn’t a replicant believes that. Even the replicants sometimes believe it. But it’s obvious, at the end of the original, when Roy’s sitting there crying in the rain, that he has a soul, and is as human as anyone else. I mean… I felt that from the beginning of the movie, after Deckard interviews Rachel. Or even earlier, in the first scene, when the replicant-whose-name-I-can’t-remember is so furious about how he’s been/is being treated.
That’s why I feel like Blade Runner is an important story. Because it was one of the first, or at least one the most popular modern stories, to bring that question up. And to ask it not under the context of robots, which makes the question just that bit more abstract and palatable, but to ask it about people who are obviously people. This was why I was so… shocked by the review I read. The fact that this was a mystery to anyone is completely baffling to me. What on earth was anyone taking away from the movie if not that? But I guess that was the point of the review.
This ‘are robots capable of becoming human?’ question is entirely fascinating to me. I’m one of those people who’s never bored by it. But I recently brought that question up to a friend and she said, ‘Duh. They’re not.’
This super quick answer, with no thought, was appalling to me. First, I’m the sort of person who figures everything has a soul. That cat—has a soul. That rock by your shoe? Has a soul, and stories to tell, and ways to tell those stories that can’t be imagined. So the idea that robots—computers that are programmed to interpret emotions, and learn, and think—might not possibly at some point attain humanity was baffling to me. Also, this answer came from a woman who’s named her laptop and her mouse, and apologizes to them if she bumps them or hits the wrong key.
There was a study done with a robot that had a cute face. Participants were asked to talk to the robot for a few minutes, then shut it off. But when they went to shut it off, the robot begged them not to. People had a really hard time shutting the robot off. Some of them apologized to it. Some of them took a ridiculously long time. Obviously this is a reflection not of the robot but of the way people interact with the robot. But it’s still pretty fascinating, to think that we’re already more or less ready to believe that robots could have human qualities—emotions and fears and wants. But that, when pressed, we might deny we have those ideas.
So, okay. Robots aren’t really human. Now. At this point in time. I named my laptop and I talk to it in the same way I talk to my goldfish, but it is not actually human and does not actually have emotions or feelings. I’m not, despite much evidence to the contrary, actually crazy.
But the thing about Blade Runner is, they completely bypass the robot question. You could couch it that way, if you stretched it—replicants are manmade, are not physically the same as humans, are probably not mentally the same as humans, so… But they are human. And again, one way or another, we’re back to the movie asking, ‘What is it that defines humanity?’ And that’s why it’s important.
It’s just asked in such a godawful, clunky way.
We’ve got Deckard, who is frankly terrible at his job, but keeps doing it because he’s afraid of what’ll happen to him if he doesn’t—but his stakes aren’t very high, or at least, aren’t ever fully explained. But he’s quite unlikeable—and I’m not sure we’re supposed to like or even sympathize with him, which is actually why I did end up quite liking how his character was written. He’s weak and uncertain and afraid, and he doesn’t have nearly enough courage to stand up to authority, so he goes around murdering basically innocent people. This is not commendable or excusable. He’s a complete anti-hero, except he’s never presented that way. He’s presented first as someone you’re supposed to like and cheer for. And then he basically fails you. He murders an innocent woman—two innocent women—and you hate him for it, and then he fails to murder the character set up as the bad guy, but at that point, you want him to fail, in many ways. But it still doesn’t make you like Deckard. Or, it didn’t make me like him. It’s a seriously terrible way to tell a story and as I sit here and type and think about it, I like it more and more.
Then we’ve got the group of escaped replicants. They’re incredibly hard to relate to because their humanity is completely different from what humanity is ‘supposed’ to look like. They’re pretty much overgrown children. They can’t control their emotions or their actions because they’ve never been taught how—they haven’t been alive long enough to learn. We see this when Roy and Pris meet up again—they kiss, passionately, but you know it’s not truly passionate. They’re just… wearing all of their emotions and wants on their sleeves like children. Except they’re adults. And they’re frightening, because they’re strong and wild and unpredictable and they rampage about, hurting people. So I felt like the movie, in an underhanded way, attempted to tap into that ‘fear of the unknown’ impulse. Which it does. But then it flips that on you because you know, you know, that the replicants are human, as odd as they might be, and they absolutely don’t deserve to die or be treated in any way differently than any other human. So the story has neatly exposed all of your preprogrammed prejudices and fears and innate, kneejerk responses to your own eyes, and it can be quite uncomfortable.
And then you’ve got Rachel, who is perhaps the only truly sympathetic and complex character in the film, and she ends up… trapped in a manipulative relationship (more on that later) and on the run. She has no autonomy in her own choices, not agency in the way she lives, and her only role is to be a romantic prop. But actually, the entire story hinges on her. She’s the person where everything coalesces into, you know, plot. She’s a replicant with feelings and fears and wants. She’s both good and bad, clever and naïve, uncertain and bold. In love and in a terrible relationship.
So when I watch a movie like Blade Runner, am I watching it because I want to see the origami, or because Harrison Ford has that fascinating little smirk, or because of the special effects? Well. Yes. But also, I’m watching it because I’m a snob about science fiction. And I love science fiction because it’s so good at reflecting ourselves back at us.
And I do think Blade Runner accomplishes that rather well. If you can get through all the shots of the owl and trickling water and weird close-ups that serve no purpose.
Admittedly, the reason I wanted to see Blade Runner 2049 was because of Denis Villeneuve. The dude is a genius director. Prisoners is… one of the best movies I’ve ever seen ever. It’s OMGPERFECT. Sicario? Frightening and awful and incredible. Incendies? Holy shit horrific, but brilliant. Arrival? …Okay, I actually didn’t like Arrival all that much. BUT STILL.
And yeah, I like Harrison Ford and I really like Ryan Gosling and I really, really like Jared Leto.
So this was… this was a movie I was determined to like before I saw any of it at all.
And it was spectacular. Flawed—definitely not perfect. And I don’t think I actually liked it at all. But it was indeed all the brilliance I wanted.
From a technical point alone, the filming is just gorgeous. It’s a feast for the eyes. The acting is superb. Even Harrison Ford, and I’m not actually convinced he can, you know, act. But he does here. The music was sort of bleh but as an homage to the original film’s score, and in an it-didn’t-make-my-ears-bleed-like-the-original-music-tried sort of way, it’s well done. All of the touches that hint back at the original are quite subtle and quite nicely done, actually. It’s, at its most base, a wonderful tribute to the original.
From a story perspective… I was at first really disappointed. And then, as the movie went on, and afterwards, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it was… fantastic. Full of layers and layers. It never feeds you any answers. Much like the original film. It makes you think. Which… is maybe going to have some people drawing seriously unpleasant conclusions or answers. But which for me makes the impact of both movies that much more important and lasting.
The plot of the movie is that Ryan Gosling’s character, K, is a replicant but also a blade runner, meaning he goes and hunts down other, rogue, replicants. He doesn’t think anything bad about this. He’s good at his job. But during one hunt, he discovers that a replicant (Rachel) and a human (Deckard) had a baby. And he’s tasked with hunting down the kid and killing it because it represents this ‘proof’ that replicants are actually human.
And this at first really ticked me off because I didn’t need any proof that replicants were human, and I didn’t want anyone else to need proof. I just wanted someone to look at them and see people. And the movie sort of drags you along for a while going, ‘On, no, see, we need actual proof. There wasn’t proof before.’ But then there are all these little… bits, that make you realize that the movie, and K, give fuck all about proof. K just wants to do his job. And then he very much doesn’t want to do his job, he just wants to figure out who and what he is. I think he never really cares about the child or what that possibility represents at all.
This is demonstrated through a bunch of things. For example, there’s a scene in an orphanage where children are being used as slave labor, and no one thinks twice, even though they’re not replicants. So the idea that being born instead of made makes you special is tossed out the window. Also, we’ve got K’s girlfriend, Joi, who’s actually a computer, and she feels very human (so Blade Runner 2049 is operating on ‘What makes someone human’ on two fronts.) There’s never proof that she’s human. You only have to believe that she loves K, and that K loves her, that she has her own desires and emotions. And you do. Then we’ve got K’s boss, and Wallace who creates the replicants, and they are just bad people through-and-through, and I at first thought this was shallow character creation, but actually, it’s a clever reflection of how people can be one dimensional—and so can replicants, because Luv is just a very bad person. And then you’ve got Deckard and K and Joi, and they’re rich and three-dimensional and multifaceted. Humanity. It can be great. And it can be terrible. And humans can be exciting or boring as fuck.
And the very last scene in the movie said to me that basically the entire plot didn’t matter. All that mattered was K and what I thought of him. And I thought he was more human than many of the ‘actual’ humans in the story. It’s nuanced. Again, it doesn’t feed you anything. It makes you draw your own conclusions. And I really appreciated that.
The other thing I loved was how the film gently subverts a bunch of SFF tropes that are pretty popular right now (and have been for a while, I guess.) This is *super spoilery,* but K isn’t any sort of ‘chosen one’ or even anyone very special. He’s just a regular guy, living an incredibly difficult life. He is, in the grand scheme of things, not even very important. There’s also absolutely no great rebellion or otherwise dramatic group action. There’s a scene that teases at a rebellion about to happen off screen, off to the side, and you-as-the-viewer know it’s important, because obviously the replicants need to rise up and stop being treated as slaves, as disposable. But the movie is more personal than that. It’s about K. Only about K. And while the idea of a rebellion is incredibly important, I think the hinting at it, and the extreme focus on K, makes the story personal for viewers, too. It felt… more impactful for me. Because I cared about K, and not because he was special or involved in something dramatic. Just because… he was a person I liked.
And then you’ve got Deckard. The movie isn’t about him, or Rachel, but it does hinge around what happened to them after the end of the original movie. And this was sort of hard for me to swallow because you have to believe that Rachel and Deckard could have had a kid and… I honestly found the ‘romance’ in the original Blade Runner to be kind of… manipulative and uncomfortable and this-side-of-rape. I do think Rachel cared for and trusted Deckard… but I also think she had to trust Deckard, because she had no one else. In the blink of an eye, he could have killed her or turned her over and he would only have been praised for it. So there was no way she could say no to a relationship with him because she needed to keep him on her good side. This isn’t a romance. It’s emotional blackmail.
So I was a bit freaked out about getting around that for 2049. And… I didn’t really have to. I don’t know what Rachel felt about Deckard, during the original movie, or after. I know she had a sad life and died young. But all I needed to believe, for 2049, was that Deckard loved her. And I did, completely. Did it make their relationship good, or right, or comfortable, or did it make him a good person? Not necessarily. Maybe definitely not. But in the film, I had zero problem believing, whether he’d thought through the ramifications of Rachel’s situation and what that meant for their relationship, that he did love her. And he absolutely loved their kid.
I read a headline for a review of Blade Runner 2049 the other day (no, I didn’t read the review, because I’ve decided I don’t need to raise my blood pressure more than necessary over reviews I disagree with—I get that this might not be considered fair) that was basically ‘Is this movie worth watching?’ Maybe I’m the wrong person to answer this—I didn’t like the original, and I’m hugely biased towards the director and other people involved in the new one. But I do believe that, aside from that bias, Blade Runner 2049 doesn’t ask just one question about humanity—it asks many, and they’re all important. It does it in a way that’s refreshing and different from the original movie. And, at the most shallow level, I just wrote 3K+ words about the film, and I’m still thinking about it, so it’s excellent storytelling, in my opinion. So to answer only the headline of that review—yes, I think this is very much worth watching.
Also, there’s a scene with Barkhad Abdi and he’s amazing and it’s worth watching just for that.
I really love science fiction. I might have mentioned that a time or two. It’s odd because… science fiction is still a genre that’s not very welcoming, in many ways, towards many people. I don’t often see myself reflected in sci-fi stories, and I say that from a place of relative privilege. Even just in Blade Runner 2049, even though I truly think the director probably tried to be more open than many would have, it’s obvious that I wasn’t super welcome—there was a ton of sexualized female nudity, almost no male nudity, and no apologies made for making that a space that was obviously geared towards straight men and no one else. When I went to write this post, I kept thinking, ‘Maybe it’s not my place to talk about Blade Runner.’ And I almost talked myself out of it. Because the idea that sci-fi isn’t my place is ingrained. But of course it’s my place to talk about it. I saw both movies, I’m deeply immersed in SFF… The only plausible reason not to talk about it is perhaps because the original movie came out before I was born. But that seems only more like a bias to acknowledge.
But despite all that, science fiction is the genre I love most because it creates so many possibilities. And somewhere in all those multitudes of possibilities, it’s so easy to imagine a place where I do belong.
Blade Runner, both the original and the new, take that and flip it. They create a world where there are infinite possibilities to imagine, infinite places to imagine yourself, and then they point out groups of people and say, ‘The premise of this story is that these people don’t belong.’ And they both do it in such a way that you’re forced to actually think about that. Not just to absorb it as story, but to consider what that means. To draw your own conclusions. To watch K, and Rachel, and Deckard, and Joi, and wonder whether they way they love is what makes them human. And maybe that can be a reflection by which we view ourselves—not only now, in 2017, not only in 1982 when the original came out, but in many ways, for many years.
Or maybe I just like watching Ryan Gosling drive around in a flying car.