The cult film with a considerable afterlife has to be Ridley Scott’s future-noir “Blade Runner” (1982). The film’s beginnings certainly fit the definition of a cult film, as it was initially rejected by most audiences but over time gathered a committed fan base. Things should be different with its 2017 sequel, which deserves consideration as the best film of the year.
A box-office flop upon release, the 1982 version was also critically panned. Pauline Kael spoke for many when she faulted the film for sacrificing a coherent narrative for the eye candy of flying cars, towering corporate buildings, and the obligatory noir visuals of constant rain. So cold was Scott’s treatment toward the characters that Kael accused him of directing the film like a replicant, the film’s fictional bioengineered robots.
A minority of critics at the time and a growing fan base courtesy of the film’s release on video saw a compelling story buried under the undeniably breathtaking images, while acknowledging Scott’s clear prioritization of visuals over story. (When Scott read the script by actor Hampton Fancher, he believed it lacked a picture of the “world outside the window,” and set about obsessively supplying it.)
Even Its Champions Had Criticisms
But even “Blade Runner’s” champions criticized the story. They hated the Philip Marlowe-like voice-overs delivered by an almost comatose Harrison Ford (although Scott, who at the time famously quarreled with Ford onset, later acknowledged that he shortchanged the actor’s performance). They saw these as clunky, unnecessary, and even insulting to an audience the film-makers clearly believed could not understand the story on their own.
They equally hated the happy ending clumsily tacked on, in which Ford’s replicant lover, Rachel, did not have a lifespan limited to four years as did the other replicants. It was an obvious crowd-pleasing device that fans felt compromised the film’s tough-minded approach.
Seven versions later, Scott, given complete artistic control over the film, finally devoted attention to the story, editing out (also to Ford’s satisfaction) the voice-overs and optimistic ending. Now freed from them, the complexities of the story became more apparent, chiefly the irony of Ford being less human than the replicants were.
Thankfully, “Blade Runner 2049” needs no corrective editing, for it is a much better film on every level. Indeed, it is the best film of 2017. The story is based on a screen treatment by Fancher (who hated Scott’s finished product) and fleshed out by Michael Greene, a fan boy clearly not intimidated by the original. It is much more skillful and compelling. Director Denis Villeneuve has not neglected the visuals of environmental and nuclear devastation, but this time the images (a nuclear winter rather than a pounding rain) do not distract from the story. Instead, they enhance it.
A Robot Humans Can Root For
Ford is integral to the film, but his screen time is short and near the end. As such, an excellent Ryan Gosling has to carry the film. This is no easy task, as his Blade Runner, named “K,” is established from the get-go as a replicant, and is hated by both the replicants he retires (one calls him a “traitor”), and the human police officers on his unit, who denigrate him as a “skin job.”
Gosling has double duty in creating a plausible replicant while giving audiences someone they can root for. Gosling achieves both, and makes the audiences come to him to locate the bourgeoning human emotion behind his blank stares. Unlike the scene-chewing Rutger Hauer, the chief replicant of the first film, Gosling is rarely flamboyant, and manages to subtly reveal more emotions as the story moves along concerning the search for the child of Ford and Rachel that might be Gosling.
When he finally does erupt, over the possibility of being the hybrid child, he does so in a manner that wordlessly conveys his rage at being lied to and used by the humans.
Yet it is Sylvia Hoeks, as a replicant assassin, who all but walks away with the film. She tops Hauer’s overrated performance in the first film. She is able to be both villainous and oddly sympathetic, as when she tears up when her boss (Jared Leto), the chief supplier of replicants, murders one of his “creations” almost immediately after its birth simply because the new replicant cannot reproduce.
Gosling’s boss, an ice-cold Robin Wright, tasks him with finding then murdering Ford and Rachel’s child. Hoeks has the more benign mission of simply locating the child for Leto. But like Gosling, she too has a dog in this fight, evidenced by her explosion when Wright informs her that the child has been located and murdered by a lying Gosling.
In this outburst Hoeks reveals both a superior view toward her human creators and a pride that her species can reproduce when, mere seconds before killing Wright, she calls the Blade Runner chief a “little worm” engaging in a doomed attempt to stop this “tidal wave” of replicant evolution with a “broom.”
Fake People More Humane Than Humans
By far the most sympathetic and humane character in the film is not a replicant or a human but a hologram designed for Gosling. Played warmly by Ana de Armas, she endangers herself to be with Gosling on his quest, and mere seconds before her death proclaims her love for him.
Like the first film, the humans come off as colder than the replicants. Along with Wright, whose plastered hair resembles a helmet, Leto, the replicants’ chief designer, is ice-cold hate, and regards replicant reproduction as simply a technical matter to master. Ford, however, redeems himself from the first film. Appearing near the end, he too almost walks away with the film. Less robotic and more emotionally open this time around, he portrays Deckard as broken by Rachel’s death.
The film does not answer the decades-old question of Ford being a replicant, although Ford tellingly lacks Gosling’s superhuman physical abilities. Yet this is briefly addressed by his captor, Leto. Against Leto’s assertions that Ford was a replicant designed to meet and impregnate Rachel, Ford counters that he “knows what is real.”
A Decidedly Pro-Life Tone
Self-sacrifice is a major theme in the movie. Ford leaves Rachel and the baby to distract their human hunters off her scent. Gosling is so selfless toward bringing Ford into contact with his offspring that an amazed Ford asks him, “What am I to you?”
Politically, the first film was anti-corporate (a tycoon owed his wealthy status to mass-producing replicants), and its depiction of a city constantly raining and dark warned of climate change. The “evils” of “big business” are carried over into the new film, with Leto providing ammunition to Marxists by stating that “every society is built upon a disposable work force.” And the weather has grown worse, evidenced by a constant snow that is dark rather than white.
But this ideological slant is balanced by a decidedly pro-life tone. The replicants, with their view of birth as a “miracle” and of life as sacred, could be stand-ins for the most reasonable of the pro-life movement. It is the humans who react to replicant births as an abomination worthy of being murdered. And to value life in any form is humanity at its best.
“Blade Runner 2049” is more worthy of the reputation given the first film. The plot is less muddled, the performances better, and the audience is not spoon-fed information, but instead treated as intelligent. It is a validation of why story is more important than special effects.