Magazine | November 13, 2017, Issue

Dark Progress

Blade Runner 2049, the 2017 sequel to a classic 1992 director’s cut of a flawed 1982 theatrical release adapted from a 1968 sci-fi novel, is a long and stately movie, with many scenes paced slowly enough to allow a corner of your mind to meditate on important questions that stand a little ways outside the plot.

For instance, is the world that Ridley Scott’s original depicted, and Denis Villeneuve’s follow-up expands, really a dystopia? The answer might seem obvious: To the future-noir gloom of the original, with corporate titans ruling from towers high above a polluted, overcrowded, acid-rain-swept Los Angeles, the sequel has added a civilization-altering blackout that has left L.A.’s rivals, San Diego and Las Vegas, respectively a trash-heaped wasteland and a radioactive ruin. It’s not the darkest timeline, but it’s pretty dark indeed.

Yet the society of the Blade Runner movies is the opposite of stagnant. Despite (or because of?) all the pollution and squalor and oligarchy, its pace of technological achievement has leaped ahead of our own timeline — with not only “replicants,” the engineered semi-human beings whose existential situation is at the heart of the story in both films, but also extraordinary virtual-reality simulations, flying cars, and far-flung space travel. If the films’ world is wickeder in certain respects than ours, more uncomfortable and viscerally unpleasant, it is also more dynamic: a world where the future once envisioned by space-age futurists and AI prognosticators is actually happening instead of slipping ever back into the past.

At one point in the new film, its corporate villain, a blind visionary overacted by Jared Leto, starts rambling about how every great leap forward in human history was achieved through the exploitation of some helot class — which is his justification, naturally, for creating replicants en masse and then exploiting their semi-humanity to the hilt. There is a sense in which the setting, dystopic but also dynamic, seems to vindicate his boast: The bleakness of the Blade Runner world is more like the dark-satanic-mills darkness of the 19th century than the post-apocalyptic darkness of, say, Mad Max: Fury Road or The Road. It’s a future where a kind of progress has kept rolling on . . . and the question it raises is whether sometimes the progress we pine for is something we would be better off without.

This is a digressive way to begin a review, but digressive meditations are what the Blade Runner movies invite. The original had a rare un-charismatic Harrison Ford performance at its heart and a Chinatown-esque plot whose specifics do not exactly linger in the memory. The sequel is a bit more overtly political; there are hints that a replicant revolution might be aborning. But again, the lead performance features a sex-symbol actor working very hard to bury his charisma — Ryan Gosling, this time — and a whole lot of theological scaffolding around a gumshoe investigation in which nobody’s motivations bear much scrutiny.

Gosling’s character, like Ford’s before him, is a “blade runner” — a cop whose job is to find and retire replicants who’ve tried to escape servitude and blend into the human population. In the original, there was a much-debated question about whether Ford’s Agent Deckard was himself perhaps a replicant; this time things are simpler, because Gosling’s character is identified from the start with the designation “K” and sneered at by his co-workers as a “skinjob.” He’s one of the new-model replicants, with none of the loyalty problems that bedeviled the older models, and so he can be trusted by his police-chief boss (Robin Wright) to put his predecessors out of commission.

But that trust begins to fray when one of his violent decommissionings turns up an ossuary full of replicant bones and evidence that the departed synthetic human had given birth before she died. This is supposed to be an impossibility, and K’s boss fears that it will lead to a revolution — childbearing being the last obvious line separating humans from their enslaved creations — so she tasks K with finding and then eliminating the by now grown-up child. But meanwhile Leto’s corporate titan dispatches his minion, a lady replicant named Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), on much the same mission, except that he wants the replicants to reproduce, the better to multiply fast enough to make their slave labor that much more efficient.

The movie supplies no explanation as to why gestation, a notoriously stressful and time-consuming process, would be a more efficient means of making new replicants than whatever assembly line has already been quite successfully established. Nor does it explain why a society capable of the godlike feat of creating almost-human beings from scratch can’t also make them fertile, or why . . . well, anyway, as I said, the plot is not actually the thing, and it’s really not the thing until Harrison Ford shows up for the third act as a grizzled, hidden-in-exile Deckard and gives the somnambulant proceedings a welcome dose of orneriness and violence.

Instead you should come to this movie for the same reasons people eventually came to love the original: to be immersed in an Ozymandian-scale visual and aural experience, to be bombarded with Biblical and classical allusions, to enter a timeline that seems at once more inhuman and more human than our own, to watch a blockbuster-scale story that concedes little or nothing to blockbuster clichés.

This movie does not quite equal its predecessor, or for that matter Villeneuve’s last film, the masterly alien-encounter movie Arrival. There is nothing here quite so fine and startling and resonant as Rutger Hauer’s doomed replicant Roy Batty, no moment as memorable as his parting speech, and while Villeneuve expands the earlier movie’s landscape, it’s still a return visit, not a first encounter. And there are also a few times when the political plotting inspires a creeping fear that the screenwriters are trying to set up a franchise, to have a permanent Blade Runner universe along Marvel or Star Wars lines.

Fortunately, the disappointing box office probably disposes of that possibility. With luck, this will be the only sequel we get — imperfect but worthy, a reverent return, and a chance to let your mind wander while the camera glides through a world ravaged and darkened by its extraordinary progress.

In This Issue

Articles

Features

Books, Arts & Manners

Sections

Poetry

Poetry

IN PLATO’S CAVE As lights in some cheap movie lit Reveal the filth in which we sit; And eyes around recoil in fright: In Plato’s cave we hate the light. But dream of being in ...
Letters

Letters

Kindergarten Controversy We at Catherine Cook School are shocked and disappointed that National Review would allow Frederick Hess and Grant Addison’s article, “Classes of Kindergarteners” (October 15), to be printed without ...
The Week

The Week

‐ So it took only 20 percent of the U.S. uranium supply to make Hillary radioactive. ‐ Former president George W. Bush gave an address in New York on “the Spirit ...

Most Popular

Film & TV

Why We Can’t Have Wakanda

SPOILERS AHEAD Black Panther is a really good movie that lives up to the hype in just about every way. Surely someone at Marvel Studios had an early doubt, reading the script and thinking: “Wait, we’re going to have hundreds of African warriors in brightly colored tribal garb, using ancient weapons, ... Read More
Law & the Courts

Obstruction Confusions

In his Lawfare critique of one of my several columns about the purported obstruction case against President Trump, Gabriel Schoenfeld loses me — as I suspect he will lose others — when he says of himself, “I do not think I am Trump-deranged.” Gabe graciously expresses fondness for me, and the feeling is ... Read More
Science & Tech

Set NASA Free

The Trump administration has proposed shifting the International Space Station from a NASA-exclusive research facility to a semi-public, semi-private one. Its plan would nix all government funding for the ISS by 2025 and award at least $150 million per year to NASA to help with the transition. This would be a ... Read More
Politics & Policy

Students’ Anti-Gun Views

Are children innocents or are they leaders? Are teenagers fully autonomous decision-makers, or are they lumps of mental clay, still being molded by unfolding brain development? The Left seems to have a particularly hard time deciding these days. Take, for example, the high-school students from Parkland, ... Read More
PC Culture

Kill Chic

We live in a society in which gratuitous violence is the trademark of video games, movies, and popular music. Kill this, shoot that in repugnant detail becomes a race to the visual and spoken bottom. We have gone from Sam Peckinpah’s realistic portrayal of violent death to a gory ritual of metal ripping ... Read More
Elections

Romney Is a Misfit for America

Mitt’s back. The former governor of Massachusetts and occasional native son of Michigan has a new persona: Mr. Utah. He’s going to bring Utah conservatism to the whole Republican party and to the country at large. Wholesome, efficient, industrious, faithful. “Utah has a lot to teach the politicians in ... Read More