Updated: Jul 7, 2020
I keep hearing that this film demands too much of a modern movie audience.
In terms of length, there’s no question - it does. A 164 minute run-time is certainly asking a lot to sit through in a movie theater or even at home.
But I honestly challenge the notion that the subject matter is too complex. In many ways, this is a straightforward, fantastical sci-fi film like the blockbusters being churned out left and right.
The demands of this movie aren’t in the subject, they’re in the delivery. But it’s intentional. This film doesn’t give you the A-to-B plot we’re all used to. It lulls us to sleep with bleak landscapes and ambient sounds before jolting us back awake with spurts of violence or splashes of onscreen color.
All this to invoke the same feelings of living in a world where you’re not sure who or what is real. But the simple things in life still matter, and indeed, may be all that matter.
While this film could certainly have shaved some time off, this is truly a remarkable piece of sci-fi that somehow manages to top its predecessor in almost every way.
Below is a list of some of the things I liked or didn’t like about the film, in no particular order.
It goes without saying, vast spoilers ahead.
1) Eye Candy
This couldn’t NOT be the first bullet point in a critique of this film.
Much like the original 1982 film, this movie is a joy to watch. And I mean that from a purely aesthetic standpoint (it’s certainly not joyful subject matter throughout.)
It only took me two shots into this 2017 reboot to appreciate it’s attention to shot detail and beautiful photographic eye. Everything from lighting to framing to dimension, there are so many points in this film you just want to pause, screengrab and use as a desktop background.
The use of color and lighting in particular stand out. The yellow-soaked and watery dungeon that is Tyrell Corporation headquarters, the floating taillights of cars in a sky of inky black rain, the orange-dusted wasteland of Las Vegas (with it’s weirdly artsy statues of groveling women.)
I give mad props to director Denis Villenueve and cinematographer Roger Deakins for somehow upping the original in terms of visual acuity.
2) Reverse Eye Candy
While we’re on the topic, there are other uses of image to evoke the opposite response.
Even some of the elaborate and striking shots in the movie are meant to either instill or juxtapose morose feelings of the overcrowded world being depicted (a replicant hanging from a sheet of plastic, like a fly on paper, comes to mind.)
But specifically, there are moments where the goal is not to look stunning, but to look bleak. The dirty landfill and gritty orphanage scenes, specifically.
This isn’t to say these shots don’t take the same acute attention to detail, they most certainly do, but there are moments that stand out even more because they don’t seem to mesh with the eye-popping color and depth of most of the other shots in this film.
This juxtaposition makes this film feel more realistic, while also creating a clear sense of layers to the futuristic world shown here.
3) Sci-fi Splendor
This film is a truly magnificent science fiction symphony.
It meshes technology and concepts that have been a staple of the genre for more than a century (androids and the difference between living and existing) and blends it with newer concepts that, while they may not be new to the genre in particular, are certainly new to the Blade Runner story and allow us to be fully transported to a new reality.
The “memory maker” technology and the super-tech autopsy machine are clear dives into futuristic territory.
But what I found most appealing was actually the homages to technology from the past and even things we know in real life. Old movies and music played on hologram stages and the sides of buildings show that this world was made by a progression (and, at times, destruction) of what came before. The best example is probably that K has to use microfilm to find DNA records when they won’t show up on the computer. How fitting, that even in a far-future world, that sometimes technology fails and the old methods are most reliable.
Also worth noting here is that there are clear attempts to ground the viewer in recognizable technology, like the surveillance drone that hovers out of K’s car and the chemical baths that people take to get clean without wasting water.
This may not be the world we actually live in, but it’s not far off.
4) Not a bloody movie, but a brutal one
There certainly is gore in this film, but it isn’t the kind of bloody we tend to think of with sci-fi and horror. It’s less a matter of showing violence and blood as it is how it’s contextualized and written.
We see less blood in moments than other films might. When the police coroner gets killed, Luv snaps his spine at the base of his skull. We see his eyes fill with blood and hear his choking and gurgling. It’s gross, but it’s not as obscene as ripping his spine out and eating it (like in 1979's Alien.)
Ultimately, this movie’s violence rating comes less from the blood it does show and more from the blood it doesn’t. It shows so much on the screen in other ways that what’s left to the imagination ends up making us squirm even more.
For instance, when Luv squeezes the hand of the police detective (played marvelously by Robin Wright!), we’re not thinking of the blood oozing down her arm, we’re thinking of the unseen shards of glass tearing into her palm.
5) Depth of writing, yet familiarity
This movie makes a point to be dense and complicated. A movie about an android trying to discover the location of the first android ever born shouldn’t be simplistic, after all.
It’s got a lot going on, true, but it also feeds us some anchor points throughout.
With references to Elvis, old movies, and video game consoles (Atari, represent!) we get literal familiarity. With thematic and quoted material we get story familiarity.
The references to “being a real boy” hearkens to Pinocchio, and the two Blade Runners comparing knowledge of old literature and plenty of Biblical quotes all invite us to recognize that ‘hey, all this stuff might seem new and daunting, but we’re really talking about the same shit as Disney!’
It’s an effective technique and provides for some nice callbacks.
6) The Ending
Ridley Scott famously edited and re-edited the ending of his 1982 Blade Runner several times, with one ending being shown in theaters and several different ones released on video and DVD.
The man could not decide which one audiences would be able to grasp best and whether he wanted the sappy conclusion of Deckard riding off into the sunset with his love or not.
Villenueve said fuck it, 'I’m doing it all in one. I’m going to give you an ending that can be taken multiple ways and each interpretation is either satisfying or cliffhanging depending on the viewer.'
K is able to save Deckard from Luv and from being sent “off-world,” but he’s fatally wounded in the process. While we don’t see the man die, I think it’s supposed to be taken for granted that K isn’t going to live long. He stages Deckard’s death (again) so Wallace (Jared Leto) won’t keep hunting him. He then gets to die peacefully, having seen his mission through and knowing the truth.
But it’s not like we get the whole problem solved. Wallace is still alive, the fucked up world is still beyond saving and the duty of replicants is unchanged from menial slaves.
We are told of a revolution that we never get to see. We are told of human worlds that we never get to see.
All these things left unresolved don’t matter, though. This is really just about a man and his daughter, and he gets to see her in the end. That’s enough.
And it’s a more remarkable conclusion in my mind. With all the world stacked against you, sometimes just seeing one, smaller story get a happy ending is all the resolution we need.
1) The length
I already mentioned this above, but I strongly felt part-way through watching this film that I was being shown some things that weren’t necessary, either from a storytelling standpoint or a cinematic one.
Sometimes, a shot that lingers too long can be intentional and useful. It can hammer home a point or emotion that the picture is aiming for. Or it can be a way of including the little things in life that usually get cut from a film even though they add depth or realism. Depicting a world without the basic things that make up our daily lives makes the world of film seem too perfect at times.
This film does those things, but it does them too often. At times, it’s not even accomplishing much with it’s actions. Just one example: we are shown at least three times that maggots = protein/food. We don’t need to keep being told that. Pick a scene to reveal it in and move on.