Born from Novels, Raised in Hollywood, Part 1: A Review of Blade Runner: 2049

Recently, I saw two films that had their original inspiration come from novels: Blade Runner: 2049 and Stephen King’s IT.   Having read both novels before (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, by Philip K. Dick, and It, by Stephen King, respectively), I figured it was my duty to see them both and write reviews for them.

I had mixed expectations for both.  I saw IT first, but I’m gonna start with the one I just saw last weekend: Blade Runner: 2049.

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First, a little history: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was written by one of the ultimate masters of science fiction, Philip K. Dick, in 1968.  It told a story of a bleak, dystopian future in which Deckard, a human, is a bounty hunter whose job it is to ‘retire’ non-human androids who have gone rogue and committed violent crimes against humans.  Deckard descends into a dark underworld where it is next to impossible to tell android from human.  It’s exciting stuff: it took me about 3 days to read the 200 or so page book.

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What’s really special about the book is the message: it takes existentialism to the next level.  I was blown away by the ending: I couldn’t stop thinking about it for days.  It’s the only Philip K. Dick book I’ve ever read: I’m not sure why I haven’t read more, seeing as how it kicked so much ass.

Not long after reading the book, I watched the movie that was adapted from the novel: Blade Runner, directed by Ridley Scott and released in 1982, starring Harrison Ford.

Blade Runner is a controversial movie for a lot of reasons: first of all, there are seven versions of it.  Yup…SEVEN.  I’ve only seen one.  I have no idea which cut I actually saw (there are three versions that seem to float around the most).  

Whatever version you see, they are all very, very different from the book.  From the title, to the main character, Deckard, to the ending and the message, everything is very different.  

Now…I’m one of those people who enjoys reading the novels of movie adaptations before I’ve seen them…and I’m also one of those people who strongly believes that “the book is always better,” no matter how annoying that is to hear.  But despite being wildly different from the novel, Blade Runner didn’t bother me.  In fact, I loved it when I saw it.  But one thing was clear in my mind: it was not a true ‘adaptation’ of a novel.

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In reality, Blade Runner is more of a ‘re-imagining’ than an adaptation.  Nothing but the bare bones of the novel remain; the title has been changed; the main character has been changed from human to android; there are no electric sheep to be seen anywhere; and so on.  But as a ‘re-imagining’, Blade Runner (or at least the version that I saw), was pretty awesome in its own right.  It was its own thing; in a lot of ways, it was an original.  And because it distanced itself so, so, so very far from the novel, while in essence keeping its spirit alive, it did something that no movie before or since has done: adapted a novel while not adapting a novel at all.

On a side note, it should be noted that Philip K. Dick died before the movie was released, but he was happy with the drafts that he read, which would go on to become the movie.  So he must have liked something about it.

And so we come to the present day, and Blade Runner: 2049.  To be honest, I wasn’t really interested in seeing it.  Three things brought me on board:

  • It’s been getting good reviews.
  • It was directed by Denis Villeneuve.
  • I had a gift certificate to a local movie theater to use.

That was pretty much it.  Otherwise, I would have stayed in and watched a DVD.

Let’s start with the director.  Denis Villeneuve has quickly become a “must-see” director among people who like to see intellectually stimulating, visually stunning movies.  I still haven’t seen his earlier films ( Maelstrom, Polytechnique, Incendies, Prisoners and Enemy)  but I have managed to see his latest three, all on the big screen: Sicario, Arrival, and now Blade Runner: 2049.

The interesting thing about his latest three films is how they all manage to be so incredibly different, while keeping a certain flavor about them.  Sicario is an intense action movie about the illegal drug trade in Mexico; Arrival is an intellectual journey through the world of written and spoken language, as seen through the eyes and senses of humans and alien beings; Blade Runner: 2049 is a somewhat standard sequel to a science-fiction action movie.

A common trait shared by them is how visually stunning they all are: these movies should be seen in a movie theater so that their amazing wide angle shots can be truly enjoyed and appreciated.  Watching them on a computer simply wouldn’t do them justice.  This may have more to do with the cinematographers than anything else: Roger Deakins on Prisoners, Sicario and Blade Runner: 2049; Bradford Young on Arrival.  Deakins in particular is an absolute legend in the film-making world: before teaming up with Villeneuve, Deakins worked with a plethora of big directors on great films.  He shot almost every important Coen Brothers movie, as well as movies by Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard and M. Night Shyamalan.  

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So where does that leave Blade Runner: 2049 as a film?  Well, it’s visually stunning, as one would expect with Villeneuve directing and Deakins behind the camera.  It captures the dark, dystopian feel of the original Blade Runner movie, and for that matter the novel that birthed Blader Runner, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  The story is well-written and coherent, as one would expect: one of the two screenwriters on the project was Hampton Francher, who co-wrote the first one.  The acting is good: Harrison Ford returns, Ryan Gosling stars, and Jared Leto is awesomely scary as a somewhat minor character.  

And yet…I somehow felt….a little bit underwhelmed.  

This is not to say that Blade Runner: 2049 isn’t good: it is good.  It’s not to say that it isn’t interesting: it is interesting.  And it’s not to say that it isn’t well conceived: instead of making some gigantic re-make in order to cash in, they decided to make a sequel 35 years after the fact: that’s really admirable, considering the way Hollywood works these days (when in doubt, RE-MAKE SOMETHING TO MAKE SOME QUICK CASH!).

But despite all of these good intentioned things, Blade Runner: 2049 suffers from the same thing that ailed Arrival at times: it’s a little bit slow, and it drags at times.  For a movie that is just under 3 hours, it becomes sort of a chore to watch: I felt myself counting down the minutes towards the end of the film.  I just wanted it to end.  

Maybe if 20 minutes were cut, it would be just a little bit more digestible (this is something that should be done to every Paul Thomas Anderson film ever made).  The movie isn’t bad: if I was grading it, I would give it a B+.  But again: if I have to sit and watch something for almost 3 hours, something that is a B+ isn’t going to keep my attention for the whole time.

A couple notes: I read through some stuff that critics wrote: the reviews have been overwhelmingly positive.  One thing everyone seemed to love was the story: some critics were saying this was one of best science fiction stories ever written.  I find that completely and utterly ridiculous.  Yes, the story worked.  Yes, the story was adequate.  Yes, it was interesting.  But to say that what was written was some sort of ground-breaking achievement is ridiculous.  It got the job done, and that was it.  Period.

Other critics have called the film sexist due to its excessive use of female nudity.  On this, I have a lot of thoughts, which I’ll try to make sense of as coherently as possible.  It wasn’t long ago that female nudity in movies was almost standard: if you saw a rated R movie, there would probably be at least one scene with a topless female actress.  If you watch a lot of movies from the ‘70s, like I do, there’s tons of full frontal female nudity.  And for the most part…examples of male nudity in Hollywood movies is extremely rare (although they’re floating around out there).  

Most of this was used for for non-artistic purposes, as in, “Let’s get some female nudity in there to sell some tickets to the fellas!”  One example of this is Carrie: I recently saw the 1976 classic in a theater, and the film opens with naked females frolicking through a hot and steamy locker room.  Though the scene was important to the story, the use of female nudity was over the top and ridiculous: nothing that followed in the movie had anything to do with it.  

On the other hand, as film-making has evolved, female nudity is often used “in the name of art.”  One example I can think of is Ex Machina: Ex Machina had a lot of full frontal female nudity: in fact, it had more nudity than almost any movie I could think of.  And Ex Machina was one of the most amazing films I’ve seen recently.  I left the theater absolutely thrilled.  And to me (keep in mind, I’m a heterosexual male), I thought the nudity was incredibly well-done and artistic, and also essential to the plot of the movie.  

Fast-forward to October 2017, when I watched Blade Runner: 2049.  First the Weinstein stuff came out, and then the ‘Me Too’ movement rocked the Facebook world.  Again, here I was, a heterosexual male, just completely in the dark, and having my eyes opened with a huge, “Oh My God, WTF” moment.

After this, I saw Blade Runner: 2049.  And yes, there was a lot of female nudity.  In my opinion, it was similar to the nudity that I saw in Ex Machina.  It was serving an artistic purpose.  And yet, I couldn’t help seeing it as somewhat exploitative. It felt jarring and uncomfortable to see numerous female nudes, many of whom were non-human, android prostitutes, approach and at times harrass K, the character played by Ryan Gosling.  All of the naked females were de-humanized, cold, and highly sexualized.  They used their sexuality as a weapon, both against the protagonist and against the audience.

All of this, of course, served an artistic purpose.  I’m not sure if it makes the film sexist.  It is likely exploitative, but in that sense anytime nudity, primarily female nudity, is used in the name of art, exploitation is part of the picture.  If you visit any art museum, there are lots of female nudes: those models were exploited in the same as those on the movie screen, though the scope and means of presenting the image have changed vastly.

In summary, I don’t know if Blade Runner: 2049 is sexist.  I do think the portrayal of naked female actresses in the film is highly sexualized and coldly impersonal: this is the point of the scenes.  But I don’t know if that constitutes sexism on the whole.  What I do know is that the idea of sexuality in film and how to present it to audiences is changing,and that’s likely a good thing.  

 

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