Is Blade Runner 2049 a worthy sequel to its legendary predecessor? Yes, if you are a Philip Dick reader. Or a huge fan of the 1982 production.
Blade Runner 2049 Synopsis
The year is 2049 and replicants are found throughout human society, though blade runners still exist for the purpose of hunting down and retiring (killing) rogue older models. K is one such hunter, working for the LAPD and living with his holographic companion, Joi, in a desolate apartment. After retiring a former military replicant named Sapper, K discovers human remains under a dead tree near Sapper’s hideout. Forensic analysis then reveals that the unimaginable might have happened with a previous replicant, a secret that Sapper rather die than reveal. Fearful of a massive social backlash should the truth be made known to the public, K’s superior, Joshi, orders him to immediately hunt down and destroy all evidence related to the remains.
Let me say this out loud first. As a long-time Philip Dick reader, I’ve long concluded reading his works is often a mixed experience. Whether you end up loving or hating his stories largely depends on whether you know what his strengths and weaknesses are. In other words, to enjoy his writing, you have to know what to ignore.
Yes, this was the man who popularised the notion of altered memories. He also incessantly challenged the human understanding of existence, a theme many movies and television series continue to draw inspiration from.
Yet, at the same time, it’s a hard fact that Philip was often lacklustre in plotting, if not lazy. While he never wrote anything that was downright awful, many of his stories (for me) simply do not live up to the grandeur of his concepts.
If you were to compare Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep with Blade Runner (1982), you would immediately notice the ’82 movie weaved a much more compelling and memorable story than its source material, a phenomenon that would repeat itself with Total Recall and Minority Report. To put it in another way, movie adaptations of PkD works are almost always being better than the books or short stories. Philip provided the concepts and the frameworks. The collective creativity of Hollywood then grew the tales to their deserved complexities. Those who have watched the movies but not read the books correspondingly assume the source material are actually greater.
Highlighting this not to diss the author or either Blade Runner movies, but because of something that happened at the end of the screening. While walking out, a couple beside me loudly complained about the movie being boring. “It’s certainly no X-Men,” remarked the guy.
As unpleasant as that sounded to me, I could understand where they were coming from. Despite the gorgeous visuals and breathtaking panoramas, this movie requires patience. It’s SLOW. Very SLOW. And while it had a sly twist at the end, it wasn’t anything earth-shattering. (A true Dick fan would be able to predict the twist too) In short, this movie is indeed “no X-Men.” Strictly speaking, it’s not even science-fiction, in the Hollywood definition of the genre. This is classic speculative storytelling. Deeply philosophical. Borderline arthouse in presentation too.
The above said, if you are familiar with PkD concepts and paranoia, then the very fact that this is “no X-Men” is the single most compelling reason to watch the movie. In my opinion, the greatest triumph of Blade Runner 2049 is how it honoured, challenged, and expanded the concepts of the original story. Beyond empathy, what else defines humanity? What else justifies and demarcates it too?
Admittedly, in an age where these questions aren’t exactly exotic, the regurgitations by the movie could come across as trite and even neurotic. For a Philip Dick reader and movie fan like me, though, they complete the examination began in the novella and in the 1982 movie.
Through this, the best and most disturbing from the author are again elevated to their rightful intricacies by the medium of cinema storytelling. K’s onerous journey for self and racial definition requires patience to watch but is ultimately fulfilling. If you approach it in the right way, with the right expectations, it should be so for you too.
PS: I was a little hesitant in listing the soundtrack as a thumbs-up. It could be that the IMAX cinema I watched the movie at was too enthusiastic with audio levels. The entire auditorium was literally groaning and shaking from the howls and booms. Towards the second half, it actually got quite unpleasant.
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