Blade Runner 2049 is an impressive piece of story-telling, letting you think you’re watching something other than what it really is, just like most of its cast.
Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner is a watershed film for me. It was the announcement of it that led me to read my first Philip K. Dick novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. And like Star Wars did four years earlier with film, that novel introduced me to the power of words.
Reading that book was a trans-formative experience for me. I was 13. It may have been the moment when I decided I wanted to be a writer.
I spent the next decade buying, reading and collecting everything I could written by or about Philip K. Dick. My list of essential PKD books is longer than than my list of essential books by just about everyone else combined… but then again, I’m a slow reader.
Today he is recognized for what he was, one of the truly brilliant novelists and thinkers of the 20th century. Then he was an after-thought while science fiction was still in love with lesser writers like Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein and a slew of truly forgettable writers.
Dick’s work was mostly out of print. I scoured bookstores for single copies of them as they were re-released and still have all of those lurid Bob Pepper DAW Press copies of books like A Scanner Darkly, A Maze of Death, Now Wait for Last Year and, my favorite UBIK.
Dick was the gateway into the world of speculative fiction.
I wouldn’t call what he wrote science fiction, because most of the science in Dick’s novels was akin to magic. Dick speculated on the reality of what we were creating and where those creations were leading us.
But, he did so in a way that was grounded in the most human of traits, our fallibility. And from him I learned that salvation comes in in the simplest acts of decency and evil stems from an essential lack of empathy.
There was a moment early on in Blade Runner 2049, during a scene that shouldn’t have done so, that evoked a powerful emotional response from me. It wasn’t a cheap bit of nostalgia for the first film.
It was a moment where the film allowed me the time to reflect on the previous scenes and weigh the import of them to the people (?) involved and I realized how overwhelmingly awful this world was.
It happened between important moments. Not during the ones where the soundtrack was telling me to feel something. I simply did. And later I remembered that was how I felt the first time I read the scene in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep where the Replicants pull the legs off a spider to see how it worked.
And I began to cry. Just like I did at 13.
Fiction that didn’t speculate on these essential things held no interest for me. When you’ve read the best, why screw around with lesser lights? And that led me straight to Franz Kafka.
Like Dick, Kafka is his own adjective. Work so singular we had to invent language to fully encapsulate his ideas.
Phildickian, Kafkaesque… these are important words in 21st century America.
So, in returning to the best spiritual adaptation of Dick’s work into film, Blade Runner, the question was what would these words speculate on next?
The answers lie not only in a Philip K. Dick book but also in one of Kafka’s, The Trial. And that’s what makes Blade Runner 2049 so worth your time.
Trial and Error
That’s as far as I’ll go in spoiling Blade Runner 2049. And suffice it to say that my experience with the film echoes that of Walter Chaw over at Film Freak Central. Walter is a reviewer that I love to read just to see what justification he comes up with for hating something. His answer is usually ‘not enough socialism.’
He’s like Rex Reed trapped in a reality-altering fugue straight out of Palmer Eldritch or Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said.
That said, he is the only other reviewer to actually get Blade Runner 2049.
I didn’t like Blade Runner 2049 very much in the hours after first watching it. I didn’t like the way it resolved the previous film’s storylines–how stolid it was in its exposition and how eager it seemed to talk about what was on its mind. It’s an easy film to dislike. But through that initial dislike I started wondering if maybe its obviousness is its point.
So, unlike Walter, I didn’t dislike Blade Runner 2049 at first glance. I was enthralled by it from the first frame. But, I noted that the movie was less of a puzzle than its predecessor and was initially let down.
Now, I also trust that artists have a plan; that as the critic I don’t know the material better than they do. I immediately went into speculating, like I always do when thrown a curve by a movie, why the filmmakers made the choices they made.
They deserve that much credit. And generally, when I do that I’m rewarded by them.
Why did Blade Runner 2049 feel so obvious and in some ways pedestrian?
And that’s where Kafka’s The Trial comes in. I won’t say much more than that.
That’s when I knew that I was watching a Blade Runner sequel worthy of its name. This is a deep and layered film that, like a great magician, shows you all of its moves and still leaves you in a state of awe and wonder.
The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing you he didn’t exist. — The Usual Suspects.
Because the story you thought you were watching isn’t that story at all. And the story leads to a conclusion that makes Officer K’s journey through his memories, real and implanted, worth our time.
It is the opposite of Chris Nolan’s pretentious Inception, which purports to be a Phildickian puzzle a la UBIK but lands with a thud because he didn’t care enough about his material to make us care about the character’s needs.
Trial by Memory
This is what Blade Runner 2049 is about. The power of memory and its manipulation, the casual cruelty of power and the choices we make to accept their limits or struggle against them.
Just like Joseph K. in Kafka’s classic novel.
It’s a story that unfolds at a glacial pace, beautifully photographed, meticulously framed. It evokes the best of Stanley Kubrick and the worst of Steven Spielberg. It reminded me of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, Grant Morrison’s Coyote Gospel and even Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven.
The visual storytelling in War for the Planet of the Apes was stronger. That’s a film that refuses to help us, like Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Denis Villeneuve, on the other hand, gives us plenty of help in piecing the story together, again, showing us his cards while distracting us from the real story.
And everyone struggles with this throughout the film. Their identities are shaped by forces beyond their control and no one is free to be who they want to be. Each scene builds another layer in the formation of Ryan Gosling’s Officer K, culminating in his choice to be free of external definitions, free to just be.
Like all great protagonists, he makes a choice, freely; a choice made for the simplest of reasons, the most basic of human drives. And K’s decisions make Batty’s to save Deckard at the end of original film that much more poignant and clear-minded.
And everyone struggles with this central idea throughout the film. Can I trust my motivations if I don’t even know what I am?
And, as I walked out of the theater I had the same reaction I had to the original film, without words to express what I’d just seen.