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Death by Franchise (a Blade Runner 2049 review — No spoilers)

As I said in my review of The Mountain Between Us, which I knew no-one was really going to care about except for me, I saw the big movie everyone cared about yesterday too and of course I’m going to review it as well. So lets talk about My Little Pony.

Oh, that’s not the movie that everyone is curious about? It’s Blade Runner 2049? FINE! Be that way. (I promise, no spoilers here)

Ok, actually I didn’t see My Little Pony this weekend. I did in fact go to Blade Runner 2049. I was too tired to write up the review last night and figured I’d wait til the morning. I’m actually pretty glad I did. Because that allows me to address something that sort of surprised me, but probably shouldn’t have. Namely, that no one went to go see it.

Ok, not no one. It is going to be the highest grossing movie the box office this week, but it’s going to miss its mark by a lot. It was looking to clear about $50million. It looks like it might come in under $30M. Steph and I went to see it last night and there were a lot of empty seats for a Friday night. A whole lot of empty seats really. Way more than I was expecting.

And I’m pretty sure it was way more than Hollywood was expecting too. Because I think the problem is that in 2017, Hollywood is so addicted to the idea of extending existing IP into marketable franchises, that they forgot one very important detail. NO ONE FUCKING LIKED THE ORIGINAL BLADE RUNNER WHEN IT FIRST CAME OUT. Seriously! The original Blade Runner was produced on a $28M budget. And it managed to gross … drumroll please… $27M domestically. And an additional $6million overseas. That’s it. Yes, it was 35 years ago and that’s more money than it sounds like now, but it’s still a box office failure. Blade Runner LOST money!

So clearly the right thing to do is wait 35 years and bump the budget up an extra $150M and see what happens?

What? That’s crazy, you say? Why would anyone give an extra $150M to a movie that no one really cared about in the 1980s and wait 35 years to make it? Well, if you had that thought, maybe you should be working as a Hollywood producer in charge of green lighting pictures. Because, apparently no one there did.

It probably seems like I don’t like Blade Runner. That’s wrong. I fucking love it. I love it so much that I have the BluRay boxed set which has like five different versions of the movie, and comes with a collectible scale model of Deckard’s car (which my wife doesn’t understand why I keep sealed in the box rather than taking it out to play with or put on a shelf because she’s some kind of savage). I loved the original movie. And I liked this one a lot (may need to see it again to see if grows on me even more). So what went wrong?

Well, I’m not the viewing public. And neither are the rest of the critics on the Internet.

The original Blade Runner is a hard movie to watch. It really is. It’s slow and complex and convoluted and really doesn’t make a fuck ton of sense. It’s also amazing and innovative. It is visually gorgeous. It’s a film that changed the sci-fi industry. It changed the film industry. It changed cinematography and special effects. It’s a film that I have studied in film classes, screen writing classes, literature classes and cultural studies classes. In many ways it’s a masterpiece. And in many ways, that basically makes it school work.

People don’t like schoolwork.

Except, sometimes, when something becomes important enough it gets lucky… and over 35 years it develops enough prestige that it gets a cult following, and then people do like it. That’s Blade Runnner. The first one. And maybe, in 2052, that will be this one too. Maybe. It’s not there yet.

And that’s the thing. People weren’t really clamoring for a sequel to Blade Runner. At least not a lot of people. There were some loud people. But those are the hardcore sci-fi fans. These are the people who are going to see any sci-fi film anyway. What you need, if you want to justify a $185million budget, is to get in regular people. People who just want to enjoy an evening at the movies and not work so hard. Yes, the first film is a science fiction film and maybe that makes it feel like a Hollywood blockbuster. But it isn’t. It’s an artistic thought piece and exercise in intellectual film making. And it’s one that doesn’t actually have a built-in audience of nostalgia fans the way the Star Wars or Star Trek franchises do. Turning Blade Runner into a franchise and expecting it to be successful at the level that justifies that budget makes as much sense as throwing $185M at Roshomon or Battleship Potemkin. And if you’re asking yourself “what the fuck are those?!?!” then I have two answers for you: “they’re brilliant” and “exactly!”

As for the movie itself? Well, like the original film, it tries to do a lot. And in fact it succeeds and doing a lot. But in trying to live up to it’s own legend, it maybe tried to do too much for the forum that it had to exist in.

Goal #1: It had to be part of the franchise and capitalize on the nostalgia of the first film, because it’s 2017 and apparently that’s what we fucking do now. This is the place where it probably failed the hardest. Mostly because, as I pointed out, there really ISN’T any franchise nostalgia for Blade Runner. The people who are the biggest fans of it are actually film and hard sci-fi fans who don’t care about that. So the film tries to manufacture it by Rogue Oneing it. In particular there are two cameos in this film that just don’t belong there. One at least sorta kinda makes plot sense. The other, which seems like it’s there just to make ME specifically excited… just doesn’t work at all. It is totally inconsequential, other than to say “hey, remember this… from the Blade Runner? Have some more Blade Runner in your Blade Runner. We’re Blade Runnering this shit up, yo!” This is not that kind of movie. It didn’t need it. Both could have just been removed.

Goal #2: Be an interesting thought piece that uses hard science fiction to comment on the world around us. This worked a lot better. In fact, I was really engaged in the storyline. One of the things this does really well is extend the themes of the first movie (consumerism, fear of technology, the nature of humanity, capitalism and government run amuck) by exploring it with NEW plot lines instead of just rehashing the old ones. In particular the main plot line, while related to the first film, is really its own thing that kind of boldy goes in its own direction and really draws me in. I cared about it. I cared about how the character would proceed through it. I could see that it was designed to dovetail into the B plot line (which was far more related to the first film) from the very beginning, but I wanted to see the execution and see how these two ideas intersected. If I had a problem with it, it is that once the B plot really gets rolling in the third act, it sort of overtakes the A plot. And I was far more interested in the A plot. I felt a little cheated because I was more invested in the new characters and their story. That said, I was still on board.

Goal #3: Expand the world. Here is where I was most impressed ands consequently, maybe the most let down. One of the great things about the world of Blade Runner is that it is clearly set up to be lived in. While the first film focuses on Deckerd, there are clearly interesting and engaging storylines set up for Rachel, Roy, Priss, Gaff and Tyrell. This does much the same thing, but maybe too well. While the first film leaves me with questions that I feel comfortable with pondering for the rest of my life, this one left me with questions that I just wanted more answers to. There are C, D and E plot lines that are very interesting and have little if nothing to do with the concepts from the additional film. And yet, because the world is built so well and is so expansive, they work in seamlessly. And they are interesting. My favorite character in the film by far is Joi (played by Ana de Armas). I won’t say why, because of spoilers, but she was great. She was interesting and I saw that they were doing something very original with her. I was all-in every time she was on screen and missed her when she wasn’t. I wanted to know more about her story and her motivations. She could have been the whole movie on her own. But since she doesn’t have her own movie she serves as the C plot for this one. And she is so unimportant to the A plot and the B plot that she could be removed from the film entirely without affecting the narrative. In fact, the Wikipedia entry for the movie has a very thorough recap of the plot (which you shouldn’t read, because again spoilers) and yet, it doesn’t mention her AT ALL in the entry, other than the cast list at the time I am writing this. And that leaves it somewhat unbalanced. One of the most interesting things from the entire film for me regards Joi’s relationship with Mariette (played by Mackenzie Davis). I was fascinated by the story that is hinted at by the film, but Mariette is the F or G plot line at best, and not only is she not mentioned on the Wikipedia page, I’m betting most people who have seen the film and are reading this are saying “who the fuck is Mariette? What is he talking about? I better google it… Ohhhhhh….”

And that’s sort of the problem with the movie. Like the first film, there’s just a lot going on. However, the first film didn’t even try to be a movie for the masses. This wants to be. And the masses are just not going to get it. The first film was sort of a miracle of working within budget constraints. It was expensive for the day, but does a lot of film innovation to make it look even bigger. This film didn’t have that. It just burned money on special effects. It also threw a lot of money at getting a good cast. Obviously they wanted Harrison Ford back, and they cast Ryan Gosling as the new lead. But they didn’t particularly need Robin Wright (although she’s really good because she’s a phenomenal actress). And Jared Leto is…. there. Basically he Jared Leto’s about, and… well… probably isn’t worth it. He brings his name to the film and not much else. He’s clearly trying to do his best impression of Joe Turkel as Eldon Tyrell, but it doesn’t really work. His character, Niander Wallace, is just different and every time he was onscreen I just saw Jared Leto doing his schtick. Everyone else was great, particularly Armas, as I said before, but also Sylvia Hoeks.

But with that much going on, the film needed to make some choices. It is more than 45 minutes longer than the original, a film that already seemed slowly pace. As I said, my favorite part of it, the Joi plot line, could have been removed entirely with no incident. But there was another way to go. It probably shouldn’t have been a movie at all. At two hours and forty-four minutes, it should have either been cut to two hours or expanded to eight. Much like Westworld, a film from 1976 that no one was really begging for a sequel to, and yet became a very successful HBO series last year, this would have thrived if it was set to a slow enough pace that it could have been explored in depth on television. My problems with Joi and Mariette could have been solved easily if they were given more time to breathe. The Westworld tv show had a $100 million budget and the extra time really enhances the story. We have reached a point where television is prestigious enough to allow this to happen. It feels like Blade Runner 2049 may only be a theatrical because it’s “supposed to be” and it could perhaps better be served another way.

So, my recommendation for this one is hard. I enjoyed it. I think it’s a great film. But I can’t really recommend going to see it for everyone. You have to ask yourself, would you really really really have paid to see the original Blade Runner in the theater if it were released in 2017 without the legend of what it has become behind it? Would you have enjoyed it? How about if it was 45 minutes longer. Can you watch nearly 3 hours of Blade Runner without a bathroom break? Did you enjoy Cloud Atlas? Because I did. I fucking loved Cloud Atlas. But if that’s if you didn’t… well, you might want to wait til you can watch this at home with a pause button and four different directors cut versions.

★★★⅓☆ (3.33 out of 5 stars) for regular people
🍪🍪🍪🍪🥕 (4 fucking cookies and a carrot because apparently the broccoli emoji isn’t standardized yet) for film or sci-fi geeks.

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