"Blade Runner" never fails to disappoint me.
I first saw the 1982 original film five or six years ago on home video, and I felt disappointed -- in myself, more than anything -- when the sci-fi world of that film bored me rather than ignited my imagination. I love the concepts at play, the ideas of what makes something human, the ethical boundaries of technological innovation.
But the particular way that director Ridley Scott explored those concepts in 1982 just didn't nourish me the way that I was and continue to be nourished and stimulated by what may be my two favorite sci-fi films, "Minority Report" and "2001: A Space Odyssey."
Those two films, by Spielberg and Kubrick respectively, are quite different from one another, but between the two of them all of my sci-fi itches are scratched. They have everything I love about the genre: big ideas, great drama.
"Blade Runner" (1982) features a tone and pacing that seems to split the difference between those two films -- having the substance of an action blockbuster like "Minority Report" but the sluggish pace of "2001," completely missing what made either of them great.
Then, in anticipation of the new sequel, I rewatched "Blade Runner" just last month, and I was disappointed by it in a whole new way that I completely missed before.
I'm talking about the rape scene that occurs in the middle of the movie.
The scene I'm referring to is the one where Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) rapes the replicant Rachael (Sean Young), and I completely missed it the first time I saw it. He angrily throws her against a wall, physically blocks her escape, and forces her to verbalize that she loves him.
There is just no other way I can interpret the actual events of that scene. It is rape.
The movie treats it like a love scene and moves on, but actually, Deckard acts like a terrible person, basically, the entire movie, so the best way to deal with the reality of Deckard's sins is to recast him as the villain, as critic Eric Haywood did in 2014.
But my lack of enthusiasm for "Blade Runner," for some reason, did not prepare me in the least bit for the possibility that I would not love "Blade Runner 2049," which promised to bring back Harrison Ford and introduce Ryan Gosling as a new, younger protagonist. (The movie ends up being way more interested in keeping one of those promises than the other.)
I saw one trailer several months ago for the sequel that had me so excited for it that I've spent the months since, whenever another trailer comes on in the movie theater, plunging my head into my lap and covering my ears. I was already sold, and I wanted the experience to be as fresh as possible.
Part of my excitement was due to the fact that directorial duties were moving on from Scott to Denis Villeneuve, the man behind two of my favorite recent films ("Arrival" and "Sicario"). So I expected visual splendor and a dramatic narrative that was grounded in deep humanity and thoughtfulness.
On the visual splendor front, the film delivers. But unfortunately, that's where it stops.
I expected "2049" to be the first "Blade Runner" movie that I thoroughly loved, but instead, I found almost exactly the same problems this time around as I did the first time.
So let's finally talk about what disturbed me the most: how this film portrays women.
"Blade Runner 2049" has an abundance of female characters, and it gives some of them interesting things to do some of the time -- especially Robin Wright as the police lieutenant and Ana de Armas as the sometimes-embodied computer program Joi.
But when the film finally gets around to incorporating Ford's character into the narrative (I didn't check my watch, but I think it's somewhere around the two-week point in the running time), it completely throws the potential for Haywood's generous critical reading recasting Deckard as the villain, out the window. Deckard is and always was a noble hero, and the love he shared with Rachael was perfect.
Call me a fool, but I was genuinely surprised that "2049" was so kind to Deckard, someone whose virtues, if they exist, have always been buried ten thousand feet below the surface of brooding, violent masculinity. But the final moment of "2049," without giving it away, is unforgivably forgiving of his faults. I was furious.
But as I sat there in my theater seat, grumpy about how Villeneuve's film failed to explore the implications of Deckard's participation in rape culture, it suddenly dawned on me that of course it didn't: This film is complicit and participatory in it, too.
The use of female bodies, throughout the film, is consistently pornographic. I'm not merely referring to the existence of nudity, but the way the nudity is shot and presented. It is pornographic because it is always heightened, fantasy-like rather than truly exposing or revealing.
Joi is probably the most interesting character in the film, but there's nothing about her that isn't 100 times more thoroughly explored in the supremely bold and superior Spike Jonze sci-fi film, "Her," even to the point of having a surrogate sex scene between a male user and a female computer program (and "Her" did it far better).
As disappointed as I am that "2049" failed to deepen the potentially rich ideas of the original "Blade Runner," I'm even more disappointed that it failed to fully explore even its own good ideas. From programmed obedience to environmental ruin to the very question of what it means to be alive, the film barely scratches the surface on any of them.
There's even a scene that, if I read it correctly, only existed to set up a potential franchise. Nothing could be less welcome.
Fool me twice, "Blade Runner." Fool me twice.
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Sylvia Hoeks, Ana de Armas, Robin Wright, Harrison Ford
Running time: 2 hours, 43 min
Rating: R for violence, some sexuality, nudity and language