Wake up, time to dive into this week’s nine recommendations.
The original Blade Runner is one of the most influential movies of the last 35 years, so there is a ton of stuff to see between Ridley Scott’s sci-fi classic and its sequel. There are even three short films (Jake Scott’s 2036: Nexus Dawn and 2048: Nowhere to Run and Shinichirô Watanabe’s Black Out 2022) that officially link the first movie to Blade Runner 2049. Perhaps the next 35 years and beyond will be filled with works influenced by the Denis Villeneuve-helmed follow-up. While you wait to find out, here are nine movies that already exist that are worth a look after you see the new movie:
Logan’s Run (1976)
Because many old films inspired the original Blade Runner, I wanted to only recommend stuff released since 1982, but I couldn’t stop thinking about this one. Michael Anderson’s adaptation of William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson’s novel is set in a future where humans have a maximum age, and if they don’t comply with their imposed expiration when they turn 30, officers known as “Sandmen” track them down and terminate them. The plot follows one of these Sandmen who tries to flee himself when he realizes his time is up.
There’s not really any connection to be made between the first movie and Logan’s Run except the idea of a maximum age, which is imposed on non-human replicants. BR2049 goes further in having a replicant Blade Runner (Ryan Gosling) who hunts his own kind. He’s tasked with terminating replicants that didn’t have an internal shut-off mechanism and kept on living. Eventually, this Blade Runner, ‘K’, has to go on the run but not for the same reason. Also, in both Logan’s Run and BR2049, the hero is in pursuit of something he believes to be true that doesn’t wind up being so.
The Sacrifice (1986)
Critics and other cineastes have been likening the look and tone of BR2049 to the work of Andrei Tarkovsky, with cinematographer Roger Deakins earning much of the praise in that comparison. Vox’s Alissa Wilkinson went for a specific reference by recommending 1979’s Stalker. I recently had that on the list of movies to watch after Atomic Blonde, so hopefully you saw it then. And hopefully you’re at least familiar with his most famous sci-fi feature, Solaris. But The Sacrifice, Tarkovsky’s final work, is not as well-known, and it too has been visually compared side by side with shots from BR2049 on Twitter (see here and here).
Like most of Tarkovsky’s films, The Sacrifice is quite long and feels even longer because it’s so slow-moving, but it’s still shorter than BR2049. Its story is about a man (Erland Josephson) who offers himself as a sacrifice to God if his family will be spared during the oncoming World War III. If BR2049 owes it anything, it also owes to the work of Ingmar Bergman, in part just for it being made near Faro Island in Sweden with Bergman regular Josephson in the lead, and Bergman DP Sven Nykvist as cinematographer. Our own Landon Palmer says it better in a 2011 review of the film’s Blu-ray release:
“Tarkovsky’s films are often exhausting experiences as they are both emotionally devastating and aesthetically challenging for the viewer. But I return to his brilliant work time and again because watching a film that feels so carefully sculpted in time is simply unlike any other cinematic experience. It’s as engrossing and hypnotic as it is ultimately draining. While Tarkovsky’s work expects a great deal from its viewers, the rarity of such an experience in a growing age of distraction makes films like The Sacrifice ever more valuable, which is why being able to see his work in such a strong high-definition transfer makes Kino’s new release of The Sacrifice so much more than a better version of a beautiful and haunting film. This film may reconnect you to nature even better than nature can.”
A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)
There’s a bit of a nod to Pinocchio in BR2049 with ‘K’ thinking that he was a “real boy,” or close to one. The phrase in quotes is even said by a character in an acknowledgment of this belief. That reference is one the handful of ways the new movie is reminiscent of Steven Spielberg’s divisive sci-fi masterpiece, which is heavily inspired by the Carlo Collodi fairy tale of a puppet brought to life. There’s a more polished dystopian aesthetic than the first BR akin to that of A.I., as well as an android in search of meaning after being/remembering he was orphaned. Plus, there’s a sequence set in a city of sin and vice.
Who is the Blue Fairy of BR2049, though? Is it K’s holographic girlfriend, Joi (Ana de Armas)? Or is she the Jiminy Cricket/Gigolo Joe? Is Dr. Ana Steline (Carla Juri)? Is Deckard an anti-Blue Fairy? It doesn’t matter. Ultimately neither K nor David, the robot boy of A.I., gets to be “real.” But they do find some peace in their respective journeys anyway through an encounter with a false parental figure. Both movies also feature a character offered a replica of the person they loved the most.
Armitage III: Poly-Matrix (1996)
Anime has a relationship to the BR movies, in that many of them have been influenced by the original and now the sequel has that short film tie-in by Watanabe. Also, according to IMDb, Gosling’s character’s name is an homage to the series Puni Puni Poemy. This 2046-set cyberpunk film, which is made out of the Armitage III series, is mainly recommend because it’s about robots who aren’t just indistinguishable from humans but have been secretly living among them. At the end of the movie, one of the androids, a policewoman who was thought to be human, is revealed to be pregnant.
The 2002 sequel, Armitage II: Dual-Matrix, has more to do with that idea of androids who can procreate, with the corporation that creates the robots desperate to figure out how to make more androids that can have children. It’s doubtful that screenwriter Hampton Fancher got the idea from the Armitage III series, but both Polymatrix and BR2049 feature the discovery of a case that turns out to have a dead body of a human-like robot woman inside.
Broken Flowers (2005)
Following the original’s existential themes, BR2049 continues to deal in the crises of consciousness and identity for humans and robots alike. K is literally and metaphorically searching for himself during his investigation to find out what became of a secret android baby. Well, for a while it seems like it’s literally him who is the answer. Additionally, he’s in search of the man whom he believes is his father but who turns out not to be.
Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers is almost the exact same movie, except there are no robots, it’s not set in the future, and the main character is a possible father not son. Otherwise, so similar! The movie stars Bill Murray as Don Johnston, an aging, withdrawn man who gets dumped by his girlfriend just as he gets a strange letter stating that he has a grown son who may seek him out. With help from his neighbor, Don begins an investigation into his past with visits to see old flames who could be the letter sender and mother of his apparent child. At one point he meets a young man whom he’s sure is his son, but nope. Honorable mention related to this: Matchstick Men.
Lars and the Real Girl (2007)
Just as he does in BR2049, in this movie Gosling has an artificial girlfriend. Of course, because he’s also artificial in BR2049, there his love is even less “real,” though she does quickly evolve from just being a holographic projection to a more mobile AI entity. In Lars and the Real Girl, the girlfriend (“Bianca”) is a sex doll his character has ordered online. Er, “met online.” She doesn’t have artificial intelligence nor does she have a voice or mobility — the latter because she’s wheelchair bound. But to him, she’s as real as can be.
Both Lars and K lost their mother when they were born — well, again, that’s what K thinks for the time that he believes he’s the robot child. Both of them now have girlfriends who are commercial products, though K’s would seem to be more socially acceptable, especially as a serious companion. Still, even the holographic girl seems to be marketed as a sex toy more than anything else, given that the giant ads for the product show her completely nude. Like Lars, though, K treats her with more respect and legitimacy as human.
Plug & Pray (2010)
It might be better to recommend a more recent showcase of the latest in robotics for this week’s documentary pick, like Werner Herzog’s Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World, but that’s not a great film nor is it focused enough on relevant subject matter. Maybe there are others to check out, mostly reports on the BBC and PBS (like NOVA’s Rise of the Robots), but this feature by Jens Schnaze is a great primer on human-life robots and AI and the ethical problems of both.
One of the subjects of the doc is the late MIT professor Joseph Weizenbaum, a pioneer in the study of AI who said that no AI would ever have the sort of empathy we see in the androids and holographic character in BR2049. There’s also experts such as Ray Kurtzweil, seen here after breaking out in the 2009 film Transcendent Man, and Hiroshi Ishiguro, the guy who created a lifelike robot version of himself — the kind that imply androids will be very creepy until they become believably humanistic if that ever happens at all.
Spike Jonze’s Her is about a virtual girlfriend that’s even closer to the one in BR2049. She never gets a visual in holographic form, but like Joi she’s an AI companion that also has other service functionality. Joi takes care of the home, as if she’s initially a housewife to K more than anything else, while Her‘s Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) is technically a computer operating system, a digital assistant on desktop and portable devices. Neither virtual girl is able to physically pleasure her master, so both hire a surrogate to join in a kind of threesome.
One major way that Her is unlike BR2049 (and the original BR) is in its depiction of the future, specifically for the same location of Los Angeles. Jonze presents a near future that’s brighter, not dystopian, though not necessarily perfect either. There’s a similar coldness to the world, not as in climate-wise (no snow in LA like in BR2049). Modeled after Chinese cities, where the world of BR was influenced by Tokyo, the LA of Her offers a more realistic tomorrow (for now) without flying cars nor robots that are indistinguishable from people. The men’s fashions are more ridiculous than we could hope for, though.
The Congress (2013)
Even if Robin Wright wasn’t the star of this movie, it’d be a good one to recommend after BR2049. Air Folman’s live-action/animation hybrid (which like Tarkovsky’s Solaris is based on a Stanislem Lev novel) stars Wright as a fictionalized version of herself, an aging actress who can’t find great roles anymore. She makes a deal with a studio where they get to use her digital image in perpetuity but she’s no longer allowed to physical perform anymore. There are minor, less-restrictive deals in the entertainment industry for living actors right now (for video games mainly) but we’re also seeing dead celebrities resurrected digitally more and more. In BR2049, for instance, we see holographic appearances from Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, and Frank Sinatra, using archival footage, lookalikes, and computer wizardry.
The irony of The Congress, which takes a very surreal path in the second half as we follow Wright into a cartoon virtual world in the future. Wright had been in a lesser career state when she made the movie but before it finally found release in 2014, she was suddenly at her biggest point of stardom yet through her role on the Netflix series House of Cards (interestingly enough the series was the first big hit of a new arena for television). Since then she’s continued to rise in stature with a significant part in Wonder Woman and now BR2049. We can be thankful she didn’t actually physically retire four years ago.