Spoilers for the entirety of BLADE RUNNER 2049.
I think everything that can be said at this juncture about the recently released BLADE RUNNER 2049 has been said. I say go see it, though I have some reservations about the way it treats race and gender. I’ve seen the film twice in the past week and it has left prickles in my head. One of those barbs is Dave Bautista’s performance in the first ten minutes.
The very first scene sees Ryan Gosling’s K en route to the farm of Sapper Morton, Bautista’s character. They are both replicants, artificial humans – but Sapper is the outdated, illegal model, and K, a blade runner, is designed to hunt his own kind.
We first meet Sapper as he digs his hand through murky fluid, covered entirely by a hazmat suit, inside some kind of hothouse tent. What he pulls from the liquid are worms, which we are told are a primary protein source for the world of 2049. As he sees the silhouette of K’s spinner descend onto his farm, there is a sense of knowing in his body, even though we cannot even see his face. While K searches Sapper’s house, Sapper exits the tent, undergoing some kind of decontaminant wash. What I love in this first scene are the intricate details of the world that are conveyed clearly and subconsciously. We learn not only that our race has been reduced to eating worms, but that the very process of cultivating this food source is hazardous. Farming, what we used to think of as a humble and natural profession, has become a dangerous and toxic thing in and of itself. And at the center of this is a man like Sapper, desperate for a life unquestioned and free, but hardened by the elements around him, both human and environmental. This is so succinctly expressed by his clunky farming suit.
As Sapper enters his home and puts his boots by the door, we get to see Bautista’s visage in full for the first time. There he is again, knowing what is about to happen. There is at once a resigned acceptance of his fate and yet a small, warm sliver of hope that he just might make it out of this alive and free.
As K calmly interrogates him, Sapper tries to be just as at ease. “What’s that smell?” K asks.
“Garlic, just for me,” Sapper replies.
Garlic? I tilt my head in the theater. But then I get it. I said this piece was about Bautista, but I also have to keep pointing out how skillfully this film both establishes setting and character simultaneously. We learn that Sapper, despite the harsh farming conditions he must undergo, goes to the trouble of growing a natural plant, just for himself. And we also learn that the best thing one could hope to grow in the soil in 2049 is garlic. The intersection of these two bits of knowledge go so far to paint a yearning but calm existence. My heart breaks just thinking about it.
When it comes time for the tension to reach a breaking point, both men know what must come next. As K flaunts his fierce and lurid pistol, Sapper subtly pulls a pen knife, so minuscule and yet held without any doubts of what is about to happen. This is where Bautista’s performance shines the absolute brightest, because he, this massive, lumbering behemoth, looks both ready to fight and scared to die. He is so very scared to lose the little bit of life he has: his farm, his house, his garlic for god’s sake.
Many people die throughout the film’s course, including K. But something feels special about Sapper’s death. I think that is because he embodies the film’s spirit. Brutal and hardened, but wearily cultivating hope inside. Bautista’s performance is doing a lot of the work there.
He puts in one messy attempt to save himself. He bloodies K, but the younger man is simply stronger, and more ruthless. Leaving him in a red pile on the floor, K tells Sapper, “Don’t get up.”
And yet, a minute later, Sapper gets up. “You new models are happy scraping the shit…
…because you’ve never seen a miracle.”
And that’s how we learn the very basic underpinning of Sapper’s character. He’s seen a miracle. That’s all he needs to get through each day, and that’s all he needs to stand up. This is simple, biblical stuff that the film is dealing us, but it’s composed with such integrity and verve.
What a way to start a movie.