Tuesday, 10 October 2017

IN THEATRES: Blade Runner 2049

Los Angeles, 2049. Thirty years after the events of the original film, replicant K (Ryan Gosling) works as a blade runner for the police department, killing the remaining Tyrell-era replicants who continue to hide amongst humanity. K's routine existence is interrupted by a shocking revelation from the past with the potential to destroy the very reason for his existence: what it means to be human...

35 years after Ridley Scott's original, a strong team has been assembled to bring his dystopian vision of LA back to life. The director of Arrival, the writer of the original Blade Runner and the Greatest Cinematographer Working Today. Oh, and the star of Young Hercules.

I came to Blade Runner late. I read about it several times, but the first time I watched it (it was the 1992 director's cut) was after I had read Philip K. Dick's novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? It's a book I really enjoy, and I have re-read it several times. The special magic with Dick's books is that the experience of reading them is always different. The first time I read Electric Sheep, I found it extremely existential and depressing; the next time, I found myself laughing at Deckard's relationship with his wife. It never feels the same -- every read reveals a new layer of irony and complexity. It's an extremely literary experience.

This is a long way of saying that by the time I watched Blade Runner, I did not like it as much as the book. To be honest, no film can really do justice to Dick's prose and ideas, and the various properties generated from his work (Total Recall, Minority Report) have been extremely loose adaptions of his premises, with few of his ideas or themes. Last week I caught the screening of the Final Cut, which I had never seen before, and I really enjoyed it. So I ended up pretty excited to see this movie.

And you know what? It's really good.

All the actors are great - Gosling is perfectly cast as K. He is a little offbeat, but with his youthful looks and emotional restraint, he fits the role well. 

Ford is only in the movie briefly. With his well-known dislike for the first film (he always felt the character existed solely to give perspective to the set design), I was afraid that would influence his performance. Despite the character's emotional reveals, Ford does not play into these beats, but against them - he lends this older Deckard the same brusqueness he had in the original. It is a unity of performance that really tied the two films together.

The one real standout is an actress I am not familiar with, Sylvia Hoeks. She plays Luv, a replicant who is on K's tail. She is the closest thing the movie has to a villain, and she gives the character a terrific stillness and energy. Like all evil replicants, she is Dutch.

Another actor worth mentioning is Dave Bautista. He has a small but rather sympathetic role as an aging Nexus-8 that K retires. I am keen to see him in more vulnerable roles like this. He's been going about his career the right way, and I have a feeling there is a filmmaker out there who is going to give him something meaty.

This movie does contain scenes featuring Jared Leto. He is less histrionic than usual, but I found most of his dialogue portentous and repetitive.

Roger Deakins' photography is typically fantastic - the movie's aesthetic follows the original (it maintains the original's maximalist approach, employing multiple alphabets, languages and retro product placement).

Hans Zimmer and Ben Wallfisch's score echoes Vangelis, and they include a few direct call backs to familiar cues (the theme which plays during the 'Tears in the rain' monologue is re-purposed, to somewhat lessened effect). Overall, it is fine.

There are a lot of things to like about this movie. But I have to admit, I came out feeling aggressively mixed about it.

There was something not quite right with this picture. Overall, it is a really good, immersive movie with some interesting ideas, but there is something missing, an emotional and thematic resonance which the movie is aiming for but it is so incomplete and confused that it is hard to get a lock on exactly what it is aiming for.

My problems begin with the main character.

K is an enigma, and not in the way that the filmmakers intended. Because the character is so opaque, it is hard to latch onto him. Deckard was not well-defined, but he was clearly a man with basic human weaknesses - K is basically a superman, a Roy Batty without the existential dread of knowing he is going to die. And that lack of pathos is detrimental to the movie.

K has a 'relationship' with a virtual entity, Joi (Ana de Armas), which I guess was intended as a way of showing K trying to have a human-like existence. However, that relationship always comes off one-sided: she exists at his beck and call, first as a projection in his apartment, and then in the future version of a memory stick. My problem was a lack of context - unlike replicants, which become more human as they age, Joi's maturation never felt real. It did not help that de Armas does not get much of an arc. When she is deactivated, I had no idea what that was supposed to mean to K's character.

And in the pivotal sequence when he learns that he could be human, his reaction left me cold. It did not feel like the movie had laid any pipe in terms of his needs and desires that would make his breakdown feel believable. Once he knows the truth, and as the movie twisted into the third act, I had no idea what his motivation was. I know the movie's intention: that K is inspired to save Deckard to advance the replicant cause, but I never got what K's stake in all this was (which left the ending feeling completely empty). I did not understand what K's sacrifice was about.

The big problem is a lack of vulnerability, of something that the character is missing. It would have helped if K was operating on the same limited lifespan as the replicants in the original - it would have made the movie's revelations far more devastating, and would have made his story more emotionally believable. One of the key points of the original is that the replicants have a far greater sense of time, and how limited theirs is. Without that limitation, K is just a good-looking guy who is impervious to pain and can literally break through walls.
What is K fighting for? What obstacle is he facing? What is his ultimate sacrifice about? The movie never makes this clear.

When Deckard enters the picture, the movie deploys the crutch I hate - using echoes of the previous movie to create emotional impact: specifically the relationship between Deckard and the replicant Rachel (Sean Young).

By basing its plot on this relationship, it runs into two problems - one, this strategy only works if you have seen the original movie; and b) the relationship between Deckard and Rachel in the first movie was not especially substantial, and seems to exist purely to show the man's casual manipulation and disregard for the agency of the replicant. Deckard's treatment of Rachel comes off as extremely misogynistic and self-serving, and since Blade Runner 2049 does not show how this relationship progressed, all the viewer is left with is their brief interactions in the first movie.

After Fate of the Furious, this is the second big movie this year where the plot is built on a woman's uterus, but she has no function beyond that. Apart from Sylvia Hoeks as Luv and Robin Wright as K's boss, in Blade Runner 2049 women are just instruments and products created by men, for men. I am surprised the filmmakers did not do more with this, considering how these movies are about men who play god. There is a potential subtext about female reproduction versus male production (of replicants), but that might just be an accident.

As you can see from all of this rambling, there are quite a few things about Blade Runner 2049 which  do not work. Or remain unclear. The movie is good, much better than I expected. But it is flawed. 

And you know what? I kinda appreciate it more because of that. Blade Runner is kind of a mess too. It only makes sense that the sequel has a few screwy bits as well.

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