Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Sci-Fi Watch: Blade Runner 2049 (2017)



Prior Blade Runner posts:
January 9, 2016 - film watch
September 16, 2016 - novel
January 6, 2008 - DITMTLOD



SOME SPOILERS BELOW:

Like a lot of people of my generation, Blade Runner is one of my favorite films.  To expect objectivity regarding the film at this point is a difficult request as I cannot separate the film's actual merits from the impact it had upon me when I first watched the film circa 1988 and deepening appreciation over time.

In a recent comment, Fantomenos asked what the last band was that I related to on a deeply personal level, where I felt they were speaking straight to me (I dodged the question), and I think movies operate much the same way.  I will simply never feel quite the same way about a movie now as I did in high school.  Whatever openness I had to experience during that period of development is a maze of decades of other movies, cynicism and life experience. 

At this point, I've watched Blade Runner dozens of times.  I know the beats, the characters, the dialog.  And so do you, most likely.  I can talk about things explicit and implicit to the film's story, talk about the production of the movie and tell you about seeing a Spinner and Rachael's dress in Seattle.  I'm aware it's likely part of how I became interested in cinema noir, film design, and remains the high water mark for movies about AI, in my opinion.

If Star Wars had created a totally immersive universe through design, sound, music, character and themes - a fairy tale universe in which I would have been happy to jump into, Blade Runner provided a similar experience with a dystopia in which everything seemed to fall out of the current culture, in which I could draw a line from our current lives to how we might reach this world of constant rain, stratified social classes, surreal landscapes of mega-structures and ubiquitous advertising (some of it beautiful). And, no, despite the Rachaels, I would not want to live in the world of Blade Runner.  The world of this movie is the world of the end of humanity.


Frankly, it's been a bit exhausting as think-pieces started to pop up the last couple of weeks written by people viewing the movie for the first time, trying to explain to both those who have never seen the film and those of us who very much get what the movie is *really* about.  Curiously, some of the writers grapple ferociously with a (genre) film in which everyone is doing things they don't want to do, the protagonist isn't heroic and the antagonists are deeply sympathetic - something some of these first-time reviewers seem unable to quite wrap their heads around.*  It's a bit odd receiving a lecture, as if we didn't know this movie was "problematic" (it's baked into the film), and it's hard not to see these reactions as a misunderstanding of what has drawn people to the movie over the years.  And, frankly, it suggests the audience hasn't been keen enough to be aware of these themes and ideas on their own.

I blanched a bit when I heard the studios involved had put Marvel-feature money into Blade Runner 2049.  Among the many things included in the mythology surrounding the original Blade Runner is the fact that the movie tanked at the box office in 1982, and it was the movie's status as a home-video hit - from the VHS-era to the present - that's garnered the film it's current status as a fan favorite and critical darling.

And, it's worth noting that it seems only a portion of the folks exposed to the movie fall into the camp of actually *liking* it.  I don't think the story resonates particularly well for everyone (and it's staggering the number of misreads of the story you stumble across).

I hesitate to call something as semi-ubiquitous as Blade Runner a "cult" movie, but it's not everyone's cup of tea, and it hardly has the devotion of Star Trek and the like.

I have no doubt Blade Runner 2049 will repeat Blade Runner in any number of ways, not the least of which has been the film's failure to generate a gigantic opening weekend and secure solid box office.  Although it's currently sailing at an 88% RT rating, suggesting reviewers in 2017 are a bit more ready to deal with the film's subjects than in 1982.  Meanwhile, the low box office and fact it actually *tried* as a film to be something other than jokes'n'fights mean it's quickly becoming a punching bag for think-pieces (the few of which I've perused aren't bothering to engage with the film and what it's saying versus how it fills the bingo sheet for modern film coverage/ outrage fodder, but clicks are clicks).

For the mass audience, that the new movie does not operate like a high-octane actioner with a straight through-line of exposition and economy to keep things down to a tidy 120 minutes, leaving nothing to chance for the audience, means this three hour meditation is not going to not be everyone's cup of tea.  I was absolutely goggle-eyed when I saw the first trailer of what was clearly a hugely expensive Blade Runner film shown before Kong: Skull Island (sigh), and then shifted a lot in my chair when there was a "what is that?" from the people sitting behind me.  You kind of knew even then.

All of this to say - it was with trepidation that I greeted the news that anyone was going to try to return to the world of Blade Runner.  While I was cheered with the knowledge that the forces behind the movie included Ridley Scott acting as producer and Denis Villeneuve as director (Arrival stands as one of my favorite films of 2016), this summer's outing for Scott - Alien: Whatever This One Is Subtitled  - was a disappointment, as are so many attempts to recapture the lightning in a new bottle.  We've all seen Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

It feels a bit awkward writing about this movie after only a single screening as it certainly could withstand multiple viewings just to take it in, let along begin to deconstruct what's there.  Frankly, as the film unspooled, I was not entirely onboard with some parts of the film - including major parts - until I was.  Ex:  I wasn't entirely sold on whether this movie did as good a job with melding standard detective fiction with science fiction as I would have liked to have been, but there's no question it used the shorthand of the genre to propel the story.

As I said - the new movie will never be Blade Runner, and as much as the 30 years of actual history and the film's story has changed the world, it's arguable that Denis Villeneuve was working outside of Scott's crowded, cramped streets and exotic dive-bars and moving out and above, our protagonist even more alienated from mankind than Deckard, fully aware he is a Replicant.  Gosling's K doesn't wrestle with a 4 year lifespan, he wrestles with a life devoid of human interaction.  His baseline does not require it, and he must return to his baseline.

If the world of Blade Runner was a crushing urban dystopia, the thirty years inbetween have not improved matters much for the dwellers of this world.  The climate has changed, the land become (more) infertile.  The healthy are still heading off-world or disappearing inside monstrous fortresses/ places of business.  Villeneuve takes us to the farmlands, the sea shore, the areas of refuse and debris, and even to Vegas.  All of it a wasteland, mostly uninhabitable, and if the prior film hinted at the decline of mankind, this film makes no bones about it.

The film's action begins with the elimination of a Replicant - one that should have bested K - and the discovery of a locker buried yards beneath the arid earth.  It's not a MacGuffin, the contents of the case are the item which sets the rest of the plot in motion.

Make no mistake, the aesthetics, both visually and aurally, are simply stunning.  Blade Runner 2049 is one of the most gorgeous movies you'll see this year - unless you're bored by brilliantly realized sci-fi landscapes captured for maximum effect (and I know that's some of you).  I think we've hit a tremendous stride of technology catching up to the ability to finally look as good as 1970's sci-fi concept art or what Scott was doing in the first phase of his career  (I'll point to Rogue One as further evidence).  What's CGI and what's practical is impossible to detect or guess in many scenes, and when you know it has to be CGI, that's not what the viewer stops to ponder.

Still, this new installment doesn't look or feel exactly like the predecessor, and that's probably a smart move.  This team is not that team, and they shouldn't feel slavish devotion to replicating how that movie was filmed. The world feels more abandoned and bleak.  We spend less time on the streets or wandering through packed open air malls.  Our brilliant-evil scientist god does not live in a Baroque office/ mansion, but offices in a chamber reminiscent of a neutrino detector with a platform in the middle.  The style has gone spartan, perhaps a reaction to the excesses of the Tyrell era.  Buildings are brutalist in construction, and some of the retro-fitted engineering has faded.

The world spins around nostalgia, from the memory of animals and trees to performers who passed before the end of the 20th Century brought to life in holographic glory.  These musical and visual cues are not simply there to reinforce the homage to the era of noir, because much of what we see post-dates the late-40's to the mid-50's, but the entropy of the culture itself.  You can produce the holograms, but can you produce a new Sinatra?

Vangelis' score to 1982's Blade Runner has held up amazingly well for the past 35 years despite the use of dated synthesizers, the sounds of artifice melding with piano and orchestral cues, a deep melancholy pervading the film, all while merging seamlessly with the environmental sounds of roaring engines, street noise, electronic devices chirping.  I've heard someone sigh about the moments of percussive intrusion in the score of the new film, but that comes from a place of honesty and not just because Zimmer is a contributor to the film's music.  Vangelis did same in 1982.  There's some re-use of themes, but new characters get new music. If the film is overlooked for these technical achievements, I'll be disappointed.

The cast headcount feels smaller than Blade Runner, but I don't think a check of IMDB would reveal it to be so.  But there aren't a handful of Replicants to be hunted in the teaming masses, and there aren't suspects to be questioned as the mystery at the center of the film isn't a crime.  The push-pull of the sympathy the viewer feels for the Replicants desperately seeking a path (no matter the cost) to more life isn't there, and instead characters fill predictable roles.  Those looking for a punch-card of gender and racially balanced characters may not find their CW ideal, but the film does have a larger supporting cast of female characters than would have been the case a decade ago.

We get a varied mix of name talent and unknowns.  Robin Wright is a curious choice to play a "I'll have your badge" police chief, and she more or less keeps you from noticing that's the role she's in through the power of Robin Wright.  Jared Leto's tendency for mannered, overly studied performances works here with his Tyrell replacement, a blind genius who has a vision for Replicants.  Ana de Armas plays the holographic romantic partner to Gosling's K, and Sylvia Hoeks plays the dirty-work henchmen to Leto, a replicant following orders by programming over desire.

All of these characters have their own arcs and inner lives, which is fascinating for a movie with so little dialog and scant interaction.  "Show don't tell" is the rule, and it leaves the viewer in something of a gray zone to interpret and extrapolate, something we're not much in the practice of in motion pictures these days.  And those character arcs are important.  They inform the meaning and messages of the film.

Of course Gosling is our focal point in the film.  He's not the grizzled cynic of the first movie, but a passive participant programmed to follow orders and conditioned to remain on a short chain.  But the desire to be human, or the innate humanity of a Replicant continues to thrive in even K, who knows that showing too much humanity is a death sentence.  And so he fills his off hours with no human contact, but with a holographic romantic companion AI with the brand name of Joi (we see adds for Joi throughout the film).

Deckard returns (eventually) played by Ford, whom some have said is dialing in his performance (and to that, I say - find me a time it didn't seem like Ford was barely present in a movie), yet another re-appearance of yet another role from Ford's days as action star.  We don't get many answers about how or why Deckard has continued to live, but I'll argue he feels as much like Deckard as ever - a bit hapless but still trying.

It's not a movie that moves from Point A to Point B to Point C in a line.  Things occur in chronological order, sure, but like a good detective story, the clues and elements assemble as the detective seeks the truth - all without a voice over to drag us along and make sure we don't miss anything.  And in the world of Blade Runner, of false humans and memory implants, the truth is a mirage.  It's that same question that kept viewers wondering for a generation: Is Deckard a replicant?  If you subscribe to the Director's Cut as canon - what happens after the screen goes dark?

Here and there, I've seen a writer say they believed the Joi storyline went nowhere, could have been scotched, which was... puzzling.  And, yes, everything about Joi was supposed to be as problematic as it was, right up to the sex scene (and if you think that was some male wank fantasy - I'll argue that you're misreading the movie).  The character and subplot are absolutely essential, dovetailing with the prior film, commenting upon what we may have believed, commenting upon the illusions both K dwells within and - gasp - our own.

Further, it's something of an inversion of Deckard's marriage from the novel and the complications of a marriage to a woman who seemed to come alive only in a virtual world, but still wanted to feel real, unprocessed emotions - but that's not the world of the movie.  And so we can reflect upon Joi and K versus Racael and Deckard, a question which pervades straight through to the final frames of the film - and provides motivation for our POV character.

At the heart of the film is a character who is not there.  In the 30 years between, we've lost Rachael.  The reasons why resonate on a sci-fi plotting level, but if the A plot of the movie is determining "what is real", this absence, and any and all reasons for why it is so keenly felt, is at the core of the film.  It does not seem unintentional that the differences between Replicant and human fade away and the storylines of various characters begin to dovetail and resonate.  The questions which surround the original film, which have been pondered by audiences and gone over by both cast and the director, fall away somewhat in what Villeneuve chooses to explore here.  Deckard has his reality, and K learns his.  Whether these are universal questions depends somewhat upon the greater question of freewill in humanity, and I'll leave that for another time.

Not all of the threads are closed up by film's end, and while one could say those threads tease a sequel, I'd suggest otherwise (although, fair enough).  We know enough by film's end to predict the sequence of events to follow.  It's a curious if brave way to conclude a movie, not giving emotional payoff to every planted idea, but following those threads don't seal up the film.  It ends because the mystery resolves.  That's enough.

It's been a while since I spent much time reading Philip K. Dick, but I did recently re-read Do Android Dream of Electric Sheep? and was reminded of the man's brilliance.  If nothing else, I think the movie genuinely feels like an undiscovered bit of Dick's writing, and understands the questions he grappled with in many of his novels.

This is going to be one of those movies that I expect I'll be told and retold why it isn't good until the day I die.  Though I'll never be able to let it seep into my conscience in the manner of its predecessor, Blade Runner 2049 is a very, very good film.  That it is not the thing those looking for an action film sought is an irrelevant complaint.  That it takes its time is a feature, it is not a problem.  That it works in ambiguities and gesture over exposition and clarity is a marvel is not a fault.  Whether someone wishes to explore the themes of the film is up to them.

My expectation is that the movie will fail financially, but will receive much the same treatment as its predecessor.  Those tuned into the film will hand it off to others for years, and it'll have the long life ahead of it, the longtail life reserved for cult movies.  But I do not believe that the effort will go to waste and the movie will disappear.  It's going to have its champions and the impact - if nothing else, how to pick up a sci-fi story without just rehashing the first one while expanding on the themes - is going to be a lesson well learned.  And, you know, in twenty years, we'll be reading articles about how Blade Runner 2049 was as poorly received during its initial release as the first installment.









* I really need to get around to writing that post on "why do people think if a character does something on the screen, that's an endorsement of that thing by the writers, directors, actors and studio."  Again, it seems like we're not doing a good job of understanding what stories are for and how they work.

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