Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982) was and is a work virtually without precedent in modern cinema. A multimillion dollar extravaganza bankrolled on the back of the science fiction cinema boom unleashed by Star Wars (1977), it proved a bizarre aesthetic chimera that still seems just as exclusive even as it’s become a fixed point in the pop culture landscape – noir film, action movie, tone poem, and travelogue through themes sci-fi all somehow operating at once within its neon-sodden textures. It was the stuff cult films were made of, not blockbusters, and yet it wouldn’t be the film it is if someone had not spent so much money in vain on it, inflating what might have been a heady chamber-piece into a virtual reality event. Scott, hitting his stride as creator of little universes, found a mirthlessly witty way of communicating his own micromanagerial proclivities in a tale of bastardised creation and fervent yet diffused emotion. He layered his concept of the future as a riotous exacerbation of urban trends of the time, whilst calling back to dreams of ages past, decorating Fritz Lang’s techno-ziggurats with Bogartian smoke plumes and swooping dragon lady hairstyles and No-Wave-era retro-futurist pulp poetry.
Denis Villeneuve, a director I had grown to truly hate after sitting through his momentously self-important but deeply spurious works like Prisoners (2013), Sicario (2015), and Arrival (2016), has stepped into the breach and attempted to make a sequel. As a filmmaker, Villeneuve theoretically does the sort of thing I like: he labours to create a powerful sense of atmosphere and steadily screws his narratives to a boiling point with a rhythmic flow of images carefully entwined with aural effect. But this Emperor’s new clothes have tended to strike me as mere pomposity in the raw, as paying close attention to his work assured me the affectation of meaningfulness his aesthetic portends enfolds scripts that cannot justify such laboured showmanship. Worse still, his stylistics are one-dimensional, closer in many regards to a state of perpetual self-advertising rather than providing a proper dramatic framework. To wit, Prisoners and Sicario were trash thrillers dressed up as pseudo-art, whilst Arrival failed to convince on every level. So I anticipated Blade Runner 2049 with a mixture of intrigue and dread.
Better reasons to anticipate Blade Runner 2049 came with the involvement of credited co-screenwriter, Hampton Fancher, who penned the original, and the presence of Harrison Ford, extending his part as Rick Deckard, now old, haggard, and subsisting in exile. Deckard doesn’t appear until a good two hours into the nearly three-hour film, however. I’m also not entirely sure how much of Fancher’s writing has been retained, and to what degree credited co-writer Michael Green, who wrote this year’s Logan (a red flag in itself for me), helped recast a script that might well have been sitting around on a shelf in Fancher’s apartment for a couple of decades. To be fair to both Villeneuve and his writers, they bend over backwards to try and keep intact the spare, tactile, ghost-teased tone of Scott’s model. Set thirty years later, this sequel returns to bizarro Los Angeles in an age that has seen the implicit environmental and human crises in the original slide even further into degradation, whilst the old Replicants have been entirely banned. The next generation of Replicants created in their place has been instilled with programming that makes them obedient by new promethean creator on the block, Niander Wallace (Jared Leto). Some of the old Replicant Nexus series have managed to hide, so the LAPD still run a squad of Blade Runners, albeit now employing new-model Replicants as assassins.
An arresting opening sequence sees one of these, K (Ryan Gosling), tracking down a Nexus holdout, Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista), to the organic protein (read: insect larvae) farm he tends. K kills Morton in a fight, but not until Morton has taunted his fellow artificial being with claims to having witnessed a “miracle.” K discerns Morton has been guarding a reliquary of sorts, a buried vault containing the bones of a woman who died in childbirth, bones that prove to be those of a Replicant, raising the inexplicable and deeply threatening possibility that somebody created an artificial human capable of reproduction. K’s human boss Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright) orders him to destroy all evidence of this event, including the offspring, wherever it is. K’s enquiries around Wallace’s offices, located in the old Tyrell Corporation building he’s taken over and repurposed, mainly serve only to stir Wallace’s interest: desperate to create a larger Replicant slave labour force than his current methods allow, he wants them to be able to reproduce, but has not cracked the secret that Tyrell apparently mastered. Wallace has his Replicant underling/concubine/assassinatrix Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) track K’s movements in hope he will lead them to the prize. To make an exceptionally long story short, the dead Replicant woman was Rachael (Sean Young), the child’s father Deckard, and K, in following the leads, comes to believe he might well be that child.
Fancher’s touch is certainly apparent throughout Blade Runner 2049, with curlicues of elegantly loopy poesy apparent in the dialogue, and a great slice of the running time devoted to K’s relationship with his AI holographic girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas), a relationship that correlates with Deckard’s romance with Rachael in the original as a spectacle invoking the blurred borders between human and machine, programming and pathos. Although a purchasable product advertised in looming holograms above the city, Joi seems to have a form of sentience that evolves and becomes all the more pitiful the more she struggles to obey her encoded function and find ways to love K, like allowing him to load her onto a mobile unit that lets her experience the outside world, and fusing herself with a Replicant prostitute, Mariette (Mackenzie Davis), for erotic experience. But for much of Blade Runner 2049, I kept sensing the intrusion of other hands and forces. It’s not just that the plot is infused with many familiar beats and cliché pivots from contemporary screenwriting manuals, like the scene in which K tracks down the long-missing Deckard only to realise quickly he’s lead his enemies to his threshold. The original had very little plot, per se. It was about the way two hunts mirrored and finally blended with one-another: the Replicants’ credo of give me lifespan or give me death matched to Deckard’s official hunt for the verboten visitors, which in turn gave way to his own search for meaning and substance in a romance with a literally synthetic person.
K’s romance with Joi never feels so coherently matched to the larger story, except in the end when it’s suggested it formed a kind of web of illusion that kept K operating smoothly. The existence of Deckard and Rachael’s child provokes the possibility of a champion figure for an apparently budding Replicant revolution. It is never explored just how Tyrell managed his miracle. It’s supposed to exist more within the realm of a matter of faith than science, which means that once again a hard-edged science fiction property has been turned into a branch of the religious epic. Moreover, Philip K. Dick’s original point was that the artificial humans were not, in the end, human. They lacked the causalities biological and social that construct human identity, and thus remained, for all their mimicry of and sharing of certain aims with humans, something different. The original admittedly already prepared the way for a more familiar treatment of the theme in assuming all forms of sentience must be alike, whilst not quite indulging it. Roy Batty’s pride in his distinctness from human in his ever-memorable final speech was part of its alien beauty. Blade Runner 2049, on the other hand, has entirely surrendered any pretence in anthropomorphising the Replicants, instead choosing to spell out with laborious concreteness their status as slaves seeking a messiah. This is dressed up in some shallow commentary on racism (as in two different usages of the “skin-job” insult from the original) that makes the voiceover of the theatrical cut of the original seem well-pitched.
Blade Runner 2049 is not actually a film for lovers of the original. It’s a work instead precisely tailored for the people who rejected it, an extension that retranslates its packed qualities back into a parade of explanatory dialogue, straightforward melodrama, and preciously framed visuals. This film’s pictures are presented not as a living, working world unto itself but as a string of art installations on the theme of Dystopia, all wearisome art-school geometries and evocative patinas, from the solar panels laid out at the opening (a point where Villeneuve actively mimics Scott’s visual scheme whilst failing to offer anything as memorable to focus it upon) to the new age day spa interiors of Wallace's abode. The film’s conversational scenes – and there are a lot of them – and its outlay of ideas are, similarly, extended, belaboured and entirely obvious. Every concept and nuance is reported to us by excessively chatty characters, particularly Wallace. What was vital once precisely because it mixed pulp fiction precepts and high concept surrealism has instead been pushed further to the latter extreme only to arrive closer to the former, in its flat and fussy sophistry and occasional concessions to generating thrills. Some of the images are pertinent, admittedly, like the weird rhyme between a pair of huge pornographic statues located in the ruins of Las Vegas and the holographic versions of Joi hovering about LA, colossi embodying the hunt for erotic and amorous fulfilment seen as a singular commonality through the ages, as well as noting our tendency to cynically package and objectify it. A set of beehives abuzz with life in the midst of a wasteland, every bit as strange to K’s eye as he would have been to a medieval monk, has a similar charge to the shot of the dove flitting off into the momentarily breaking sky in the original (before Scott actively ruined that shot with his tinkering). But there's also a corny, second-hand quality to other visions: how many movies have you seen that offered an overhead shot of someone standing in the rain as shorthand for discovering the joy of existence?
Villeneuve’s efforts to mimic Scott’s dreamlike vision instead steadily reprocess it into his language, one of burnished, smoky beauty that is immobile rather than immersive, pretty but reductive. The expanded landscape of the film’s vision of the world, which gives glimpses of the fringe world about this futuristic LA, seem chiefly culled from other films, like a trip to a wasteground inhabited by castaways and orphans. This points to how depleted the lexicon of this kind of dystopian stuff is getting. The imposed finale of the original, in which Deckard and Rachael were glimpsed driving down a country road into the mountains, was rightly tossed for seeming a bit too much like a high-end car ad by Scott. But losing this, and the visions of soaring mountains right under the end credits, also hurt the old film I loved as a kid, because it stole away some of its ethereal power, its evocation of other wings of the world and the mind. This could be in part because Scott’s original inspiration had been real phenomena of his experience, the switchback that could come upon a city dweller in abandoning dense and polluted urban areas for the countryside, particularly as would have been familiar for a kid growing up in Britain’s industrial cities before the nation’s clean air laws were enacted. Villeneuve instead slavishly adheres to realising the tale’s most literal precepts.
Blade Runner 2049 at least follows the original in pursuing its ideas through a version of a detective procedural, as K chases down leads. But we get nothing nearly so entertaining as Deckard’s delvings into strip clubs and explorations of a teeming hive of humanity hovering on the edge of oblivion. Scott’s world was busy, if filled with boles of abandonment and rot. There is a brief visit to Deckard’s old comrade and nemesis Gaff, now in a retirement home, but only to misuse Edward James Olmos in a paltry cameo. Villeneuve proffers occasional visits to streetscapes that feel pruned and posed by comparison to Scott's bustling, living universe. Our reference points here are no longer to the detritus of early Twentieth century film and art; it is the many imitations of Scott’s film. Villeneuve dresses Davis up like Darryl Hannah’s Pris in the original, and Davis makes an impression, but there’s nothing so teasing and toey as the scenes between Pris and J.F. Sebastian. None of the rebel archangel force Rutger Hauer brought. A lengthy scene depicts Wallace midwifing the birth of latest creation only then to coldly kill “her” with a scalpel gash to the stomach as he realises she’s another botched experiment, under Luv’s unflinching but tear-leaking gaze. This sequence felt especially galling to me, in Villeneuve’s cheap attempt to signal Wallace’s immorality, whilst allowing the director to extend his love of artful visual effects to include slowly spreading fans of artificial blood. Smug and facetious as Tyrell was, he was no such stock creep. He and Luv exist to furnish the narrative with obvious villains, something the original pointedly lacked.
A fist fight between Deckard and K in a Vegas lounge complete with a sputtering holograph of Elvis Presley, strains to make a point about ghosts from the past and the idea of digital simulacra overtaking biological life. But this pretence can’t distract from the fact the sequence is overlong and serves no good point except to give a regulation scene of the old dog giving the new a few good, if inefficacious, socks to the jaw. One scene that does prove eventually to have consequence comes when K visits Dr Ana Stelline (Carla Juri), who creates artificial memories for Replicants and lives inside a sterile dome to protect herself from a genetic disorder. Eventually she proves to be the child everyone is seeking, rather than K, who was instead implanted with her own memories. This ultimate revelation of functionality doesn’t mean that this scene isn’t a rambling gauntlet of conceited screenwriting and direction that doesn’t know when to call time. Ironically, Blade Runner 2049 made me realise how the original benefited from the crisp precepts of New Wave Hollywood screenwriting: it only needed a couple of scenes to give you the essence of, say, Deckard and Rachael’s romance. By comparison, every scene in Blade Runner 2049 is reiterated two or three times. Even with such space to expostulate, it still manages to be filled with logic leaps, including those I’ve already noted. There may be a reason for the basic coincidence that drives the story, that K just happens to have been the vessel for Stelline’s own memory, who just happened to be the one sent out to nail Morton, who just happened to be – well, you get the point. There might also be explanation for how K manages to get ahold of a Spinner (those flying cars) armed with advanced weaponry when his own one has been crashed and he’s on the run from his fellow cops. But I didn’t catch them.
Blade Runner 2049 points to a phenomenon I’ve been seeing in several recent exercises in nostalgic revisiting, like J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) and Danny Boyle’s T2 Trainspotting (2017), in that it follows up a brash and vigorous original model with a work that tries to make a show of how it’s haunted by the original, but ultimately only exhibits its lack of such vigour. That said, the film does have enough moments that somehow keep it watchable, like the sight of K and Joi kissing in the rain, and it finally arrives at a delirious highpoint a more genuinely sensual-obsessive filmmaker might have done far more with: Wallace confronts Deckard with his own, brand-new, almost perfect recreation of Rachael. This scene ingeniously cribs images from the original in a way that humiliates the terrible
CGI recreation of Peter Cushing in Rogue One (2016), and Villeneuve and his technicians actually manage the job of digital rejuvenation, calling back to the climactic moment of Vertigo (1958). You can feel Deckard’s nausea and longing before the simulacrum’s pleading pathos, before the telling detail reveals itself and the façade crashes down. But even here Villeneuve doesn’t have the good sense to lose the unnecessary speechifying and underlining. It’s a great moment that also tells you how much Villeneuve is not Hitchcock.
In spite of the undoubted lustre of Roger Deakins' cinematography, to me the chief pleasures here belong more to the performers. Gosling is pressed into a less incipiently psychotic version of his Drive (2011) performance. I can understand why his stoic acting style bewilders some, but for me he belongs to a rare breed of actor who can hold the camera ever more fixedly the less he does, because there's always something going on in his eyes, moving here from drowsy, workaday shell-shock to indescribable existential longing to white-hot wrath. Ford has been doing something of a cultural victory lap of late, and his marvellous performance, full of quivering regret and aged but still fearsome passion, entirely justifies it: it might even be conceivably Oscar-worthy. De Armas and Hoeks are very good in totally different modes although both essentially play female servants enslaved to the needs of their masters, one infused with need impossible to fulfil, the other raddled with ensuing sadistic impulses. Bautista is also effective in his brief performance. The film builds to a moderately thrilling final fight that ironically turns Deckard into damsel in distress. But it’s also a sequence that demonstrates how Blade Runner 2049 manages the odd trick of being at once more suffocatingly ostentatious than the original but also infinitely more conventional.