Sunday, October 15, 2017

Blade Runner 2049

Hot new feature! Instead of exerting the energy required to read the review, why not listen to me read it to you with limited enthusiasm instead?

He should have found a turtle.
A slow, pointless rehash of the slow, overanalysed original, in Blade Runner 2049 Ryan Gosling gets shot, stabbed, punched by Harrison Ford, blown up and forced to recite poetry, he makes out with a hologram, burns an innocent man's house down, drowns a woman in the back of a waterlogged car, wades through urban sprawl, junkyards, wastelands and two and a half hours of droning Hans Zimmer bombast, and eventually dies of sheer boredom and the odour of Harrison Ford's sweaty t-shirt.

Right, now that I've got the facetious version out of the way, let's get to the real review.

It's not a real sequel 'cause none
of these got squeezed out.
I have to admit that, despite natural cynicism, aspects of Blade Runner 2049's marketing campaign worked on me, particularly the teaser. Seeing our new protagonist, Ryan Gosling's Officer K, in an orange-tinted wasteland led me to imagine that we were going somewhere new in this far-removed sequel, perhaps to see something different. The full trailer impressed me less, as it seemed to be going down a dramatic route which didn't seem particularly unusual, but I was willing enough to see the film.

What if there's a big crowd on the bridge?
Probably the best compliment I can give to Blade Runner 2049 is that it feels like a strong sequel to a slightly different film. I rewatched Blade Runner a few days before seeing this, specifically the Final Cut, and having not watched the film in its entirety for probably ten years I was reminded most strongly of how abstract and dreamlike its tone is. The score by Vangelis is a major contributor to this, of course, but the cinematography, including long, lingering shots, and the performances, intentionally or otherwise, also create a haziness and distance which focus the viewer primarily on the ideas the film is contemplating, rather than a strong narrative, which the original notoriously lacks. As a result, I found myself feeling increasingly convinced that making an authentic-feeling sequel to Blade Runner was impossible, that the characters and setting did not and could not exist outside the boundaries of the text; the film accomplishes what it sets out to do, and is complete. That's not to say that the film is perfect; it is probably slower than necessary at points and arguably suffers from a seemingly-uninterested performance by Harrison Ford and a lack of onscreen chemistry between him and Sean Young, which makes the relationship between Deckard and Rachael less interesting than it might otherwise be. Nonetheless the excellent visuals and score and the performances of the replicant characters, particularly Rutger Hauer as Roy Batty, are very compelling.

Probably paid over $5,000,000
per minute he was in the film.
A good sequel preferably expands upon or investigates new possibilities suggested by the original, rather than simply rehashing what happened before, and it's to Blade Runner 2049's limited credit that Ryan Gosling's K is not simply hunting down a fresh batch of rogue replicants, perhaps with the assistance of Harrison Ford's Deckard. Rather, he is investigating a possibility of replicants becoming capable of natural reproduction, a situation which would threaten the humans' dominance over them while simultaneously resolving their new manufacturer's supply problems. Despite the fact that this is, ultimately, heavily related to Deckard and Rachel's story from the original, it is certainly a different direction. The extent to which we ought to give the film credit for avoiding this fairly obvious pitfall is, however, worth bearing in mind.

I heard that to prepare for the role he bred
a family of artificial humans and killed them all.
To the same extent, that direction itself is arguably less compelling than that of the original, in that while the 1982 film's topic of interest is fundamentally existential, Blade Runner 2049 is to a greater extent political, and while there is of course no bad time to warn of the potential technological advancement has to enslave us, or to create new slaves, I can't help but feel that this new film's concerns are ultimately more mundane than the first. This perhaps is appropriate given how much more grounded the sequel feels compared to the original, but also suffers in terms of the relative lack of attention it receives, as the idea of the abuse and suffering of the expendable replicants is only touched upon lightly until the concept of an underground replicant resistance is, in my view, clumsily inserted into the film in the final act. This left me, at least, thinking about the political ruminations of the film despite the fact that so much is devoted rather to the growing inner life of the protagonist, Officer K.

Not Emma Stone?
Ryan Gosling generally has a solid reputation and I feel like he was an appropriate casting choice for this role. K's story is certainly interesting, although I can't help but wonder how much it retreads that of both Rachael and Roy Batty in the original, particularly in his search for truth and meaning in his life. As such, probably the most engaging part I found to be the relationship between K, who is a replicant, and his hologram companion, Joi, to the extent that I started to think as I watched that a film about a relationship between two artificial life forms would make for a better film than a story about replicants being able to have babies. That being said, anti-replicant prejudice must be pretty bad if, in this world, even Ryan Gosling would need to purchase an electronic girlfriend.

At least banning plastic bags helped a bit.
K's character development is effective, as he transitions from a law enforcement killing machine to a man in fear for his life to one who is disappointed when his subconscious desire to be "special" is thwarted, to finally making a choice and acting to help others, although I'm not entirely convinced of how striking the resolution is. It's the steps in between which are arguably more memorable and perhaps not followed through to the extent that they could be. Are we really that surprised when K, a man of the law, decides to save Deckard from off-world torture so that he can be reunited with his lost daughter? For me, at least, it lacks the impact of Roy Batty's decision to save Deckard's life at the end of the original. Given that we only see K retire one replicant in the course of the entire film, the narrative appears to be drawn in morally simpler terms than the original, which ties back to the political angle of the plot. Despite the strength of Gosling's performance in particular, this made the film to me feel equal parts redundant and simplistic in light of the original. Perhaps I would perceive this differently if this was not a sequel, but it is. It's worth noting that K's serial number and his nickname, Joe, both evoke the protagonist of Kafka's The Trial, which arguably has more in common with the tone and atmosphere of the original Blade Runner than this sequel.

If this reminds you primarily of Fallout: New Vegas,
you need to read and watch more stuff.
The strengths of the film, beyond the performances, are primarily visual. Part of my homework for this film, besides watching the original, was watching two of Denis Villeneuve's recent works of apparent relevance: the 2016 sci-fi film Arrival, and the 2013 psychological thriller Enemy. This film is consistent with Villeneueve's strengths at creating atmosphere, suspense and a feeling of unease, although as I've said I think the atmosphere of the original is more fascinating. While I believe the film has been criticised for being too slow, I personally found it to be paced quite well, the lingering camerawork matching K's confusion and blunted emotional state. The film also takes us beyond the rain-swept LA to a protein farm, junkyard San Diego, snowbound Southern California, and atomic wasteland Vegas. In all honesty I feel as if these settings, particularly the Vegas one, deserved more use, and that the film ultimately spent too much time retreading the streets of LA and the Tyrell building in particular. I still don't believe they gel with the atmosphere of the original, but they're interesting enough on their own. The most dubious visual is probably the elaborate means used to depict Rachael in the film with the appearance of 1982 Sean Young. One could make the excuse that she's meant to look fake, but that doesn't really change the fact that she doesn't look like the real deal, and in the wake of this, Rogue One and the increasing number of films which try to reuse the likenesses of older or even dead actors I suspect we have a glut of trips down memory lane ahead of us.

"Who are we again? Am I a replicant?"
The film's soundtrack is adequate, but apart from a few moments in Vegas, for instance, I don't think Hans Zimmer brought too much to the plate. His trademark, now cliché, droning fits this film to a degree and is used with more flair than in other features, but it can't compare to the original's Vangelis compositions. It's noteworthy that the most musically memorable moment in the film is during the scene at the end featuring K lying down on the steps, during which Vangelis' 'Tears in Rain' track from the original plays, linking K with Roy Batty. This somewhat emphasises to me, however, the extent to which K simultaneously has to fulfil the roles from the original of Deckard, Rachael and Roy, exemplifying the dearth of well-developed original characters in the film.

"Two. Two. Four. And noodles."
As I've said, the performances are all strong, but new faces including Luv, Joshi and Mariette don't have much to do as characters despite each having a number of scenes. If anything I think Luv is overused, underwritten or both. Jared Leto's Wallace is effective in the two scenes in which he appears, but in my opinion was too openly evil as a character compared to the polite hollowness of Tyrell from the original. Dave Bautista gives a very different performance to how I'm used to seeing him, as Drax in Guardians of the Galaxy, and I could have seen more of him, and the character of Ana Steline was similarly well-realised as someone who appears to be a detective-story side character who takes on greater importance later. Edward James Olmos has a nice cameo as Gaff which perhaps reminds too much of the strength of the original film. Harrison Ford was, in my opinion, better in this than in another recent reprisal, The Force Awakens, but despite the greater range I felt he conveyed, nonetheless I didn't see him as Deckard, as he lacks the languor of the character as originally portrayed. Of course he might change over thirty years, but it'd be nice to see something of the original character still in there. It might be argued that his original performance was lacking, but as it suits the tone of the original, I missed it in this.

Part time.
Blade Runner has been criticised for its limited narrative, but I would argue that Blade Runner 2049 does too much to avert this. As I've said, the story seems to offer less room for meditation upon loftier subject matters, and given the strength of the visuals and some set pieces I'll discuss in a moment, it almost becomes a distraction. Certainly, by the time K found Deckard, and perhaps earlier, I felt that the iris of the narrative started to narrow more and more, taking the film in a direction which I thought risked becoming too formal and too structured in contrast to the best parts of the film when the stoic K stalks through the collapsing world around him.

I think she's in the film more than Ryan Gosling.
In this regard, another of the film's strengths are a number of visually or dramatically pleasing moments which stand out amid their surroundings. These include a scene in which Joi uses Mariette as a physical presence to allow her to be more intimate with K, and sequences in which K is obliged to take a baseline test to confirm his emotional detachment from his mission. It's noteworthy that while these serve K's characterisation, they seem like distant memories by the time the film leaves Las Vegas, at which it becomes a routine sequence of secret societies, interrogations, a climactic battle and an emotional departure. The final punch-up and drowning of Luv in Wallace's car is strikingly shot, but again pales somewhat compared to the confrontation between Deckard and Roy in the original, and it significantly shows how little characterisation Luv is afforded despite appearing in the film so much.

You wouldn't know he was a wrestler
if it wasn't for his tiny head.
It's probably worth pointing out as well that when the film focuses too greatly on its own plot, that plot shows limits. For instance, Joshi takes K completely at his word that he has eliminated the child, presumably simply because replicants are believed to not be able to lie. The question of why the child's records were doubled was not resolved as far as I could tell, although I may have missed something. It's not clear why Wallace needs to have Deckard sent to an off-world facility for further interrogation when he seems to be able to act with impunity on Earth. Furthermore, K simply states that Deckard will appear to have died in the car crash at the end even though there is no body. I was somewhat amused by the lines from Wallace which touch upon the "Deckard is a replicant" idea, implying that he was intended to couple with Rachael by nature or design, although it reminded me substantially of Alex Garland's 2015 film Ex Machina in which a character was manipulated in a highly similar manner. As I've said, the appearance of a replicant resistance movement also seemed trite and clumsily-included to me, an element out of place in the disaffected world of Blade Runner. Oh, and I guessed that the remains discovered at the beginning would be Rachael's bones almost as soon as they appeared. At least K turned out, in the end, to not be the child, which would have been much too neat and convenient. I appreciated that.

Rather than 'Joe', she should have started
calling him 'Special K'.
Perhaps my impression of Blade Runner 2049 has been excessively coloured by the original, but I think that comparisons are only fair when a film utilises not only cast and creative minds but even archive audio and footage from the earlier text. The fact is, Blade Runner 2049 is a very solid, nice-looking, well-performed, reasonably engaging science-fiction film, but I think it was always doomed in trying to be a sequel to the original. If anything it reminded me of how much I like the original, despite how flawed it is, and how much I'd appreciate a return to that kind of filmmaking. This shouldn't take away from the new film's strengths, and it probably merits a rewatch, but I can't help but feel like this piece, given its reheated elements and box office performance, is most strongly embodied by the duplicate Rachael who gets rejected and shot.