24 October 2017

First Impressions: Blade Runner 2049

Dig yourselves in, folks, because I've spent the past two weeks digesting Blade Runner 2049 (2017) with lots of thoughts to display to you all. The end result is that these are fantastically late impressions considering the flick dropped eighteen days ago, but a long and patient movie begets a long and patient review. I will drop SPOILERS forever from here on out, so go away if you haven't yet seen this thing.

BTW was anyone else thinking this would be Voigt-Kampff from
the trailer, and that Gosling was tracking down
replicant Deckard?
That's probably a good place to start, actually. Why haven't more of you people seen this?! Don't answer that - I know why. I talked about it when 2049 came out. The world of Internet film discussion is much more insular than we think. Blade Runner (1982) is some holy grail of filmmaking, but it's really important that it doesn't really have any fandom outside its niche cinephiles. College bros don't get together on Friday night to slam some Blade Runner. Outside the nerds who cherish it it's known as that non-Indiana Jones, non-Han Solo, hell, the non-Air Force One (1997) Harrison Ford role. It has a cult following, sure, but that's exactly that - a limited cult fandom with next to no mainstream appeal. The original didn't do a thing in theaters and this new one did about exactly as I expected it.

But damn I'm glad the studios thought they had a hit for some reason and gave Denny Villeneuve all the money and freedom in the world to come up with this flick. At the least it's a second masterpiece in this world, if not surpassing the original. This already seems like an unpopular opinion on the Internet, but as I've said before, I think our reverence for Blade Runner is somewhat misplaced.

So now, before you go nuts on me, let's look at this. I've seen Blade Runner many times, I own the 2007 edition with every insane version on it and have really digested this stuff. People say it's one of the best-looking films of all time, I'd say it could be a contender for the best looking film made up until 1982 (although... Days of Heaven [1978]... but that is a whole other debate), and the production values, existential questions, quotable sci-fi dialogue, the emotion, the deliberate focus, it's all great!

But it's also so damn boring. There's contemplative, then there's boring. There's Sebastian and his weird-ass toys. Deckard and Rachel are less eternal lovers and more into date rape. Zoom and enhance. There are so many flaws that we tend to overlook because the city was cool and gritty and it combined the likability and charm of Harrison Ford with pondering deep, meaning of life questions. It's the only film ever to do so. It also essentially created the genre of science fiction noir. This is all great stuff, but all kinds of overwhelming nostalgic reverence clouds our judgment for things that can be great today. It's the kind of 'memberberries that give us The Force Awakens (2015).

First, the film absolutely improves on the 1982 version (and probably the 2007 version if we're being specific). We need to break from our nostalgia towards this thing. 2049 has a more focused story, less weird implications and rape-y scenes, less creepy toy makers, and more purpose for existing. Everything that sucked about 1982 is fixed here.

That's not to say that this film is without problems, which we'll get to in a bit. In a 2 hr 43 minute movie there's going to be some rough patches, but dammit, there's two hours and twenty minutes of excellent stuff here that blows the hell out of '82. One thing I griped about in my preview is how Deckard doesn't actually kill any male replicants, which is kind of fucked up, but his whole enterprise is pointless, since he doesn't stop Roy Batty from doing anything he wanted to do (besides get more life, but that wasn't happening) before his natural expiration. It all just ends up being an excuse to meditate on the purpose of life and nature of humanity. That's all lovely, but as if 2049 read my damn griping, we see Ryan Gosling's KD6-3.7 dispatch a rogue buff male replicant immediately. He's actually good at his job!

The pathos is totally shifted. Deckard was world-wearied and pulled back into one last job, although we never really found out what made him such an alcoholic besides the fact that he was in a noir. In 2049 we instead know that K is a great Blade Runner because of what we actually witness him doing, not only physically, but his detective work beyond zoom and enhance and affecting effeminate accents as disguises. It's a lot better.

Let's stall on some of this superficial stuff before digging into the deeper themes. Well, a lot of that is connected, but let's try to take it slow. Running off Gosling, I was pleased that this was very much his story instead of something forced with Harrison Ford. Don't get me wrong, Deckard is totally forced in this movie, and I can't think of a more bizarre scene that the "Rachel Temptation" moment, especially if you had somehow never seen the original (props for some actually quality de-aging CGI, though). This is the right kind of revival, almost like Stallone in Creed (2015), where he's a solid supporting character instead of a secondary protagonist (like their earlier revivals, Rocky Balboa [2006] and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull [2008] were, respectively). Deckard is still way more shoe-horned in than Rocky was, so that's perhaps a bad example. It's not that cathartic to see Deckard's final escape, rescue, or reuniting with his daughter because he's not really the focus of the story until two hours in. Again, no one is really clamouring for closure on this character.

But like I said this is Gosling's show, and he's great. His stock seems to go up and down based on your interpretation of La La Land (2016) or how much you enjoy giggling hosts on SNL. His journey of moving from replicant to human is the inverse of Deckard's in '82, although it's a lot less ambiguous. Or...is it? There are still twists and turns, and it ends up blurring the line between replicant and human further by taking that final prize away from him. All of that great stuff he did when he was a human isn't invalidated by his android nature. He's not a replicant, more like a repliCAN!

This all does interesting things for our classic protagonist's journey. It's almost the anti-hero's journey. Ordinary jerk Harry Potter is called on and told he's a wizard. Luke Skywalker is plucked from his farm on Tatooine and told to be a Jedi. The classic archetype is called to destiny! KD6-3.7 could be it! The Dream Child! The Children of Men (2006) - level miracle birth that will break the world for humanity and be the savior of all Replicant-kind! Nope, just kidding, fuck you, Ryan Gosling, you're just a piece of shit android.

I hated this when I first saw the film, because I think we're so conditioned to that storytelling. That's the whole point, right? Gosling goes down easier than Shia LaBeouf being Indiana Jones' kid for sure and after he's spent the entire film with his only friend being a totally fake holo-girlfriend, you want him to make some kind of connection. But at the end, Blade Runner 2049 proves itself to be true noir and yanks all this greatness away from KD6-3.7. He's just a schmuck. The important thing is, though, that none of that matters. He still saves his fake Harrison Ford father, still reveals the real Dream Child, still avenges his boss and lover's death (uhh....right. More on that later), and is still a cool dude in my book. This ties towards the overarching theme - that what makes humans great and what makes replicants great doesn't really have a dividing line. We're all capable of great things regardless of destiny. It's awesome to witness.

Villeneuve, writer Hampton Fancher, and Gosling also do a great job emphasizing the emotional nature of replicants. That was supposed to be the big difference between replicants and humans, although even after blatantly stating that in the first one, Roy Batty and company always seemed to simply be more emotionally immature than lacking of emotion. They were all basically children in adult bodies because their brains hadn't been developed and conditioned yet. Gosling and Sylvia Hoek's Luv display that cold emotionless exterior for most of the film, controlled and taking orders. They both, however, eventually display emotion in really satisfying ways. Gosling's scream when he finds out (he thinks) that he could be human is an amazingly jarring moment because he's spent the previous ninety minutes as an unaffected blank slate. Luv has this more subtle relationship with her humanity, which is summed up great here.

Digging into Sylvia Hoeks as Luv, she's a revelation here. It got me thinking of when everyone went nuts over Rebecca Ferguson in Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation (2015) but she didn't actually do shit in that movie. It was as if we were just desperately trying to latch on to a strong female action hero and this was just as close as we got, so we ran with her despite her not really earning it. No, Sylvia Hoeks IS a badass here and her Luv is incredible, holding her own against Ford and Gosling both physically and from an acting standpoint. Give her a damn franchise.

Somehow Robin Wright is having an amazing year in badass supporting roles as well, between this and Wonder Woman (2016). As the L.A. police chief her rapid human displays of emotion contrast with the replicants like crazy, and she's by far the most human character in this film. She also makes gut human decisions all the time, like letting K go when he bombs his baseline test and seeking to eliminate the Dream Child before the concept of its existence destroys the foundations of humanity. Such human things to do. Replicants are violent when cornered, but are arguably the much more rational force in this world.

Let's get into that a little bit, which means we need to speak about Jared Leto. Jared fucking Leto. Fucking... Jared Leto. The movie ground to a halt every time his eccentric god complex weirdo Niander Wallace showed up on screen. His esoteric monologues do a lot to push forward the philosophy of the film, but damn it just reeked of pretentious bullshit. He needs to get off this insane method acting kick where he goes all in for these bit roles in big mainstream movies (although this arguably wasn't that broadly appealing anyway), visibly annoying the whole cast around him. Watch that Rachel Temptation scene, I don't think it's acting that Harrison Ford wants to sock him in the beard.

That really is the scene where this movie lost me. You can't have an eternal love story based off of date rape. Just... no. And what was that scene even supposed to accomplish? To get Deckard to bang the New Rachel as if his dick was the only magical cum-shooter that could knock up a replicant? It was totally Rachel, you idiot! She was made special by Tyrell! All of it seemed underdeveloped and unnecessary, not totally unlike the inclusion of Deckard himself. It'd be one thing if he had done something important or had been a big factor in this world, but when K visits him, he doesn't even really learn anything. He puts the daughter thing together himself later. It's not like his character is Luke Skywalker and very publicly saved the Galaxy a few times, so finding him is a big deal like at the end of The Force Awakens. It's just some bum Blade Runner detective who banged a replicant.

This knocks a bit against Harrison Ford, and while he is a lot more subtle here than in something like Paranoia (2013) or Ender's Game (2013), it's all forced. We could have had the same result with K journeying to Las Vegas and seeing a picture of him and Rachel. It ends up just being a huge red herring that Gosling is his son, which you can see coming a mile away. When the film flips it becomes interesting, and I suppose some of that impact is lessened when Ford is absent, but it still soured me.

Now that we're getting full in on the structural problems I had with this film, let's talk about the other totally shoe-horned element, the Replicant Revolution. Completely underdeveloped. There's one scene where K meets the one-eyed chick leading all the whores and scrugs that must be runaway replicants waiting to be hunted by Blade Runners who are trying to obtain some equal rights and dignity. It's all juicy stuff that's thematically sound, but when they appear with a half-hour left to go and mindlessly order K to assassinate Deckard (for uh...just being a dick, I guess), it's completely unearned and rightly so, we never revisit them.

I also had a tough time reconciling the fact that Wallace and Revolution had the exact same goals - finding the Time Child and encouraging more replicant baby-making. They had different reasons, of course. Wallace just wants to be God and the Revolution wants Humanity to see them as equals. That's pretty similar - Wallace also wants his creation to equal humanity, but for completely selfish reasons. Yet they seemed at competition with each other, although there's actually no indication that Wallace knew about or even cared that the Revolution existed. All the more reason to throw a temper tantrum, right?

This again is frustrating because it defies convention. In any other sci-fi movie, like Oblivion (2013), or even good ones like The Fifth Element (1997) we'd see something about this revolution and it would end with this big plebians vs. corporations event, forever changing the world.

And a little Chinatown (1978), too.
Blade Runner 2049 doesn't care about that. The world has already been changed on a more spiritual level with the birth of the Time Child. Big things about the world won't change. Wallace isn't going anywhere. Replicants aren't suddenly waking up on Mars with a blue sky and equal rights. This is noir first. And again, this is Gosling's story. It doesn't end with him becoming John Conner. He moves on from the Revolution because he doesn't care about it. The climax features him fighting another replicant struggling with reconciling her own humanity on the shores of a walled-off Los Angeles, a fine line between city and ocean with a dare to slip one way or the other. Some would even say they're...running on a blade. This is a personal story and it gets a personal and focused ending. This is also the reason why it's only made like $32 million its first week (shitty narrative - this movie has made $74 million its first three weeks, which is an already impressive hold).

Let's circle back around. Mackenzie Davis of Black Mirror's "San Junipero" plays Mariette, a prostitute that features in one of the most bizarre sex scenes I've ever witnessed. It's a testament to her acting that Mariette is drastically different than her character Yorkie there, but she pulls it off. She's also totally Pris, played by Darryl Hannah in the first film, although mostly just her profession and wardrobe. I cracked up out loud at that sex scene between her synced with the AI Joi and K, though, because it happens directly after K (incorrectly) deduces that he's the Dream Child, meaning his mission is to execute himself, he fails his baseline test at base, and Robin Wright Joshi suspends him 48 hours until he can complete another baseline test, which if he fails he'll be retired. This cat comes home and all I could think of was him saying to himself "Now I need to bang this blurry chick, too?"

I want to talk about Joi quite a bit, but there is all kinds of issues to dissect here intersecting with feminism, technology, slavery, and objectification. Mariette simply serves as a vessel here, a physical body for the otherwise incorporeal Joi, played with surprising conviction by Ana de Armas. Joi, though, has been created to placate replicants, and I'm sure other lonely dudes as well. It's clear, though, that they're this fake wife given to fake people in a borderline cruel effort to ensure their placidity with an otherwise hellish fake life. Joi, though, enlists a prostitute to function as her physical body, which is hollow and tragic, but also a testament to how far people will push boundaries to achieve the normalcy they've been denied by those in power. In this case, it's not only humans, but her replicant master. It's all about giving replicants dominance over some other lesser being.

Joi's introduction as a beautiful subservient housewife is jarring as hell, both for how backwards it seems and how scary close to reality this could be. This really is only an inch further than we are with Alexa right now. Banging an OS is nothing new. Her (2013) broke a lot of ground in that department. Where Blade Runner 2049 pushes it is giving Joi a face, a body, and a role in the house. It's clear that KD6-3.7 really cares for her, and by the time she's squished we really care about her, too. Again, this is all a trick to make us think differently about the kinds of movies we watch. Joi is introduced as this jarring anti-feminist prop but she fights for her own right to exist and her own struggle to become a real girl with real feelings in a plight that perfectly mirrors the Replicant Revolution, albeit on a much smaller scale. This works to meld women's struggles with their very right to exist and make their own decisions as well. This is one of the more moving parts of the film because it's the closest to reality both in theme and technology.

Rounding out the cast we have Dave Bautista, who felt kind of wasted, dying in the first scene, but I suppose he fit his purpose. Bautista is a big physical guy, and that's the kind of acting he's known for - in that regard his subtlety here is actually a revelation. He appropriately is this hulking figure, giving Gosling a challenge for his first replicant take down, a chance to see what he can do (again, single-handedly surpassing Deckard, who couldn't do this shit with Roy Batty). He is the inciting incident, though, so some credit.

Edward James Olmos! You bastard! Who was clamouring for an EJO cameo here? No-fucking-body, who cares. I'd love to hear more about his adventures with Deckard we don't see. Also that origami bull! Why a bull? Should have been a horsie for poor K. This motherfucker knows more than anyone in this universe.

Besides the acting, everything else in this film is amazing. The score is Vangelis by way of Hans Zimmer, but with big input from Benjamin Wallfisch, who has somehow also cranked out Dunkirk (2017) and IT (2017) this year. I've listened to it every night this week and as I round out hour three of writing this post, I'm on my second go today. It pays complete tribute to the wonderful original while adding the synths and BRAAAHHMS we demand today. In a film so dependent on long, brooding scenes with nothing going on, the score needs to set the mood, and this thing ranges from dreadful to awestruck to hopeful all in one go. It's brilliant.

Adding to all this is Roger Deakins' magnificent cinematography, which has almost gotten lost in how magnificent it is. His work is always amazing despite his massive thirteen Oscar snubs. Every single shot in this captures so much heart and emotion along with spectacular lighting changes, action, and small character work, all in that perfect zone between heightened future reality and gritty urban decay. For all the shitty pretentiousness of the Jared Leto scenes, the ambivalent lighting of a blind man in his pyramid temple is an amazing journey into a set that doesn't seem real.

The visual effects are also stunning. While it's never flashy, Joi's hologram interactions, the cityscapes, the digital composition, and the whole film's seamless integration with real sets is breathtaking. Blade Runner is definitely a product of its time and its composition shows. 2049 seems to roll around in its freedom to show the air around Los Angeles, the rusty ruins of San Diego, shots in DAYLIGHT somehow, holy shit! Villeneuve forwent a lot of green screen in favor of wacky, massive sets, and the production design here may be the best I've ever seen in a film. I'm sure that's hyperbole that will die down, but the world-building here is phenomenal, and sells every single alleyway, from the rain to the snow. Yes, snow. More on how they did all that here.

There is a lot of this subtle commentary on how shitty our future is going to be. Although, to be sure, that impact is slightly lessened by the clear fact that this is no longer the future of USA 2017. It's an extension of what we thought 2019 would be like in 1982. This ends up creating this weird alternate reality where PanAm, Atari, and the CCCP still exist. It's always kind of weird imaging the future of a pre-existing fictional world that's already based off ours. Some of that takes us out of the moment. Seeing PanAm reminds you this is a Blade Runner movie, not something totally new.

So that commentary gets lost a little bit, but it's still terrifyingly easy to see how climate change has ravaged this world, much more so than in the 2019 of the original Blade Runner. The oceans are high and crashing into the coast, only prevented by a massive seawall. In contrast to today for sure LA is under constant rain, and then snow, which is commonplace enough that no one ever comments on it. Food production has effectively ceased outside of grubs, with everyone sustained by holograms projected over synthetics - a band-aid for a spiritually broken world. Climate change today seems to preach the doom of the earth, but neglects to mention that we'll probably still survive - clinging to life rather than thriving. Humanity will find a way, but it will be this way - eating nutrients instead of food and surviving on chemicals and the backs of exploited labor instead of our own merit.

Speaking of the good ol' USA, it's striking how insular this feels. This isn't Escape from L.A. (1997), where the city is a character but we get a sense of what's happening across the country. San Diego is a junkyard dump and Vegas is radioactive wasteland, but we never find out why this happened. It doesn't totally matter - this is KD6-3.7's story and we don't have time for that superfluous crap. The one thing that's clear is that the off-world colonies are the place to be. We again never make the trip to see them, but that Elysium (2013) - level intrigue never becomes a tease. It's another subtle jab at the class structure of earth. There's a sense that all the non-Wallace wealthy and powerful people have bailed on the world they ruined, leaving it for the replicants, the humans who blame them for their problems, and their synthetic crap.

Also, casual slavery. That seems really brushed aside, but it is mentioned outright and totally true. Replicants exist as slaves to build off-world colonies for the Trumps of the world. It's a powerful thought that was at the center of Blade Runner, but never connected with so many words. It's a strong connection with obvious connotations in the United States, but it operates on the same principle as American Slavery. There is a hierarchy of races, and in the future since we could no longer use phrenology or God to justify who is better and who is subservient, we made our own races and distinctions, then put them to work. It's something very basic at the heart of human fear and the need to put people under ourselves, without necessarily getting into a white vs black thing.

2049 just does such a better job of humanizing massive amounts of replicants that we feel for their plight more. They aren't the villains of the story. It pushes further in every way this idea that we can't know our own reality, but adds that it doesn't matter whose memories we have. What matters is what we do. We are all capable of great things, and that's what makes us human.

Blade Runner 2049 is destined to end up on my Best of 2017 list in a ton of categories. I did spend a lot of time bitching here about little things that it gets weirdly wrong or tries to cram in, but what it gets right is too phenomenal to ignore. Every technical category is astounding, the acting is wonderful, and its thematic and philosophical statements are rock solid, even if that solidity comes about from its ability to weave subtlety into some grand questions that we as a species will ruminate on forever without ever knowing.

This movie is sick. Please don't watch Tyler Perry's Boo 2: A Madea Halloween (2017) again this week.

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