“Blade Runner 2049”, a perfect replicant with a beating human heart

The sequel to the cult classic film that has invented Cyberpunk has been out for more than a weekend, and something strange is happening.

Critic reviews were incredibly positive from the very beginning, audience response seems generally very high, and yet its box office results are somehow below the expectations, so much that the studio calls it a mixed result.

What the hell happened? 

Here are some of my thoughts on Denis Villeneuve’s very ambitious movie, and some of the controversies it is generating.

And beware: there will be spoilers. Big, juicy ones. Read only if you don’t mind, or if you have already watched the film.

The coolest outfit in the movie. Too bad it only appears in the beginning.

First of all, why were expectations so high?

I have to confess, I was raving about this movie way before it was released. I just couldn’t wait to see it.

The original “Blade Runner” was incredibly influential in art, science and popular culture. Cinema, music, comics, technology (the “Nexus 6” googlephone, anybody?). Don’t just believe me, read this.

It also had a profound impact on me, on my love for cinema as a medium and as an art form, and dare I say, maybe even on my world view. It’s up there with George Orwell’s work, Watchmen and all the best dystopian stories that warn us about the danger of fucking up with technology and future a bit too much.

So I was approaching this new release with reverential awe, and hope that this, too, would blow my mind.

It turned out that nothing could equal such incredibly high expectations. It was just unrealistic. And that’s part of the problem. Did we really need a sequel?

1) The original “Blade Runner” was never a crowd pleaser in the first place. 

It was actually a very intellectual, controversial, mid-budget film, flawed by production issues – intended for a niche audience. It was never supposed to be a blockbuster, and indeed it wasn’t.

More precisely, it was something of a mess. Ridley Scott hated the version released in theaters, which suffered from a few heavy handed decisions imposed by the studio, like the narrating voice and that stupid happy ending. He hated it so much, that only after 10 years – that means, after the movie had gained cult status, and after Ridley Scott had become Ridley Scott – he managed to release his Director’s cut. And then, a Final Cut (2007).

If you are confused, and you are not the only one, this video nicely helps you to navigate into the complicated mess that is the original movie. Movie? Hard to say, since there exist 7 different versions of it.

2) This means that “2049” is not exactly a sequel. It’s more like a gigantic reboot, taking place 30 years after. 

When “2049” was announced, backed with a whopping 130 million USD budget (some say more), it was clear that it was going to play in a different league. The movie was endowed with a Star Wars-size budget, which generated Star Wars-size expectations. 

But this is a contradiction in terms, because “Blade Runner 2049” (I should probably start using the acronym BR49 from now on) doesn’t even try to be Star Wars-like. 

Sure, it displays a cinematography and visuals that are nothing short of jaw-dropping (credits to the magnificent work of Roger Deakins, a cinema genius who is the equivalent of a King Midas with a camera), but still remains a very brainy, nihilist, dystopian story that is not trying to please anybody.

There is no mystical energy field controlling the destiny of Deckard, K, and the others.

The future depicted in BR49 feels like a bizarre exercise in “alternative history acrobatics”. It’s a development of a vision of the future that was developed in our past (1982): which means a number of things like references to the Soviet Union; Atari and Pan Am still alive; low definition cameras. Things that don’t belong to our present days, and therefore make the representation feel somewhat unrealistic, alternative history rather than plausible future.

3) BR49 is uncompromising, and doesn’t even try to win new fans.

Box office results show that over 70% of the film audience is made of guys, and in particular (I suspect) guys who were already fond of the original movie.

Plus, the cryptic promotion campaign didn’t let many significant details trickle down – like the fact that several main characters are actually women – and the weird trailer that was released presented it almost as an action packed movie.

Not ideal for a family evening – nor as your perfect date movie. 

“2049” also features an impressive length: 2h and 44 minutes. I don’t think it’s too long, and no particular part felt over extended (ok, maybe some of Jared Leto’s monologues could use a bit of trimming here and there, more on that later).  But surely it’s not a movie format that invites the casual movie goer.

4) Let’s face it: there are a few weak plot choices. 

The screenplay is signed by Hampton Fancher (who also wrote the original “Blade Runner”), and Michael Green (whom I knew for Alien: Covenant – and if you ask me, this is not great news).

Aaaaand… in BR49, the plot doesn’t seem to hold water well, under scrutiny.

In particular two decisions made me cringe (SUPER SPOILER COMING NEXT!). 

Now, what follows may feel like nerd movie talk and probably it’s exactly what it is it’s necessary to illustrate my point better.

How the hell can Luv enter LAPD main station whenever she wants, kill people as she pleases including top ranking officers, steal evidence, and not be filmed by a security camera, stopped by a suspecting agent, nothing? Does Wallace corporation have some sort of high level clearance with the police? It wouldn’t make much sense. Nor it is ever mentioned on screen.

And even more,

when Luv finds Deckard’s secret hideout (how does she follow K, by the way?) and storms the whole place, WHY the hell doesn’t she kill K? By then, she has already crossed the line of villainy big time, so I don’t think that killing another guy would make much of a difference for her. Is it because K is a replicant, and she feels “empathy” for her own kind – and not for humans? In fact, during their final confrontation, she quickly kisses him (it’s supposed to be the kiss of death, though).

I would love such an explanation because it would open a very interesting scenario. Replicants don’t feel emotions towards human, but can develop feelings for each other.

Too bad this is not at all mentioned in the movie – to play out such an emotional connection would probably require time on screen, and this is a film that didn’t need to be any longer, really. But the golden rule as far as I am concerned is clear: if it’s not in the movie, it doesn’t exist. So, this is just fan speculation.

“I may be blind, but at least I am not doing Joker again”.

5) the moral and philosophical implications are there. Some are fresh, some feel deja vu. 

The Big Questions that make sci-fi great and timeless are once again asked, but maybe in 2017 some of them need to be revised a bit.

The “can a man become God, and create life?” trope has been explored in depth – and that’s why Jared Leto’s character feels unnecessary and out of place (yeah, that, plus the fact that the CEO of a mega corporation that mass produces eye bulbs is… blind. What, by choice?).

Also, the “can a man fall in love with a machine?” question is not entirely unseen unheard of. A self respecting sci-fi fan in 2017 will certainly be familiar with concepts like those described in Mass Effect, Westworld, Her, Ex Machina (the answer to the question is obviously YES, if the machine has the voice of Scarlett Johansson).

And that’s when BR49 setting seems to hit a glass ceiling. As if these topics had to be there because, you know, Blade Runner.

Itself a romantic replicant, Villeneuve’s film cannot outgrow the ideas and will of its original creator. It’s there, it’s perfect, its service is impeccable. But does it have a soul? 

Luckily, it seems, yes. There is space for something new. The environmental message is loud and clear, and if the Los Angeles of 2019 was represented as dark, dirty, overpopulated and rainy, 2049 seems a definitely less inviting place. And, the story seems to say, we are getting there. 

Climate is out of control, with snow storms in California and a huge wall to keep the ocean tide where it belongs; entire urban areas are used as garbage dumps and host Mad Max style urban tribes; and we get to visit Las Vegas after it has been nuked (not my first trip to that setting, and I could see a huge reference to Fallout: New Vegas, Elvis included).

And the interactions between humans and replicants acquire new, interesting layers. We also witness the relationships between replicants – which are, after all, organic beings – and artificial intelligence (is it solidarity, because they share a similar destiny as slaves of humans? is it the dawn of a “class awareness of the artificials”?); and the conflicts among replicants: divisions are rising between different generations but also between opposing ideologies. More self-aware, what is the purpose of their lives? They now ask themselves. The choices seem to be: to retreat and mind their own business; to keep serving humankind loyally, obtaining mutual benefits; or to rebel against their masters and break free?

We are given a few glimpses a what seems to be the future, in the future. 

In all this, humans are on the backdrop. Tired, old, taking their last desperate breaths in a world they devastated.

Joe “K” is the name of the replicant / blade runner, searching for his identity in a story that is all about judging and facing judgement. A homage to “Josef K” from Kafka’s The Trial?

6) The Ford & Gosling duo works… so and so.  

Harrison Ford remains one of the iconic figures for anybody who – like me – grew up in the 80s eating bread & adventure movies for breakfast.

But if my heart skipped a beat or two when I saw Han Solo back on screen in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, this time I can’t say the same. Sure, his entrance is memorable (“You mightn’t happen to have a piece of cheese about you, now?” quoted from “Treasure Island”), but Deckard’s character feels… not only old. Tired.

Doesn’t really bring much to the story, if not in terms of some father and son (whops, daughter) moments. The original Blade Runner can still punch,

As he did, actually. Ford really hit Gosling in their fighting scene.

but besides that, he feels like an old man who is carried around from one place to another. And that’s a pity.

As to Ryan Gosling (and I generally love him), his performance as K / Joe is flawless, just like a replicant should be. He even manages to bring some irony into the character (“is he learning to be human or is he just being a replicant asshole?”), but his particular skinjob is probably too tight a fit, and he ends up missing some breathing space.

With the gigantic skyscrapers and neonlight commercials of BR2049 as backdrop, we are not in “La La Land” anymore.

Madam Joshi and Luv sharing a glass.

Some of the most remarkable performances come from the female side of the cast: Robin Wright as police chief Joshi, unrelenting yet human, very human; Sylvia Hoeks as Luv – a replicant version of the “fallen angel” archetype which manages to break free from some stereotypical functions of her role; and Ana de Armas / Joi, an operating system to die for (Joi, as I found out, means “jerk off instructions” in internet jargon. Coincidence? I think not)

Their performances shine in the dark, each in their own way, and it’s a pity that they haven’t been better valorized during the promotion of the film. It could have helped to remove the “for sci-fi guys only” label, at least in part.

Las Vegas in 2049 may have been nuked, but at least it’s easier to find a parking spot.

7) Finally, let’s give credit where it’s due. The technical part of the production is impeccable, setting a new standard for the genre, and for cinema in general. 

I watched the movie two times. Dubbed in Italian (not a memorable experience), and then in original language on IMAX 3D.

The 3D is not the best part of the story, I would have been happier without those annoying glasses on. Mala tempora.

But the quality of what is shown on screen is absolutely mind blowing. The audience is rewarded with a flawless blending of practical and digital effects of the highest quality; uncompromising, visionary, bleak glimpses of the future; and a photography that makes every sequence into a work of art.

Hans Zimmer – he must have been very busy lately – is credited for the soundtrack (with Benjamin Wallfisch), and he puts all his art and talent at the total service of the setting. With the only (notable) exception of the Blade Runner End Theme, all the original atmosphere was there and I never for a second found myself thinking “ah yes, this is a Hans Zimmer soundtrack”. Which  means something.

A huge wall stops the ocean tide from invading Los Angeles. It’s also the best track of the OST – by the way. Incredibly powerful. 

In conclusion, did I like it? Yes, a lot. I watched it twice, and I will wait to watch it again. I don’t want to sound too ungenerous, underlining only the critical aspects. This is a rare gem of a movie. To think that “It” (honest work but a totally different league) is grossing more than BR49 will (probably) ever make seems really, deeply unfair.  

But – did this new Blade Runner challenge me, inspire me, generally blow my mind? Uhm… not so much. Maybe because of the too many constraints (the huge budget, and the weight of the title) that were put on Villeneuve. Arrival did more in this sense, than this beautiful and multi millionaire machine that, at times, felt like an exercise in style with a given script to follow.

All in all it felt like living a wonderful experience, only to be left with the haunting doubt that maybe, just maybe, it was just someone else’s memory instead.

Wait, what did I just write?

 

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