Friday 6 October 2017

Blade Runner 2049

Morphology. Longevity. Incept Dates.

Blade Runner 2049
2017 USA/UK/Canada
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
UK cinema release print.

Warning: I could have written a spoiler free review here but I decided I wanted to address the issues that this film throws up a little more freely. So, fair warning, all the big spoilers will be covered here. If you don’t want to know this stuff then don’t read until after you’ve seen the movie. Lots of spoilerage per paragraph and you won’t see them coming until I blindside you with them so, seriously, if you don’t want to know, don’t read further than this warning paragraph.

To paraphrase another famous movie, this was not the sequel I was looking for.

That being said, I really wasn’t looking for a sequel to Blade Runner at all and I’ve always dreaded, even back in the 1980s when the subject first came up, that anyone would ever get around to doing one. I’ve already made clear my thoughts on the first film, which I first saw at the cinema in 1982 in its most perfect cut (as far as I’m concerned), the original studio cut. You can read my Blade Runner review here where I look at the various cuts of the movie and also detail my personal relationship with the film, helping to keep the movie alive long after it expired as a box office flop by going to see it with my friend at various midnight screenings before it suddenly started to gain popularity again in the 1990s. I must have seen the first movie somewhere between 50 and 100 times by now and so, yeah, I have a lot to be compromised by a bad sequel to a perfect movie which, lets be honest, doesn’t really need a follow up anyway.

So the first and most positive thing I will say about it is... it’s not a terrible movie. It’s actually, in fact, a pretty well made, modern science fiction film which harkens back to the 1950s or earlier for its central themes... themes which writer Philip K. Dick, who wrote the original source novel pillaged by the first movie, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, explored on a number of occasions in his writing career. So, for a nice, adult themed, science fiction movie... yeah, Blade Runner 2049 is quite successful in that sense.

As a sequel to the original film both in look and in spirit though... well that’s another matter and, much as I like Villeneuve as a director, I don’t think he does either of those things justice here.

For example, the film does, indeed, look spectacular but, honestly, compared to the look of the original movie which, it seemed to me, was much denser and more coherent in its portrayal of a crowded, urban environment in meltdown... this film felt a little inconsistent and sketchy. Maybe it’s because none of the establishing shots or fly bys of the various environments are long enough but... it didn’t really hit me the way it should do, I think.

The director eschews the classic opening titles of the first film and cuts to the intro text. At various places in the film we get text highlighting the various locations but, I can tell you, I was sitting fairly close to the front with a giant screen and those titles were so small I could barely make them out. The white type just about but the red type just above them... no way. Goodness knows how this would play in a home environment with a smaller screen. We then get a vista of landscape and, while its set in a different environment and we still get the giant eyeball shot to echo the first movie, it just all feels a bit ‘by the numbers’ to me. I’ve seen the first movie a gazillion times on some great screens and, almost without fail, the opening shots of the city on that old one flip flops your stomach over and dazzles with the sheer spectacle. Alas, this movie doesn’t have anything nearly as close as that opening and... yeah... I really felt it.

One thing this film does have which is similar to the original in terms of positive stuff is a cast of very good actors. Ryan Gosling is amazing (as he pretty much always is), Harrison Ford is... well, he’s Harrison Ford (so that means he’s always watchable), Ana de Armas  is pretty great as Gosling’s virtual companion, Sylvia Hoeks as a ‘bad gal’ replicant is actually more like the ‘andies’ in the original Dick novel than Ridley Scott’s movie (in that she’s actually genuinely evil rather than the like the morally superior replicants of the first movie) and Mackenzie Davis looks stunning as a working gal replicant who slinks about and is dressed similarly to Daryl Hannah’s Pris from the first movie. The film does, indeed, try and echo a lot of the beats of the first film and the gait of this particular character is one of the things which actually works as an homage here, I thought.

And then you have two genuinely outstanding performances which I think were worth the entry fee... although they are both fairly small roles. One is Robin Wright as Gosling’s boss. She really knocks it out of the park here playing an equivalent role to Deckard’s old boss Bryant from the first film in terms of inherent species-ism. She was great in Wonder Woman (reviewed here) and she is truly, old school, hard boiled, tough as nails here. Her final scene in the movie opposite Sylvia Hoeks is pretty memorable. And then we have David Bautista playing a truly sympathetic replicant. He shines in, literally, his only scene in the movie which is the opening sequence. I’m beginning to really like what this actor can do and this is the most interesting thing I’ve seen him perform so... yeah, very impressed with his performance here. So those two were the stand out performances for me in this film, it has to be said.

About that opening sequence though?

Well, it’s something I’ve been half wanting to see since 1982 in that it’s a throwback in spirit to an early draft of Blade Runner, as a way of establishing what the central protagonist does in an action sequence. Here it further serves to establish that Ryan Gosling’s character 'K' is also a superhuman replicant... so it proves useful. It also kickstarts the story when certain ‘clues’ are found on the farm residence where Bautista’s character is working. Instead of pulling the retired replicant’s jaw bone out and revealing a serial number as in that old draft screenplay I am referring to from the first film, Gosling just harvests one of the characters eyes as proof of something he already knows from what amounts to a mini, portable Voight Kampff test replacement he carries in his pocket. It’s actually a pretty good scene and plays with a lot of tension... Villeneuve using that ‘old chestnut’ of the boiling pot in the corner as a way of enhancing the suspense of the scene. And it works really well here. Here’s the thing, though... I remember back in the early 1980s, Phiilp K. Dick complaining about that scene when he read it in the script and saying that it was one of the worst things he’d read (or words to that effect), condemning the tone of the film Ridley Scott was about to make (although I understand that, from what footage was available of the original that Dick actually saw back in 1982 before his untimely death, he really liked the final film Ridley was making and praised it wholeheartedly). However, I can’t help but think that, with the reintroduction of a variant on that opening (which I kinda guessed they would be doing here, to be fair), he would be turning in his grave.

One of the things which I’ve always loved about the original is the fact that Deckard is never portrayed as being a replicant... something Scott tried to change on all subsequent versions of the movie. There are lots of reasons why he actually wouldn’t be a replicant (quite apart from the fact that Philip K. Dick’s original novel explores the same issue more implicitly and categorically states that he’s not an android)... for instance the weakness of him against any other replicant in the film (newer model or not). In fact he actually gets rescued from death by two replicants in that first film... admittedly by one who is trying to, at first, kill him at the end of the picture in the case of one of them. I’ve never believed for a moment that Deckard could ever be a replicant, despite Scott continuing to say he is... because the evidence just doesn’t stack up. My biggest worry would be that this film would paint him as a replicant but the writers are quite clever here. We have a scenario where Jared Leto’s Niander Wallace character... a more evil equivalent of Doctor Eldon Tyrell from the first movie... kinda assumes that Deckard is but poses the question to him because he isn’t certain.

And... I still think he isn’t. And here’s why...

Villeneuve has gone on record that the original studio cut is his favourite (like me) but that he’s made this one as a sequel to the Final Cut. I think not, actually. This film seems to me to be a sequel more to the original studio cut than people might, at first, realise. The story involves Gosling’s ‘K’ hunting the child of Deckard and his replicant lover from the first film, Rachel (played by Sean Young back in 1982 and again... wait, I’ll get to that in a minute). The back story here is that Rachel died about five years after 2019, in childbirth, due to a C-section. So there you go, if I got my timelines correct, already the film is sequelling the original ‘drive off in to the sunset’ ending where Rachel is deemed a special replicant with no built in, four year life span. Secondly, if Deckard was a replicant then how could he have impregnated Rachel? One or the other sex would surely be manufactured as impotent? Especially since a lot of them were destined to be ‘pleasure models’ and engage in sexual activity. After all, if you’re making replicants, you surely don’t want your male replicants running around shooting anything other than blanks in the reproduction department, do you? So, yeah, I’m happy to say that, as far as I’m concerned, this movie categorically proves Deckard is not a replicant. Finally. End of discussion and we can finally return to seeing that original ending with the origami unicorn fashioned by Edward James Olmos’ character Gaff (who returns in a brief scene with another origami animal here), as the metaphor for Deckard believing in a myth, for what it was. Thank goodness.

Okay... so Rachel. Just under a year ago I complained about the bad job the computer graphics guys had done with resurrecting Peter Cushing’s character in Rogue One (reviewed here). Something I still  stick by now. Well, we have a similar disappointment here where Niander Wallace has created a new version of Rachel who looks somewhat similar to what she did in the original (presumably voiced by Sean Young? It doesn’t say in the IMDB). Except, like Cushing in Rogue One, the CGI character looks really dodgy to me and if I didn’t know she was a recreation of a younger character, I would still see that something was really ‘off’ about her here. This just doesn’t work for me and although the way the character bows out of the film is quite dramatic, it kind of takes the edge off any emotional response to the character I might have had, I think.

One last thing...

There’s a scene in Dick’s original novel emphasising the lack of empathy the androids have which is where, after finally saving enough money up to afford to buy a real animal (a sheep which Deckard names Groucho), one of the female androids throws it off the roof and kills it. There’s a similar incident going for the same emotional beat here, where Gosling’s virtual companion has deliberately put herself in a situation where she has become... for all intents and purposes... mortal. The lead replicant villainess destroys her in a similar throwaway moment and this, at least, is something which I think Philip K. Dick might have been able to appreciate. So there’s that.

Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch’s new score is trying hard to be like the Vangelis original but it gets way too overbearing a lot of the time. I would have preferred to hear what Jóhann Jóhannson would have done with the movie before he ‘left’ the project. Interestingly, there’s a moment at the end where, from what I can tell, ‘K’ dies from his wounds. As he lets go of his life, we get a new version of the Vangelis Tears In Rain music from the original movie, which underscored the death of Rutger Hauer’s character. However, since the replicants don’t seem to die from injuries too seriously unless shot somewhere vital, it seems to me that you could interpret this moment as 'K' just having a rest for a while. After all, there’s no visual metaphor like the release of the dove from the replicant’s dying hands as in the 1982 version. So it’s interesting that, unless you know the music, you may not realise the character has died at the end, I suspect. However, I could be wrong and placing too much emphasis on the strength of the original score, to be fair. The soundtrack is filled with lots of similar (and in some cases identical), ambient sound effects as the template movie and sometimes, just like the original, you may have a hard time trying to work out where the music ends and the sound design kicks in.

The thing which the story did really well is to actually fool me with the twist reveal of the child of Deckard and Rachel. I was pretty sure who it was all the way through the movie until this moment it’s spelled out and it gives the character in question a new beat, as it were, in that the person is obviously ‘recruiting’ a replicant army by giving memories to various artificial characters. It’s a nice moment in a film which looks great (although not nearly as good as the original) and is full of nice moments such as this. However, for me, even though it’s trying, it just doesn’t feel anything like a sequel to Blade Runner. It doesn’t quite get there... but it does get close on the odd occasion.

One last piece of symmetry with the original, though, was the audience size. When the film came out and flopped back in ‘82, I remember being in a cinema with my parents and there were literally maybe just over ten people in the audience. Well, quite surprisingly, since this new movie has had such high praise, I found myself in the same situation in a 3D screening on opening night, where there were again just over ten people. Which puzzled me and, I can tell you, I saw two couples walk out of the movie at various points. Which I find quite interesting because, whether it lives up to the original or not (and I’m siding with ‘not’), it’s still quite a nice piece of cinema on its own merits.

My friend, who I have been seeing screenings of the original film with since the mid 1980s, was with me for this performance and I think his reaction to the movie pretty much sums it up the best for me. As we both left the cinema, he looked in about as pretty much a state of mixed irritation and dejection with Blade Runner 2049 as I was feeling. He turned to me and said six words... “What was the point of that?” Other than to point out the studio were going for some cash again, I really couldn’t think of a good answer or disagree with his sentiment. For me, I’m afraid, it’s too bad this sequel won’t live... but then again, who does?

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