When being compelled to return to familiar springs, I am almost always reminded of words from screenwriting legend, William Goldman,
“People will come up with all kinds of bullshit for whoring. I remember telling people, Well, there was so much great stuff about Butch and Sundance I couldn’t fit in the first one. Wonderful, interesting material.
Bullshit. That’s a whore talking”
There are no real good reasons for sequels. No real reason for any follow-up, save for either vanity or money. If there is something of any artistic merit that is to be mined by such an enterprise, it is something between the producers and director. (We could only be so lucky/unlucky). This is something of a segue for something I hear every now and then regarding long delayed sequels, and the like. There are ultimately no real reason to invest in a name, save for that additional exploitation potential. It is a phenomenon only really embraced by bean counters, and the occasionally inspired.
Thankfully, just enough of the latter oozes through the laser fine chiseled artifice that is
Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049. A title that continues to leave my lips with a credulity reserved for a half hearted quip. Set thirty years after the events of the 1982 cult classic, we are tossed deeper into the expansive, desolate hellscape that is Los Angeles near the center of the century, where humanity’s last gasps on Earth seems to be clinging to a thread in the wake of further commercial, industrial and ecological decay. Greater dimensions of post-Singularity life are explored as dutiful replicant hunter killer, Officer K(Ryan Gosling), is tasked with uncovering the truth behind what could mean a world shattering discovery regarding the future of Replicants as oppressed servant machines. Stumbling upon curious artifacts at the site of his last outing against a runaway Nexus 8, an avalanche of evidence begins to coalesce implying that our nameless protagonist, may very well be on a cusp of something devastating.
Now, before we get into the fine meat of the film, perhaps it is important to lay out some foundations. Particularly in regards to the original Blade Runner, and my lifelong relationship with it. Having no familiarity with the work of Philip K. Dick, nor Burroughs, and having zero concept of what the term Blade Runner actually meant, the visuals of the ad campaign, the striking poster, and a summer where Harrison Ford,was about to tackle grand scale fantasy again, my dad took me to the local movie house. Only, then did we discover that seven year old me was about to both be thrown Marianas Trench deep into realms of hard science fiction, and glacially paced art cinema. Both things, that were still pretty alien to my young mind. Some of the most indelible impressions left upon me were the jaw dropping visuals, the soundscape, and the crushingly powerful score by VANGELIS. When it was over, I had surely napped once or twice, but it stuck with me regardless. I bugged parents for any Blade Runner related merch I could get my hands on. Perplexed as they were, knowing full well that I very well couldn’t fully understand what I was so giddy about, they found the official Marvel Comics adaptation, and an official movie magazine. Both items stayed with me throughout much of the 1980s. That summer, was also the time of being inspired by synthpop with the sounds of Soft Cell, Gary Numan, and others. So culture in a sense, had been calling. Somehow, evoking imagery that remained hard to shake throughout the rest of that year.
Despite having nearly noone in town whom I could properly talk Blade Runner with, the film remained something of a personal companion. A fantasy world that was just foreboding and tactile enough to feel like something out of a Disneyland nightmare. Los Angeles, suddenly had this air of Pleasure Island, complete with a world’s worth of cultures, and lifestyles simply gasping for air as they went about their daily business beneath what seemed like entire bed sets of oppressive rain. Back then, I had no care for why Rick Deckard didn’t seem like such a good guy, nor that his targets seemed a great deal more relatable and worthy of empathy. The world simply felt like this forbidden tourist attraction where the only true price of admission, was innocence.
Flash forward ten years, and being familiar with what came clear as obvious structural and character issues in the film, talks of a new, more ideal cut would be released to the public soon. Immediately, I made sure to consider the event appointment viewing. And sure enough, that cut provided me with something far more mysterious and ethereal. Ridley Scott’s true intentions at last began to take shape, even as it remained clear that Deckard, was no different than the nazi SS agents, PKD studied as inspiration for Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep. That the reason so many stayed away in droves, was not merely the hacky Harrison Ford voice-over clusterhump, but that America’s latest cinema hero had taken a career hard left, and took on the role of an ineffectual cog in a horrendous oppression machine. A film that offered no real cathartic turn for our main character. Where the true hero in his last moments, saw the beauty in life, and allowed his spirit to flow free after exhibiting that which life never granted to him; mercy.Blade Runner, at age 18, was at last a vision of a desolate future where apathy, and exploitation had run the planet asunder, and with it, the human soul.
And yet the film’s legacy had a greater hold on me than I had ever initially assumed. So many angles, from the art, sound, fashion, and environmental also gave way toward interests that remain as important to me now as then. Everything from concerns regarding social justice, economic and health. Environmental and ecological. The world of Los Angeles, 2019 is that of our greatest vices at last paying us all back with interest. Pollution, poverty, and the revelation that a specialist is one act of insubordination away from becoming “little people”, suddenly became a touch point for my own thoughts of resistance and rebellion in everything from outsider art, to noisy, at times indecipherable electronic drones. From the serenity of deep ambient space music to desperate lullabies warding away yet more sleepless nights with noone to talk to. Blade Runner, remains a rich nucleus of what forms my art, sleeping and conscious life.
And yet, it is far from a perfect film. Like many beautiful things, the sprawling ambition of it often overwhelms, and often channels out any semblance of coherent narrative. We are given vague notions, and more worldbuilding than emotional texture. And even if it is clear that Deckard is in many ways the villain, his comeuppance, never feels complete to me. And yet, like many things in life, there is a beauty to certain forms of asymmetry. Some forms of art endure simply out of sheer personality. And this is no different. No matter the cut. Even Scott’s preferred 2007 Final Cut, leaves some things to be desired. It is a classic of sheer vision, and incomparable atmosphere, with just enough rough edges left behind to leave it feeling hopelessly human.
Which leads us to 2049, where decades of cinematic lessons has at last congealed into something both familiar, and refreshingly new in voice. With thirty five years passing since that fateful viewing, our understanding of both science fiction, and the dystopian world we currently inhabit, have at last caught up with each other in ways neither we or the film could have anticipated. And in turn, Villeneuve’s final document works as both heartfelt homage, and as an often arresting affair, as it examines costs of the life post-singularity, and perhaps post-reality.
Officer K’s discoveries out on a remote farm, bring forth notions of the unthinkable; replicants capable of giving birth. Something that not only potentially serves as a possible time bomb for a civilization already rendered on a thread, but for life off-world, which has since already colonized several systems without faster than light travel. The lines between human and artifice, seeming long since blurred. You see, K is already widely accepted as replicant, discrimination included. His life as a Blade Runner, now something of routine, complemented by his baseline tests to check for stability, returning home to his holographic companion, Joi(played to perfection by Ana de Armas), and a love for “vintage” culture, and a longing for something more. And now, increasingly faced with an uncertainty about his own past, K’s journey is one that is meant to both serve as guide, and illustration of concerns that like its predecessor, are alarming concerns of our specific time, the current year of 2017. With information incessantly torrenting over our very own capacity to properly digest, we are rendered increasingly incapable of grasping to a shared reality to best reside within. Just as we find ourselves clinging and hoping to an end to many crises we have been through thus far, often retreating into fits of unreasoning fantasy to quell our anxieties, as are the many beings within Blade Runner 2049.
The mystery deepens, when the film reveals its hand late in the game, implying that the many seeming “gimmes” the plot had been handing to us were indeed worthy of suspicion. And yet, the apparent red herrings of the plot attempt to serve something in support of a more disturbing series of paradoxes very much in keeping with the original’s film’s tacked on question regarding a central character and his very own status as a human being. The key semiotic totem being that of eyes (like the original), and projection. The phenomenon of projected realities becomes one of the larger concerns of the film, which brings to the fore a more troubled vision of a populace at last having given up, and settling for imagined progress rather than real progress. Programmed love, rather than agency laden love. Idealized memories over the ability to step out, and experience them for one’s self. There is even a wonderfully executed lovemaking scene here that for all its problematic implications, rings true in regards to a person’s inability to consumate with their deepest wants. Our characters are perpetually restrained. From uncontrolled tear ducts, to so badly wanting to be the special figure our loved ones so badly wish for us to be. The world of Blade Runner, is now awash in raging inertness.
Also worthy of note are the roles of Lieutenant Joshi, K’s superior officer, played with troubled aplomb by Robin Wright. A less openly bigoted chief than Deckard’s Bryant from long ago, this time with this immense weight upon her shoulders. In her few scenes, we both see K’s plight, as well as her unwillingness to allow what little remains of calm in her city to crumble. Her reasons for wishing this new case to find itself buried is understandable. Meanwhile, we are also made privy of a growing replicant resistance that has survived in the shadows in the wake of the historic Blackout that allowed scores of renegade machines to escape their slavers. They too, wish for K to be the avatar of narrative erasure. His life, suddenly a chess piece in this game that noone wishes to play, is also distressingly under the careful watch of current replicant and farming technology icon, Niander Wallace (Jared Leto). Having come to prominence in the ashes of the long gone Tyrell Corporation, Wallace’s claim to fame were hyper obedient servants with lifespans as long as customers will pay. But faced with greater needs off-world, and the need for increased yields of food, the reclusive genius with his icy cool assistant, Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) are now utterly relentless in the pursuit of those who would insure greater production of his “angels”. Leto's Wallace, is the utterly megalomaniacal end result of unchecked power, a severely dangerous counter to the well-meaning, yet doomed Eldon Tyrell. As iconic as the original supporting cast, these characters represent the world’s long fragmenting firmament, and make indelible impressions doing so.
And yet, the film does find itself in the latter half a little more clumsy than expected for a Villeneuve joint. The themes of nature vs. nurture remain, but several moments feel so smoothed out, so clean and commercially filtered, that one wonders why they’re even there. This is especially true when considering Harrison Ford’s much celebrated return as one-time Blade Runner, Rick Deckard. Which is to say he’s terrific here. But it hardly serves much of a purpose beyond the film’s own capability of being. While nice to see the old dog back, his sins remain sins. And much of his time on screen, seems to downplay the kind of role he had in the deaths of many replicants before he jumped ship with experimental model, Rachael in tow. To bring him back, seemed like an opportunity for redemption. A redemption that is never really addressed, implying that much of his actions in 2019 weren’t as bad as they were (hint: they were). And it isn’t long before he’s rendered something of a MacGuffin for the final act. Equally uneven are moments where K is let in on the resistance movement. A scene that remains visually stunning, feels culled from an entirely different, more popcorn film experience.
How fascinated I was by the notion that the film is an examination of life as a replication of our truest desires. There is a longing throughout for idealized forms, often projected over less desirable realities. The story, inevitably plays with this as even the film wants to paint a rosier picture over the bleak reality we explore for over 160 minutes. And even the lives of those we are told are artificial, find themselves seeking these elusive treasures in the form of closure, revolution, retribution, companionship. The end product is a russian doll of desire amongst a broadened, desolate landscape of our own making. And considering the mention of projectors, the phenomenon of projection itself, not to mention a key figure weaving memories with a device that looks like a series of camera lenses, what Blade Runner presents regarding our collective thirst for idealized universes to explore, doesn’t bode well for who we’ve become as consumers of information, memories, politics. It is a desperate plea for agency to kick in and kick in hard.
Which brings us back to the initial concern; no, we never needed another Blade Runner. But alas, not unlike another unwelcome kidney stone, it is being formed as we speak. Might as well hope for the best possible, least painful passing imaginable. And if we’re being wholly honest, this is as great a tribute & companion piece to an asymmetrical classic as one could ever hope for.
I cannot wait to explore it again.