' ' Cinema Romantico: Blade Runner 2049

Monday, November 13, 2017

Blade Runner 2049

Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi opus “Blade Runner”, adapted from a Philip K. Dick novel, turned on replicants, androids, non-human humans implanted with false memories that some came to believe were real, blurring the line between human and automations, a line the film was content to leave distorted even as it concluded. This future was underscored by the celebrated, grim art design, where the skyline of 2019 Los Angeles seemed to stretch on into forever, the bright lights and flying cars drowning out the human beings scampering below as much as the omnipresent rain. Denis Villeneuve’s sequel, “Blade Runner 2049”, builds out that world. Shimmery and sterile interiors are contrasted against more dour exteriors with snow just as likely to fall as rain, evoking the ash of a fallen world, a fallen world laid out in the movie’s title cards. And the high rise holographic pleasure models don’t stay out of reach 30 years on, it seems, but emerge from their video screen to titillate right up close, a remarkable visual blurring that line between what is and isn’t real even more. And the further fuzziness of that distinction is also where “2049” sort of pushes itself to the brink. This is anything but a stale imitation, mind you, forgoing fan service for its own enigmas, dropping enough Biblical references to lead pseudo philosophers down the rabbit hole post-screening, but struggling to reach the emotional crescendos achieved by its predecessor, though that faint pulse doubles as its revelation.

The original blade runner, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), was human, tasked with tracking down replicants who had gone rogue and “retiring” them. If questions emerged about whether Deckard himself might have been replicant, that was thankfully left open-ended, and Villenevue gratefully honors that ellipsis. In 2049, however, suggesting technology’s eternally unremitting advance, replicants are now tracked by replicants, like K (Ryan Gosling), which only works because he is a newer model, built by Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), re-engineering these androids to be even better and more obedient. But a miraculous birth involving a replicant — shades of, well, obviously — becomes a possible game-changer, prompting Wallace to dispatch his right-hand replicant Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) to see if the story is true, while K is dispatched by his superior Joshi (Robin Wright) to ensure the story remains under wraps. The specifics of this storyline, while plentiful, ultimately matter less than the metaphysics surrounding it, which is not unlike the original, though there Vangelis’s atmospheric score better underlined these philosophical musings than Han Zimmer’s typical bombast.

Both K and Luv might be entrusted by actual humans to do their bidding, but they are still slaves, brought home in one of Leto’s monotonous monologues but better glimpsed in sequences between K and Joshi, in which a splendid Wright both exudes the obvious dependence she has on K and an above-him haughtiness. His chance at freedom, meanwhile, becomes part and parcel to the miracle birth mystery, one bringing him to the doorstep of Rick Deckard, imposed in self-exile in Las Vegas where Villeneuve exhumes great mileage from the remnants of a hedonistic society gone belly-up. If Ford played the original with something like his early career impassivity, here he dials up his late career gruff disinterest, which is not to suggest he is parodying himself. He functions as a deliberate jolt of presence, making it ever more clear, at least in this reviewer’s mind, that he’s a person.

Those attempts are most obvious in K’s relationship with Joi (Ana de Armas), something like a holographic romantic companion, a subplot borrowing heavily from Spike Jonze’s “Her.” Then again, while the titular Her was an artificially operating system not unlike Joi, the Him (Joaquin Phoenix) was a Human, as the film sought to push the boundaries of physical relationships in a high-tech world to their breaking point. In “2049’s” relationship, each person, so to speak, is A.I., and their tendency to sort of role play Married Life, which could have been hellacious satire, like a sci-fi send-up of The Donna Reed Show, eventually falls flat because Villeneuve treats it genuinely without giving it enough time to bloom beyond its introductory phony parameters.

Of course, the original’s central relationship, between Deckard and Rachael (Sean Young), a replicant, was also underdeveloped, merely a means to an end, though the film’s saving emotional grace became Best in Show Rutger Hauer as feeling, living replicant Roy Batty. Gosling, on the other hand, while often charismatically charming in comedies, typically relies on a placidity where his muscles don’t even seem to be twitching in drama, like “Place Beyond the Pines”, which is why he is so impeccably able to interpret an android. And while K’s journey takes him to the point where he makes decisions intended to render him as more human than human, Gosling makes the conscious decision to still play these closing moments not with Hauer’s romantic sentience but with robotic detachment, like his watery confrontation with Luv.

Exactly where these two were when they went one-on-one, I was never quite clear, not that it mattered, because as Villeneuve cut between close-ups of the duo, the immovable contours of Gosling’s face became edifying in their emotionless. The conclusion is intended to offset this, but the conclusion comes across merely as a narrative prerequisite, less forceful than the translucent emptiness of K and Luv’s parting glances, and while watching them, I nearly wept because I felt humanity floating further and further out to sea.

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