Friday, October 6, 2017

Blade Runner 2049: Future imperfect

Blade Runner 2049 (2017) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R, for violence, profanity, nudity and sexuality

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.6.17

I suppose we should be grateful that things haven’t deteriorated nearly as much as the original Blade Runner suggested ... given that it was set in 2019.

That said, the film’s envisaged weather anomalies no longer seem as unlikely.

Los Angeles Police Department Officer Kay (Ryan Gosling), pausing for a quick meal,
little realizes that he's about to be approached by a trio of seductive "doxies"
interested solely in the photographs that he has been studying.
It’s also amusing to recall that Ridley Scott’s magnum opus was a critical and audience bomb upon release in 1982: wholly bewildering to viewers who couldn’t wrap their brains around retro sci-fi noir, and who were disturbed by the notion of Han Solo/Indiana Jones playing such a morally conflicted character.

Funny, how things can change. Blade Runner now is regarded as one of the all-time great sci-fi classics, praised for the same distinctive vision and thoughtful narrative complexity that originally baffled folks. Scott has tweaked and re-edited the film more times than I can remember, fine-tuning it to match his original vision (which was compromised by unwelcome eleventh-hour editing, prior to release).

While his film didn’t necessarily beg for a sequel, the setting and core premise certainly invite fresh examination. Few filmmakers are better equipped to do so than director Denis Villeneuve, who helmed last year’s marvelously meditative Arrival, and co-writer Hampton Fancher, who helped adapt Philip K. Dick’s source novel into the first film. Fancher is assisted this time by co-scripter Michael Green, and they’ve definitely retained the brooding atmosphere that makes the setting so compelling.

The setting’s persuasively chilling authenticity, in turn, comes courtesy of production designer Dennis Gassner and visual effects supervisor John Nelson, carrying forward the arresting tableaus designed for the first film by Douglas Trumbull and David Dryer. No other word suffices: This new film looks amazing.

And very, very unsettling.

The story is again based in Los Angeles, although the narrative expands to include the entire state. Every square inch of land in Central California has been covered by massive hydroponic facilities necessitated by a climate shift — nothing but furious rain, dust and snow storms — that has destroyed any semblance of a natural growing season. Such enhanced output also is required to feed an expanding population with an exponentially huge homeless faction: The disenfranchised no longer camp out merely on sidewalks; they also squat in apartment corridors, jeering at those fortunate enough to have their own residences.

Advertising has run even further amok, further amplified by a salacious element that suggests the complete absence of spiritual content. There’s a sense of society’s very fabric coming unstitched, with order barely maintained by officers working for the immense police department building that looms above all else.

Well ... almost all else.

The activities by Officer Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) in the first film, as he hunted down and “retired” Tyrell Corp. Nexus 6 replicants (androids), are a quaint echo of the past. Following founder Eldon Tyrell’s passing in 2020, his company rush-produced Nexus 8 replicants — solely for off-world use — with open-ended lifespans. After a huge electromagnetic pulse that shut down the entire West Coast for weeks in 2022, governing authorities ordered all replicant production halted, and all surviving Nexus 8 models “retired.”

Enter idealistic scientist Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), whose advancements in genetically modified food solve that particular global crisis, and allow his E&C Corp. to expand across the globe and into the off-world colonies. After acquiring the remnants of the bankrupt Tyrell Corp., Wallace “arranges” for the repeal of replicant prohibition, and releases a new line of “perfect” Nexus 9s.

Which still leaves an unknown number of Nexus 8s, many of which have returned to Earth and gone into hiding, and must be dealt with by “blade runners” such as Officer Kay (Ryan Gosling). Borrowing the first film’s prologue, Kay is introduced as he interviews a suspected Nexus 8: an ordinary-looking bloke who is one of many menial workers isolated in the E&C hydroponic fields.

Kay is thorough and inquisitive; the encounter produces a baffling mystery that he brings back to his boss, Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright), and which appears to involve old Tyrell tech. Kay’s next stop therefore is the even more massive E&C complex, where a Nexus 9 dubbed Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) helps him retrieve what remains of old Tyrell records left partially damaged by the EMP.

At which point, the mystery deepens even further, prompting Kay to wonder if Deckard is alive, and in possession of possible answers.

Although the striking visuals certainly keep our eyes busy, our minds are engaged by the same ethical dilemma that fueled the first film: What makes a human being? At what point do synthetic creatures deserve to control their own fate? And would this sentience be dangerous? Such questions are a longtime sci-fi staple, hearkening back to unsettling stories and novels by — among others — Ray Bradbury (“Marionettes Inc.”) and Jack Williamson (his lengthy “humanoid” series), along with recent films such as A.I.

Gosling is a fascinating study as the brooding Kay, definitely cut from the same cloth as Ford’s Deckard. Although resolutely loyal to LAPD imperatives, Gosling’s often haunted gaze suggests a mounting dissatisfaction with the black/white extremes that govern his activities; we sense his growing recognition of shades of gray.

The one bright spot in Kay’s life is his girlfriend, Joi, played with radiant cheerfulness by Ana de Armas. She’s sweet and solicitous, embracing her role as comfort-bearer with loyal earnestness. She’s a complete contrast to Hoeks, who plays the replicant Luv with faux cordiality and a superficial smile that most definitely isn’t echoed by her cold, reptilian eyes. She feels ... dangerous.

Leto’s Niander Wallace is even worse: a sinister recluse in the Howard Hughes mold — an out-of-control scientist with a God complex — who holds court in Gassner’s deliciously baroque and grotesquely overstated rooms, many of them made more unsettling by rippling water elements (water being a rare commodity in these poisoned surroundings). Leto moves with a disturbingly slow step, the set of his body feeling less human than those of the replicants that surround him.

Given the degree to which Harrison Ford’s presence has been trumpeted during the media ramp-up to this film’s release, it’s no secret that Deckard does indeed resurface. To what degree, and in which context, is left to the viewing experience. Suffice to say that Ford honors his original performance, while adding an even deeper wariness reflected by the actor’s having aged pretty much the same amount as his character.

Villeneuve’s intelligent approach to the narrative notwithstanding, his film is seriously marred by profoundly slow pacing: too many long pauses on silent reaction shots; too many slow montages of California’s urban and rural wastelands; too many measured, weighty and protracted conversations between characters. The 163-minute running time is beyond self-indulgent; it approaches torpor, particularly during lengthy stretches when little of consequence takes place.

The original Blade Runner has momentum and excitement, both of which are sorely lacking here. Much as I hate to say it, this sequel is profoundly slow, at times even boring.

Matters aren’t helped by the so-called score co-credited to Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer, which is deplorable; it sounds like somebody repeatedly mashing — and sustaining — three dissonant notes at the low end of the world’s largest church organ. The result may rattle teeth, but it ain’t music. I longed for the far more melodic delicacy of the original film’s score, which makes this sequel’s inspired reprise of one Vangelis cue — at a key moment — a poignant (and welcome) relief.

Thoughtful, intelligent mainstream sci-fi films are rare in a cinematic environment laden with superheroes and Star Wars-style space operas, so Blade Runner 2049 deserves to be cherished in that respect. But even though it’s an honorable extension of its predecessor, Villeneuve would have been far better served by allowing editor Joe Walker to do his job, tightening the film by at least half an hour.

The result would have been vastly superior.

1 comment:

  1. Blade Runner was lightning in a bottle. I very much doubt that this movie is going to match up to it.
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