FULL BLEED: YOU CAN'T OUTRUN THE PAST BECAUSE IT'S ALREADY HERE
We'll start briefly in the past, since we're talking about BLADE RUNNER. Set in 2019 as imagined from 1982, the film is a portmanteau of the past and present and future, so much so that it broke science fiction and became the genre film that academics talked about from the period (well that and ALIEN, for a similar set of reasons.) It is, for good and for ill, an iconic motion picture, one that became a template for a kind of imagination of the future. It is also hopelessly intertwined with cyberpunk (though BLADE RUNNER itself is painfully sentimenal and cyberpunk states clearly that it is not; of course it is, but its sentiment is its own.) I remember hearing William Gibson (who was working on the equally iconic NEUROMANCER just before watching the film) saying something along the lines of "it [BLADE RUNNER] was like seeing someone taking pictures of the inside of my head."
This, presumably due to the wholesale collision of disparate aesthetic elements, neon, fog and rain, technology and a frenzied urban population that made LA feel like Kowloon Walled City or Tokyo more than the sprawling maze of city and industry that it was in '82. You can throw an Orientalist critique into this if you like, whether the art directors were looking at Tokyo and deciding that throwing Japanese elements was how you signified an overpopulated urban density. Or more likely, in 1982 that Japan was truly ascendant financially and its influence would only grow -- who saw their lost decade coming? Of course, this would get twisted into work like BLACK RAIN and RISING SUN later on in the 80s.
But even Phil Dick, who wrote DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP?, which was the germ of the original film, saw how Ridley Scott and the artists working with him were recasting not only Los Angeles, but the future itself. And even he approved (though he may well have been enchanted by the novelty of someone making a serious adaptation of one of his works, no matter how much it was deviated from.) I was what, 13 at the time, and didn't have the opportunity to ask him, having only recollection of how he described the rushes he'd seen while being interviewed on HOUR 25.
See, like STAR WARS, BLADE RUNNER is a film that there is a timeline both before and after. Unlike STAR WARS, BLADE RUNNER was a commercial flop. Maybe even embarrassingly so. And in general, even the critics who liked it said "I liked it, but..." only to go on to discuss any number of things that set them aback or bothered them. For the record, I'm in that camp. It's an essential film and design document. It reaches far more than it grasps in terms of being a document that examines the human condition. That said, it's an interesting starting place even if it doesn't answer the questions that it addresses (and honestly, what film sews up everything completely? Is it better that these questions remain open?)
Given all this, BLADE RUNNER is a daunting film to try and follow up on. Yes, there was that computer game from EA back in the early 90s, I want to say (never played it -- no interest. Though I'll note that OBSERVER from this year really tries to tap the aesthetic and sense of mishmast past and future. Unfortunately, it's just not a very good game.) Yes, there were the couple of books from K.W. Jeter, (author of THE GLASS HAMMER and INFERNAL DEVICES, which was patient zero for steampunk, and he even invented the term, jokingly). By all accounts, Mr. Jeter was as good a candidate to write a sequel as you could ask for. His sideways take on SF fit well with Dick's, and their careers overlapped for several years, and they were friends.) All that in the plus side, I never read his sequels (and make no mistake, they were sequels to the film world, not to Dick's novel.)
For all of BLADE RUNNER's asking the Big Questions, or at least pointing towards them, I never found their characters compelling enough to deserve sequel treatment. This is a hazard in film as allegory, where the allegory itself eats characterization. Deckard is a cipher. Maybe it's because he's a replicant (ha ha ha). Everyone in the film is there to play parts, not to be people. It's still a beautiful film and I love it to pieces and its influence on me can not be understated (for the record, I saw it first when I was 15, which is the perfect age to see it.) I honestly think it'd be better as silent+score, without dialogue at all. Heresy, I know.
So, a daunting film to follow up on, yes. Even in the age of Franchise that we find ourselves in now. After all, doesn't franchise love the middle? Doesn't it love a compelling world that you can tell open-ended stories in and if you never get around to finishing them, well, who really cares at all? You've built an audience and that's all that matters.
And, I'll admit. My first thought on hearing that BLADE RUNNER 2049 was a certainty was "Ugh." Even with the involvement of Denis Villeneuve (SICARIO I really liked, THE ARRIVAL I really did not) and later the involvement of Roger Deakins (he is great in everything he works on), I was "Ugh." The first trailer from around the beginning of the year came out and I was still "Ugh, but I'll probably see it." My daughter, who is 13 going on 22 wanted to see it after seeing previews, so I resigned myself to going. I expected there to be plenty to watch on the screen, but perhaps not much to chew on afterwards. I did not expect to like the film, even to love it.
Yet here we are.
BLADE RUNNER 2049 certainly delivered on spectacle, on a visual level. I'll attribute a lot of this to Roger Deakins' work. As a friend observed, BR 2049 is the most tactile film of the year. Everywhere there's texture, even on the insubstantial and ubiquitous holograms (both public and private.) Everything has been re-used or recycled, everything is worn. The street has found its use for things and doesnt't throw them away, to mutilate a phrase. Nothing is clean or tidy, but for a few exceptions (those having to do with extreme wealth or removal from the normal order, Wallace's spaces and Deckard's respectively.) Even the institution of the LAPD is grimy right after its been cleaned. Digital data is riddled with artifacts both subtle and gross. K/Joe's overcoat is scratched and beaten (an interesting dovetail into last week's discussion--perhaps I was thinking of it unconsciously?) There's information in all of these examples, but a lot of that information is just a step above static, right?
Of course, this is something that the sequel has in common with the original. It's inescepable. But in BR 2049, texture comes out to the forefront. There's a difference in how its addressed. I want to say it has to do with larger light sources. Where the original seems to take place in sunset or an unending night, but for the climax, BR 2049 walks out into the daylight, a sort of glaucous and overexposed ambience. Yes, there's plenty of shots of neon-lit streets in the rain. I'm sure people would have complained were that not so.
I suppose I should address the callouts that the sequel made to the original. And some of these I'm ambivalent about. Are these fan-service, or a recognition that these shots say what they say and this is the best way to undertake them? The closeup of the iris, for instance. An iconic shot from the original that is deliberately blown-out and more contrasty in the sequel. We're setting the stage differently. One describes the light and air and the other describes the light on skin and all the information being conveyed there. The original's was shot rolling over the industrial hellscape (inspired by the refineries in Carson, just south of LA and a fixture of drives through the southland of my childhood) and the update was taken from a rolling landscape of solar and protein farms. Different infrastructure, same sense of expansion run amok, completely different texturally.
Also a quick note that the original starts and stays in Los Angeles, 2019. We see it right there on the screen. The second one expands to California, 2049. Has Los Angeles expanded to take up the whole state or is it simple recognition of the land footprint that the infrastructure that a city needs is tremendous and possessive? Even San Diego is finally subsumed into the environs of Los Angeles, if only as a municipal dump (which buries the SD/LA rival quite literally and finally, much to SD's detriment.) Think for a moment about the amount of information in any of these sceneries. There's beautiful and subtly repeating geometries in the solar farms, a crazy-quilt sense to the plastic-sheeted liquid greenhouses of the protein farms, an endlessly chaotic terrain of rust and steel in the dumps of San Diego. But they're not neon-lit and rainy. They're often blown-out under a silver dome of perpetual overcast. We don't get the feeling of postcard sunshine at any point other than in simulation, in Dr. Stelline's (Carla Juri) lab/VRdrome. Hell, it's about the only organic green we get to see the whole film, and it, of course, is hyper-real, in flux from moment to moment, because it's being designed on the fly.
An interesting aside, Dr. Stelline's advice about crafting memories that work is about how I go about writing. I do write stuff aside from nonfiction, you know (such as the recently-released "Through the Limbs.") She talks about crafting impressions, foregoing obsessive detail. Maybe have a handful of them that lodge in the brain and get stuck, creating a feeling. But simply creating detail willy-nilly, or because that makes a thing feel more real, because obviously it would take too much to be created, well, that's not how I can work. It does make an interesting and knowing counter-melody to the detail-ridden scenes in BR 2049, no? Though it seems to me that for all of the detail to watch, there is an underlying minimalism to the designs of things, particularly in replicant-slavemaster Niander Wallace's headquarters. There is nearly nothing there on the inside. The whole place is an underpopulated art installation or library, with sections so old and disused that the doors have to be forced open. But that is all by design. For his power and industry, Wallace has created empty structures, hollow and without center (much like himself.)
Wallace's building may loom over the darkened zigguarat of the dead Tyrell Corporation, but it's a place described by negative space as much as anything. Even on the outside, it's nothing more than impossibly huge black arcology walls described by light bouncing off them and surrounding them, as if the whole thing is a phantom itself. Because Wallace himself is a black hole of need. That much came across in Jared Leto's performance, which was fine and needed. The rest of that was, well, not to my taste. Though I did find it interesting that they seemed to pattern him after another PKD creation, that being Palmer Eldritch (of the THREE STIGMATA OF...). And I'll also say that here I found the echoes of the first film to be more a distraction than enhancement. Of course, I'm really not a fan of Leto's antics on or off-camera, so I'll allow that to have been an influencing factor. I know, critics aren't supposed to care about this and only worry about the text. I also never called myself a critic.
In general, I found the other performances to be convincing, even at times moving. Though again, they were hobbled by a need to fill a story role, it seemed. This is a shortcoming, sure, but it's not a devastating one. I'd even argue that on this front, the sequel surpassed the original, by and large (though it's tough to compare to Rutger Hauer's fractured performance of a synthetic man trying to confront the realities of his creation and his questionable actions in the face of that. Shades of Shelley!) And honestly, Ryan Gosling's (he being K/Joe) sense of place and eventual disconnecteness from place worked for me. As did Ana de Arma's performance as the insubstantial (at first, though that changed) hologram Joi (one of many at least hinted at in the film, though we only see the one.)
Can we talk for a moment about the kind of world that has synthetic people who live out among other, presumably "normal" humans? And in that world there's a subset of people (both "normal" and "synthetic") who seek out not only companionship from other "synthetic" and even "digital" beings? There's a hierarchy hinted at, even made explicit in dialogue. And while we don't see normal to normal (dropping the scare quotes) romantic/sexual relationships, we do see them in normal to synthetic and synthetic to synthetic and synthetic to digital. Make no mistake, replicant/synthetics (as a whole, it's assumed) look down on purely digital beings. There's a falling power dynamic, from human to replicant to hologram. (I'd even argue that there's another level, that being enhanced, which would be above human as shown by Wallace, who uses Gibsonian microsoft-type implants and external drones, as well as his vast wealth, to increase his personal power--not to mention running a planet-spanning business empire, which is still not enough for him.)
Mariette (played by Mackenzie Davis) is a replicant. She pursues K/Joe on a physical level, presumably because that is what she was literally designed to do, on the orders of *another* replicant, Freysa (played by Hiam Abbass), because K/Joe has information that a replicant faction is pursuing. Yeah, that's a mouthful, and tangled. But even in that tangle, Mariette recognizes that Joe has a digital girlfriend/companion and sneers "Oh, I see. You don't like real girls." Hierarchy. And this all hints at much more complicated territories to try and map out, but are only sketched in at best. Mariette goes on to further diminish Joi, "I've been inside you. There's less there than you think." This after a love scene where she and Joi sync up and Joe is able to have "real" physical love with her/s. So is the hierarchy one of substantiality? Autonomy? It's explicit that both replicants and Joi-type holograms are created to be compliant, but one is DNA-constructed and the other is digits.
And, to be fair, BR 2049 is not set on answering these questions, though it at moments does question whether or not the question has merit. "Is that a real dog?" Joe asks the reclusive Deckard, after tracking him to an abandoned Las Vegas, noting that Deckard's only companion is one endearingly-ugly canine. Deckard's reply: "I don't know. Ask him."
Does the question matter? It obviously does at some level, but where's the floor? And that is a wonderfully PKD moment, at least for me.
Yes, Joi is a digital being. Just photons dancing around the room, driven by a complicated set of unseen algorithms. Of course, you could make the same argument about anything that you see in BLADE RUNNER 2049 or any other film or piece of art. Are they real? Or is the reality of things only something that happens when the pieces are assembled in the viewer's brain and feeling is drawn out? Or is all this a needless distraction? Where's the floor?
When Joi is killed (and I mean killed because the information that she is made of is stored on a device that Joe carries around, a device that is smashed under the boot-heel of another replicant, in a scene that is again, complicated and rife with suggestion that the film does not make explicit) it's no big deal, right? I mean, she's only a digital genie. One of billions. There's advertisments that we see in-film. After her death, we see a simulacra of her, projected as a ten-story high hologram, nude and an object of exaggerated desire. Joe could go to an electronics shop and order another copy, right? Just get the settings right and Joi would live again.
Only she wouldn't. Joe watched her die. Those pathways in his synthetic brain won't light up the same way again. You can watch him recognize this in himself, fight with himself over it. It's a great moment, and one, to me, that defuses "she's just a hologram" argument. This is not to absolve BR 2049 of problematic/complicated gender and race relationships. (As an aside, you can't put Wood Harris in two minutes of a movie and not make me mad that he's not in the rest of it. I know studio economic realities are what they are, but still. That's just not fair.) There is agency on the part of the women in BR 2049, but it's not cleanly executed. Perhaps it can't be, perhaps it has to be worked around the peripheries.
Speaking of peripheries, we spend all this time on Earth, in Los Angeles/California. And we see that it's not a great place. It's overcrowded, hiding behind a titanic sea wall, underneath that pewter dome of clouds. The exterior world is quietly nightmarish, devoid of trees and vegetation (aside from a poppy offered at a gravesite--another item for which there is umdoubtedly a story, but one that we are not privvy to.) Earth is a place you get away from. Who lives there? Replicants and those physically unfit to make the journey (or perhaps labeled as undesirable, as arguable with the character of Sebastian in the original and Dr. Stelline in the sequel) and presumably those with the resources to get off Earth have. What's so great about staying? What's with the primacy of Earth, other than a deeply-buried conservatism to stay on the rock that you started with? I am curious about Off-World. Is it cosmopolitan? Monolithic? Diverse? Is what we see of Earth predominantly white due to this or to the kind of inertia that often plagues fantasy/SF when it comes to envisioning worlds other than our own? I dunno. It's not in the text.
I could keep going. I could talk about warm and cold in the original/sequel, talk about how neither is a future of our world, but their own fictional stubs, talk about the survival and tenacity of brands, about how different conceptions of architectural brutalism and scale drive each film, and how we can't look at one without seeing our memories of the other (which is why I loved watching this film with my daughter and talking to her about it because she's seen the first one, but I know the second one had a deeper impact upon her and probably always will--such is the passing of time.)
In short, I certainly think that BLADE RUNNER 2049 is worth seeing. If you can still catch it even on fake IMAX, then it's worthwhile. There's a lot to take in, a lot to think about, faults and all. And honestly, it's interesting for what it doesn't answer, what questions it drags out of the viewer.
Will it survive the test of time? I'd like to think so. I'd like to think that it will be read of as more than just an installment in an ongoing franchise. But as noted above, even BLADE RUNNER didn't remake the world when it first came out. It was an expensive and lush production of an intellectual science fiction script that didn't find a broad audience in its first run. Not a shock. And it's ultimately not shocking that a sequel that in so many ways works the same territory didn't set the world on fire this time.