Less Human Than Human

One line of thought. Probably spurious. On seeing Denis Villeneuve’s ARRIVAL right after the 2016 presidential election, I was struck by how it felt like an optimistic statement — despite our stupid differences, humankind manage cooperate among ourselves and with the strolling heptapods — a movie aimed at that branch of the multiverse where Hillary won. BLADE RUNNER 2049, arriving hot on its heels (how did he manage that?) — with its polluted, post-nuclear police state, is aimed squarely at the Trump Parallel. Since escapism sells, it was ARRIVAL that was the hit.

It’s like somebody said about Kubrick: 2001 was the future we could have had; CLOCKWORK ORANGE was what we were going to get.

As shot by Roger Deakins — excuse me, Roger A. Deakins (where did the A come from?) — 2049 looks really good — I mean, REALLY good — and the performances are excellent, with a very committed Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford and an interesting bunch of relative newcomers supporting them. Poor Robin Wright has to find a new way to play an ice queen, but ever resourceful, she does it. And the story is OK — it avoids the Damon Lindelof approach of simply reconfiguring the original elements and rehashing them out of sequence with the roles switched. But we were vaguely engaged without being particularly excited by the movie.

We’d just seen a bunch of movie trailers and they were ALL for sequels, two of them superhero franchises, one of them the JUMANJI reboot (which seemed to show the most originality, grading on a curve). And BLADE RUNNER 2049 is a superior sort of belated sequel — it’s largely faithful to its source, and not only reproduces familiar design elements (the recurring Mayan kitchen) but concocts new ones that seem quite in keeping as well as being beautiful in themselves (dustbowl Vegas, Dave Bautista’s brown lounge). It has a precise sense of the original’s sick, slightly kinky violence, gialloesque, chilling and inventive. But we didn’t care too much.

There are clever touches — the ads for Atari and Pan-Am that “date” the original film are repeated, and a “Product of CCCP” logo confirms that this is an alternate future, so that it doesn’t matter that Leon’s incept date was 2017 in the first movie, and yet artificial Brion Jameses are not available in the shops this Christmas. The Peugeot and Sony signs are pure product placement, though — I only hope the well-documented (by me, right now) Curse of Blade Runner will swoop down and send those corporations spiralling into administration the way it did to the games company and the airline. But clever touches don’t necessarily make us care about a movie’s characters or story or even themes.

Impossible to explain such a visceral thing, and I’m not certain our response is of any use to anyone else — best to provisionally accept the positive things listed above and see it for yourself. It’s worth seeing.

I guess one problem is that the movie does seem to aim for a fairly straightforward kind of emotional appeal in its ending, and that somehow didn’t come off for us. And even if it had, I think it would have been less interesting than the original movie. Ridley Scott’s films tries halfheartedly to be about Rick Deckard but comes to life when dealing with Roy Batty, a much more original hero with a more pressing problem to solve. The fact that his methods are “questionable” just makes him more interesting. And while the movie’s attempts to find an emotional arc for Deckard are so ineffectual that the subsequent director’s cuts (two of them?) can chop off his last scene and nobody misses it, the emotions it rouses for Batty are, though conflicted, huge and operatic — that’s why I used a frame grab of the elevator scene in my previous BR post. Batty has just killed his father — God — and is breathing deeply of the strange new possibilities around him — while at the same time falling, falling, away from the heavens.

To get anywhere near that, 2049 would have to have been about its own most interesting, scary and transgressive character, Luv, ferociously played by Sylvia Hoeks. But she is very far from being even the chief antagonist — she’s a henchwoman for Jared Leto. And Leto’s wacko billionaire is the film’s most hackneyed element, and nonsensical to boot — always complaining that replicants are too difficult to manufacture, while randomly killing perfectly good replicants every time we see him.

The first film is about all kinds of stuff, but as Batty’s story resonates most deeply, it seems to mainly be about mortality. The second film seems to be almost straightforwardly about slavery — an important subject in the first movie too, but a less universal one. And in the original, since the replicants are escapees when we first meet them, slavery is relegated to backstory and is less an active theme. Death is the problem. In this sequel, our hero is a slave — maybe we need more convincing information about how he breaks his programming? But the story of his gradual growth beyond the limits imposed on him should be touching. I do actually hold out hope that this may kick in more on a second viewing.

2049 is a kind of replicant movie — beautiful, complex, elegant, closely resembling what it’s modelled on and undeniably made with enormous skill — but crucially lacking some important, indefinable inner ingredient. If the first film is cold — and it is — but possessed of some kind of weird, nameless Wagnerian emotion of its own — the sequel tries to do something commendable but less interesting — tell a touching human story — and doesn’t really quite manage it. (The two times I did feel some emotion: early on when we see Gosling’s K being the victim of prejudice; when he loses his cyber-partner; when he sees her porno billboard Doppelganger. Which suggests that Ford’s excellent performance is essentially a distraction from what should be Gosling’s movie.)

“I suppose that was the best BLADE RUNNER sequel we could ask for,” mused Fiona, doubtfully. But we never asked for one. “Well, maybe if they’d hired the OTHER writer,*” I mused, just as doubtfully.

*David Peoples, co-writer of BLADE RUNNER, also co-wrote THE UNFORGIVEN and 12 MONKEYS. Hampton Fancher, co-writer of BLADE RUNNER and 2049, is a former flamenco dancer once married to Sue Lyon, which is also pretty cool.

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10 Responses to “Less Human Than Human”

  1. Thanks for the review! Much of this chimes with me. I’m in an odd position as I’d only watched the original film for the first time a few days prior. I’d always associated Blade Runner very strongly with it’s aesthetic and assumed this was why it was so beloved, was pleasantly surprised by the remarkable elegance and emotional clarity of its story. The struggle of Roy Batty provides some soaring anti-heroics and the structure of the plot is precise and clean. There is a kind of coldness about the film, as you say, and the simplicity of Batty and Decker’s arcs against one another adds to this.

    The newer film was really, really enjoyable but I think it’s a shame that that same narrative elegance didn’t seem to be a goal this time around. They drill down on aesthetic and do a brilliant job, but the increased complexity of the plot lessens the sense of anomie and leaves the world and it’s story feeling less of a piece with one another. It feels more like a piece of conscious worldbuilding, as opposed to the sparsely implied world of Batty’s Tanhauser Gate.

    Thought Gosling was fantastic though, really tremendous. Still very excited to see what Villneuve does with Dune.

  2. It looks very much like BR2049’s underperformance will mean we never get to see Villeneuve’s Dune. It would be a brave studio that backed a giant sc-fi epic remake or a film that flopped, directed by a guy who had just done a giant sci-fi epic that flopped.

    But maybe if he gets to do one of his other projects in development and THAT does well, he’ll get another chance.

  3. I did not know it underperformed, I’m sorry and really surprised to hear that. Poor old Dune it seems to be cursed. I still love the Lynch film but it’s a minority position!

  4. Apart from the multiple VOs, I’ve come to love Lynch’s Dune. It’s other problem seems to be an hour-long first act (or longer?) and a ten minute second act, which looks like the spot where shortening has occurred…

  5. Yeah the structure is extremely screwy I’d love to see it without the cuts. Dune is such a fascinating world and Lynch translated it beautifully although, yes, the VO’s are bad. Always glad to learn of others who enjoy it!

  6. It’s actually a bit like the first Blade Runner, in that all the attempts at clarifying the plot just make audiences more confused. Whereas just being imersed in the world(s) created would be immensely pleasing.

    The new BR has a wonky opening text as well, telling us a lot of stuff about farming that then has no role to play in the story…

  7. I was impressed by how they used the high resolution of IMAX for some scenes and for scale, though I thought keeping much of the film in a almost monochrome got monotonous. Pacing is definitely a problem especially at the length of over two and a half hours sans closing credits. Could not make any sense of the Leto character. Ford’s appearance in the last third for me was where the film finally kicked into gear. But rather like 2010 following 2001, the problem may have been the loss of ambiguity…. everything got spelled out despite the detective story structure of the plot. The original fascinated people and demanded multiple viewings since what was shown could be interpreted in a variety of ways. My favorite sequence though was in the ruined Vegas lounge with the holograms of Elvis and Marilyn and show girls flickering in and out…. I would have loved to stay in that space longer.

  8. Yes, the holo-lounge was very nicely done.

    I might get a whole other post out of the plot holes, inconsistencies and nonsenses. The detective part of the story suffers from redundant scenes (Olmos) and the mystery not making sense. (Why, finally does he have that memory? Apart from to serve as a clue so we can have this film?)

  9. Hamilton Fancher also made the very good “Minus Man” and David Peoples the interesting “Salute to the Jugger” with Rutger Hauer.

  10. Yes, but it’s Hampton, not Hamilton. The Third!

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