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Film Review: Blade Runner 2049

Blade Runner 2049 (2017; Directed by Denis Villeneuve)

The first thing worth knowing about Blade Runner 2049, and quite frankly the last thing as well, is that it is incredibly beautiful. Directed by Quebeςois prestige-film dynamo Denis Villeneuve and shot by the venerable English cinematographical master Roger Deakins, the 30-plus-years-hence sequel to Ridley Scott’s seminal, influential, and lingeringly divisive 1982 science-fiction opus replicates and indeed surpasses its feats of visual invention, forward-looking production design, and neo-noir neon-infused chiaroscuro mood lighting. As recent James Bond series highlight Skyfall demonstrated, when Roger Deakings is armed with a blockbuster budget, he delivers stunningly-lit images of striking, memorable magnificence. Indeed, Skyfall‘s knock-out sequence of Bond taking out a foe at night in a Shanghai skyscraper with a blue neon jellyfish reflecting off of its glass facades seems now like a dress rehearsal for Deakins’ similar work with the high contrasts of harsh artificial light and deep, encompassing darkness in this film.

I could expend hundreds, perhaps thousands of words describing Blade Runner 2049‘s most gorgeous moments: pinnacles must include a pursuit and fight in an abandoned casino ballroom while a projected hologram Elvis and a chorus of showgirls flicker in and out onstage, the wavy, dappling light filtering through an artificial lake into the Brutalist/pharaonic/neo-German Expressionist premises of a powerful corporation, and an emotionally-charged encounter with a towering, pink-hued advertisement of a naked woman. But the slowly-enfolding wonder of Villeneuve’s and Deakins’s alchemical imagery in Blade Runner 2049, which for my money surpasses Scott’s often turgid and borderline-pretentious original in nearly every vital way, is how it functions as a poetic encapsulation and artistic fulfilment of the film’s themes and ideas. One might rightly contend that this sequel’s philosophical depth doesn’t approach that of the 1982 film, which located a crisis of identity and human authenticity in a depersonalized dystopia of the near-future and grounded it in classical myth and Freudian psychology. But like Arrival, Villeneuve’s science-fiction triumph of last year, Blade Runner 2049 intelligently and sometimes movingly synthesizes intellectual concepts and emotional swells into a powerful work of cinema that understands and advances the notion that these seemingly opposing impulses are in truth two sides of the same cosmic coin.

Blade Runner 2049 is the latest in a recent spate of Hollywood franchise sequels/reboots to incorporate the elapsed decades between the previous and current installments into the textual narrative itself. Much of the expository work covering the 30 years between Scott’s Blade Runner (set in 2019) and Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 is achieved by an opening title card: the rebellious replicants – bioengineered humanoids intended as slave and servant labour on Earth and in off-world colonies – encountered by Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) in the original film were discontinued after persistent revolts and a catastrophic social, biological and technological infrastructure failure known as “the blackout” a year or two after Deckard escaped Los Angeles with Rachael (Sean Young), the replicant he had fallen in love with.

The bankrupted creators of the replicants, the Tyrell Corporation, was bought up by Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) and his Wallace Corporation, whose wealth is based on world-saving mass agriculture technology. The Wallace Corporation has resumed production of a new series of replicants programmed strictly to obey their masters. Wallace himself has one such right-hand servant, a steely enforcer named Luv (Silvia Hoeks), and another Nexus-9 replicant, K (Ryan Gosling), toils at Deckard’s old “blade runner” job with the LAPD, tracking down and “retiring” the remaining rogue Nexus-8s at the behest of his human superior, Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright). During one such call at a California farming facility maintained alone by a Nexus-8 named Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista), K discovers a series of clues leading to a replicant-related “miracle” connected to Deckard and Rachael – and, K begins to suspect, intimately connected to himself – that is of revolutionary import to ever-tense human-replicant relations.

This summary doesn’t come close to encapsulating the imaginative and symbolically-charged world-expansion that Villeneuve engages in here, working from a screenplay by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green. From the opening wide-shot panorama of K’s squad car flying over seemingly endless solar power plants to the dark smoggy sprawl of future L.A. to the post-nuclear, radioactive-fallout-strewn ghost-town of Las Vegas to a gigantic post-industrial junkyard in the ruins of San Diego sifted through in a neo-Dickensian workhouse by thousands of orphaned children, this is a grand nightmarescape of structural decay and physical alienation evocative of social, political, and psychological dislocation.

The protagonist K, his replicant status certain in contrast to the continued ambiguity about Deckard’s true nature, embodies this dislocation. K was built to destroy his own kind and is reviled as a “skinjob” by the humans he is meant to be protecting; even his superior Joshi, although she values his ability and shows a modicum of personal interest, ultimately conceives of him as her servant or her trained pet (“Good boy,” she tells him at one point, like a dog who has fetched successfully). His only non-cop-shop personal relationship is with a Wallace-manufactured female holographic companion named Joi (Ana de Armas), whom he cares for dearly but whose reciprocation of those feelings resides ambivalently in between the programming of her corporate designers and tantalizing hints of sentience and self-determined love. This ambivalence is delicately poised in K’s pre-climactic meeting with the monumental ad for Joi, which might have served to dishearten him at a critical juncture in his quest with its suggestions that their connection was artificially constructed but instead seems to stiffen his spine with a fond reminder of the tenderness of that connection (Gosling plays exquisitely to the ambiguity in this moment, mind you).

K’s feelings for the simulation Joi echoes Deckard’s love for the replicant Rachael, which is at the core of the plot and is sorely tested by the blind, ambitious Machiavellian Wallace (this is too good a film to be derailed by any one performance, especially one consisting of a mere two scenes, and if the usually preening Leto isn’t great, he at least damps it down a bit). When the detective K begins to suspect that he himself might have been the product of this love, his existence gains a measure of significance; when this measure is wiped away, an underground revolutionary replicant movement restores it in altered form, with the politicized promise of sacrifice for the cause of liberation. But even these interlinks are suggested to be coincidences of programming, breadcrumbs implanted in his mind by a gifted designer of memories, Dr. Stelline (Carla Juri). Perhaps this was done intentionally as part of a wider plan, perhaps not.

Free will and determinism, being born and being built, a sentient being with a soul and a self-aware machine with a pre-set functional purpose. These are the dichotomous themes of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, and of Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 as well. Their sharp opposing contrasts and their permeable bleeding edges are the subject of both films, a metaphorical focal point made aesthetically manifest in their visual design and in their intertextual referentiality. In the movie-long unfolding of Deakins’s stunning cinematic imagery, his starkly-delineated contrasts of light and dark lose this firm definition, and in the process gain something more indefinable and compellingly ambiguous. In the way that, according to screenwriter Fancher, K moves from being a sort of rule-bound instruction manual to an embodied poem through his experiences, the film itself undertakes a similar journey towards poetry.

This poetry is infused into Blade Runner 2049 with a literal (and literary) reference to Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, including an excerpt of a poem discovered by the novel’s protagonist and repurposing it as part of K’s “baseline” debriefing programming process. A kind of post hoc version of the original Blade Runner‘s Voigt-Kampff test used to identify replicants, the baseline test isolates K and repeats back phrases from the Pale Fire poem (“a system of cells interlinked within / Cells interlinked within cells interlinked”) as well as confrontational, difficult elaborations on those phrases, expecting to compel and maintain emotionless replies and a lack of empathy and engagement on the part of the replicant. K fails at this ongoing technical indoctrination if even his microreactions are hesitant, if his experiences imprint themselves upon his perceptible self.

How can we not be changed, not merely in our perspective or reactions but in our fundamental state of being, by exposure to the world, to love and pain, joy and suffering? The human (or human-like replicant) self is produced and moulded by the stimuli it encounters, formed like rocks under erosion by emotional and intellectual forces beyond its control or resistance. The irony of employing Nabokov’s poem as a fixed-point calibration for replicants is that its conclusion offers a harbour-in-the-storm image of stalwart beauty standing athwart the depersonalized blackness: “Against the dark, a tall white fountain played.” Blade Runner 2049 crafts tall white fountains amidst its dystopian dark, and provides a heartening illustration of how deriving meaning from those comforting structures, which gain significance and dimension of feeling through our engagement with them and not through the separate intentions embedded in their design and manufacture, shapes our identity amidst the unceasing torrent of a hard world.

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