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Blade Runner 2049

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Sometimes, to love someone, you’ve got to be a stranger.

In 2049, the future is bleaker than ever. Where Blade Runner explored the consequences of endless environmental destruction, 2049 dives headlong into total ecological collapse, its mundane daily consequences such as bowls full of harvested protein, and their technological solutions – mind-altering holograms that disguise how filthy and bland reality has become.

Where the former portrayed global urban sprawl, the latter imagines global desert, sea level rise, abandonment, decay and poly-tunnels that trace the horizon, farming billions of squirming larvae to provide aforementioned protein (few screen works have explored alternative human responses to climate change – the planet-preserving self-imprisonment of humans in Charlie Brooker’s deeply sinister Fifteen Million Merits springs to mind).

While the old considered the essence of humanity or sentience in a world of synthetic lifeforms (and concluded that the prize of longevity was illusory, since self-awareness and intensified mortality qualified a Replicant as more human than human), the new extends the philosophical study into reproductive capability (the living defined as creators of life; the prize sought by synthetic lifeforms – fertility).

These are all fascinating science fiction thought experiments rich in possibility and extending delightfully the material and conceptual universe of ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’. As a work of science fiction, naturally, 2049 is an expression of our current imagination. The Blade Runner of the 1980s envisaged the flying car, the sky-devouring monolith, and imperceptible robot. 2049 springs from a world of state murder by drone strike, ubiquitous smart phones containing AI companions and a regressive tendency to undermine feminist progress with increasing sexual objectification of women in many aspects of culture. Of course it then extends these in its imagined future.

Among the most kinetic and shocking scenes portrays the casual and indifferent use of drone technology to murder a crowd of assailants with graphic consequences. But the drones are part of every person’s life in 2049, as all-purpose utility extensions of other gadgets like the evolved flying car (a Peugot, no less – glad to see the erroneous corporate sponsors have not disappeared).

Smart phones are now holographic, but they can become extended with purchased plug-in AI, now developed to the extent that Siri has become a physically-present and largely-convincing woman called Joi. We’ll get into the problems with this character later, but this is a fascinating concept to explore, not unlike it has been in Spike Jonze’s Her. In the latter, we navigated the emotional and ontological problems of loving an entity which is arguably not sentient. In 2049 there is no need to question the sentience of Joi. It is never in doubt that to the protagonist she is sentient, alive, a being with no less authenticity or validity than himself. However he is constantly reminded that he is not human, is repeatedly degraded and openly hated, and clearly feels more kindred to the AI, while entirely aware that they both denied humanity. Thus, he has a nurturing and benevolent relationship with the virtual life-form, treating her as alive and mortal and valid, that stands in contrast to the humans’ treatment of himself. Intriguingly, when the concept of a portable holographic projector makes Joi free to leave the home (an interesting transformation of the concept of liberation of women from domestic servitude) and it becomes necessary to fully disconnect her from her local back-up data, she too attains mortality and becomes more human than human herself – though in 2049, mortality is less of a hallmark of humanity than fertility, which certainly remains denied to Joi.

There are many moments of implied sadness, when the hero is confronted with the unreality of Joi – her infinite reproducibility, her digital essence and her origin as a consumer product that patently manipulates lonely clients into purchasing her companionship – her status as a commodity, rendered one hundred feet tall and fluorescent pink for the titillation of passing commuters. I felt sorry for Gosling, and identified with his desperate loneliness and search for companionship in the only meagre forms it might exist for him (while some audience members seem to judge him harshly for his employment of a domestic slave). Sadly for me, I found Joi to be one-dimensional, partly as a consequence of her character being engineered simply to please the protagonist, partly due to the flatness of her actor’s delivery. But then perhaps this is appropriate in portraying AI women who are rendered dull, compliant, predictable, to please their male owners. At least that was satisfyingly satirical in itself (though somehow it has managed to raise ire among female and feminist audiences who feel there is a complete absence of female agency, perspective and depth in 2049 – which is entirely true, but after all, that is a deliberate point in a science-fiction world that seems to remain largely patriarchal, limited by the imaginations of men who own everything including the capacity for fertility).

That brings us to the portrayal of gender in 2049. Gender equality cannot be said to have simply reversed as though in an historical dialectical pivot – the situation appears more opaque. That is likely a consequence of the fact the film is not concerned with exploring gender in any depth, nor imagining the future situation for the various genders. We see echoes of present trends in objectification – sexualisation of products and their advertising – gigantic pornographic sculptures adorn one setting latterly in 2049, echoing the colossi of the ancient past but with the explicit porn style of contemporary culture – and we see the fantasy of female servitude persisting. But 2049 is far more preoccupied with the relationship between forms of life, not the interrelationship of their sub-categories. There is a more developed depiction of how synthetic life relates to human, how artificial intelligence relates to synthetic life, and so forth. It seems petty to fixate on the lack of female perspectives or ideas about gender in a film not about these topics, and with male writing, direction, cinematography. Should we expect them to unpick their own experiences that inform how the film was made, in order to please everyone?

When looking back the screenplay appears to sparkle on the page, with the kind of minimalism, naturalism and subtle metaphysical inflection that was so satisfying in Hampton Fancher’s original. The trouble is that with this editor, the aphoristic epithets hang maybe too long in the air, become ponderous, are spoken with an obvious formality that once again condescends the audience’s intelligence; or perhaps this cast, their diction and panoply of flat formless Californian accents, simply cannot conceal the habitually esoteric quality of the dialogue as did those various authentically-noir gruff voices of the original.

The two most egregious examples are Robin Wright Penn’s Lt. Joshi and Ana de Armas’s Joi. Both of their lines read very well but simply do not scan when performed by these actors. While it seems plausible that the latter, as an artificial intelligence, might speak with such affectation, this certainly is not so for the tough-as-nails police chief Joshi. From M. Emmet Walsh’s rasping Bryant these lines might have scanned, with any clunkiness lost in a casual throw-away cadence; here Penn’s barren, earnest, glassy dullness delivers instead a mixture of on-the-nose exposition, contemporary schlock action-movie bravado, and pretension. “The World is built in a wall that separates kind. Tell either side there’s no wall… you bought a war.” A character who constructs a clause like the former (a philosophy or theology major, perhaps) certainly would not conceive of the latter (perhaps more suited to a vest-topped Gerard Butler hero). “There is an order to things. That’s what we do here. We keep order” – another nearly identical example. With the right casting, these lines might be slipped into booze-addled grumbles and their conceit carried off elegantly, but unfortunately the casting was wrong.

Turning to Joi, it is hard to fault the performance of de Armas, who manages to capture the qualities of an insubstantial yet captivating AI companion, though at times she struggles against being exploited as the script’s exposition and re-cap scapegoat. Why are we looking at a series of letters on the screen? A small niche of the audience is perhaps aware of the abbreviations for nucleobases in DNA. For the rest, let Joi explain (indirectly but oh-so-obviously). “4 symbols make a man. A, T, G and C. I am only two. 1 and 0.” Perhaps that statement might have seemed profound were it without the supplicant and cloying delivery. Sean Young’s Rachel would have expressed the sentiment matter-of-factly, but her eyes would have betrayed anxiety or despair. de Armas reads it like a high-school student reciting derivative poetry she believes to be awfully insightful. But perhaps this is appropriate for a character programmed to please her largely male-heterosexual owners.

Then consider Wallace, who speaks as though his is the word of God – and whose lines are justifiably the most Delphic. Jared Leto takes a good stab at a thankless task, and the messianic Jesus-meets-Jobs aesthetics dress up a two-dimensional character that performs a sinister service to the plot but without the nuance of, say, Joe Turkel’s original Tyrell – a far more sage, yet vulnerable, fallible and believable Creator. As a simpler, and far nastier, character, the Wallace monologues work well, and read like something in keeping with the spirit of the source material. It is entirely implausible, though, when he decides to depart with the logic of the film’s world simply to rush closure of the plot’s uninteresting third act. “You don’t know what pain is yet. You will learn.” The kind of statement suited to a Marvel or Bad Robot villain – entirely forgetting the memory-extraction tools obviously available to Wallace.

Often, the story would be better told and the characters better served by simply cutting out the dialogue all-together and allowing actions and images to speak for themselves. “Sometimes to love someone, you gotta be a stranger”. Ford has the talent to express this sentiment in the expression of his face, given the right context. Why, after all, must Deckard justify his morally sound yet conflicted decisions to a stranger? If it were made obvious that he is recalling the necessary loss of someone so cherished, his eyes could deliver the line so much more affectingly. As it stands, the scene invokes next to no emotion.

One can’t help but imagine this has something to do with the necessity to engage with a massive audience (mandatory to recoup the kind of gargantuan budget this film required) and the difficulty many among that audience will have following the story as it is, let alone with even less explanation. It might have been elevated as a work of art if it were that much more opaque, ambiguous, unexplained, implied and open to interpretation (though, mercifully, the exact nature of Deckard remains ambiguous). Certain scenes feel like they’ve been included purely to hold our hand. And the editing seems determined to make everything awfully obvious – even when in fact the story involves a complete non-sequitur (Dr. Stelline’s sudden appearance, immediate unnatural familiarity and explicative monologue which still somehow fails to signpost her subsequent significance).

Despite making such concessions to the mass market, the audience member without a good knowledge of the original film will be left still rather confused – unaware that while now it is illegal to implant human memories in a Replicant, once it was attempted successfully – oblivious to the echoes of an earlier personal identity crisis – confused about what exactly a Replicant is, engineered from lab-grown living tissues. This in itself constitutes a solid justification for the admittedly restrained passages of exposition.

I cannot, however, find justification for the tension-free and insignificant third act. This crams in an opening for a sequel (the completely inconsequential nascent rebel army, no doubt mandated by Sony) and ties up Deckard’s subplot with an unnecessary, inconsequential and potentially reckless reunion. Deckhard himself does absolutely nothing in the final scenes, simply present in the background with no agency whatsoever. Meanwhile we watch Gosling’s K engage in further savage combat with ever diminishing levels of investment – there is no hint of jeopardy for the hero, and no conflict within the audience given total lack of sympathy for his nemesis. Hoeks’ Luv is brilliantly performed and scripted, providing most of the film’s chilling moments, though too little time is spent addressing her motivation – resentment of her inhuman absence of fertility – and so by the time we see her facing her mortality we couldn’t care less about her.

The combat feels impactful by virtue of blunt sound design, though its editing falls into the same trap of most Hollywood action sequences, with often minimal visual impact – showy and banal demonstrations of mediocre martial arts skills cut at all the wrong moments and missing the power of every impact. One exception is the opening sequence, which showcases the extreme punishment our hero K can sustain (and which would have been entirely adequate to confirm for us his Replicant nature, without the subsequent painfully obvious dialogue) with great elegance in the cut.

The cinematography is ceaselessly inventive – where we might simply view every flying vehicle within one plane of motion, the camera instead adopt positions which complement the disorientation of flying in three dimensions – when we might simply see rain falling down the frame instead we watch it blown sideways as the camera peers down. It is staggeringly appealing, if often sad, to look at. The compositions, the colour schemes, the landscapes, every aspect of the misé-en-scene is exquisite. The world feels worn out, lived in to death. This is what lingers in the mind weeks after seeing 2049.

Written by James P. Campbell

21/10/2017 at 09:52

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