Blade Runner 2049: Digital Obviousness vs Analog Ambiguity

AtariThis weekend saw the release of a sequel gestating for over 30 years. Blade Runner 2049, helmed by Arrival’s Denis Villeneuve, and starring Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford attempts to return to the rich visual world of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. What made the original so unique was its germination from Phillip K Dick’s Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep and blossom into an obtuse and discrete film about slavery, violence, and the nature of humanity. It wore these badges not as a tagline dreamed up by a studio, but rather the interpretive richness that emerged from close examination of the film in all of its iterations. Yes, there has been much ink and argument over the nature of Rick Deckard’s humanity, one of the “low hanging fruits” of movie fandom in the ensuing decades. Now, Villeneuve’s project shifts the story forward 30 years, into a world of climate change and a global data blackout that essentially rebooted technological history.

Where Scott’s flawed original left massive holes for questions and copious room for interpretion of every comment, whisper, flash of light or shadow, Blade Runner 2049 instead chooses a decidedly less obtuse address to the viewer. This film, lavishly illuminated and shadowed in digital splendor contrasting Scott’s noir blizzard of in-camera effects, lets the viewer know immediately the nature of Gosling’s character (human or replicant) and hint at a “miracle” that is plainly obvious a connection to the original film. The world of 2049 is a strange juxtaposition of digital effects clarity but world poor. It appears the Soviet Union still exists, along with a nod to Atari, but is the film in a Chinese Century too? While I detest an encyclopedic opening scroll to back story the film, 2049 could have easily benefited from a microdose of context. Sure, there was a brief on the world post-Tyrell, but as with many retrofied movies the future of yesterday is drawn in lines looking backward and foreward, with little time in the present. 2049 however spends most of its time in today and a polished tomorrow, that doesn’t quite sync with the original.

2049‘s script relies on CGI bumpers of a rain-soaked L.A. hidden behind a massive Pacific Ocean rampart, many topless holograms, and updated computer fx “Spinners.” Between these clipped images designed to soak and immerse, a fairly pedestrian who-done-it emerges without a real sense of connection to the world they inhabit. If there was something earth shattering hidden, how about a glimpse into the world about to be shattered? No visits to noodle stands or wanderings through a seedy bar.

Perhaps the film intended to also be a rumination on the role of women in our world, instead Blade Runner 2049‘s female characters are relegated to teary memories of perfection, prostitutes,  plotting brutal killers, or disposable vessels of reproduction. The men get to be maniacal for sure, but also heroic and selfless. Thus underlying the film is the view women as sex objects and irrelevant to a bigger story on the nature of life. It is men that make the big decisions and the women mere subordinates. The sole antithetical beacon to this generalization is actor Robin Wright who is calm, calculating, and determined, but ultimately sidelined.

Blade Runner 2049 is essentially a polished, well produced fan-fiction. It rests in the bosom of hundreds of blog posts, fanzine articles, and many Mountain Dew and Dorito fueled late-night arguments. It is not a bad movie, nor disrespectful of the original which was never truly mastered despite several “cuts,” but rather a movie that sought to plumb the depth that emerged from decades of fan speculations and combine it with decades of existential papers and studies about the nature of machine intelligence and consciousness. Not heavy-handed in its desire for credibility, unlike the lauded but thinly veiled “vodka robot” film Ex Machina, 2049 chose obvious language but never so much to fully appreciate what is being contemplated or said. Where the original implied, infuriating many, 2049 instead explains in a way that feels much of the conversation’s context was left on the script writers floor. Considering the movie clocked in at nearly three hours, there was immense room for beautiful speculation, instead it quickly did “touch and go’s” on several subjects in order to return to the plot most saw the film for- what happened to Deckard and Rachael.

Another issue with the film was the casting of actors too well-known. In Blade Runner, Ford was the “name” with Hauer and Young in support. Gosling, in the sequel, stands alongside Ford and Leto. It is in the casting of “names” where the film stumbles. The original film utilized veteran character actor Joe Turkel as Tyrell, a mad scientist who lives in shadows and hides behind window pane-sized, thick eye glasses, Leto is blatant to Turkel’s subtlety. And perhaps that is the best explanation for the difference and critique of Blade Runner 2049– the new iteration is shiny and clean, loud, and obvious. The original was shadowed, grimy, analog, and subtle.

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