When Blade Runner was premiered at the Edinburgh International Film Festival it was not the wildly successful film that people fondly assume it was. In fact, it was something of a mystery. Bits of the plot went unexplained, the pace was slow, Vangelis’s score was decidedly odd, and the story and characters oh so bleak. The film got mixed reviews and staggered out of cinemas swiftly. It took years to become the cult classic it is today.
The overall impression was sadness for the loss of hope, yet its search for profundity never quite matched the language we heard, a frequent disconnect in Scott’s movies.
If Blade Runner had one glaring fault it was a complete loss of narrative drive. Scott gave the script scant regard, a telling trait in a TV commercials director. You sell the brand by quick-fire images in commercials, not the story behind the brand. That didn’t seem to matter. It was visually and aurally arresting, altogether riveting. This was dystopia from the minds of gifted art and design graduates. The film’s stature grew in time.
It took director Ridley Scott’s later released director’s cut to make better sense of who was a replicant and who was not. Only then did you really appreciate the care taken of intricate visual details, and how much of it was unscripted and improvised. For example, the oft repeated death scene of Rutger Hauer’s replicant, seeing things in his short life we ‘cannot ever imagine’ is the actors own additional dialogue.
Harrison Ford’s introspective movie shtick was at its peak, his Deckard the detective the film’s centre. Television commercials trained Ridley Scott was at the pinnacle of his visual style. His dystopian cityscapes were developed and heightened from visiting Japan’s neon lit cities, toothy women flashing seductively from the sides of skyscrapers, moving news shots, a neon about every store and restaurant, a mega-metropolis harred by constant fog and rain under doom-laden clouds, steam rising from manhole cover.
Insider gossip reports the snowy landscape at the end of the released version of Scott’s original was actually lifted from the editing floor of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, stuck on by Scott against his better judgement to carry out the instruction from the studio for an upbeat ending. That section was deleted in subsequent reissues.
I loved Scott’s use of the ground-breaking moulded concrete architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright exploited for the villain’s lair, and the way he gave life to the city’s walking dead. This was science fiction of a high order. And that brings me to the new film.
The movie’s gifted cinematographer Roger Deakins is a three-time Academy Award winner and tribal elder to directors of photography. Deakins has a second-to-none track record, Fargo and a dozen Coen Brothers films since and up to the more recent Shawshank Redemption, and then Sicario, testament to his outstanding skill.
He’s sported a mop of white hair ever since I first met him, and no hint of a Hollywood persona. His philosophy for shooting scenes is minimalist: “I have an interest in seeing people within their environments,” he says.
He insists on handling the camera himself, something most cinematographers delegate to a camera operator. He likes shooting on handheld and without zoom lens. “I like to feel someone’s presence in a space.” He doesn’t like any format in which the depth of field is too shallow or anything in the frame out of focus; background, he seems to feel, tells the viewer as much as the actor in the foreground. Visual elements are dazzling.
Blade Runner 2049 is crammed to the brim with drug induced hallucinatory images, frame after frame of impossible, ominous vistas. The Hollywood love of scrapyard locations and empty Escher-like factories are there; overhead shots of a dulled down Los Angeles skyline; brief glimpses of those neon screens; desolate, arid wastelands; entire abandoned cities littered with neoclassical ruins like Egypt and the Pyramids.
The first Blade Runner, based on Philip K. Dick’s novel, was shot by Jordan Cronenweth, his imagining of a dying world also visually striking. Villeneuve and team stay true to the feel of it while presenting us with something new. They strain hard for the exceptional.
So, did I like this new rendition or not?
The screenplay is puerile, to the point of disastrously silly; city scenes are not joined up, the drive for unusual locations take us on unconnected journeys; and the pace is glacial, ponderous as if wearing diver’s lead boots. There’s nothing enigmatic about this film. It contains annoying loose ends. What it tries to say about loss of identity is pretentious.
2049 also fails the Bechdel Test which requires a film to feature two named female characters talking to each other about something other than a man. One woman is a sadistic killer, one a hologram, one tough as any man, one lost for a dad, the rest are hookers. Still, there’s enough of Hollywood’s de rigueur soft porn to enjoy.
Let’s look at the new storyline which turns out to be the age old one.
2049 follows KB36-3.7, also known as K, (Ryan Gosling), who (much like Harrison Ford’s in the original) is a blade runner who hunts down and kills, or “retires,” rogue androids, known as “replicants,” despite the fact that he’s one himself. He eliminates his own kind. Yes, the plot is standard commercial plot choice for sequels – make the hero similar to the original but forty years younger. Anyhow…..
“How does it feel, killing your own kind?” K is asked by Sapper Morton, (Dave Bautista), a former cyber-soldier now hiding from the authorities on a protein farm. “I don’t retire my own kind because we don’t run,” K replies matter-of-fact. “Only older models.” Gosling’s acting style, self-contained and tight-lipped, lends itself perfectly to replicant behaviour. He has a face onto which you can project your idea of what’s in his mind. Indeed, his face, usually beaten and bloody, is almost the whole movie, plus the visuals.
It comes as no surprise that replicants hate him for being a blade runner, while everyone else hates him for being a replicant. “Fuck off, skin job!” a fellow cop yells at him en passant at LAPD headquarters.
Poor K only has only one friend, sexy and shapely is the good news, the bad news is she’s an artificially intelligent hologram named Joi, (Ana de Armas). A caring companion, a constant comfort, sold to K by the Wallace Corporation, the company that took over where Tyrell Corporation, which built the androids of the first film, left off. You could call it, Androids R-us.
On one job, K discovers a crate filled with the bones of a woman who died during childbirth. One bone has a serial number stamped on it suggesting the woman was a replicant – a profound shock because synthetic humans supposedly can’t get pregnant. “This breaks the world,” says Lieutenant Joshi, (Robin Wright), K’s superior. She isn’t happy about the situation, not one bit, and neither was I on hearing that clunky line.
Others, too, are interested in dem bones, chiefly Niander Wallace, (Jared Leto), a glassy-eyed, slicked back hair, messianic weirdo with no discernible personality, a kind of Bond villain wearing a Learner plate. He is head of the Wallace Corporation.
Wallace is terribly fond of coining ostentatious aphorisms and variations on Bible verses. “An angel should never enter the kingdom of heaven without a gift.” (Groan!) “Before we even know what we are, we fear to lose it.” (Double groan!) Wallace wants to build an army of synthetic slaves but lacks the knowledge to perfect his creations. Not a wonder, really, because he appears able to afford only two employees. Wallace tried for years to make a replicant that can procreate. Why, he doesn’t say.
There’s a lot more plot but I’ll leave it there, other than to add Harrison Ford makes a welcome appearance, looking his age and still speaking in an intense whisper.
Blade Runner 2049 is visually interesting and that’s about it. Gosling is his monosyllabic best. Not much happens, two-and-three-quarter hours of weary emptiness.
There’s echoes of Vangelis’ 1982 soundtrack amid the Japanese drumming, electronic hiss and ocean liner yowls of Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch’s score, but no melody.
Though expertly crafted, Blade Runner 2049 is far too self-conscious. It doesn’t achieve the sublime impact of Scott’s masterpiece. Can any filmed drama justify $150 million spent on its making and fail? I guess that’s a moral question.
- Star Rating: Two stars
- Cast: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, Robin Wright, Mackenzie Davis, Carla Juri, Lennie James, Dave Bautista, Jared Leto
- Director: Denis Villeneuve
- Writers: Hampton Fancher, Michael Green, Philip K. Dick
- Cinematographer: Roger Deakens
- Music: Hans Zimmer Benjamin Wallfisch
- Duration: 2 hours 45 minutes
- RATING CRITERIA
- 5 plus: potential classic, innovative. 5: outstanding. 4: excellent. 3.5: excellent but flawed. 3: very good if formulaic. 2: straight to DVD. 1: crap; why did they bother?