Friday, October 13, 2017

Review: BLADERUNNER 2049

You shouldn't want the same thing again. I know you do. I do. But we shouldn't. So when a film that did so much to determine what grownup sci-fi should look and feel like and (beyond its original commercial failure) engenders such devotion as Bladerunner gets a sequel the under-commentariat explodes with anticipation. So should it give us more of what we already had or go somewhere else with a concept rich enough to take a completely new path? If you've been as disappointed as I have with the series Electric Dreams which attempts a closer reading of Phillip K Dick (who wrote Bladerunner's source novel) then you might sigh a little to see trailers that just seem to soup up the now cliched sci-noir ambience but feel some pleasant curiosity to see what looks like bright new realms. Director Denis Villeneuve whose Sicario and Enemy I love but whose Prisoners and The Arrival I don't care about. Even odds. So, I went.

After a title that restates what replicants are, their legal status and action is found back on Earth (retired = executed). We a daytime shot of a snowbound California in the year of the title. Massive circular structures of indeterminate purpose roll below us as in the (Peugeot!) hovercar driven by LAPD bladerunning replicant K (Ryan Gosling). He lands at a farm and does his job but detects a strange box concealed under the soil near a tree.

The contents of this will drive the plot so that's all the detail you get beyond saying that it is human remains. K is ordered to pursue the case and retire with extreme prejudice those who live at its heart. Meanwhile we are introduced to the Wallace Corporation and its attempts at improving on the replicant manufacture inherited from the failed Tyrell originators (the big business of the first film). Hearing of the find that K has made they are on the case themselves. Intrigue ensues and when it gets too chatty action replaces it.

Villeneuve has realised some superb moments here with imagined technology. The baseline test in which K's responses are examined is a combination of fine acting and the simplest of sets. It has the elegance of something from 2001 or THX-1138. The hi-cal improvements on the holographic ambient advertising are impressive (the giant girl from the trailer features in a poignant scene). K's virtual wife is handled with a solid understanding of uncanny valley. The best of these moments remind us that we never resent retread ideas when they are delivered with such strong style.

But the performances are uneven between players. Jared Leto is an underrated actor, often dismissed as pretty (regardless of how many Chapter 27's or Requiem for a Dream's he does) but here he villains it with stage whispers and Shakespeare in the Gardens moves. Ryan Gosling is best left subtle and does that throughout and so is easily followed. Robin Wright seems to have said "look, I'll just keep doing Claire from House of Cards. It's almost the same costume." Silvia Hoeks as the corporate baddie goes from administrative ice to comicbook supervillan without a lot between but brings such a strong physicality to her part that she must be mentioned in this dispatch. Surprisingly, it is Harrison Ford who brings the most to the table as the aged Deckard, giving us some refreshing naturalism to warm his decades of screen gravitas.

But my problem with the film came early. K is ordered to kill people who might well be human (forbidden to him as a replicant) and he says he has a problem with killing anything that was born rather than manufactured. Asked what the difference is he says it's because the natural born people have souls. There is a rejoinder form his boss but it didn't seal it for me. Why? Well, K's statement suggests that his programming includes religious concepts like that one. To better accommodate humans who do? Maybe, but why is it so important to him, couldn't he just say that respecting human life is primary to him or does that just make him too robotic for us? So, he believes it to be true. So, the suggestion is that religious thinking is programming rather than nature so having the soul as a barrier to his killing humans in the line of duty is malarky to begin with and he's just replaying his programming, never to be a real boy. His boss cracks wise about his notion and he seems taken aback by it. So, wait, did he think he had a soul or not? This distinct question is never returned to by name but feeds the rest of the plot. And what might have made a compelling theme if the assumption were taken to task never happens (not even that dark ages concepts should be important in a post-industrial wasteland).

That's my problem. Ridley Scott has been infusing the reboots of his two big genre movies with unquestioning pop theology. It has rendered what began as strong ideas  well executed into the bloaty piffle of Prometheus and Covenant. I'm not complaining about him being theistic nor even using his nominally science fiction tales as a platform (any fiction thinker can use anything they want) but I am complaining about it creating paradoxes that are left unresolved on the apparent assumption that the audience will not question them. In Bladerunner these notions of identity and what "human" means were played more honestly. I miss that.

(I know Scott didn't write Bladerunner 2049 but this stuff is being committed in his work's name for which he apparently has nothing but encouragement.)

While my problem with this film stems from that one it also bleeds into the problems that the later revisits have. While Villeneuve builds his world expertly from the one we recognise from the 1982 classic he gives us so little to fill it. This is three quarters of an hour longer than the original film but feels slighter with less at stake and only slight engagement with the characters. The excessive screen time only exacerbates this impression. I remembered, sitting in the 10.30 session at Hoyts and almost nodding off that three years ago I sat in the less than comfy Forum, hungover as hell from the MIFF closing night party, and sat through all three hours of the low narrative Hard to be a God. I wasn't hungover today I was just failing to care.

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