Villeneuve: Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
For a film that is so identified with its style as Blade Runner, small differences in the sequel mean a lot. It’s no coincidence, then, that Blade Runner 2049 opens in “California,” rather than “Los Angeles,” nor that Denis Villeneuve reverses the opening of the original to first present us with a close-up of an eye, followed by a vista that only gradually announces itself. Both set the stage for a film that is much more muted about the act of looking, couched in a much starker, drabber and more austere palette (for the most part) that works to erode any sense of Downtown Los Angeles being exceptional and to instead conjure up the suburban and exurban sprawl that has displaced it. For the first act, the dominant colour is grey, while most of the compositions are fairly monochrome and geometric, severely limiting and policing the affective exchanges that can take place within them, and imbuing even the most “human” characters with a robotic stasis long before we have found out their actual status. Thirty years after the original film, many of the urban fixtures that made it so striking have been homogenised, while horizontal space has trumped vertical space, thanks in part to three decades of environmental catastrophe. Along with the destruction of much of Southern California, this has necessitated the construction of a massive dyke along the California coast, beyond which the surface of the sea swells higher than even the highest buildings, indifferent to the sublime sight lines that galvanised Ridley Scott’s Los Angeles.
Within this drab and monochrome world, the brief flashes of neon are as surprising as they would be in a black and white film, while the small glimpses of fecundity are enough to generate the entire narrative from the opening scene. Here, we meet K, played by Ryan Gosling, a replicant Blade Runner on a routine mission to hunt down and exterminate one of the older and less “obedient” replicants. Although this old-school replicant has taken refuge in “rural” California, his surroundings seem to be even more mechanical than those of Los Angeles, as Villeneuve’s opening aerial shot outlines a countryside that has been entirely rationalized into so many geometrical solar panels and periodically placed “protein farms.” Only after traversing this space, and “retiring” this older Blade Runner, does K get his first ever glimpse of what appears to be genuine, organic, spontaneous fertility – a tiny yellow flower growing at the foot of a wizened tree on the edge of the property, and the first burst of colour that we see in the entire film. That in itself is enough to warrant further inspection, and sure enough a digital scan reveals that the flower has grown from a box buried beneath the ground, which in turn contains a series of bones that are barcoded as those of a long-missing old-school replicant, but which also display evidence of childbirth.
For the first time, then, a replicant has given birth to a child. While the mother might have died, the human-replicant is still presumably at large somewhere in California, leading K’s boss Lieutenant Joshi, played by Robin Wright, to instruct him to hunt down this hybrid before its existence “breaks the world.” This, in essence, is the main drama and spectacle of the film, begging the question of what this hybrid will be like, how the world will respond to this hybrid, and how K will deal with his task, since he’s “never had to retire something that was born.” In the process, K himself seems to become more human, or to at least discover his own inherent hybridity, in a trajectory that eventually leads him to Rick Deckard, played once again by Harrison Ford, who is living in melancholy solitude in the ruins of Las Vegas. In a late twist, Deckard turns out to be the hybrid’s father, meaning that Rachel, played by Sean Young in the original, was the hybrid’s mother and the first replicant to ever give birth.
That’s not a bad back story, and provides a poignant sequel to the ambiguous note on which the Director’s Cut ended. The problem is that the ontological crisis of the original film – the difference between real and synthetic life – feels much less urgent this time around, if only because from its outset Villeneuve’s California seems to have long surpassed the singularity at which real and synthetic life fused into a single plane of existence. In this world, it’s simply taken for granted that every living creature is at least a bit cybernetic, that every “real” experience is at least a bit simulated, and that every “human” is a holographic projection of the cityscape that speaks around and through them. Against that backdrop, it’s hard to take Joshi’s pronouncements on the world-changing nature of this hybrid seriously, since the world already has changed, and indeed appears to have changed precisely to accommodate this kind of hybridity. Whereas the original film thrived on the dynamic tension between Ford’s frantic body language and the smooth serenity of the replicants, nothing really disturbs Villeneuve’s splendid mise-en-scenes, with Deckard’s reappearance necessitating some fairly impotent action sequences to insist on his difference or exception from the comprehensively and claustrophobically realised world that Villeneuve outlines.
In other words, Blade Runner 2049 depicts a future in which noir has largely vanished as a point of reference, or has been entirely absorbed into the fabric of the city, precluding its once privileged capacity to articulate the male body resisting all those amorphous factors threatening to disembody, distribute and disperse its phallic potency. Dissociating Los Angeles from that noir framework is quite a radical gesture in itself, which is perhaps why the film is most compelling when it moves away from the city as a singular or sublime point of reference, since the demotic repopulation of Downtown was one thing that the original got completely wrong, even if it nailed the postmodern architecture and influx of Pacific Rim capital that initially seemed to promise that this repopulation would take place. Insofar as Blade Runner 2049 takes place in “Los Angeles,” it’s only really as an apotheosis of Villeneuve’s airbrushed aestheticism as it is almost entirely exhausted over the course of these two and a half hours, which must be a turning-point in his career as much as a climax.
In particular, Villeneuve’s love of what might be called hyper-verisimilitude comes the fore, repeatedly undercutting the tension between “real” and synthesised life that is so crucial to Hampton Fancher and Michael Green’s screenplay, differentiating the original and the sequel in the process more than a dramatic departure might ever have been able to do. After all, one of Blade Runner’s biggest questions would how the world would look if technology could create something more real than reality itself, and even absorb and remediate the very way in which we conceptualise the real. In 2017, that’s simply taken for granted, so you’d expect it to be old hat by 2049, and yet it still seems to be a concern for Joshi and the authorities she represents, just as the screenplay has to deliberately elide technologies like SmartPhones that have already completed this remediation of the real in the present. Instead, it’s Villeneuve’s style and Roger Deakins’ cinematography that answers the questions posed by the original, often in direct contravention of the screenplay, even if this means simply divesting Scott’s mise-en-scenes of all the dynamism that posed these questions in the first place. The more beautiful Deakins’ vistas become, then, the more inert and glacial the pace, as the jittery drive to escape digital disembodiment that made the original so kinetic is subsumed into a series of perfectly and beautifully composited images.
Put simply, then, Blade Runner 2049 is a film made for replicants, or a film made for a world in which the distinction between humans and replicants is meaningless, making it hard to feel engaged by the way in which the narrative insists on that distinction. In effect, Villeneuve and Deakins compose a second, subsidiary, more compelling film that subsists not only on the uncanniness of not being able to distinguish between real and synthetic experience any more, but the uncanniness of not even finding that particularly uncanny either. Far from the uncanny prospect of a dystopian future, Blade Runner 2049 confronts us with the uncanniness of a dystopian future that has already been normalised in the present, and absorbed any further conception of futurity in the process. Beyond a certain point, it therefore becomes impossible for Blade Runner 2049 to “remember” Blade Runner’s conception of the future, with Rick and Rachel’s hybrid child eventually turning out to be a “memory-maker” employed to fabricate memories for a major replicant company.
Interestingly, this memory-maker doesn’t consider herself to be perpetuating falsehoods, explaining to K that if a fabricated memory can generate a stronger response than a regular memory, then it becomes more real than that memory, if only because of how much more extensively it has infiltrated the affective and biological tissue of the rememberer. It’s a proposition that syncs up quite naturally with Villeneuve’s career-long fascination with the ways in which his digital lens might be able to fuse itself with those surfaces that his analog forebears were merely able to depict, and thereby revise and remediate the very conception of reality inherent in a more traditionally cinematic representation. Yet Blade Runner 2049 exceeds any of his previous films in the sheer amount of time it spends on these elongated textural sequences, in which Villeneuve excludes virtually everything but his digital recreations of “real” textures, to the point where those textures quickly become more present, more real and, indeed, more textural, than those they are “representing.” In fact, this distended texture is the only reason why the film almost reaches the three hour mark, since the core narrative could easily have been told in eighty minutes, and arrives at a much more predictable, unimaginative and boilerplate conclusion than that of the original.
In trying to render the original film more “real,” then, Blade Runner 2049 almost removes any memory of the original as a point of reference, or at least fuses itself and the memory into something new that sidelines the original, which is where its profound and pervasive sadness really lies. Of course, that begs the questions of how a sequel could have behaved otherwise, or even whether a sequel should or could have been made at all. Nevertheless, there is one part of the film that might have escaped this digital malaise if it had been foregrounded in a little more detail – namely, the spectacle of how environmental catastrophe looks some thirty years into the future. For as much as Blade Runner 2049 might transplant an already antiquated anxiety about augmented perception to the mid twenty-first century, it takes a different kind of augmented perception to conceive of something as massive, far-reaching and transhuman as climate change, which in many ways is the real representative horizon of the film. Accordingly, Villeneuve and Deakins tend to be at their most breathtaking when they leave Downtown Los Angeles for visions of Californian environmental degradation (such as an extraordinary sojourn in San Diego, now used as a waste disposal site), or visions of California in the midst of attempting to counter this degradation (such as the solar tesselae that have supplanted most of the rural landscape).
This spectacle of climate catastrophe is the one really dynamic prospect in the film, thanks in part to the continuous motifs of water and liquid waste that accompany it, suggesting a state that sinks as it sprawls, only just keeping the rising ocean at bay with each new development. While the “off-world colonies” are still a notional part of the Blade Runner universe, their import here is largely deflected into these watery motifs, which perpetually suggests something just outside the representative possibilities of the film as we experience it. As much as the replicants might accuse Joshi of “being against the tide” of the “fathomless new” in their concerns about hybridity, it’s the literal, physical tides, and the rising oceans they enrhythm, that pose the most serious concerns to California in the late 2040s. In fact, I am tempted to say that Blade Runner 2049 – and the slippage between the screenplay and the direction – demands to be understood in terms of the “geological” approach to to media that has become so fashionable this decade, as Villeneuve arrives at a kind of dead end or logical conclusion to his mediation of the real in the face of those raw materials – dirt, metal, sea, wind – that generate his capacity to mediate it in the first place.
It feels right, then, when the climax converges on the very crest of the sea walls, as K and Deckard attempt to escape an “evil” replicant while their hovercraft slams against the metal parapets, with Villeneuve wisely choosing to shroud the entire scene in twilight so that this sublime spatial exchange between seal, wall and city remains almost inconceivable. Watching it, I realised the extent to which massive walls function as bulwarks against unconscious fears of environmental catastrophe across our media ecology, from Pacific Drift to Game of Thrones to Donald Trump, and yet Blade Runner 2049 never quite manages to do justice to this spectacle, partly because it’s pervaded by the same blandsome combat that pervades the entire third act, culminating with K’s act of self-sacrifice on the steps of the memory-maker’s building. Playing like a sentimental parody of Roy Batty’s “tears in rain” speech, this concluding sequence made me appreciate just how artfully Hans Zimmer had handled the music up until this point, often approaching (but never quite articulating) the refrains of the original, especially when he quotes their cavernous drum beats without the intervening synthetic texture to ground and contextualise them. By contrast, the major key transposition of Vangelis in this final scene is just awful, and all the more so because it seems to be setting up the possibility of a sequel, something that you couldn’t really say about the conclusion to any of the six versions of the original now available on the market.
If there is a space within which Blade Runner 2049 acknowledges environmental catastrophe as an inexorable representative horizon, then it’s Las Vegas, where Deckard retreated after leaving Rachel with a replicant resistant movement upon discovering she was pregnant. On the one hand, Vegas here feels like a displaced chunk of Los Angeles, or even a nostalgic vision of the original film’s Downtown, as K wanders through a sepia-toned cityscape and eventually discovers Deckard in a decaying hotel that might be mistaken for the art nouveau apartment building he originally inhabited. Yet if Vegas is the most overtly nostalgic space in Blade Runner 2049, it is also, simultaneously, the most futuristic, since here, finally, we have a cityscape that has been decimated by rising temperatures, rendering the desert utterly uninhabitable except for those, like Deckard, who are running away from something. Nostalgic and futuristic in the same breath, this stunning sequence generates the most beautiful moments and profound images in the entire film, as Villeneuve and Deakins find in this sepia-toned postmodern graveyard a threshold beyond which their hyperreal textures can’t or won’t traverse, which is perhaps why the film also effectively concludes here, with the final act playing like the merest of afterthoughts to this lingering vision of futuristic pastiche itself rendered as a desecrated postmodern period effect.
In that sense, K and Deckard never quite meet, as their initial encounter is dispersed into a sea of postmodern musical holographs (or, rather, holographs of postmodern musical icons), against which their bland fistfights play as so many desperate efforts to prove that they are even in the same room, let alone the same film. Yet for the briefest of moments, before he has to engage with K, Deckard is enormously compelling in this palatial postmodern prison, if only because of how strenuously it prevents us placing him in either the past or the future, instead relegating him to a notional space coterminous with that of climate change itself. In 2017, there is no better way to calibrate our world against the late 2010s envisaged by Blade Runner – what it got right and what it got wrong – and in many ways this moment, and the moments that enable it, are the film. As fleeting as it may be, thie Vegas sequence crowns Villeneuve’s body of work as dramatically as the rest of Blade Runner 2049 exhausts it, paving the way for a third act in which two different endings compete to revise and remediate each other. Given how much the original now exists as a gesture of revision (no other canonical film of the last thirty years is so bound up with its Director’s Cut), it finally feels as if Villeneuve has provided a sequel to the textual history and reception of Blade Runner as much as any one incarnation of the original, revising any residual sense of it being a singular or fixed entity in the process, with much of the pre-release media reminding us that no less than six versions now exist of this iconic film. For better and for worse, Blade Runner 2049 is true to every one of these six different versions, making for a sequel that feels true to the iconic stature, but perhaps not always the imaginative richness, of Scott and Philip K. Dick’s visions, despite all the incredible moments along the way.
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