Note: This post contains minor spoilers about Blade Runner 2049.
Last Saturday I finally got around to seeing Blade Runner 2049. I missed the opening weekend due to other commitments. The film has performed poorly at the box office, but that did not deter me from wanting to see it on the big screen. I was not disappointed. 2049 melds seamlessly to the original Blade Runner (1982) in terms of its dark, alluring aesthetic. Like the original, 2049 is dystopian, yet beautiful to behold.
The original Blade Runner was released the year after I graduated from college. I was still living in Athens, Georgia at the time, working odd jobs and partying a lot. I remember being blown away by the cinematography, the philosophical undertones about (among other things) the yearning for more life, and the unsatisfying "happy" ending that seem out of place with the rest of the film.
Years later I bought "The Director's Cut" (1991) when it came out on VHS. Blade Runner is rather infamous for its multiple versions, most of which I now own in a blu-ray collection I bought several years ago. With that collection I watched the bonus features about the making of the film and "The Final Cut" (2007) version in which director Ridley Scott finally was able to edit his original vision for the film into a the definitive version. Noticeably changed from the 1982 release was the absence of Harrison Ford's ridiculous narration (which Ford opposed doing in the first place), the accentuation of the famous "unicorn" dream sequences, and the originally intended ambiguous ending.
Ambiguity was part of the art form of Blade Runner, just as important to the film's unique style as the amazing cinematography and wonderful musical score. All three of those elements carry forward nicely to 2049. The basic philosophical content is expanded in the latest film from its focus on the yearning for a longer life to a nostalgic reflection on the past, the consequences of love, the quest for power, and the possibilities and possible meanings for a new form of life in terms of "self" and "person." All of this is woven into a traditional noir genre narrative layered in a postmodern context (just like the first film), filled with the dynamic tension between the effects of mass commodification and eroticism.
Blade Runner was set in 2019. Which means the world did not turn out as badly nor as spectacularly as Scott envisioned back in 1982. 2049 obviously extends things by several decades and, while the specifics will likely remain a bit off, the effects of capitalism upon advertising and human objectification as consumers as well as how we live out our lives in an environmental wasteland remain relevant to social forces shaping our future today.
Ryan Gosling's low-key performance as Agent K is deceptive. His character is on a quest to uncover a freedom movement within replicants (basically robots with a high degree of artificial intelligence) and this ultimately leads him on a journey of possible self-discovery when he uncovers the fact that Deckard and Rachel apparently had two off-spring (one boy, one girl) from the loving relationship we saw form in Blade Runner. This is a revolutionary (and possibly evolutionary) surprise as replicants are not supposed to have a reproductive capability. This has great metaphysical ramifications in and of itself, but it becomes much more intimate for K's character when circumstances lead him to believe he is, in fact, one of the twins.
Blade Runner 2049 is an investigation with a lot of dead ends. The "intimate" truth, though appropriately ambiguous, is revealed in the end. Whereas the larger questions raised by the fact that replicants have gained a greater sense of "personhood" in 2049 remains largely unexplored.
I find myself ruminating upon several scenes in the film days later, which is usually a sign that it has affected me on a subconscious level. The depiction of street life in Los Angeles is almost exactly the same as in the original. This helps to connect the two films but it also reflects, I think, a deeper awareness and expression how our postmodern life feels as opposed to how it has tangibly manifested itself. Contrast LA with the acute, disorienting desolation of Las Vegas, which is captured just as picturesquely, in burnt orange hues, as if it is a elaborately deserted Burning Man festival.
As I mentioned, the film has plenty of erotic undertones. The most obvious is a strange threesome that takes place between K, his artificial, hologram girlfriend and a hooker. It isn't as 3-way as you might expect. In another subtle examination of artificial intelligence, the hologram girl desires to have "physical" intercourse with K. So it overlays itself unto the body of the pleasure girl and the two for them, constantly morphing between each other, make out with K. It is a strange and unique exploration of sexuality within the technology of the future, though the scene limits itself to the two (three) characters only making out. The only actual sex in the film is a brief background occurrence that is highly suggestive though not explicit.
Like the original film, 2049 is more a feeling than a rational experience. The stunning, often bizarre beauty and the grand darkness of mood and tone work on the viewer's emotions, creating, for me at least, a very satisfying experience that transcends the story itself. One could almost watch the film silently and be just as affected by it. There is a sense of contrast between the two films, however. Even though both films are somber, Blade Runner has a more magical, playful, sense of wonder about it, whereas 2049 feels heavier, more ominous and foreboding.
The ambiguity and non-traditional narrative expression (devoid of an irritating narration to help the viewer contextualize what is shown) demands a level of engagement by the audience that has to be arrived at without a lot of action sequences or traditional plot points. The sex and violence are minimal and the dialog doesn't explain nearly as much as the images do. As I mentioned earlier, Blade Runner 2049 has been a disappointment at the box office, just like the original film in 1982. I highly suspect, though, that this will carry on as a "cult" classic in the years to come, just as the original film continues to resonate with audiences today.
This was my first time to enjoy the directorial work of Denis Villeneuve. I heard good things about his previous film, Arrival, but I haven't gotten around to seeing that yet. He is definitely someone I want to explore further. Blade Runner 2049 is a film of the future for the future. It will likely be years before it is truly appreciated for the striking, magnetic work that it is. Just like its predecessor.
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