Blade Runner 2049

Blade Runner 2049

Boring as only an auteur's film can be. There are things to like about Denis Villeneuve, but he doesn't make it easy. A talented aesthete, he nonetheless harbors a fatal attraction to ultraviolent macho sophistry. He has at least three films to his name that, whatever their meager virtues, are close to irredeemable: INCENDIES, PRISONERS, and SICARIO. That his confidence as a visual stylist has been growing doesn't mean much when his choice in scripts is so poor. ARRIVAL represents the most complete package so far, with a maximum of attractive images and a minimum of distracting nonsense (though we probably need to thank Ted Chiang for the latter). ENEMY is also a high-water mark, while SICARIO stays afloat for some time before Taylor Sheridan's masculinist drivel sinks it. So there was always reason to believe BR 2049 could be another step in the right direction. And now, having seen it, I'd still maintain that a lesser hand would've produced something far worse.

When it was first announced that Ryan Gosling would play the lead role, I thought it was just a random selection from a pool of young bankable white men. It turns out he is well-suited to what BLADE RUNNER 2049 became. His aloofness always masks an inner intensity that can explode at unexpected moments. Villeneuve's emasculated future meets no resistance in Gosling's affectless passivity. Most other male stars would seem too defiant in this oppressive world. Gosling looks as if he swallowed his objections long ago.

In terms of genre, what we have in BR 2049 is an uneasy combination of the rogue cop movie and a masculinized YA fiction. The latter has been the dominant speculative form of our last decade, largely written off because of its association with women writers/audiences. And yet BR 2049 buys into the tropes almost without exception, from the biopolitical tech-dystopia to the hero's dawning realization that the ruling class is engineering widespread disenfranchisement. Note that I'm citing YA fiction not to mock it or BR 2049, only to point out that an enjoyably fleet-footed movie like DIVERGENT has more in common with BR 2049 than it might at first seem to.

The film radiates alienation, but it's not clear what exactly is so dismal about Villeneuve's creation. There seems to be a latent technophobia, an age-old fear that the human spirit is being eroded or overwritten. Why then is so little shocking about BR 2049? Perhaps because the future's ruin seems so foregone and inevitable. Here we can pinpoint the film as a product of its time, one which views the future with trepidation and the past with warm regard. The fashionable pessimism on display could be called apolitical, except that ignoring political struggles is itself a political choice. So thoroughly visualized is Villeneuve's film that it can be easy to forget how many possibilities were foreclosed in its making. A healthy dose of retromania echoes along the streets of BR 2049's moody metropolis, assuring us that the past was at least better than this. In private moments and in private dwellings, Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, and Frank Sinatra soothe the fallen angels of Los Angeles. Beckoning ever backward, away from man's technicolor hubris.

It's been said that period pieces always communicate the present in their imagining of the past, intentionally or not. I think this is true of sci-fi as well. At its best, sci-fi can extrapolate the tensions of the present into shocking, mutated new forms. At its worst it reflects various unexamined assumptions of the era. BR 2049 seems a telling example of the latter. Complementing its alienated, domesticated male workforce is an array of female servants and sex workers. Here the film shows its reactionary face, diminishing the future's women into depressingly familiar roles. There is another film this year that attempted some auto-critique in regards to its unequal future, and that film was the much-maligned GHOST IN THE SHELL '17. A more streamlined version of BR 2049's ennui-soaked odyssey, it unearthed some interesting tensions about the place of women in a sexist future. While those ideas were better dealt with in Jennifer Phang's superb and deeply-felt ADVANTAGEOUS, you could still see some productive inklings of discomfort.

BR 2049 contains less social friction, which is perhaps why its runtime feels so lugubrious compared to GHOST IN THE SHELL '17. It's odd: despite Gosling's centrality, the most intriguing character in the film is Joi, who is one rung lower on the ladder of authenticity. Villeneuve fashions some fetching images to visually convey her plight, such as the incoming phonecall that freezes her mid-kiss. Her sensory interactions with the corporeal world are the most compelling illustration of the human/non-human divide, but she too is secondary to Man's tragic dislocation. Even the triumphant sex scene with Ryan Gosling is a reprise of a near-identical moment in HER. Villeneuve really drops the ball with Joi, most of all with that moment of intimacy. Ostensibly sincere, it nevertheless emits a certain male fantasy. Gosling, avatar of identifications, gets to experience synchronized sex with an alluring sex worker and his (conveniently) holographic lover. Then right afterward, Villeneuve cuts to an advertisement for Joi with the slogan EVERYTHING YOU WANT TO SEE or some such sleazy come-on emblazoned beneath. Is this critique or endorsement? Joi's death is BR 2049's saddest moment, but the weight of it owes more to Ana de Armas' performance than to the character as written.

The obliviousness doesn't stop there. Jared Leto's first appearance raised some red flags for me. Considering the rumors about Leto's real life behavior, I was repelled watching him hover menacingly in front of a naked female body. Then Villeneuve has him gut the woman, leaving her to bleed out on the floor like a slaughtered pig. Is that what's needed to prove he's evil? So far, so Villeneuve. It has been a trip watching this gifted director expose his bad taste in just about every movie he's made. But by far, the worst part of BR 2049 is when Gosling whips out his LAPD badge and assaults a black man, who then complies post haste with the cop's demands. At that exact moment, I disengaged for good. Have we really learned so little in the 25 years since the LA riots? It's astonishing to see an image of such seismic political significance be ignored completely thereafter. I knew then that I was watching an abortive film. Its unified aesthetic is undone by an endemic failure to consider the true impact of images.

Everything I've written is provisional and contingent upon a rewatch and further reading, which may or may not ever happen. I was not so impressed that I'll be in a great hurry to revisit. To be sure, there are exciting possibilities explored. The notion of artificial memories is an engaging one because it begs the question of how exactly memories shape us in the first place. Does implanting a fake memory change a person's behavior, alter their intentions? If it does, then what would the ethical responsibilities of someone wielding that power be? The film nicely sets up the memory artist as a conduit for those concerns, also allowing for contemplation of what the art of memory-making might involve. However, I could not engage it on that level because I was busy sweeping away the trash of the present. I expected to enjoy BR 2049 as an attractive movie built on a flimsy foundation of under-thought dystopia. That turned out to be an accurate description, but I enjoyed it all less than I'd been hoping. Oh well. I bet DUNE will be impressive, at least.

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