Monday, October 16, 2017

I Come to Bury Blade Runner 2049, Not Praise It

Nice poster. 
This entire article is a spoiler. You have been warned.

I’ve got real problems with Blade Runner 2049, but they are not the problems you think. Specifically, I have a real urge to throw this movie and everyone associated with it under the bus. But I’m going to untangle my ire and see if I can’t get to the heart of what’s bothering me. There’s a series of errors occurring in meat-space that have all conspired to create a false narrative around this film.

Fans got it wrong. They didn’t want this. They never did. Even if they say they did, they didn’t really. And right now, fandom is shearing off into two camps, as per usual; folks who are tearing the movie to pieces because it doesn’t look like what’s in their head, and folks who are blindly adoring of the movie because it’s “transcendent” and “evocative” and they dare not dislike it for fear of being accused of “not getting it.”

Critics got it wrong, for the most part. They were the ones granted early access to the film and they didn’t talk about what’s really wrong with the movie. They used words like “transcendent” and “evocative” to cover up the fact that they had no idea what they just watched and didn’t want to seem as if they didn’t “get it.”

Dennis Villeneuve and his whole team got it very wrong. Blade Runner 2049 is a Jurassic Park T-Rex: its makers were so pre-occupied about whether or not they could make it, that they didn’t bother to ask themselves whether or not they should make it.

This is a thing that should not be.

I think the thing that bothers me most is the reaction I’ve seen from some people akin to profound relief and satisfaction, as if they’ve been waiting patiently for three decades for them to “finally get it right.” Let me re-iterate: No one asked for this. The reason why it has slowly morphed into a beloved classic of the science fiction film genre is because there was only one of them, and it more or less worked right the first time. It didn’t need a second chapter, and it damn sure didn’t need to be re-kickstarted into a “franchise.” This whole project is a disservice to everyone. And it was doomed from the get-go.

Not my favorite Harrison Ford movie.
But let’s back this up 35 years, first. The problem begins in 1982 when Blade Runner first appeared. Ridley Scott was (comparatively) at the beginning of his career. Blade Runner was his third movie, after The Duellists, which was seen by maybe seventeen people, and Alien, which was seen by all of North America. He’d done some TV and music video work prior to that, but Blade Runner was clearly his most ambitious movie to date.

It was based on “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” by Phillip K. Dick, and it was the first of many Dick-inspired films appear, with widely varied results. To wit, there’s not much of the story in the movie, but then again, it was 1982, and we weren’t really expecting there to be. Also, Blade Runner ends up asking questions that are similar to the kinds of questions Dick wrote about, so this movie gets a pass from most die-hard SF readers and fans.

The movie starred Harrison Ford, fresh from Raiders of the Lost Ark, at the apex of his "Young Bogart" phase. Sean Young co-starred, doing her best Veronica Lake impression, and then there’s Rutger Hauer, an actor who was literally cast in everything he’s been in since based entirely on the strength of his performance as Roy Batty; i.e. "Hey, is that Rutger Hauer? Boy, did he get fat!" "Yeah, but he was the shit in Blade Runner, wasn't he?" The film is front loaded with great co-stars and character actors, each one bringing something different to the mix. Darryl Hannah plays a killer sexbot. M. Emmet Walsh is Deckard’s old boss. Edward James Olmos plays a skeevy cop named Gaff. Brion James, William Sanderson, James Hong, Joanna Cassidy...it’s smorgasbord of talent, okay?

Noir-style lighting, expertly applied, with no guessing as to where the light was coming from.
The film came out during this great period in early 80s cinema; ILM was an established entity by this time, and could turn in some impressive special effects, but it wasn’t so easy to do that you could sacrifice story or plot to make your spectacle. You still had to make an actual movie. And while Blade Runner spends a lot of time swinging wide over chilling hellscapes of over-developed cities in a flying car, there’s not too much else going on to distract you from the main story.  Also, there were a lot of downbeat endings, sort of a holdover from the 1970's flirtation with "realism" in cinema. It was okay, for example, to have a "happy for now" ending. Lots of movies from the early to mid-80's had that feel to it. It's like films were deconstructing themselves, even as people like Lucas and Spielberg were trying to stitch them back together again. But I digress.

Ford plays Deckard, a former cop known as a Blade Runner (why? Sounds cool, I guess) that hunts down and “retires” rogue Replicants—artificial workers who sometimes get wise that they are being used for slave labor and decide to rebel, run, or cause trouble. Pretty cynical. Deckard is done with that business, but apparently, he gets called back by his old boss for “one last job.” While he’s on the job, he meets Rachel (Young), and as soon as he does, he’s doomed. We find out pretty quickly that she’s a Replicant, like the ones he’s hunting. Deckard gets leads, drinks a lot, and runs the Replicants down, one by one, all while dealing with Rachel who keeps insisting she’s a real person. She’s got memories, photographs, see? She can’t be artificial.
 
One of the most used and most dramatic stills from the film. 
We find out that the Replicants who are rebelling want more life—they were only supposed to be active for five years. Eventually the head of the Tyrell Corporation, the maker of all the Replicants, has to tell that to Roy Batty, the leader of the gang of miscreant Replicants. “The candle that burns twice as bright, burns half as long. And you have burned so very brightly, Roy.” Weirdly, that does not satisfy Roy, who was looking for more than platitudes. But by now, Deckard has caught up to him and they fight, and Deckard is clearly outmatched. But Batty recites some amazing dialogue and dies right in front of an immobilized Deckard. The movie ends with Deckard grabbing Rachel and heading for the country. She may have a limited lifespan, like Batty. Maybe not. But Deckard decides it’s worth it, because they love each other.

Neat movie. Really makes you think in places.

Only, that’s not the end of it. Ridley Scott decided several years later that he didn’t like the movie. There’s voice-over narration in the film, see, and it was added under protest because the studio couldn’t figure out what was going on in the movie. The V.O. really heightened the “film noir” aspects of the movie. Also, the ending was tacked on, see? Another studio addition. So, Scott released a Director’s Cut, with more scenes of the flying car zooming over horrifying cityscapes, more Vangelis music, no narration, and an ending that was abrupt and jarring. Case closed, right?

No. See, it turns out that Scott really didn’t approve the director’s cut, and now there is a third version out there, a workprint that was screened once, and THAT is the closest to his vision. Oh, but there’s also a UK Director’s Cut that’s slightly different...sigh. By the time the dust had settled, there were a total of five different prints of Blade Runner, including the Ultimate Final cut that Scott DID approve of, complete with computer re-coloring because we can do that now.

But central to most of these do-overs was a scene where Deckard falls asleep and dreams of a unicorn. Based on that, for literally twenty years now, there’s been a friendly debate about whether or not Deckard was a Replicant himself.  Watching the movie that way completely changes the film. Especially since—and this is very important to note—there is literally zero indicator of this throughout the film.
 
There is more expression in this still than in the whole of Blade Runner 2049.
And don’t start on me with that “But Mark, the clues are there if you’re paying attention, see...”

First off, Chuckles, I’m not Sherlock Holmes. I’m not even John Watson. I’m a guy watching a movie. I don’t want subtle clues. I want scenes with plot, story, and dialogue in them. Heck, you can even throw in sub-text, if you like. I’ll sit there all day and discuss what it means with you. But at some point, you need to cue your audience in to what you want them to know in some way.

“See how much damage he takes? That’s a clue, man!”

Well, yes, but all of the signifiers in this movie are telling me it’s also a film noir homage, and one of the classic tropes there is the Herculean amount of concussive force the detective hero soaks up on his skull without permanent brain injury. So, if you signal to me this is a film noir, and then you have Deckard getting continually beat to shit, I’m not going think, “Hmmm, he must be a secret robot!” I’m going to think, “Oh, they’re doing the old Sam Spade schtick.” The only way it works is if in act three you let it slip that he’s a secret robot. If you keep it a secret, then you either didn’t think this through or you just didn’t want anyone to know in the first place.

This is one of the major problems with directors going back after twenty-five years and monkeying around with their movies. They aren’t the same people, anymore. They are bringing a completely different brain to the process. Early work is early work. If you want to revisit it, the best thing you can do is identify the themes you want to expound upon and put them into a new project.
 
Another great example of how to light an actor so that you can see
the performance. Something to think about for next time.
But as muddy as the waters were around Blade Runner, this was a friendly argument to make. After all, there were people who liked the voice-over (myself included) in that it helped build and explain the world in which this dystopian society operated in. Just like Noir voice-over should. This is doubly useful because of all the extra time director Ridley Scott spent filming vistas of blasted hellscapes and flying cars and having people sigh and drink and not say anything. And I never warmed to the Director’s Cuts, any of them, because I kept hearing the V.O. in my head during the scenes when it was supposed to be there and wasn’t.

But it was our movie, and we loved it. It was science fiction at a time when there was a limited amount of it to consume and the quality varied widely. Over the years, it became a right of passage for other SF fans. “You haven’t seen Blade Runner? Oh, you gotta! We’re watching it this weekend.” And it’s a movie that gradually became more popular, and more respected, despite the director’s best efforts to confuse everyone, but it was always firmly in the SF genre. It didn’t break out, never really crossed over. Jocks don’t watch Blade Runner. It’s not that kind of movie, and never was. Even in the new Age of the Geek, it’s a deep cut. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I never ever, not once, thought to myself, “I wonder what happens next?”
 
In the original movie, buildings were billboards.
So, like, we're two years ahead of the curve on this one.
Now we get to Blade Runner 2049.

In the “Even a Blind Squirrel Occasionally Finds a Nut” Category, we find this short feature by Looper on Why Blade Runner 2049 ReallyFailed at the Box Office. I offer it here with no commentary, because I largely agree with it, and also, what I really want to do is pile on here, because I watched this movie twice and I have to tell you, I don’t know what you all were watching, but I don’t think the Emperor is wearing new clothes, here.
 
This orange color palate is supposed to mean something,
but I have no idea what. Ford is blue in the poster. 
Dennis Villeneuve made a splash with Arrival, a science fiction film, adapted from a real science fiction story, and it was well-received all around. He apparently pulled a lot of his visual style from watching early Ridley Scott movies. I wonder which ones?

It’s too bad he never figured out that Scott’s “style” is another way of saying “storytelling,” because this film substitutes mood for murk, doesn’t know when to start telling the story it’s trying to tell, doesn’t know how to signal anything to an audience, visually meanders for two hours and forty three minutes. That’s if you don’t count the three short films Villeneuve commissioned to explain key events leading up to Blade Runner 2049. Those run an additional twenty-seven minutes. That’s three hours and ten minutes’ worth of “What the hell am I watching?”

A great many of the shots in this movie are set up along the same angles and planes as many shots in the original film. Noticeably so. This wouldn’t be so bad in and of itself, but when Villeneuve isn’t swiping visual cues from the original movie, he’s bathing the background in heavy fog or smoke or “atmosphere” so that it’s really difficult to see what’s going on. In a 3D movie, darkened by technology to begin with, this renders big chunks of the movie oily and muddy by degrees.

When there is a light source, it’s in motion, creating a strange distraction. It’s the future. Why are light bulbs still swinging? Is conduit that scarce? Many of the scenes are inadequately lit—and we know this because when other scenes start, they are expertly lit, or over-lit. In a movie with three generations of hunky actors in it, you’d think you would want to shine a light on those darling faces so the audience could see them. There’s a scene with Ford and Leto where the moving light is so distracting, I was trying to figure it out instead of listening to the dialogue.

Oh, and that’s the thing: you have to concentrate on this movie, and instantly judge what you’re listening to so you can decide if this is plot, big secret reveal, or simply chit-chat before something else happens. For a movie that both slavishly values its silence, and yet also wrote in a literal Girl-Friday-in-the-Machine for Gosling to interact with so that we aren’t watching a silent picture for three hours, there are still scenes that Go Nowhere and Do Nothing. Gosling and Dave Bautista, easily the best actor in the movie, have several minutes of empty-calorie banter before Bautista is retired. The only purpose it serves is to introduce the idea that Gosling’s character is a Replicant, and in case you forget it, there’s a scene where he’s walking down a hallway shortly after that someone—human, I guess, barks at him as he’s walking by, “Lousy Skin-Job,” and Gosling’s character flinches and pulls away. See? Replicants are still a problem, here, too. But, why? I’ll get into the story, later.

And the soundtrack? It’s industrial noise. Say what you want about Vangelis, and I would not presume to debate you, but the soundtrack in this overblown set of vacation slides is giant, strident Harrumphing noises and sub-woofer honks. I shit you not. They are loud, too, instigating almost a jump-scare, because, see, for the past thirty minutes you’ve been leaning forward in your chair, trying to hear something, anything resembling meaningful dialogue. Next thing you know, Gosling is back in the car, flying over L.A. and the movie is braying at you like the genetically-recreated dinosaur that it is.
 
This is the most exiting moment in the film.
A real edge-of-your-seat nail biter, this one is.
It’s a technical mess. Villeneuve inexplicably found a sans serif font that is very thin and hard to read, underlit the text, and then slapped it up the upper and lower corners of the frame. It almost works when the screen is black, but those cards that are ideally used to tell you where you in the new scene (Los Angeles, San Francisco, etc.) are get lost in the corners of the frame with no weight or light on them. Oh, and they are sporadically used, as well. Some places never get a card. Good luck figuring out the place with the context of Gosling frog-walking through a scene with no expression on his face! I’d call it a rookie mistake but I don’t think it is. I think it was just a bad choice.

The lighting is bad, the sound is bad (actors are either quietly talking, or the soundtrack is blasting sub-woofer honks at you), the pacing is bad, and it’s an editorial mess. So much dead space that is given to showing more vistas of blasted hellscapes. No sense of place, no sense of time. I honestly don’t know what Villeneuve was thinking.

Let’s talk about the actors for just a second. I love Harrison Ford. I grew up with him. Spiritually, he’s wish-fulfillment figure to me—a psychic Cool Uncle I wish I had. Raiders of the Lost Ark is my personal Rosetta Stone. And so I say this with zero irony and full sincerity: Please sit down. I am really afraid he’s going to break a hip or something. And for God’s sake, quit dressing up in your old roles. The only reboot you need to be in right now is the Grumpy Old Men revival. Of course, there’s a practical reason why Ford is in the movie, and I’ll hit that later. I guess if you’re casting a movie about life-like robots, the wooden Ryan Gosling is probably a great call.

I think Ryan Gosling is one of the blandest, most colorless, gotta-face-made-for-punching actors in Hollywood right now. I’m glad Ford really hit him. I don’t get how two lazy eyes and a half smirk equals sex appeal in the 21st century, I really don’t. And don't say "abs." There's better abs on better actors. This triangle-headed incubus is what's wrong with the country today.

And then we come to Jared Leto. Yeah, I’m just going to leave that right there. This kid, boy, I tell you what...

But the worst thing about this movie is that it hinges on making a decision about the first Blade Runner movie. Its premise is based entirely on the idea that Deckard is a Replicant. Oh, yeah, sorry. Spoilers.

This premise has to be bought if you are going to buy the premise for the new movie. And if you are like me, and think the “Deckard is a Replicant” idea is bullshit, well, guess what? This movie is a fight from start to finish.

It’s a fight because the whole “secret plot” hinges on finding the baby—the all Replicant child of Deckard and Rachel. The baby that shouldn’t have happened. Because they are, you know, not real. Gosling’s character has to track this kid down before he “upsets the balance of the world.” I guess if the Replicants can Self-Replicate, then they are people and therefore not to be used as slave labor for...doing what, exactly? The off-world colonies are thriving, we are told. They aren’t terra-forming. Or are they? It’s a bunch of hand-waving, and God Help You if you didn’t watch the 27 minutes of bonus footage that came out ahead of time.
 
Lots of great visuals in this movie. When you can see them.
But not enough to move the story forward. 
Three vignettes. The first one was Dave Bautista, dated one year before the movie starts. It connects directly into the start of the movie. So directly, in fact, that it should have been the start of the movie.

The second vignette, starring Jared Leto doing the worst “William Shatner does Stevie Wonder” impression I’ve ever heard in my life, dated twelve years before the movie starts. We learned that the Tyrell Corporation was bought up by another mega-corp, run by Leto, who is genius enough to make Replicants who are totally safe, this time, because see, he orders his man to kill himself and he does it. Genius! Based on the movie that just came out, it’s safe to assume the ban on making Replicants has lifted.

The last one, an anime, is the longest, but it’s also got the most useful information in it. It happens three years AFTER the first movie. All of the Nexus 6 Replicants (Roy Batty’s batch) have expired because of their 5 year life span. Except presumably, apparently, (and now according to Villeneuve definitely) Rachel, who Tyrell said was special, and if you think that way, then presumably, apparently, (and now according to Villeneuve definitely) Deckard, as well. So, the new Replicants are Nexus 8’s, and they have all of the advantages of Nexus 6 Replicants, but they have a normal life span.

When a pack of former Replicant Soldiers find out that they are fighting a war against other Replicants (“toy soldiers in a sandbox,”) they decide to free the enslaved Replicants. Oh, yeah, and there’s an uprising. Replicants are being lynched. So, get the metaphor? Okay, just checking. Deep waters, here. A small team of infiltrators manage to blow up a satellite uplink and an installation that contains all of the Replicant records. It’s called The Blackout. It means, obliquely, that the Replicants were free to go into hiding to escape persecution. Which, apparently, they did.
 
This fight? In the Vegas Lounge? It's technical chaos.
Glossing right over the idea that, in fact, Blade Runner 2022 makes for a much better, more compelling, and more interesting story than the one we got, these nuggets of info are crucial to understanding the 2 hour and 43 minute movie you’re watching—because, apparently, they couldn’t figure out a way to shoehorn that information in—in 2 hours and 43 minutes.

But instead of putting useful information into the movie, we get told things and then are given all of this empty space to try and make sense of it. And, when Harrison Ford shows up at the end of Act 2, and you realize that all of the assumptions you had about the first movie were, according to this movie, wrong, well, that’s on you to wrestle with. We’re not going to fill anything in for you.

So, Deckard is, apparently, a magical Replicant, not a Nexus 6, but “special,” like Rachel. A prototype Nexus 8, maybe? Two of them? And why would NO ONE in the first movie say anything to anyone about this? Why would Tyrell create two prototype Self-Replicating Replicants, which is basically just cloning at that point, and not tell anyone about it?

When Gosling’s character (K, or Joe, or, you know what? Who cares!?) starts pulling at this glued-over Gordian Knot of a plot, it has to compete with other lapses in logic. RepliGos has to be regularly re-calibrated to “baseline,” which is, I guess, the tweak Jared Leto did that keeps the Replicants from freaking out. Except that everyone still hates and distrusts them. Except for the ones who don’t. Whatever. When he starts looking into this mystery of the magical RepliKid, he has another Replicant bird-dogging his every move. She’s loyal to Leto, who needs the kid for...what? The secret of Replicant Life? Leto apparently can’t make more Replicants and thinks a self-Replicating Replicant, or just a clone, is the key to making more Replicants. His Replicant helps RepliGos from a distance, at one point even taking out a group of people attacking him with missiles. But she doesn’t try to attack RepliGos until he finally goes rogue. And even then, his human handler gives him 48 hours to “get right,” but it’s clear she’s just letting him go. Now the Replicant Hunter has become the Replicant Hunted. And he’s being tracked by a tiny bug a prostitute slips into his coat. Jeez, Louise, what a god-awful mess.

This film takes a very long time to tell a very basic, hackneyed, clichéd story that ultimately goes nowhere and does nothing. It’s got no heart, no balls, and no guts. It’s fitting, I suppose, that everyone in the movie is so wooden as to appear to be puppets. The Biblical allegory is ham-fisted, and the elaborate machinations necessary to get Deckard into the movie, and have him figure into the Messiah plot, and spend so much time on these earnest discussions that solve no problems and raise no stakes. This movie flies in the face of everything that made the original Blade Runner great. It was a simple story, made complicated by the questions it asked. It did not ask a bunch of pedantic questions and then try to build a story out of them.

I watched this movie twice, trying to reconcile what I was seeing with all of the questions that came up. Having Deckard end up a Replicant in the movie knocked me out of the film completely, and took some time to get back in. By then, I was pissed. This is a premise that shouldn’t have been utilized for a platform.

I don’t doubt that Villeneuve is a huge Blade Runner fan. I think this movie attests that he was unable to separate himself from the material and as a result, he made bad creative choices. No one else could separate their fan-ness enough to help him, apparently. I wish like hell that Ford was able to continue his personal quest to kill all of his beloved characters before he dies. Deckard should have eaten a bullet in the third act. Instead, he gets the last shot in the movie. Phillip K. Dick is spinning in his grave.

Oh, and the cinematographer? Roger Deakins? I agree, he deserves an Academy Award. Just not for this. But this will be the movie he wins it for. And that just sucks.

You may well think I’m wrong. That’s fine. Feel free to try and convince me otherwise.








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