2017.50: Blade Runner 2049
He would have loved this film, so I’ll begin by paraphrasing the late John Brosnan: Blade Runner 2049 is a masterpiece, much to my surprise. So too, I am sure, would Sara Campbell, and I just wanted to mention them both, for this film has been 35 long years coming, and not everyone who deserves to see it are still here to do so. There is a sadness knowing that, a reminder of the sense of mortality that permeates both (both! Still can’t get my head around that!) Blade Runner films, and a reminder of how lucky we are now, how remarkable this is. This film, Blade Runner 2049, should not exist.
Where to begin? Well, have you seen 2049? If not, stop reading now, go see the movie. You need to see it and it seems the film needs your patronage. And you really don’t need to read the spoilers that follow. If you have seen the film, you won’t mind the spoilers, and I hope you can give me your time, share with me my thoughts, offer some thoughts back. Sitting comfortably? This could be a long post. Time enough, as Batty might say.
First of all, I really have to say how strange an experience it was. Anybody who has read this blog will be aware of how much of a big deal the original Blade Runner is for me. I first saw the film in September 1982, and it remains the most intense cinematic experience of my life. Thursday night may have been the most bizarre cinematic experience. You see, Blade Runner has been my favourite film for some 35 years – years in which it grew from box-office failure and obscure cult film to a video favourite and critical darling. For all those years until just awhile ago, the very idea of a sequel was ridiculous.
Yet here it was. I’d pre-booked my tickets for the first evening of its release, and was going with my long-term friend Andy who had been there with me back on that Saturday afternoon in 1982 when we saw the film for the first time. The tickets were 75p each back then, markedly rather more now. 35 years is half a lifetime ago and much had changed, but we both still shared our love of this particular film, and here we were for its sequel.
Of course I was nervous. The film had been the subject of much hype and early word on Twitter last week was frankly ecstatic. But what do critics and people who weren’t even born back in 1982 know? A good film doesn’t necessarily mean a good Blade Runner film, was this film made for modern audiences or for the fans who have lived this film since 1982? I cannot possibly explain the impact the film had back in 1982, in just the same way I cannot possibly explain the impact of the opening Star Destroyer shot in Star Wars on audiences back in 1977/1978 to people now. Films are of their time and while they may impress years later… it’s hard to recapture that impact. I consider myself lucky to have experienced the original in 1982. It was of my time. It’s in my blood.
So here we are 35 years later and watching Blade Runner 2049 was an utterly bizarre, almost out-of-body experience. Yes I enjoyed it, I was fascinated and awed by it, but also there was an almost detached point of view of it, from outside almost. Interrogating it like some Voight-Kampf test of it being a ‘real’ Blade Runner film as opposed to some second-rate modern Hollywood replicant. The relief, of course, was overwhelming. 2049 is indeed a great Blade Runner film, but more than that, its a great sequel, a film that both informs and expands upon the original, in the same way as The Empire Strikes Back with Star Wars, or indeed The Godfather Pt.2. Watching Blade Runner again in the future might actually be improved by having seen 2049. Imagine that. 2049 might actually make Blade Runner better.
I’ve been thinking of Philip K Dick and of his astonishment at seeing twenty minutes of Blade Runner footage shortly before his death where he couldn’t work out how they got those images out of his brain. For the past few days the film has been rattling around in my head as if I have been in some kind of post-traumatic fugue, trying to make sense of it. Was this how PKD felt when he had seen that Blade Runner footage? It’s not that I saw things Thursday night that I had imagined before, it was simply that they existed at all. Blade Runner 2049 is… well, in some ways it should not exist. It’s a near three-hour long arthouse movie made with a blockbuster budget, and a sequel to that strange dark sci-fi film that flopped spectacularly over three decades earlier. More than that, it’s a cinematic love-letter to all the films fans for all those years. And it’s quite brilliant.
To be clear, 2049 is not perfect, it’s not without its faults. But 2049 is also quite extraordinary. It raises more questions, cleverly sidesteps others. We are no longer simply asking how real or human a Replicant is, but also how real or human a hologram, or an AI can be? Can an AI fall in love? Can it feel empathy for another? Can it dream of electric sheep?
The film has the pace of a dream, is slow and hypnotic… shots, scenes, linger… maybe too long, I’m not sure, but it’s a long film and modern audiences get impatient with that. Not me, anyway, as it harks back to the Golden Days of ‘Seventies American cinema when American film was, well, better. But yes, it’s long, and its pace would seem to be utterly alien to most cinemagoers today. As expected, everything is beautifully staged and the cinematography is sublime- surely Roger Deakins will get his Oscar at long last. Speaking of Oscar….well, dare I say it, Harrison Ford actually turns in a performance I thought he was incapable of. It might even be the greatest performance of his career, oddly confounding any suspicion that any Best Supporting Actor Oscar nod might be a consolation gesture for that long career. The guy probably deserves to actually win it.
In my last post I mentioned that The Force Awakens was like a comfort blanket for Star Wars fans- what I meant was that the film contained familiar faces, music, places, objects, and was complete with a familiar plot that was like a greatest-hits package of all that had come before it. The whole film is designed to please, to wrap fans in a nostalgic return to childhood while lapsing into the calculated stupidity of so many contemporary blockbusters.
2049 isn’t like that. Yes its a Blade Runner film -sing the praises from the the highest rooftops!-but it’s quite utterly disturbing, particularly for Blade Runner fans.. well, certainly for me anyway. When that crate was dug up and its contents put on display in the LAPD morgue, I knew immediately whose bones they were. I just knew and it cut me deep. It was Rachel. This was Rachel, her skull…
For 35 years Sean Young’s Rachel has been frozen in time, a vision of utter beauty, a replicant of impossible perfection, the magical chemistry in celluloid of a beautiful actress, Jordan Cronenweth’s gorgeous cinematography, stylish make-up and costume design. I have seen Sean Young many times in films since but she never really looked or sounded or acted quite like Rachel. For 35 years she has existed in that one film, a creation as timeless and permanent as any iconic performances of Rita Hayworth or Marilyn Monroe. But here she was, a skull, some bones. It felt brutal, cold.
I’m not certain why, but throughout the film that really creeped me out. That feeling seemed to inform every scene. A sense of horror, of mortality, of melancholy. Later on when Jared Leto’s enigmatic (under-used?) villain Neander Wallace held Rachel’s skull in his hand before Deckard, it felt like something utterly monstrous. And when the inevitable happened, and that 35-year-old vision walked into the scene as if 35 years had never happened and the impossible had been given form, I nearly freaked out. My jaw dropped. I think I may have moaned. This was Pure Cinema. It was like a nightmare. I saw the pain and horror etched on Harrison Ford’s face and the torture was complete, palpable. I felt it too.
It was horrible. It was perfect. This film, I realised, should not exist.
And I’m thinking again about PKD’s reaction to seeing that Blade Runner footage. His astonishment. His reaction: “How is this possible?”
How is this possible that 35 years after Blade Runner, they made this huge slow enigmatic study of the nature of humanity and existence? The protagonist is a Replicant who has a relationship with a hologram. Two artificial intelligences sharing… love? Debating the validity of implanted memories? Discussing the possibility of being ‘real’? It’s a genius twist of the original film- here we know that Officer K (a brilliantly nuanced Ryan Gosling) is a replicant, but does that make him any less real? As the films events unfold and he finds cause to question his implanted memories, and begins to think he may not be more human than human, but actually human, if not some kind of hybrid, the sadness of the eventual truth is heartbreaking. And yet, like Batty in the earlier film, he reaches some self-awareness, some humanity that is undeniable. What is human anyway?
(This film even has a great joke, a funny one: as he considers Deckard’s dog, K asks, “Is he real?” and Deckard deadpans “Ask Him.” I guffawed. But that joke sums up the film. Is it real? What is real?)
We live in thrall to technologies intended to serve. People cannot seem to live without their smartphones. The hologram Joi is the natural extension of the smartphone, what it may evolve into. An AI assistant, a diversion, a replacement for human company. We may never have the flying cars of Blade Runner, but I suspect AI like Joi is inevitable- indeed, barring the holographic flight of fancy, it’s almost already here. But is it real, can it feel, can it aspire to be human?
Consider this: an Hologram AI has purchased/arranged a pleasure-model Replicant to have sex with the Holograms owner/lover who is a Replicant itself (himself/herself/itself, how does that work with Replicants?). While I try to get my head around that, add this to the mix: the pleasure model that Joi hired is part of the resistance/uprising who uses the opportunity to plant a tracker in K’s coat, so is Joi a part of that resistance all along? Is K being steered by unseen forces all along?
I really need to see the film again. All sorts of thoughts and observations have been rattling around in my head for the days since. A sign of a good film is one that lingers in your head. I am sure 2049 will reward repeat viewings, possibly for years. But I really need to see it again on the big screen before it slips across to disc (the thought that six months from now I will be used to simply rewatching it at home whenever I like is a frankly salivating prospect).
They show you someone weaving memories together in this film. Its breathtaking, like fashioning dreams with a strange (very PKD) device that looks part-camera, part bus conductor ticket machine. They show a Replicant having her nails done whilst orchestrating rocket fire from some automated weapons platform hanging unseen in the sky. A giant hologram selling an app steps out of the skyline to accost our protagonist who has already loved and lost that product, the giant hologram’s blank unfeeling stare utterly at odds with the loving sincerity of the eyes that he loved. A wooden horse replaces the origami unicorn of the previous film, but seems to represent the same question: what is human? Can you trust your memories in a world that can have them woven like dreams and implanted? What is the meaning of the final shots where a dying K stares up at the falling snow and watches it fall into his hand, while Dr. Stelline in her glass world nearby fashions memories of snow falling out of nowhere?
This film should not exist.
Sadly, as I write this it seems the Box-Office for the film has been very disappointing, particularly in America. I feel a sense of history repeating, and it seems awfully unfair that the bravery in making this film so sincere and ‘honest’ to the original won’t be rewarded financially, and we won’t get a third film. Not that we should even measure quality by box office anyway, or that we even need a third film, but its seems cruel that, when we finally get a quality adult sci fi film, it stumbles at the box office, as if we’re being haunted by the lessons of 35 years ago all over again. In a genre swamped by huge empty-headed spectacle or superhero comic movies… Well, it’s very frustrating and quite utterly depressing and disappointing. 2049 deserves better from audiences, but at least it got the love of (most) critics. So it’s doing better than Blade Runner there, at any rate.
The question still rattles around in my head: this film should not exist, but it does. How is this possible? PKD would have loved that.