Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Blade Runner 2049 (2017) - Movie Review

Blade Runner isn’t just a good film or even a great film; it is one of the few genuinely important science fiction films. Setting in stone the cyberpunk/neo-noir aesthetic that would give franchises like The Terminator their most iconic moments, its approach to both world-building and thematic context is one of the first real instances of the wider mainstream audience seeing that maybe there’s something to ‘genre’ films beyond just visceral nonsense. It took me a couple of viewings for it to really sink in, and I wouldn’t call it one of my all-time favourites or anything, but it’s a film that I have an entire truckload of respect for. This is one of those situations where making a sequel could turn out disastrously badly, much like most other attempts to make a follow-up to a decades-old film. 

However, after seeing director Denis Villeneuve make a triumphant step into the realms of SF with Arrival, which is still one of the single best films of the last several years, I have enough faith in him to pull this one off. Probably helps that not only is writer Hampton Francher returning from the original but he’s also aided by co-writer Michael Green, who helped give us Logan, a film that I am slowly starting to develop an even greater understanding of and appreciation for. Maybe this will turn out okay; it’s already being heralded as one of the greatest sequels of all time. Will I agree or will I have to be the bearer of bad news? Get out your torches and pitchforks, because I can already tell this is going to get ugly.

The plot: K (Ryan Gosling) is a Blade Runner, a police officer in charge with hunting down renegade ‘replicants’, androids designed to look identical to humans. However, a routine mission leads him to a startling revelation connected to Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) and his own past. He sets out to find Deckard (Harrison Ford), a former Blade Runner who may be able to shed some light on this new situation.

Gosling as our focal point character, along with a mild reshuffle of the original Deckard, works very nicely and he definitely channels some serious emotion where it’s needed. Ana De Armas as the hologram Joi gives a nice signpost for the film’s take on artificial reality vs. natural reality, and her scenes with Gosling make for some of the most powerful moments in the film. Considering this involves one of the weirdest takes on an on-screen threesome I’ve seen yet, that is truly saying something.
Sylvia Hoeks is cold and calculating as Wallace’s enforcer Luv, bringing across a real sense of an intimidating “do not fuck with me” attitude and pulling it off just as easily. Wright as the police lieutenant is decent for the plain authority figure she is, Dave Bautista makes a solid impression in the film’s opening scene, Carla Juri makes for one of the more emotional performances of the film (despite only having a single scene to shine), Leto as Wallace is good if not as used as he should be (once again playing an underutilized villain; this is not a good trend) and Ford… feels out of place. Aside from a couple gag about his character’s alcoholism from the original film and all of one effective bit of dialogue, I question why he is even here. This is unfortunately a running theme with this production, but we’ll get to that.

After the still-immensely-impressive result of Arrival, how does Denis Villeneuve and his returning crew follow that up with this film? I mean, Blade Runner has one of the most iconic aesthetics in motion picture history; it’s a hard act to follow, even for someone as consistently effective as Villeneuve. Well, for a start, it manages to keep that aesthetic alive in a rather unprecedented way. Blade Runner is a futuristic film as seen from the 80’s; the story itself is set in the 21st century, but looking at the film itself, it feels like a product of its time with its time’s understanding of technology. Here, that same feeling is kept but given the push forward in terms of technology available that feels like natural progression. It still looks like a future world as seen from the Reagan era but with the 35 years’ worth of advancements since then.
But that’s overall; what about the individual pieces? The main city itself may not have the same grungy noir look to it but, between the fine detail of the setting and the learned use of colour, it again still feels like the same universe we left 35 years ago. Same goes for the soundtrack, with Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch creating electronic textures that certainly ape Vangelis’ iconic original score without entirely repeating it. And then there’s the Villeneuve/Roger Deakins effect, where every frame feels like it was laboured over intensely to give a very specific effect. Whether it’s the gloomy aura of the city, the blindingly white snowfall in the opening scene, or the burnt amber of the desert, this is very pretty to look at on all counts.

Along with its effect on sci-fi filmmaking after its initial release, OG Blade Runner also broke ground in the use of science fiction as a spiritual tool; a way of pondering the nature of human existence and the philosophies contained within that more grounded films weren’t able to grasp. Hell, its use of allegory and visual metaphor is so effective that people are still debating the “true” meaning of those images to this day, like with the eternal question of whether Deckard is actually human. Here, we get a large helping of those themes once again, with notions involving memories, personalities and what truly counts as “human” swirling around the entire production.
Through K, a character where no such ambiguity about his personage exists, we get showings of prejudice against him for being a “skinjob”, an acknowledgement of implanted memories that still create who he is as of that moment, and a relationship with the hologram Joi that highlights how questions of whether something is artificial or not shouldn’t matter if it feels real. As I’ve likely mentioned before in past reviews, these are ideas that really do sink in well for me, especially when shown through a visual eye this proficient in the medium. This is aided by the welcome return of the animal symbolism of the original, furthering the quasi-mystical texture they added in the past.

However, there are a number of issues with all this; this might take a while. Firstly, the pacing is excruciatingly slow. Villeneuve has made a name for himself with more drawn-out and atmospheric cinema, but unlike his past works, shots and scenes here hang around on-screen long past the point where they needed to. As a result, for as emotional as these scenes can get, they’re cut short by the fact that the film itself refuses to cut short. This also results in a weird moment where K ends up reaching the end of his character’s arc by the end of the first act, meaning that we get what would usually be the big dramatic moment about an hour into a nearly three-hour-long film.
Honestly, that run time is very suspect, given how this film shares its predecessor’s biggest problem: The story. The original, for as much of a landmark as it is in terms of theme and visuals, could have been improved upon with a better story. However, since it effectively set up its own universe for other stories to exist in, it's in better standing than a lot of other prospective follow-ups. Unfortunately, what we end up getting here are a bunch of thematic elements floating around that never coalesce into a whole. Not only that but they’re the same thematic elements from the first film, repeated with mild variation rather than being expanded upon. It’s like Francher and Green had definite ideas that they wanted to explore, but not enough threads to tie them all together. Beyond just having unanswered plot elements on top of that, it genuinely feels like things are in this film either to fill up space (the lengthy shots, the inexplicable Elvis hologram scene, etc.) or to set up future instalments (the replicant resistance movement, Wallace’s machinations involving his own replicants, etc.). The original film was self-contained and all the players on screen felt like they had a reason to be there, both of which are conspicuously absent here.

All in all, even considering my own lukewarm impressions of the original film, none of this seems like material worthy of the lofty praise this film has gotten so far. The acting is very good and the production values are solid, letting Villeneuve show that he still has an awful lot to offer the world of SF, but the writing combined with the plodding pace make this a half-hearted retread of the main conceits of the original. Sure, there may be nuances that I’m missing and require additional viewings to grasp (same goes for the original and all the contradictory recuts it has), but if it’s not engaging me on any real level at this stage, I’m struggling to see why I should entertain the idea of sitting through this again. Knowing how much Villeneuve has impressed me over the last few years, and how much stock I put in him as a filmmaker, this is depressingly underwhelming. The best part of the film was the relationship between K and Joi, and if I want to see a film about romance involving computers, I’ll just watch Her again.

No comments:

Post a Comment