Saturday, October 7, 2017

Do Androids Dream of Electric Love? BLADE RUNNER 2049

Ridley Scott’s proto-cyberpunk sci-fi noir Blade Runner is revived as a ponderous Villeneuve somber spectacle in Blade Runner 2049. Over thirty years after the original, which imagined a dystopian future L.A. with contours – smoggy rain; polyglot class stratifications; enormous looming digital neon advertising – setting the stage for many imitators, the new film digs into the implications of its world. Before, Harrison Ford played a cop tasked with hunting down rogue cybernetic beings called Replicants. Decades later, a new model Replicant played by Ryan Gosling is hunting down the last of the old models who are still hiding out under the radar, living lives of quiet desperation, their illegal problem programming allowing them just enough free will to shake off the yolk of their makers’ expectations. In the opening sequence Gosling flies his hovercar over a vast dried up terrain to a far-flung farm where a gentle giant of a Replicant (Dave Bautista) sighs in resignation, fighting back in futile self-preservation before the younger bot breaks him down and checks him off the wanted list. Sounds like pulp fun, but look and listen to the film’s atmosphere, director Denis Villeneuve using the suspense techniques honed on the likes of his Prisoners and Sicario to turn out slow, carefully considered images with grey-air-and-glowing-screen palates and a soft quiet unsettling as a pot boils in the background. These filmmakers mean to take a movie about robots, holograms, flying cars, and corrupted files very seriously indeed. 

After last year’s Arrival found Villeneuve working with a deep, powerful strain of emotional content – wrapping an egg-headed first-contact story around an effective contemplation of parenthood, memory, and grief – he takes a step back into ice cold dread. This late Blade Runner sequel is merely a speaker-rattling drone, a slow drip accumulation of dread and despair gorgeously lensed by the great Roger Deakins. He paints in greyscale gunmetal tones and harsh neon lights gracefully arcing across beautiful faces and austere jumbles of concrete-and-polymer industrial parks and towering brutalist architecture. This is a future world at once sparse and ornate, underpopulated and overstuffed. The place, brilliantly built out from the iconic look of Scott’s original, is tactile and disturbing in its all-absorbing qualities. The entrancing score – so often sounding like a window-rattling motorcycle engine roaring by outside, or like a pitch-distorted, extremely slowed down dial-up modem – and the beautifully photographed production design does the heavy lifting. Characters here are poses; worldbuilding is ominous terse monologue; emotion is as crisp and empty as watching an android kiss a hologram. We’re to be contemplating the chilly romanticism of digital beings, but it’s hard not to shake the feeling we’re watching ones and zeroes execute their complicated programs. That’s partly the point, but there’s a frustrating surface-level satisfaction to the movie’s long, languorous, cavernous contemplation of its eerie images. I loved a scene where a hologram slides over a human woman and syncs to her movements, an imperfect process of digital possession that creates ever-so-slightly overlapping images. But it looks cool more than it is actually intellectually stimulating.

The film runs nearly three hours, and its pleasures are absorbing but fleeting. Its appeal sits entirely in stoic characters wearing fabulous wardrobe – stiff high collars, starkly starched trench coats – and inhabiting handsomely striking sets – echoing rooms, windswept irradiated landscapes, a theater of holographic entertainers on the fritz, thunderous man-made waterfalls, junkyards exploding in sudden District-9-style bodily harm as sudden death rains from above. It’s the sort of movie interested in exploring the differences between mankind and artificial intelligence, probing the deep mysteries of what makes a soul and what it means to create life, but in which man and robot alike are equally placid and monotone in demeanor. The ace supporting cast – Robin Wright, Sylvia Hoeks, Ana de Armas, Mackenzie Davis, and even Jared Leto (who is fine in his blink-and-you’ll-miss-it turn) – are directed to be effective elements of the art direction, moving and emoting so precisely and mechanistically it makes a mockery of any sense you could figure out who’s real and who’s created. They’re all ghosts in the machine. Villeneuve’s style of handsome foreboding is admirably sustained, putting the script’s grinding inevitability and tangled, deliberately-paced core who-am-I? mystery plotting through a lens of impeccable craftsmanship. I was never bored, but never involved, always stimulated but never fully invested. It’s a remarkable technical achievement, but a hollow emotional and intellectual exercise. It’s incredibly cool and totally cold.