22 October 2017

Blade Runner 2049: An Identity Crisis (Movie Review)

Last week, I went to see Blade Runner 2049, which is the sequel to the 1982 sci fi classic Blade Runner, and I was genuinely curious to see what the director - Denis Villeneuve could do with this fantastical and complex world. I tried my best to keep an open mind, and judge this movie on its own merit, and not just as the sequel to Blade Runner.

One of the consequences of having been writing reviews for over two years is that when I'm watching a movie I can't turn off the part of my mind that is responsible for all the nitpicking and critical thinking. I can no longer just see a movie as a fan, as I am constantly thinking about what I'm going to write once I get home. This is a minor nuisance that can sometimes make it difficult for me to enjoy a movie. Perhaps, it's this over-analyzing that kept me from liking Blade Runner 2049.

I have tried to keep my emotions out of this review. I've tried to keep my arguments clean and sober. Ironically, it isn't my irrational love for the original that made me dislike the sequel. Nor was it any in-universe changes and world-building choices made by the screenwriters. My strong dislike of Blade Runner 2049 has to do with the structural and tonal flaws of the movie itself.

WARNING: this review contains spoilers for the original Blade Runner, and some minor spoilers for Blade Runner 2049.

Title: Blade Runner 2049  
Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Screenplay by: Hampton Fancher and Michael Green
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, and Jared Leto
Premiere date in Sweden: October 5, 2017

Just like the original, Blade Runner 2049 starts with an opening crawl that sets up the plot, and teases the central conflict of the movie. The words look clunky on screen, and I was reminded of the innumerable plot summaries I used to write for my own brilliant projects. And even though that one detail made me a little uneasy about what was to come, I wasn't going to judge the whole film based on that one nitpick.

In short, the movie is about Ryan Gosling's hero - "K", who is the next generation blade runner, a special task police officer whose job is to hunt down and "retire" rogue replicants. I say, "next generation" because "K" himself is a replicant, one of the latest models, known for their obedience and loyalty, which makes them the perfect blade runners.

In the original, it was strongly hinted at that Deckard himself was a replicant. This uncertainty was one of the things that made the original so interesting and gave the story and Deckard's role in it a whole new dimension. More importantly, the question was never answered, and was left open to interpretation.

In the sequel, however, we learn about "K”: s true nature from the very beginning. And that's because "K”: s identity crisis is supposed to be the central conflict of the movie. "K”: s journey, which starts with a rather messy "retirement" and leads him to a massive cover-up makes him come face to face with a possibility that he might be human after all.

So, for the most part of the movie we follow "K" as he's trying to figure out whether he's human. "K" is Pinocchio, and we want to believe that after all the trials and tribulations, the Fairy with Turquoise Hair will descend from the skies, and reward "K" by turning him into a real boy. That is a good story. That is a good central conflict, and it's the only central conflict this movie really needs.

But since this is a sequel to the original Blade Runner, there just has to be a McGuffin that will connect "K”: s story to Deckard's past. And this is where the movie, at least storywise, falls apart.

The original was a noir detective that made you ask interesting philosophical questions. It had a small story set in a big world. The scale of that world, that awe-inspiring grandeur was only hinted at, as the story remained on the ground-level of the futuristic Los Angeles, and focused on a handful of characters. These were characters whose motives, and fears we understood, and even if we couldn't directly relate to them, we could at least respect their motives.

Take then "K", who is suffering from a bad case of identity crisis. He is a replicant and he knows it. As loyal and obedient as he is, he's still scorned by society, and has to endure verbal abuse from other cops on a daily basis. His nature renders him lonely and isolated. He has no connections to the world; no friends; no family. As a replicant blade runner his existence is defined by one thing - terminating other replicants. His life has no meaning outside of the task he was designed to perform.

So, when "K" is faced with a very real possibility that he might be human after all, we root for him. We see him for the vulnerable, lonely human being that he is. Gosling gives a stoical but incredibly heartfelt performance, bringing this complex character to life. How disappointing is it then that "K" is the only such character in a movie filled with stock characters, and rigid stereotypes.

Sure, "K" is surrounded by characters with more or less defined goals, and motives but their actions are subservient to the plot, and tell us nothing about who these people are. I want to say that Deckard is still the complex antihero we remember from the original but there is nothing in his actions or motivations that would support my argument, as the only reason he's in this movie is to remind us that we're watching the sequel to Blade Runner.

Which brings me to my biggest issue with Blade Runner 2049"K" isn't the only one with an identity crisis.

Deckard is but an echo if his former self, and has nothing to offer to the story save for some awkward exposition and quippy lines. And yet, this pale husk of one of the most interesting characters in cinema takes center stage, as "K" - the actual hero of this movie - becomes a sidekick in his own story. The attempts to connect "K" to Deckard's past are not only clumsy, but also unnecessary, and offer some of the worst examples of nostalgia bating, and fan-service I have seen in a long time. (Not to sound harsh, but how much faith did the filmmakers have in their own movie, if they had to include actual clips and soundbites from the original?)

In other words, Blade Runner 2049 doesn't know what story it wants to tell. Is it "K”: s story or is it Deckard's story? The movie's identity crisis is reflected in its tone as much as in the storytelling itself.

From the opening scene, as the sound effects department was trying to drown me with ominous music, I got an instant feeling that this movie was trying  too hard.

This movie is trying too hard to be like the original, only bigger, and louder. Everything has to be twice, four times as big, from the architecture, to the post-Inception soundtrack. If there is anything we have learned from the army of sequels, and reboots, is that bigger doesn't always mean better. Sometimes less is more. But the filmmakers don't seem to realize that. I want to say that the filmmakers don't seem to realize what it was that made the original so good, but one of the screenwriters (Hampton Fancher) also co-wrote the original, so I don't really know what to say. 

The world in the original, the monstrous Los Angeles looked and felt gritty and lived-in. The city felt vibrant and alive not only because of the neon explosions of colours, but because of the feeling that the filmmakers had created. Los Angeles of 2019 felt real because of the contrast created between the bright and glossy advertisement, and the dark dirty back alleys; between the seedy glamour of the pleasure districts, and the hectic reality of the food market. Los Angeles was a character, and it had a story to tell. There wasn't a shot that made the city look desolate, or barren. It was a city plagued by overpopulation and yet, it was so easy to feel lonely and isolated there.

In contrast, the world of 2049 looks hollow and desolate. We see a lot of wide shots of barren landscapes and dusty horizons. We see giant ruins that look like leftovers from a Leni Riefenstahl movie. Visually, this is supposed to represent "K”: s loneliness and isolation. I get that. However, Deckard's loneliness and isolation were just as tangible - if not more so - while he was surrounded by hundreds of people.

This imagery is also supposed to show a world that is slowly falling apart. For instance, there are mentions of a "blackout" that almost destroyed the civilization. Meanwhile, the periphery of California is succumbing to chaos and neglect, as Los Angeles is continuing to grow, not unlike a tumour. If this is the visual language that the filmmakers have chosen, fine. I can respect that. But they can't seem to decide what visual language, what tone they want to adapt. Is it the multiple shades of sepia borrowed from The Book of Eli, or is it the busy neon colour pallet of the original Blade Runner? And whenever the movie comes back to its stylistic roots, it looks like it's trying too hard to look and to sound like the original.

It's tonally dissonant, and doesn't know what kind of movie it wants to be. Is it a neo noir detective that's faithful to is roots or is it a post-apocalyptic action flick? What we're left with are a lot of half-baked ideas, clumsy storytelling, and a very uneven visual tone.

If it seems that I'm making a case against Blade Runner 2049 because it's a sequel to a much beloved film, this couldn't be further from the truth. As stated above, I was curious to see what story the filmmakers could tell. I was looking forward to this movie. Let's not forget that the original Blade Runner was based on a book. Yet it was original, and created a legacy of its own. It also created a world so vast and complex that it seemed almost a crime not to revisit it. It's a world with a nearly endless amount of possibilities to tell good stories about interesting people. What a pity is it that the only other entry in this series we got in over three decades turned out the way it did. * 

That's not to say that this movie doesn't have any redeeming qualities. As mentioned, I like "K”: s tragic story, and Gosling's performance is the strongest part of this movie. I also like the retro-futuristic visuals in some of the scenes, and how reminiscent they are of the classic sci fi I love so much. I respect the ambition, and the effort put in this production. I just wish the filmmakers had more courage to be original, and make a movie that could stand on its own. 

*PS. There is actually a film that claims to be a "side-quel" to Blade Runner. It's called Soldier, and it was written by David Webb Peoples, who also co-wrote the screenplay for the original Blade Runner. with Hampton Fancher.  

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