Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Blade Runner 2049 (Warner Bros., Sony/Columbia, Alcon Entertainment, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I went to the San Diego Public Library to see the 2017 sequel to Blade Runner, director Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049, which involved one of the original screenwriters, Hampton Fancher, creating a “new” story based on the characters and situations of the original film (which he had adapted — rather freely, according to the imdb.com page of the original — from Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) and co-writing the actual script with Michael Green. Alas, Ridley Scott, director of the original Blade Runner, wasn’t involved in this one except in some shadowy “associate producer” capacity, and the result was a terrible movie, one of the worst sequels ever made and a total disgrace to the memory of the film it was supposedly a sequel to. The talent gap between Scott and Villeneuve as directors is even broader than that between Stanley Kubrick and Peter Hyams on 2001: A Space Odyssey and its sequel, 20102001 was such a great and amazing film no one, probably not even Kubrick himself, could have made a sequel that would have equaled it, but Hyams came a lot closer than Villeneuve did. I’d never seen the original Blade Runner until the night before, when I ran it for Charles at least in part so I could see the two on consecutive nights and come to the new one with the first vividly in my memory, and though the version of Blade Runner we watched on Sunday was the 1991 edition billed as the “Director’s Cut,” it actually was the least “authoritative” version in terms of Ridley Scott’s actual involvement in the editing. The original film was taken away from Scott by its producers at the last minute and, though he was kept on salary and not officially fired, a voice-over narration was added without his consent or involvement (or that of the original writers, Fancher and David Webb Peoples) — and judging from the quotes on the imdb.com page it was awfully cornball and ridiculously close to the conventions of 1940’s film noir (and its writer, Roland Kibbee, was someone old enough to have contributed to actual 1940’s films!). 

The version released in 1991 was actually edited without Scott’s involvement since he had already moved on to his next film, the Christopher Columbus biopic 1492: Conquest of Paradise, though the people who did edit it tried to follow Scott’s notes as much as possible. It seems from imdb.com’s “trivia” notes on the new one that the versions Villenueve, Fancher and Green considered canonical and to which they made their film a sequel were the original 1982 theatrical release (which contained an unambiguously “happy” ending in which Deckard and Rachael, the characters played by Harrison Ford and Sean Young, got together and fled the scene in the post-apocalyptic Los Angeles where the film took place) and the 2007 “Final Cut,” ironically the only one in which Ridley Scott was directly involved in the editing (and in which, among other things, he used digital technology that hadn’t existed in 1982 to erase the wires suspending the flying cars and do other “tweaks” on the effects). I got my first warning that Blade Runner 2049 would not necessarily be my cup of tea when Tracy, the woman from the San Diego Public Library who has just been put in charge of their film screenings and was making her debut in that role last night, announced that the film’s running time was 164 minutes — just 16 minutes shy of three hours — compared to the original film’s 110 to 117 minutes. I remember losing all interest in seeing Peter Jackson’s King Kong remake after finding out it ran three hours and 10 minutes (the original King Kong’s first cut was 140 minutes; producer and co-director Merian Cooper edited it down to a 100-minute release and many of the technicians, lamenting the immense amount of time and energy they had put into creating beautiful and vivid sequences no audience would ever get to see, were horrendously upset, but as Orville Goldner — an effects technician on the original film — and George Turner acknowledged in their book The Making of “King Kong,” “Cooper was right, of course. He set his jaw and cut his own ideas with a ruthlessness that must have given him nightmares. In doing this he delivered to the public a movie that holds the attention during every one of its scenes, each second of its 100 minutes.” 

I think modern filmmakers are all too conscious of 1) the immense investment of time and money any film sequence involves, which leads them to throw everything they shot into the final cut whether it actually helps tell the story and move the viewer or not, and 2) the high cost of movie tickets, which leads at least some audience members to feel short-changed if a film doesn’t cross the 2 ½-hour mark even if it could have told its story better, and hence entertained the audience more, if it had been shorter. Blade Runner 2049 lasts an hour longer than its predecessor and offers surprisingly few of the elements that made the original interesting (and though I don’t think it’s one of the finest science-fiction films ever made it is a work of obvious power and quality, and it’s set the template for how to film stories by Philip K. Dick as well as other writers tapping his paranoid, surrealistic world view). The original was one of the most glorious-looking films ever made, with a fumata (smoky) quality Scott and cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth created which led me to comment while Charles and I watching it that this is what a science-fiction film directed by Josef von Sternberg would have looked like. Though Roger Deakins won an Academy Award for cinematography for Blade Runner 2049, his work is quite dull, shot in the steely grey that seems to be filmmakers’ default look for everything that they don’t make all dirty, yucky-looking browns and greens (I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: if modern filmmakers are so bound and determined to use so little of the visible spectrum, why don’t they just shoot in black-and-white like their classic-era forebears?) — Blade Runner 2049 has the look of the Underworld movies, only there it worked because it served as a convenient visual shorthand to separate the world of the vampires and werewolves from normal human reality even though the Underworld films, like Anne Rice’s vampire tales, are supposed to be taking place in our own time. 

At least part of that may be due to a twist in the story writer Fancher invented to cover the 30 years between 2019, when the first Blade Runner takes place, and 2049: in the 2020’s the entire ecosystem of Earth broke down and the human race would have died out completely if not for super-capitalist Niander Wallace (played by Jared Leto after Villeneuve’s interesting first choice, David Bowie, died before the film was made), who invented a way of making synthetic food that could sustain the human population. He also invented a new run of replicants — the robots from the first film — to run his synthetic farms, and he programmed them to make sure they would be obedient and not rebel against humanity like the first batch of replicants made by the now-defunct Tyrrell Corporation had. Enough of the first replicants survived — including the Nexus 8 models, one step higher than the Nexus 6’s depicted in the first Blade Runner and not subject to the deliberately limited four-year lifespan of previous replicants — that there is still a need for Blade Runners, the members of a special police force designed to exterminate (though the euphemism they use is “retire”) any of the leftover Tyrrell Nexus replicants, which in the first film were still legal in the “Off-World” colonies but are now illegal everywhere, “Off-World” as well as on Earth itself. Also, the ecological catastrophe of the 2020’s has decimated the population of the future Los Angeles, so instead of a polyglot world crowded with people of different nationalities and speaking a language Philip K. Dick called “Cityspeak” — his conceit was that all the languages spoken in the future Los Angeles would have got mashed up with each other and coalesced into a new argot, sort of like “Spanglish” only more like Spangrussofinndutchjapanchineseglish — the new Los Angeles is a now-fashionable dystopian wasteland, barely populated and so denuded of natural vegetation that the wooden toy horse that figures prominently in the plot is actually worth more money than a real horse would be. (According to the imdb.com “trivia” section on Blade Runner, in Dick’s original novel virtually all animals have become extinct, too.) 

The paucity of life in the current Blade Runner 2049 matches the paucity of imagination in Fancher’s new script and Villeneuve’s dull direction, which stretches a story premise that just might have made a taut, fast, exciting 90-minute film into just about twice that much running time. The plot centers around a new Blade Runner, K-D6-3.7 (Ryan Gosling, who seems to think that if he glowers throughout his entire role he can get people to accept him as the legitimate successor to Harrison Ford — though he’s not helped much by Fancher and Green, who don’t give him any scenes like the marvelous one in which Ford’s character posed as a morals enforcer to question a stripper, reminiscent of Humphrey Bogart’s masquerade as an effeminate professor to question the employee of a crooked bookstore in The Big Sleep), though he’s later nicknamed “Joe” in what’s variously been considered a reference to the Old Testament Joseph (the young man sold into slavery in Egypt who later became Pharoah’s prime minister), the New Testament Joseph (Jesus’s father, stepfather or foster-father, depending on which version of the legend you believe), or the protagonist of Franz Kafka’s novel The Trial, Joseph K. He’s assigned by a quite androgynous woman who’s his direct supervisor to track down a child — which later turns out to be two children, a boy and a girl with identical DNA (which, of course, is impossible) — who was actually born out of a replicant’s womb even though replicants aren’t supposed to have uteruses, produce eggs or do any of the other things human females have to for our species to reproduce. Niander Wallace wants to find the mother of these kids because he’s concerned that he can’t produce enough replicants in his factories to supply the demand for them in the Off-World colonies — in his insistence that civilization depends on there being a permanent servant class he sounds a lot like John C. Calhoun in his famous speeches defending slavery, especially when he protests that with all our damned-fool notions about human equality the permanent service class can’t be human, just as Calhoun said that because the U.S. was built on the proposition that all white males were created equal, our permanent servant class couldn’t be white — and he wants to find the mutation that allowed a woman replicant to have kids like a human so he can duplicate it and the future generations of replicants will simply grow themselves.

Through much of the movie it’s hinted that K. is one of the two kids — though that’s never made clear in the film, just as it was never made clear either in the original Blade Runner or this one whether Harrison Ford’s character, who reappears here as the actor has naturally aged, was or wasn’t a replicant himself. (Charles and I actually argued about that after we watched the first film: I was convinced Deckard was a replicant and he was equally convinced he wasn’t, and the fact that he has aged in the new film is persuasive but not decisive evidence that he isn’t.) In the search through all those ugly, deserted streets and his encounters with other creatures, both human and replicant, who beat him up and/or get beaten by him, K. a.k.a. “Joe” tracks down the old Deckard and finally K. takes Deckard to meet the woman he tells Deckard is his daughter, Dr. Ana Stelline (Carla Duri), who lives in a glass bubble because she has a compromised immune system and can’t be exposed to germs or just about anything else in this highly degenerated and filthy human environment — and who seems to have been included in Fancher’s and Green’s script only because they wanted a Yoda-like figure in their mix (which probably gave Harrison Ford dèja vu feelings when he read the script!). There are some intriguing touches in the script reminiscent of the ones Fancher supplied in the first one, including the explanation K. gets that the children he’s looking for were “born, not made” (from the “begotten, not made” explanation of Jesus’s origins in the Nicene Creed) and the ruin Deckard is living in when K. first encounters him. It’s called the “Vintage Casino” and I’m presuming it’s what’s left of the Shanghai Gesture-ish casino/bar where one of the most effective sequences from the first Blade Runner took place, and among the entertainment on offer via machines that have somehow remained in working order are holographic simulations of Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley. I’m sure Fancher was using those particular entertainers because both Sinatra and Elvis have been the stars of fake “live” performances staged after their deaths, with their parts supplied from film clips and voice-only recordings while live musicians perform as accompanists.

For the most part, however, Blade Runner 2049 is just monumentally dull; Ryan Gosling, ordinarily one of my favorite living actors (he’s been high up on my list since his magnificent performance as a troubled teen in the film The United States of Leland, which I saw at a press screening and gave the rave review it deserved, and it looks like with his next film, playing Neil Armstrong in First Man, a casting director has finally realized a long-standing hope of mine and put Gosling into a movie in which he gets to play someone normal!), is just dull here, and so are the pretty interchangeable actresses who play the women more or less in his life (a far cry from the strongly etched female characters of the first Blade Runner!). This film almost arbitrarily ignores just about all the elements that made the first Blade Runner interesting and substitutes almost nothing in their place but boredom and a sense of High Importance not borne out by the relative banality of the material. Rarely has so much money, time and effort been wasted on a cause as hopeless as Blade Runner 2049; I don’t rate the original as highly as some people do (its imdb.com “Trivia” page cites a number of polls in which it was voted the best science-fiction film of all time — in my mind Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is the finest science-fiction film of all time, hands down, and I’m certainly not expecting to see a better one in my lifetime, while the next four in my ranking would be the 1972 Russian Solaris — not the ghastly remake with George Clooney — Fritz Lang’s Metropolis in the intermediate restoration, and the original 1950’s versions of The Day the Earth Stood Still and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the last of which deserves the “first science-fiction film noir” title often given to Blade Runner), but the original Blade Runner is a fine enough film it did not deserve the dishonor of this dull, putrid sequel! (And I read from imdb.com that Denis Villeneuve’s next proposed project is a remake of Frank Herbert’s Duneplease, Monsieur Villeneuve, don’t desecrate another great science-fiction story by a major author in the genre!)