Reviews

Blade Runner 2049: To Be Human, We Must Want to Be. Or, Where Nostalgia and Progressivism Collide

It’s a strange phenomenon in 2017 that one so often looks at a screen and steps back three or four decades, so deep is our affinity for remakes and reboots. But if the cinema is made to echo life and current events, then it makes sense that our current state of constant “looking back” would be reflected in our on-screen narratives. Blade Runner 2049 could have been a typical sequel: repeating plot points, reintroducing characters, indulging in nostalgia and a wish to see old comforts made new again. With Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Prisoners) at the helm, the Philip K. Dick based tale of artificial slaves and a polluted Earth, finds its philosophical and aesthetic match. It’s by his hand (and eye, and ear) that 2049 doesn’t simply match the Ridley Scott original in beauty and potential, it elevates it.

Long a favorite of film studies classes, 1982’s Blade Runner was canonized less for its slightly murky plot and clunky edits than its striking noir tendencies and highly stylized atmosphere (see Screen-Queen Caroline Madden’s guide for the most clear and necessary breakdown). As a platform for criticism, it was a blank canvas: its looks so bold, its style so high, it begged the critic to read into its lines and lighting and apply whatever theory, philosophy, or psychological reading one could imagine to its likeness. I entered 2049 expecting a plot that may have grown convoluted overtime, victim to a contemporary obsession with creating deep mythology in properties that don’t necessarily require it. What I found, pleasantly, was a renewed commitment to the formalism and chiaroscuro, and what can be found in that eerie blank slate of a picture. A reentry into the lives of replicants who physically and mentally embody that overwhelming aesthetic: something that looks like something familiar, but isn’t.

The lives of replicants haven’t progressed in twenty plus years – they’ve gone backward. Officer K (Ryan Gosling) can’t look his human superiors in the eye, completes a nightly training exercise to ensure he remains at “baseline” (repetitive, simplistic, obedient), and retreats to an apartment sprayed with anti-replicant slurs and an artificial girlfriend who lives in the walls. The A.I. in 2049 is plastic, able to stretch and mold to the whims of new creator Wallace (Jared Leto at his most fantastically self-serious), but not so plastic as to be flexible or undetectable – such was the problem with the original run aways, their search for sense of self a danger to the humans who rely on them to have no such distractions.

The themes are for the most part nothing new, but in an expansion of the film’s original philosophy they run deeper and take root harder. In many ways 2049 is a far more disturbing film than its predecessor – add to the initial concepts of slavery, artificial intelligence, search for purpose, taking lives, and add to it a new bent on procreation. It’s the search for a child that takes centerstage in this installment, and the mystery is a good one – not because you can’t see the answers coming, but because its deeper understanding and ultimate realization of what makes us (or any creation) most human is so strong.

Villeneuve, in the great noir tradition, achieves much of this with atmosphere – be it huge sets, obtrusive light, or the sharpest lines. But the importance of sound – both within the narrative and outside it – is what reverberates deepest. While the initial effect of the booming, vibrating undercurrent of the Wallfisch-Zimmer score may be distancing, it also proves enticing. As K uncovers a long lost memory from a furnace, the sound reflects his (and our) excitement. But its continued prominence denies us any auditory relief once the object has been recovered; there should be a softened music, a sense of wonder. Instead, we are constantly and consistently bombarded by what is. It’s a formal denial of our usual and expected human catharsis that allows us to feel for a moment, what  K, as a replicant, must – a memory of something almost human, that he cannot quite touch.

For those waiting on the reemergence of Deckard (Harrison Ford), there are miles to go before you sleep. But I’d say the wait proves worth it: the man holed up in a version of a Las Vegas casino a shell of himself (who of course was a shell to begin with), and a  plethora of Elvis/Marilyn/Sinatra holograms embody a particularly terrifying sense of joy at the reminder of their existence and sadness at their state of disrepair. All are replicants, each of different eras and complexities, convening in a toxic environment bereft of humans. The only sign of biological life a mysterious (and stunning) apiary full of bees, working away, building a city in a man-made box.

It’s a lot to digest – the images, the sounds, the ideas – but if you choose to go there, what awaits you in these 164 minutes is a haunting reminder that we are not yet our own masters. That replicants can be both good and bad, exact copies and individuals, alone and banded together. It’s a recipe for balance or revolution, depending on who tips the scales, but more importantly, 2049 is a search for what will make a thing most human. Each character, from biological woman Madam/Joshi (Robin Wright) to the binary Joi (Ana de Armas) has an idea of what that should be – a memory, a name, a God. But it’s K, now Joe, alone on the steps, staring up at the snow, who is able to make the most human choice of all. In the words of the best memory maker, Dr. Ana Stelline (Carla Juri), “it’s beautiful, isn’t it?”

by Alex Landers

Alex is a child of the late eighties, a horror fan, and an unapologetic feminist. Playwright and visual artist, too. She writes film criticism at onecriticalbitch.com.

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