REVIEW: Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve, 2017)

If there’s only one time you want to make it to a movie theatre in 2017, it should be now.  This seems to be the only movie worth braving the crowds, incessant stench of over-buttered popcorn, traffic, and noise to go outside to watch.  It’s got everything anyone should want from a movie, except perhaps a satisfying finale.  And since I actually think it’s worth seeing, I’ll be avoiding spoilers for this review.

The trailers for Blade Runner 2049 fortunately didn’t seem to explain a whole lot.  Nor, apparently, did they need to; there wasn’t much to explain in the first place.  What did the trailers reveal about the movie’s plot?  There’s a child involved, the main character is played by Ryan Gosling, and he has to go find Deckard for some reason.  Oh, and there’s a strange mad scientist man with a God complex.  Well, it turns out that this is exactly what the movie is about.  Keep it relatively simple, throw in a decent mystery, and do your damnedest to avoid making too many Biblical metaphors.

But remember: Blade Runner 2049 is an artsy sci-fi movie made in contemporary Hollywood: a uniquely Modern form of Hell overpopulated by that amusing liberal breed of enlightened, pseudo-intellectual atheists.  Against the odds, they managed to limit most of the obvious Biblical nonsense-babble to the lips of only one character (you can guess who that is based on the trailers), but the influence pervades the narrative in other ways that, fortunately, manage not to be too intrusive.  The film’s story is weighed down in other areas—namely questions of metaphysics and Man’s purpose—but even those happen to be mild in comparison to most ham-handed excuses for frivolity that masquerade as science fiction today.

The original Blade Runner was not a terribly sophisticated movie.  It had an obvious plot and it threw in a few philosophical crumbs to spice the action, but it was immersive in its mood and absolutely stunning in its presentation.  There was that angle included in the director’s cuts of the film which suggested that Deckard was a replicant himself, but that was just the silly backwash of a director whose only watchable films seemed to have been flukes, and it’s easily ignored anyway.  The meat of the story remains uninterrupted by the philosophical musings of tenth-graders who just read their first Asimov novels, and it comes out stronger for it.

Due to the change in the way films are written, namely Hollywood’s interest in writing every R-rated thriller film for audiences with emotional and intellectual IQs comparable to toddlers, the refreshing general lack of ham-fisted babble simply can’t be found in the sequel.  While it’s thankfully limited to a handful of scenes, those scenes tend to drag, and worse, they seem to be included solely to make the viewer feel like they’re intelligently watching an intelligent film (for intelligent people, such as themselves).  Only in the case of the villain’s handful of monologues could it be said that the nonsense spewing out of his mouth adds a more sinister edge to his character’s motivations.

People already argue online about whether they “got it” or not.  Most of them probably did, but there is a distinct sense of wishful thinking that pervades the film.  The world of Blade Runner is, presumably, a mostly-Godless one; replicants, having reached that mythical state of AI that seems indistinguishable from human action, have confronted Mankind with the terrible thought that men are no more than collections of programmable parts.  And the humans of Blade Runner have no answer to this.  “Suppress the knowledge!” is one character’s response—one of the few humans in the movie, no less—but that never works.

The movie even addresses the possession of souls, if briefly, yet the conversation lacks punch because the Soul is such an ill-defined concept in the modern world.  It’s impossible to discern what it could mean in the world of Blade Runner.  And meanwhile, the main plot point around which the whole film revolves is presented as a literal miracle—and it would presumably have to be, given the deterministic framework Blade Runner presumes.  But by the end of it, none of it really adds up to form any meaningful semblance of a fulfilling story.  The most you can glean from it is a somewhat depressing yet spot-on depiction of a dystopian neo-noir: at best it’s absurd, at worst, nihilistic.  Talk of heroism, doing the right thing, and being real—all in a world in which it’s ambiguous as to whether human beings are even real in any meaningful sense—ends up as little more than wishful thinking.  If you seriously believe that the world has no meaning and that men are little more than complicated and squishy gearboxes, then terms like heroism and sacrifice don’t mean anything at all.  You could dress it up with a silly leap of faith—somehow, it just does mean something!—but that’s just empty posturing.  Much of this ties into what I think the film is really about: love, and specifically the meaning of the relationships between men and women, but I’ll be writing a more complete post on that later this week.

Up until roughly the last fifteen or twenty minutes of the film, the importance of this aspect of the story is very small, which helps keep the movie’s focus away from the ponderous, vague questions of metaphysics and towards the more interesting details of the protagonist’s life.  It’s an extremely character-driven narrative that takes its time and lets the audience get a really, really good look at the world around him.  Visually, Blade Runner 2049 is one of the most stunning major motion pictures of the last twenty years, speaking the visual language of Modernism within the context of a thoroughly Modern story.  And like Modernism, the hues it comes draped in are largely uniform, simple, pleasing to the eye, and taken one at a time, even while it constructs a world that no one would ever want to live in.  It is a beautiful film shot almost entirely in ugly locations—deserts, junkyards, brutalist concrete buildings, and cramped apartments.

It is certainly worth seeing and, so far, the best film of the year.  It probably won’t make you think that much, despite what some of the teenagers online might insist, but it’s a mostly successful endeavor in spite of that.  If nothing else, experiencing the spectacle of its landscapes, imagery, and the strength of its performances on the big screen is worth the price of admission alone.

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