“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.” Many will recall the iconic farewell monologue by Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) in the original Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982). Neither the lines nor the idea behind them contributed anything concrete to the plot of the film, even added very little to the character of Batty which was by then already established as way larger than life. But the sheer sound of these words put together resonated with a poetic quality which elevated the overall experience of the film.
— kaahon (@kaahonwall) October 6, 2017
Compare to that, the straightforward ‘politically aware’ one-liners from Blade Runner 2049 (Dennis Villeneuve, 2017) such as “Every civilization was built on the back of a disposable workforce” or “The World is built in a wall that separates kind”, etc. They are almost banal in their overtness, providing nothing but information within a sentence. To put it another way, and in a larger context besides the dialogue only, this film simply has no penchant for the poetry of the original film and despite all its arty aspirations (some’d call it pretentions) it replaces the poetry with prose, that too rather ordinary.
The Villeneuve film is quite a poor instance as a sequel as it can’t hold a candle even for a moment, to the original Ridley Scott film. Be it concept, design, execution or anything else, Blade Runner 2049 inevitably falls short. But keeping aside the comparisons, the film fares average at the best, even on its own. A weak screenplay and somewhat narrow directorial vision are the fundamental factors which result in a 2 hr 45 min long film, essentially focussing on a single strand of a typical ‘chose one’ narrative and following his journey and merely imparting visual and aural information and facts and trying to pass it off as ‘world building’. To build a world is to create real spaces, which is easier said than done, and not just construct architectures and leave them like that.
This film takes place after three decades since the the first film. Replicants have been updated to have open-ended lifespan instead of the original 4-year expiry date. They are now being recruited to basically do the dirty job for humans. The plot follows a replicant called K (yeah, Kafka reference spotted!) who holds the title of a blade runner himself while ‘retiring’ the older generation replicants who had gone rogue. On one of his missions, he stumbles upon an information about a child born of a replicant, an idea till then considered as a scientific impossibility. The law enforcement assigns K to find and kill the child since this information can upset the prevailing order where humans claim a natural superiority to the artificial replicants. At the same time, the mysterious entrepreneur Niander Wallace also seeks to lay his hands on this child who might hold the scientific key to replicant reproduction, which will enable him to raise an army of slaves for his colonizing missions in the off-worlds. The rest of the film is practically a race to the finish line, unearthing various facts, memories, information, etc along the way.
As evident from the above, the film is so heavily invested in the plot that even with its mammoth runtime, things just keep happening one after the other like an average detective story. It cannot afford to indulge in any excess or dwell upon the ‘extra-narrative’ moments or reflect upon the possibilities and implications of the narrative. The latter proves to be most detrimental to the overall ethos of the Blade Runner universe. For instance, one of the major counter-productive directorial decisions has been the complete absence of common people, human beings in the images. With all the talk of replicants being enslaved, oppressed, etc, the screen is always filled with them living their lives in the usual routine manner. Thus, the idea of overthrowing the established order in the name of justice lacks the necessary visual motive and comes across rather self-righteous and high-handed.
If one thinks of the screenplay of the Ridley Scott film, there were significant gaps in the plot which opened up exciting possibilities and even some profound ideas about civilization, race, identity, corporate capital, nature of power, etc. For instance, there were nothing on screen to justify why the Replicants were rebelling or what fuelled their desire for life or why Tyrell, the original brains behind all the technology, was such a terrifying presence. Yet they all came together to provide a meaningful canvas filled with distinct brushstrokes which were individually abstract but formed an evocative spectrum when viewed collectively. In the sequel, the gaps are replaced by lack of information and the possibilities of ideas are replaced by possible next stages of the narrative. In other words, the film sets the stage for another possible sequel. Experience is replaced with information. Philosophy has been exchanged here for profit-motive.
Having said that, the film is not completely without its merit although they don’t amount to much in the end. One of the striking aspects of the film has been its meticulous sound design, comprising of realistic, ambient sounds instead of the dominant practice of applying a heavy texture of sound effects. The scene where a police lieutenant is killed by a replicant is particularly well done in terms of sound. Following a brief fight, the camera moves outside the room and thus the idea of her death is only communicated with the sound of broken glass tearing across tissues. Also, the idea of Las Vegas as a decaying wasteland with high levels of radiation, like a graveyard for a great civilization with demolished arches and gigantic broken statues is quite significant since the city is both the entertainment capital and also renowned for its ‘imitation’ architecture. So, when K needs answers, he travels into the depths of the first artificially constructed space meant for pleasure, now lying lifeless and red.
Much has been talked about cinematographer Roger Deakins’ work in the film. There is no doubt he has the highest contribution in the overall stylization of the film. But this can hardly be called his best work for two simple reasons. One is that his images lack a consistency in tonality. Secondly, in the absence of a strong directorial vision, his images seem to gain a life of their own but lack the narratorial purpose. Deakins becomes a painter given a free hand and an endless supply of colours, canvas and brush. And he happily pursues that going in every direction possible such as using bold colours and painting the entire frame with them like Vittorio Storaro or using naturalistic light scheme to illuminate a stripped-down space or even a face, like the works of Sven Nykvist or often resorting to deep focus long shots reminiscent of Greg Tolland. It was exciting and yet pointless at the same time. And that’s why the climactic hand-to-hand combat was especially a let-down where the entire stylization was just swept aside and the entire scene looked as clumsily put together as a ’70s or ’80s B-action movie.
With all the shots fired at Villeneuve and Co. this film is also symptomatic of a larger tendency, even practice. Genre films have been the nearest thing to an original American art form, except for grilled sandwich maybe. This tendency of genre films to aspire towards an aesthetic paradigm borrowed from European art cinema, (e.g. the random quotation of the famous house-on-fire scene from Andrei Tarkovsky’s ‘The Sacrifice’) in order to be considered as serious works of art, is nothing short of being ridiculous. The hand will never fit the glove for all its practical purpose. The glove might be well-tailored but it will only look good if the hand is kept still. At the hint of the slightest movement, it will fall off leaving the hand stark naked.