Blade Runner 2049

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I’m very familiar with the original Blade Runner, because I used to teach it as an exam text to my students. And, along with two or three other films (including The Exorcist, The Shining, and The Conformist), it’s a film I grew to love more every time I went through it. So I’d probably rank it among the top ten films ever made. It took Vertigo forty years (or four polls) to crawl its way to the top of the BFI 100 list, and though I can’t see Blade Runner getting there as soon as 2022, it’s a better film, for me, than 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was at number 69 in 2012, while 2001 was at number 6.

So there was no pressure on Denis Villeneuve in making this sequel.

My four five-year social media blackout meant that I didn’t even know Villeneuve was directing. I managed to avoid knowing anything about this film, including its title, until about two weeks ago. I have no idea why Ridley Scott chose not to direct.

I know I’m not alone in adopting this blackout policy. It’s a reaction to the oversaturated media landscape, and a content industry that prioritises clicks above everything else. If you genuinely care about something, it’s painful to hear even the most uninformed speculation about it. Back in the 90s, a “spoiler” was somebody telling you plot details; now, it’s just a feeling of being overexposed to something, so that you feel as if it has been watched for you. You’re overtaken by a feeling of enervation and simply can’t be arsed. I was looking at the iTunes movie store for something to rent last night, and there was nothing I felt like watching. I haven’t seen the most recent Star Trek film, for example, but the thought of sitting through it just made me feel tired. Anyway, here’s what I think all good internet citizens should do: don’t “review” or “preview” or speculate about anything until it’s out.

You can have the Deckard-is-a-replicant or Deckard-is-Gaff discussion as much as you like: but after everybody’s had a chance to see something. Looking at the production history section of the Wikipedia article now, I’m struck by how fucking repetitive and boring all of the reports are. The frenzy of question-and-answer simply revolved around whether Harrison Ford would be in it, and you just wonder why people obsess on such details.

I got something of that feeling sitting through the trailers “specially selected” to play before BR 2049. What a load of old shit. The intelligent and thought-provoking big ideas of Blade Runner wadded up like snotty tissue with the loud nonsense of barrel scraping superhero franchises. Urgh.

The relatively new Odeon at Milton Keynes Stadium is a decent enough venue. It never seems to be horribly crowded, and doesn’t smell of rancid fat, which is a bonus. BR 2049 was playing on multiple screens: you could see it in IMAX (no thanks), or 3D (no ta), or 2D. Sitting in the 2D theatre before the showing, the loud rumbling from the IMAX theatre next door was unpleasantly gut-twisting, that almost below hearing threshold bass making me feel a bit sick.

And because the showings were out of synch, you could still hear the theatre next door during the quieter sections of my showing, which was a bit of a bummer. Some sound leakage might be inevitable, but it’s a complete certainty given the sheer volume at which the film was being played.

I’ve never understood the volume people. I suppose they must be extroverts who are afraid of quiet. The audio volume in the theatre I was in was so extreme that the sound was obviously being distorted. This was a real shame, as one of the key marvels of the Blade Runner film(s) is the soundscape. But here it was being rammed so violently into my ears that its subtleties were being lost. I’m not counting that a black mark against the film, but against the exhibitor, in this case the Odeon.

Anyway, I’m pretty sure the BR 2049 soundtrack is a marvel, but can’t really be sure. The production design, lighting, and cinematography was brilliant, and I appreciated the world-building, which did not patronise or “as you know” the audience. Needless to say, shit had gone down between 2019 and 2049.

The narrative plot was a little bit thin, I thought, but then the plot of the original was also quite slight. What I did find interesting this time was the way in which the atmosphere and ambiguity of the original book was baked-in. The fucked climate and environment of the future was foregrounded, and the rarity and luxury of natural substances like wood, like real animals, was crucially important. So there are moments in this film that go unexplained, just like in the original, which I really appreciate. Ultimately, a film is only great if it rewards further viewings. There’s also a strong similarity between Ryan Gosling’s “K” and the original cop of the novel: his desire to fulfil his “wife’s” every desire, for example. And then there’s that feeling, far more foregrounded than in the original, that literally anybody could be a replicant. A nice reference to the unicorn sequence, too.

So, this was great, I think. It’s almost a shame that there was no shitty voice-over that can be subsequently removed, but at least we can hope that there might be missing sequences that can be put back in. My favourite scene was the bit in the waves, which reminded me a lot of the ending of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora: the feeling that, no matter how much humanity tries to destroy this planet, nature has the power to overwhelm and wash over us.

This was a film that made me not want to reach a verdict or a conclusion, which means I want to watch it a few more times: which is as it should be.

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Blade Runner revisited

I was 19 when I first saw Blade Runner. That year, 1982, was also the year of ET, Poltergeist, The Thing, Tron, Star Trek II, and a lot of other decent, but non-genre movies. This was the era of Ghostbusters, Gremlins, Starman, films that followed the successes of Alien and Close Encounters in the 70s, not to mention that other thing.

The original theatrical release was the one with the voiceover and happy ending and without the unicorn sequence. At the time, I didn’t think it was a bad thing. This was Ridley Scott’s follow-up to Alien; this one director had already made two of the best science fiction films of all time. But Blade Runner was a flop, right? Not to me, at least.

I was at university in Nottingham 10 years later, when the Director’s Cut was released. We were all excited to see the legendary (but not from Legend!) unicorn sequence, and to see the film without the voice over telling us what to think. The rumour that the sequence came from Legend relates to the way in which the waking dream doesn’t look like the rest of the film, I think. The lighting is different, the colour palette is different. But back then, I tended to receive the film in terms of its narrative plot, and, like everyone, I was fascinated by the question of Deckard’s status.

Now that I’ve watched the film (including the Final Cut) so many times because of teaching; now that I’ve paused and discussed it and dissected it, shot by shot; I see it almost entirely in terms of its visuals. I still find the question of Deckard’s status somewhat interesting (Deckard is Gaff), but I now see more visual clues than narrative clues, if you know what I mean. For example, the film is thoroughly obsessed with eyes, from its opening sequence through to the end. The eyes are the windows to the soul, and the artificial people and animals in the film all have red eyes (because they have no souls).

As to the unicorn, its painterly qualities actually match the painterly qualities of the rest of the movie. The scene when Deckard explores the Bradbury apartment while Pris hides under a veil looks like a Renoir or a Manet painting, the street scenes look like Hopper, and the production design is all Moebius.

I watched the new BFI print of The Final Cut at the new Odeon cinema in Milton Keynes yesterday. There was a queue at the entrance to screens 1-6 and we joined the back of it without asking whether it was the right queue. Of course it was the right queue. I said to my daughter, ‘Just look at the age demographic and the preponderance of spectacles.’ I could have added that it was a mostly male crowd, but I didn’t do a headcount. But this was definitely a group of people who had all seen the film before. Perhaps this will be the last time I see it on a big screen? Who knows. I watched with mixed feelings. I know the film inside out.

The big screen revealed some odd focusing issues in some scenes. At first I was willing to blame the projector, but it was clear in other, sharper shots, that the projector was fine. No, there are so many big close-ups in the film of actors who are in motion that the focus wobbles at times. I think if Ridley Scott had had more time and more budget he would have reshot these.

There are lots of uncomfortable scenes. The violent confrontation at the end is painful to watch. That’s the power of cinema, that transference of empathy from the screen to the audience through the anchor character to whom we relate. But one scene that stands out as discomfiting to modern sensibilities is the one where Deckard more or less forces himself on Rachael as she tries to leave his apartment. The scene plays out with her pinned by him against a wall and repeating what he tells her to say (‘Kiss me’). But then there’s a moment where she volunteers: ‘Put your hands on me,’ she says. So it’s all right, is it?

Rachael has just discovered that she is a replicant. She has feelings for Deckard. She doesn’t trust these feelings, because they might not be her own. That’s the source of her reluctance. What’s the source of Deckard’s forcefulness? Does he want her to understand that feelings are real even if memories are false? Or does he think that it can’t be rape if it’s a replicant? The whole thrust of his job is that replicants don’t have human rights.

One major problem with the idea of Deckard as a replicant is that he not only feels pain, but appears to be weaker than the others. He can’t jump across rooftops like Roy Batty. He gets beaten up a lot by all four of the escaped replicants. The only one he appears to be able to best physically is Rachael, whom he is able to force against the wall quite easily.

‘You did a man’s job,’ says Gaff at the end. As I pointed out to my daughter, Gaff doesn’t say, ‘You did a man’s job,’ he says the line without emphasis, as if saying, ‘You did some other guy’s job,’ which is to say, ‘You did my job.’ I think both of Edward James Olmos’ last lines might be fluffed. I reckon it’s possible that the shortness of time and the budget overruns meant that they simply couldn’t do multiple takes and had to live with these badly spoken lines. ‘Too bad she won’t live, but then again who does?’ is said with a fade on the last couple of words that robs them of emphasis and conviction.

Mistake? Or genius?

The film is visually stunning, and has an incredible soundtrack, an electronic version of a 1940s film noir score. For those reasons alone, it’s a must-see at the cinema. It’s also a thoughtful film as it explores the humanity of its non-human characters. When Batty rescues Deckard at the end, he shows that he values life, and displays a human empathy that seems to be lacking in the human characters. You’ve already seen it, but see it again.

Here be spoilers: Prometheus

BLADE RUNNER

BLADE RUNNER (Photo credit: Adam Crowe)

So it’s not a direct prequel, taking place on a different planet than the one they land on at the beginning of Alien.

Is that a cop-out? Maybe. On the other hand, Ridley Scott clearly went to pains to distance this film from Alien while staying in the same fictional universe.

So I emerged with a vague sense of disappointment, because I’d gone to great lengths to avoid as much pre-publicity and discussion about the film – even going as far as offending some people on the Twitter. But then I do that every day. Probably.

But it turned out that there were no surprises in the film, not really. Even though I’d done my best to learn NOTHING about it, I could have predicted most of it, if asked.

Then I ask myself, what if I had never seen Alien or Blade Runner, two of the best films of all time, and probably the best attempts at science fiction ever committed to screen? Would I still feel disappointed?

And the answer to that is probably not. So in other words, let’s cut Ridley Scott a break. Because he is clearly the best director of fully-imagined future worlds, and that is no small thing. If you loved Alien, you couldn’t help the sense of anticipation you felt going into this. Prometheus looks fabulous, with the kind of production design you’d expect from the fully visual thinker Ridley Scott. The only problem I have with it really is that there are too many characters in it. Alien had a nice small cast, but this one adds at least 11 other characters who don’t do much other than get in the way. Maybe it needed to be longer (I would never say that about a film normally, which is saying something).

3D or 2D? Clearly when a studio is spending this much money, the director has no choice. In reality, Ridley Scott is not stupid enough to think 3D is better. I saw the 2D print and it looked great and at no point did I wistfully look towards one of the 3D screens. My 2D showing was full, too, and not all of us were wearing spectacles.

Ridley Scott hints that he’ll do a Blade Runner film. Please don’t tell me anything about it for the next four years.