19 annotations on an old review of Blade Runner 2049 (Summer Film Log)

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I recently rewatched Blade Runner 2049 (dir. Denis Villeneuve, 2017) on a large television screen via a streaming service, breaking the viewing of this nearly three-hour long film into two nights.

I wrote a lengthy review of Blade Runner 2049 when it came out last year. The review ran over 3,000 words. I won’t repost all of them here, but instead quote from the review and add a few notes on the experience of a second viewing. The bits from the original review are indented, like this—

Like its predecessor, Blade Runner 2049 (dir. Denis Villeneuve, 2017) is also a film about not knowing. 1

1 A second viewing reconfirms this thesis for me. The film’s final moments are ambiguous for the audience—does K live or not? How does Ana Stelline receive Deckard? The film consoles the anxiety of this ambiguity by giving us an image of K in pain but also in peace. K is reconciled to not knowing.

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…K is a model Nexus-9, part of a new line of replicants created by Niander Wallace and his nefarious Wallace Corporation (Jared Leto, who chews up scenery with tacky aplomb).2

2 I get what Leto was doing more on a second viewing. His highly-artificial yet often over-dramatic style is in sharp contrast to the various replicants in the film—Ryan Gosling’s K is particularly naturalistic in comparison. Leto’s Wallace is “real,” but presents as artificial. The performance worked more for me on a second viewing.

Like its prequel, Blade Runner 2049 is detective noir, and also like the original, it often doesn’t bother to clearly spell out any plot connections between cause and effect. Hell, the film employs a symbol in the form of a (literal) shaggy dog. And while BR ’49 never feels shaggy, its expansiveness, its slowness, often drag us away from the urgency of its core plot. K’s quest moves via the film’s own aesthetic energy, and the film is at its best when it lets this aesthetic energy drive its logic.3

3 The film seemed much faster-paced on a second viewing, but that is because the first viewing taught me how to view it. The greatest reward for “knowing” the contours of the plot is that one can attend better to BR ’49’s wonderful aesthetic logic.

The first two hours of BR ’49’s nearly-three-hour run glide on the film’s own aesthetic logic, which wonderfully lays out a series of aesthetic paradoxes: Blade Runner 2049 is both vast but compressed, open but confined, bright white and neon but gray black and dull. It is bustling and cramped, brimming with a cacophony of babble and deafening noise but also simultaneously empty and isolated and mute. It is somehow both slow and fast, personal and impersonal, an art film stretched a bit awkwardly over the frame of a Hollywood blockbuster.4

4 I still agree with most of this, aside from the claim that only the first two hours “glide.” The end is much stronger than I initially gave it credit for. To wit—

The commercial blockbuster touches that BR ’49 winks at early in its plot creep up in its third act. Frankly, the film doesn’t stick its ending.5

5 I was wrong. BR ’49 totally sticks the ending.

The final hour seems driven by a logic external to the aesthetic energies that drive its first two hours—a logic that belongs to the Hollywood marketplace, a market that demands resolution, backstory—more sequels! The film’s initial expansiveness and pacing condenses, culminating in a claustrophobic climax that feels forced. A few late scenes even threaten to push the plot in an entirely different direction. For example, very late in the film we’re introduced to a revolutionary resistance movement that plans to overthrow the Fascist-Police-Corporate-Dystopian-Grubs-for-Food-Farmed-by-Slaves-and-Holy-Hell-It’s-Bad-Etc.-State. The burgeoning resistance scene feels shoehorned in by some film executive who thought The Matrix sequels were a good idea. Sure, the scene does convey a crucial piece of plot information, but reader, there are other ways to achieve such ends. 6

6 While I still feel that the resistance plot is not included as gracefully as it might be, the film is already pushing towards three hours. Furthermore, the film is not about resistance—it is about K and K’s not knowing. I also no longer believe that the “claustrophobic climax” — a truly horrifying fight that takes place under threat of drowning — is forced. (Should I also admit that I had finished my second tallboy and had a terrible need to piss, which made the water-fight all the more excruciating?)

The climactic fight simply wasn’t what I was expecting. A second viewing reveals that I totally missed BR ’49’s water motif, a kind of elemental doubling of the film’s other motif of abject tears.

One prominent clue is Vladmir Nabokov’s novel Pale Fire…One string of words that K must repeat as part of his baseline test is also key to Nabokov’s novel: “A tall white fountain.” In Pale Fire, these words are of critical importance. When the poet John Shade has a transcendent near-death experience, he sees “dreadfully distinct / Against the dark, a tall white fountain.” Later, via a newspaper story, he learns about a woman who not only has a similar near-death experience, but who also glimpses the afterlife in the same way, seeing too a “tall white fountain.” However, when Shade contacts the reporter who wrote the story, he learns that “fountain” is a misprint; the woman’s original word was mountain. The difference in a single sliding phoneme, to M, is of enormous importance to Shade. …Let’s just say that the phonemic slip from to M conveys not only a symbolic connotation, but also a key plot clue.7

7  I don’t know how prominent Pale Fire is in retrospect, but it is visible. I also have no idea if Villeneuve is intentionally playing the F-M shift in the novel against the revelation of two lost children–female and male–that becomes central to K’s understanding of (not understanding) himself.

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Beyond Pale Fire, there are other literary allusions in BR ’49 worth noting… 8

8 Milton, Blake, e.e. cummingsPinocchio, and Kafka. I didn’t really spot any more on a second viewing, but I also wasn’t especially looking for any. I’m sure there are more.

In addition to its literary allusions, Blade Runner 2049 also incorporates a great number of tropes from the sci-fi films that came before it. For all its visual originality, there is very little in the film that we haven’t seen in some earlier form in another film. [However] when BR ’49 replicates old tropes it breathes new life into them, making scenes we’ve seen before look and sound wholly original.9

9 This is pretty much true.

One of the more remarkable scenes in BR ’49 is a three-way sex scene between the A.I. program-hologram Joi, her boyfriend K, and the replicant prostitute Mariette (Mackenzie Davis). Watching the scene, it hit me that Like, hey, this isn’t even the first “three-way sex scene with A.I.” that I’ve seen. Jonze’s Her [2014] offers a far more awkward version of this scene, and (I know, arguably), Ex Machina [dir. Alex Garland, 2015] is basically one long implicit three way between its three primary characters. We seem to have birthed a new sci-fi trope, folks.10

10 I’m still not sure how to process the three-way in BR ’49, which makes it one of the most interesting scenes in the film. In a way, it doesn’t haven’t to be there for the film’s plot to make sense. And yet it points towards the kind of miracle that the replicants in the film’s backstory promise.

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The inclusion of an inorganic and bodiless A.I. also points BR ’49 into new and different territory, into realms beyond its parent film’s imagination.11

11 Villeneuve makes a number of aesthetic breaks from Ridley Scott’s original Blade Runner (1982), but the A.I. is perhaps the biggest pushback against any anxiety of influence. It’s an ingenious inclusion.

Joi’s relationship with K is heartbreaking and tender. As the emotional core of this bleak film, the connection between Joi and K is devastating (not to mention devastated by the Kafkaesque powers haunting the story). A simulacrum of “real” emotion is thus the most authentic emotional synapse in Blade Runner 2049. An epiphanic scene of Joi crying in the rain fairly early in the film telegraphs Rutger Hauer’s unforgettable death monologue from the parent film in a way that is simultaneously ironic, earnest, painful, and profound. The transcendent moment freezes and then shatters with one of the darker punchlines I’ve seen in a film in years—a voicemail. Someone’s always calling us out from our reveries into the real world12

12 I don’t really have an annotation here. I just wanted to include an image of the scene in this riff:

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[Blade Runner 2049] caters to the male gaze in an ambiguous and unsettling way. Giant naked holograms waltz across the screen, purring solid sexuality, and if their neon forms distract our boy K from the grim grey disaster of apocalyptic LA, they are also likely to captivate certain audience members’ gazes as well.13

13 I read a bunch of takes that claim that the film is sexist and I don’t really see that, but perhaps one of the constituting conditions of sexism is an inability for a consciousness to perceive its own sexism. I don’t know though.

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These spectacular but hollow holograms divert attention away from a cruel dystopian reality; they lead the male gaze away from the real story. In another surreal sequence, Villeneuve fills the screen with enormous naked female statues—naked except for their high heels, which dwarf our boy K. In BR ’49, giant naked women loom over the central protagonist, a lonely, alienated male whose authentic emotional interactions are limited to his computer.14

14 I somehow missed these giant feet on first viewing:

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In time, our male protagonist finds out that he isn’t nearly as special as he hoped he might be. His attempts at an authentic life are repeatedly thwarted by the dystopian world he lives in. Hell, he can’t even get a father figure out of this whole deal. If BR ’49 critiques the male gaze, it also simultaneously engenders and perhaps ultimately privileges it in a queasy, uncanny way.15 

15 I stand by this.

I’ve failed to remark on the many wonderful set pieces in this film—an apiary in a wasteland,16

16  What an unbeelievable scene! (I’m here all night folks).

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…a bizarre fight in a casino soundtracked by 20th-century pop holograms. The film has a weird energy, narcotic but propulsive, gritty but also informed by sleek Pop Art touches.17

17 The whole Las Vegas section of BR ’49 is utterly fantastic, its aesthetic logic doubling the film’s themes of artificiality and reality.

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Blade Runner 2049, like its parent Blade Runner, is a film about not knowing. It proffers clues, scuttles them, and casts the very notion of knowing into doubt. It’s not just the problems of knowing reality from fiction that BR ’49 addresses. No, the film points out that to know requires a consciousness that can know, and that this consciousness is the illusion of a self-originating self-presence. Hence, to live authentically, as real boys and girls, also requires that we live under a kind of radical self-doubt. The whole point of a miracle is that it suspends radical doubt and eliminates the state of radical faith that anyone believing in (even the the belief of believing in) miracles would have to have to keep believing in (even the belief of believing in) miracles. In other words, Blade Runner 2049 is a program of radical doubt|faith, a narrative that repeatedly defers the miracle it promises. This deferral points to a future, but not an endpoint, not a direct salvation. Instead we are left with our real boy K—who, yes, am I spoiling? Damn it then I spoil!—our real boy K who becomes real the moment he reconciles himself to his own ambiguous nature: to a nature of not knowing.18

18 I think all of this holds up even more on a second viewing. One thing I noticed that I didn’t catch the first time is that Blade Runner has no opening credits or title sequence—it reserves them until after the final shot.

Do watch Blade Runner 2049 in a theater on a very big screen if you can.19

19 While I’m guessing that Blade Runner 2049’s theatrical run is done for awhile, it’s the kind of film that will likely get played on the big screen again in the future. Highly recommended.

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6 thoughts on “19 annotations on an old review of Blade Runner 2049 (Summer Film Log)”

  1. I also enjoyed BR49 much more on my second viewing. It really does all come together better than I thought it did. I think Denis Villeneuve is a great filmmaker and was the right person for the job. Now all I need is a 75 inch 4k tv so I can truly appreciate it!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. It’s truly a great film. I was hesitant (great critical reception, movie-going-public seemed to dislike it), but when I finally saw it, I really enjoyed it. I think I need to rewatch it after reading this; might enjoy it even more. Glad to see you came around, Edwin.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. On your note 18: couldn’t agree more.

    “More intelligent than the superior vision of philosophers and theologians is the common sense of the natural man and the common sense of the Christian believer. Neither pretends to discern on the canvas of human history the purpose of God or of the historical process itself. They rather seek to set men free from the world’s oppressive history by suggesting an attitude, either of skepticism or of faith, which is rooted in an experience certainly nurtured by history but detached from and surpassing it, and thus enabling man to endure it with mature resignation or with faithful expectation. Religious faith is so little at variance with skepticism that both are rather united by their common opposition to the presumptions of a settled knowledge. One can, indeed, as Hume suggested, erect ‘religious faith on philosophical skepticism’; but the history of religious and irreligious skepticism has not been written. A man who lives by thought must have his skepticism—literally, a passion for search—which may end in upholding the question as question or in answering it by transcending his doubt through faith. The skeptic and the believer have a common cause against the easy reading of history and its meaning. Their wisdom, like all wisdom, consists not in the least in disillusion and resignation, in freedom from illusions and presumptions.”

    —Karl Löwith, Meaning in History (Chicago; London: University of Chicago, 1949), vi.

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