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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You’ve probably already seen these Blade Runner short films, but I hadn’t because I’d been avoiding all coverage of the film before I could see it.

A review of Blade Runner 2049

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Film poster for Blade Runner 2049 by James Jean

I don’t remember how old I was the first time I saw Blade Runner (dir. Ridley Scott, 1982), but I do remember that it had an instant and formative aesthetic impact on me. Blade Runner’s dark atmosphere and noir rhythms were cut from a different cloth than the Star Wars and Spielberg films that were the VHS diet of my 1980’s boyhood. Blade Runner was an utterly perplexing film, a film that I longed to see again and again (we didn’t have it on tape), akin to Dune (dir. David Lynch, 1984), or The Thing (dir. John Carpenter, 1982)—dark, weird sci-fi visions that pushed their own archetypes through plot structures that my young brain couldn’t quite comprehend.

By the time Scott released his director’s cut of the film in 1993, I’d read Philip K. Dick’s source novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and enough other dystopian fictions to understand the contours and content of Blade Runner in a way previously unavailable to me. And yet if the formal elements and philosophical themes of Blade Runner cohered for me, the central ambiguities, deferrals of meaning, and downright strangeness remained. I’d go on to watch Blade Runner dozens of times, even catching it on the big screen a few times, and riffing on it in pretty much every single film course I took in college. And while scenes and set-pieces remained imprinted in my brain, I still didn’t understand the film. Blade Runner is, after all, a film about not knowing.

Like its predecessor, Blade Runner 2049 (dir. Denis Villeneuve, 2017) is also a film about not knowing. Moody, atmospheric, and existentialist, the core questions it pokes at are central to the Philip K. Dick source material from which it originated: What is consciousness? Can consciousness know itself to be real? What does it mean to have–or not have—a soul?

Set three decades after the original, Blade Runner 2049 centers on KD6-3.7 (Ryan Gosling in Drive mode). 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). K is a blade runner, working for the LAPD to hunt down his own kind. At the outset of the film, K doesn’t recognize the earlier model Nexuses (Nexi?) he “retires” as his “own kind,” but it’s clear that the human inhabitants of BR ’49’s world revile all “skinjobs” as the same: scum, other, less human than human. K, beholden to his human masters, exterminates earlier-model replicants in order to keep the civil order that the corporate police state demands. This government relies on replicant slave labor, both off-world—where the wealthiest classes have escaped to—and back here on earth, which is recovering from a massive ecological collapse. The recovery is due entirely to Niander Wallace’s innovations in synthetic farming—and his reintroduction of the previously prohibited replicants.

Our boy K “retires” a Nexus-8 at the beginning of the film. This event leads to the film’s first clue: a box buried under a dead tree. This (Pandora’s) box is an ossuary, the coffin for a (ta da!) female replicant (a Nexus-7 if you’re counting). Skip the next paragraph if you don’t want any plot spoilers.

Continue reading “A review of Blade Runner 2049”

Blade Runner film poster by Kilian Eng

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The Death of Zhora — Chris Thornley

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Blade Runner film poster by Krzysztof Domaradzki

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Deckard and Pris among the Dolls (Blade Runner)

Owl (Blade Runner)

Eye (Blade Runner)



Deckard Reading (Blade Runner)



Rachel (Blade Runner) — Ilya Kuvshinov

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Blade Runner — The Aquarelle Edition

This strange and impressionistic paraphrase of Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner is by Anders Ramsell, who painted all 12,597 frames using only water colors. The edit features dialogue and music from the film and the radical compression of the plot—edited down to just over half an hour—gives this painted film a dreamy, surreal texture. (Via Boing Boing, which I’m sure all you hepcats follow anyway, but this film is too lovely not to share again, in case, y’know, you didn’t already see it somehow).

A Riff on Lars Iyer’s Novel Exodus

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I. Trilogy

Exodus is the third entry in a trilogy that Lars Iyer began with Spurious and Dogma.

What happens in Exodus?

Not much (but also maybe everything—like all sorts of philosophical investigations and intellectual adventure and despair and potential revolution and symbolic death, etc.).

If you’ve read Spurious and Dogma you’d expect this.

There is a quest though in Exodus, a quest that feels more visceral, more real, cuts closer to the bone than in the first two entries.

What is this quest?

Do our heroes W. and Lars vanquish despair? Figure out Kafka?

Do they save humanity (or at least the humanities department)?

Do they finally cast the One Ring into Mount Doom?

(They go on a lecture tour).

II. Quest

What is the connection between Kierkegaard and capitalism?: that’s our question, W. says. What does Kierkegaard tell us about the despair of capitalism?

And

‘The true and only virtue is to hate ourselves’, W. says, reading from his notebook.

And, perhaps more specifically

Of course, they’re going to close all humanities courses in British universities, W. says . . . They’re simply going to marketise education, W. says. They’re simply going to turn the university over to the free market. They’re going to submit philosophy to the forces of capitalism . . .

And

Imagine it! Two plastic cups of Plymouth Gin might usher in the reign of peace, W. says.

And

There are no jobs in philosophy — everyone knows that. No jobs in academia!

And etc.

III. The Call to Adventure

This is our last tour, W. says. He feels that strongly. Something’s going to happen. Something’s about to happen. . . Why does he feel such a sense of dread?

IV. The Road of Trials

Gin, Deleuze, Kafka, Kierkegaard, gin, Blade Runner, Guy Debord, postgraduate students, linguistic stupidity, anxiety over what Alan Badiou is doing right this very minute, gin, Gandhi, Marx, the blogosphere (so-called), Bartleby, Moses, God, logical-mathematical stupidity, the Talmud, gin, bodily-kinesthetic stupidity, cheap food, the Thames, Oxford, Rosenzweig, interpersonal stupidity, gin, Bela Tarr, Manchester, Wikipedia, gin, intrapersonal stupidity, Beckett, Gombrowicz, Middlesex, Weil, naturalistic stupidity, Abraham and Isaac, Old Europe, sports science students, moral stupidity, Solomon Maimon, gin, Plato (turning in his grave), public houses, existential stupidity, Kant, a friend from Taiwan, a plenary speaker, sartorial stupidity, gin, Krasznahorkai, blowing a great horn to have the horde come running (like that guy in Anchorman), a Dostoevskian innocence or a Grossmanian selflessness, religious stupidity, Master/Blaster as a metaphor for the mind-brain problem, Canadian laughter in the glittering light (etc.), Essex Postgraduates, gin, gin, gin, job security, painting-and-decorating stupidity, hangovers, posh people eating lunch in the sun, settling for cans of Stella from the trolley, philosophy of walking, gin, romantic stupidity, gin, culinary stupidity, gin, stupidity stupidity.

Revolution!

V. The Magic Flight

Alcohol makes people speak, that’s its greatness, W. says. It makes them religious, political, even as it shows them the impossibility of religion and the impossibility of politics. Drinking carries you through despair, W. says. Through it, and out beyond it, if you are prepared to keep drinking right all through the night.

VI. Apotheosis

W. dreams of the profound slumber from which we would rise reborn, ready for the morning, ready for work. He dreams of the great day that would follow our night of rest, and of the great ideas that would flash above us like diurnal stars.

How is it still alive in him, the belief that he might wake into genius?, W says. How is it that he still believes, despite everything, that he is a man of thought?

VII. Freedom to Live

Thought is the hangman, our hangman, W. says. Thought has its nooses ready just for us.

VIII. Cult Fiction

Judgment, evaluation, criticism: Exodus—the Spurious Trilogy, if that’s what we’ll call it—has reserved its own special place in the world of cult fiction. These novels (if they are in fact novels) perform their own deconstruction. They delineate metacognition. They frustrate. They are simultaneously sad and funny, and even a little bit scary, at least if you earn your bread by academicizin’.

They frustrate. Wait, do I repeat myself? Very well then, I repeat myself.

These novels dissect the problems of philosophy against the backdrop of late capitalism, but part of this dissection is also the covering up of the dissection: the fear, the failure, the despair, the doom. (Hence the anesthesia, the gin). So that the novels seem to be a series of references, contours, quirks, loops of dialog, declamations, insults . . . That the novels take their own central subject as the failure to mean, to communicate—and then perform these failures: deferral, delay, intellectual suspense. And that these suspensions replace the furniture and sets of the traditional novel, etc. Maybe I’m failing to mean. I’ve anesthetized myself a bit, I do admit.

I get it. I mean, that’s maybe what I mean, or hope to mean to say about these novels: That meaning is hard, that saying meaning doing thinking is hard; that thinking afteragainstbeyond other thinkers is hard, painful, produces despair, dread, etc. Maybe that’s why I like these novels. Because I think that maybe I get them even as I doubt that I do get them.

IX. An Idea

Publisher Melville House might consider putting all three of these books into one epic volume.

X. A Question

Do the eagles ever show up to fly W. and Lars out of Mordor?

“Voice Over Is an Insult” and Other Studio Notes for Blade Runner

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(Via).