Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
Dir. Denis Villeneuve
There is a cropped close-up of a hand wresting on a dashboard, and it’s shot so we notice its veins running wrist to knuckle. This matters in every way for 2049‘s Pinocchio story, but it also highlights Villeneuve’s hangups over his own direction, specifically how as a mainstream descendent of arthouse detachment he desires detachment as well as real humanity in his films. His is the urge to basically impersonate the right reference points and then locate a pulse, and never move from that pulse. We can see why he would want to do this, but Villeneuve is best when his images build a messy grammar of ideas, and worst when he thinks that he is communicating clear ideas through images. What this means is we have a director averse to tacky exposition, who is celebrated by masses of people just for letting each scene and image breathe, but who struggles to convince himself that he’s birthed a humanity that exists through arthouse beats and spacious images. 2049 is a moment of self-realisation, and is every bit as messy as that should be.
Deakins goes for near-abstractions of 2019 concept art with hazy monoliths at a distance, and makes direct quotations of Stalker and The Sacrifice. Tarkovsky, Malick, and Kubrick are the holy trinity of artists that hack directors imitate when they want to shortcut profundity, and Villeneuve has been known to use any of the three as a crutch when he’s needed it. What has changed here is that these quotations serve a purpose emotionally if not also thematically. Villeneuve seems to have realised that these people worked or are working within film as a popular art medium, and that there is nothing to be afraid of if the work is good (I kept thinking of nathaxnne’s perfect description of Halloween III: ‘McDonald’s Happy Meal Version of The Wicker Man’). There is an anxiety prevalent in contemporary directors to Make Art, as if they are embarrassed about film as a format, and this stops them getting anywhere close to their heroes (see Nolan, Iñárritu et al.). Villeneuve steps up to something better, even potentially enduring, in using quotation across artworks to bring the others’ baggage, and not being daunted by the material. He tries something new built on knowledge and respect for the past.
Where he theoretically stumbles is in creating a sense of Being in his world, and this is a weakness we see owned and evaded and experimented with across works. Prisoners employs all the signifiers of the authentic American experience (as read in Carver and imagined in Springsteen) and has its actors not just walk but barge through and throw tantrums in all of its interior spaces. Still this seems plastic until the film’s lurking chaos pulls everything else under (this becomes clearer after repeat viewings). Sicario sees scripting, editing, camera-type, and tactical choreography wound tight into a gestalt horror of action. Blade Runner‘s world is one that viewers have watched and theorised about and imagined themselves in endlessly, and Villeneuve understands this. Instead of trying to overcome his inadequacies with tactile cinema, he allows the nightmare of non-Being within it to take over. As with Sicario every view, action, and thought works to generate the world as we know it, and as with Prisoners this means the slippage of physical struggles for control, and cosmic and emotional chaos.
In a world of replicas and celebrated audience-tested forgeries, Villeneuve realises that humanity exists if you know where to look for it. Gosling is the perfect lead because he shares the director’s fears and anxieties. He is fascinating to watch when he gets it right, and impossible when he gets it wrong. He is a self-modeled Beautiful Loser with a face too long and symmetrical to convince. He slurs his words and mimics the lumbering physicality afforded the great losers of deliberate artlessness, but he doesn’t have their bones or their lives so he works out until his neck gets thick and he can stomp around in something resembling their boots. His merit is entirely his pained opaque eyes, because he knows Kuleshov and thinks everyone else forgot. Here he’s sad eyes and aimless shuffling, unsure lumbering- you can feel him in places asking Am I doing it right? and in others he’s adjusted to the forceful lack of direction. He takes centre stage but floats like a dead dream, and the deeper he goes, the more he unravels, the less substantial he becomes- not like a romantic mess of raw nerves, prejudices, and betrayals, more like blink and he’s gone. This is the film entirely.
Zimmer who now goes hand in hand with over-scored epics outdoes himself by amplifying his tricks to the point that they become a sort of nu metal approximation of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s electroacoustic moments in Arrival. The score mourns and roars. Further to the Pinocchio story, we get slow concrete plates grinding in abandoned warehouses which clear the room for the most human of sounds in the throat chant. Sometimes the distinction is lost. 2049 assumes that we know that there is no ontological or emotional difference between human and replicant, but the female ‘characters’ complicate this- Joi’s introduction is the film’s most pointed critique of gender conditioning and expectation (we see her morph from a 1950s housewife into a Cool Girlfriend into anything else to satisfy K’s mood), and the fiercely professional Luv ensures she does well by her employer, Wallace. The image of her in the water lingers so that we feel like crying. Dystopias tend to exaggerate issues that we see now for people who are somehow blind to them, but there is not enough hope (much less nuance or empathy) in the film’s portrayal of gender to make this feel anything other than depressing. I wanted Luv to go rogue (she could still be a villain), but the film is adamant we see her as a wasted life and that’s all.
These drones and eyes and dreams riff on the authentic and the real and the counterfeit, and they feel most human when they’re trying and failing to grasp onto something. Their Becoming is not when they realise that the universe has a plan, but when they’re forced to see that the opposite is the case. K’s journey is the clearing of that perversely cold feeling that comes with realising that you are not alone, and the mourning of your divine purpose. We are born with a counterfeit dream that insists that we are lost individuals at the end of history, and year after year we pay to see films which confirm this. In 2049 we see this countered with a shared memory of the past which leads to a collective dream for the future.