Wednesday, October 25, 2017

The Tao of Blade Runner


Tao is a Chinese word conveying a complicated array of ideas, such as the journeys the mind makes—these mystical and yet tangible paths, and the process undertaken by the wanderer. The printed character for Tao resembles, to borrow from Woody Allen, “an elephant making love to a men’s glee club.” Of late, applying Tao philosophy to worldly things is more than just an extension of “Zen and the art of [add worldly word or phrase here].” It’s also a way to attach a cool title to a blog post I barely have time to write.

No, I won’t talk about Tao or any philosophy at all here. I don’t have time, and you don’t care anyway. This post is a review, without spoilers, of the new sci-fi flick Blade Runner 2049. Needless to say, it’s impossible to review this sequel without comparing it to Ridley Scott’s original Blade Runner from 1982.

My review

The director, Denis Villeneuve, of whom I was instantly suspicious on the basis of his practically having a girl’s name, acknowledged the pressure of making a movie worthy of its predecessor. “I know that every single fan will walk into the theater with a baseball bat,” he is reported to have said. Sounds like a bit of a drama queen to me.

The fact is, the original movie, though a classic, isn’t perfect. I happen to own it on DVD and watched it with my older daughter as a rite of passage. We both enjoyed it, of course, but I couldn’t help feeling like it hadn’t lived up, in my daughter’s eyes, to all that I’d promised. The original Blade Runner mainly just looks cool. The plot isn’t all that, and the dialogue is just a tiny bit cheesy at times. For example, there’s the scene when Deckard grabs Rachael by the shoulders and utters some macho rough love folderol like, “Say ‘kiss me.’ [Say] ‘I want you.’” My daughter was shocked and I felt myself wincing.

That said, there were also scenes with great dialogue, like Deckard interrogating Leon in the beginning (the bit about “The tortoise lays on its back, its belly baking in the hot sun, beating its legs trying to turn itself over,” etc.). But the scriptwriter didn’t have a perfect ear; for example, Rutger Hauer’s character’s final speech was dancing on the brink of twee. He managed to stick the landing, and because I couldn’t resist (damn it, I’m running out of time!) I did a little research and discovered that Hauer disliked the original speech. According to Wikipedia, he described the proposed final monologue as “opera talk and hi-tech speech with no bearing on the rest of the film,” so he “put a knife in it the night before filming” by trimming it down a fair bit.

My other complaint regarding the original movie is the absurd costumes, particularly Rachael’s ginormous shoulder pads. And the way her giant molded hair suddenly became this kinky Flashdance hairdo is almost laughable when you see it with your jaded 2017 eyes. It’s not easy to escape ‘80s silliness but some movies have.

But still, there was so much to enjoy visually in the original movie, like the dystopian but oddly recognizable, run-down, squalid but electrified rain-pummeled city, its buildings coated with giant electronic billboards, and the cool flying cars slowly rotating as they descend, like helicopters. The atmosphere was so much thicker and deeper and awesomer than just about any sci-fi movie before it.

So does Blade Runner 2049 uphold this standard? Well, yeah, mostly. But that’s not really enough, is it? I mean, since we still have the original available, do we really need a rehash? Much is lost simply because it’s not fresh. Not much new ground is broken aesthetically, and some landscapes in 2049 are too monotonous and blasted to be that interesting. To be honest, several of the scenes are just too dark.

The giant digital billboards are better than ever, but still, a retread is a retread.

Why did Peugeot pay for product placement here? (It’s visible on the dash of K’s car, too.) Does Peugeot even sell cars in the US? And check this out:

Is it possible we’re getting this billboard just to gratify the yen for nostalgia that ageing viewers like me are assumed to have?

Where new ground is broken, quite brilliantly, is with K’s virtual girlfriend, Joi (played by Ana De Armas). We’re introduced to her gradually, like Vladimir Nabokov introduced Lolita. First we get Joi’s voice from another room, so we’re curious, and then we see the projector, on ceiling-mounted tracks, that brings her into the room. She appears suddenly (as abruptly as when you flip on the TV with a remote), and of course it doesn’t hurt that she’s really pretty. But that’s not all: as soon as she appears she undergoes one instant costume change after another, and it’s not clear whether this is her own effort to please her man, or Officer K flipping through the outfits like a bored TV viewer channel-surfing. Their relationship—often warm and tender, but subject to modern realities like Joi freezing suddenly when K gets a visual voice-mail—is far more interesting than what we got in Her. Joi is my favorite character in the movie and her scenes steal the show.

(Should I apologize for blatantly favoring a character who happens to be good looking? Let’s be real. My wife rented Thor, despite having historically shown zero interest in Marvel comics, solely because it stars Chris Hemsworth. She knew the movie would be lame and that I also have zero interest in Marvel comics and their film adaptations, but she rightly assumed I’d roll with it because Natalie Portman also stars. Unfortunately this is one of the dumbest movies ever made and Portman is terrible in it.)

The other 2049 characters are a letdown after Joi. Officer K, the main character, has two things wrong with him. First, we know right off the bat that he’s a replicant. I wouldn’t necessarily say a replicant is automatically less sympathetic than a human (though perhaps this is the case), but K just doesn’t seem to suffer. He gets the crap beat out of him and shrugs it off like the Terminator. Huge misstep by Villeneuve there.

The other problem with K is that he’s played by Ryan Gosling, who is a good enough actor I suppose but totally unconvincing in an action-adventure tough-guy role. He was perfect for La La Land, but his simpering little half-smile destroys the gravitas we expect in a beaten-down blade runner. According to IMBD, he was the only actor considered for the role by Villeneuve, which is all the proof you need that this director doesn’t really know what he’s doing.

Harrison Ford is just fine as Deckard, but he brings to the role the same slightly annoyed, slightly disgusted air that he did to that Star Wars: The Force Awakens movie. Perhaps he’s bothered by the similarity between the two movies: upstart actors and characters new to the franchise head out on a long quest to find him, to give their knockoff movie more cred. I guess I can’t blame Ford for this ennui. In any event, he sets a good example of weariness and gravity for Gosling, which only serves to accentuate the flimsiness of Gosling with his ingratiating little half-smirk.

And then over here you’ve got Niander Wallace, the mastermind overlord (the 2049 equivalent of Dr.Tyrell). This character, as played by Jared Leto, is an annoying, wet-behind-the-ears, hipster-bearded douchebag with no redeeming qualities, and every moment of him on the screen sucks the life out of the movie.

Robin Wright does a good job with the role of K’s boss, Lieutenant Joshi, but she doesn’t have a whole lot to do. Sylvia Hoeks, as the evil replicant curiously named Luv, is pretty and also very badass, but her character is a bit too evil and cruel to be very interesting. What I loved about Rutger Hauer’s character in the original film was, ironically, his humanity. Luv is basically an evil robot type. Kind of a waste of Hoeks’ time and ours.

Speaking of wasting time, please indulge me in what I hope isn’t too lengthy a side note. I mentioned Nabokov above, and there’s a tribute to him in this movie. K’s mental health is evaluated, post-mission, via a strange protocol where he must repeat snippets of text including this passage from Nabokov’s poem-within-a-novel, Pale Fire
Cells interlinked within cells interlinked
Within one stem. And dreadfully distinct
Against the dark, a tall white fountain played.
Lest viewers miss the reference, a copy of Pale Fire is clearly visible in K’s apartment. How does this tie in to the film? Answer: it doesn’t. I’ve read Pale Fire at least half a dozen times, and I can’t see any link to the themes of 2049 at all. The poem within Pale Fire concerns an ageing professor ruminating on the hereafter, and the passage quoted is about a vision the man has during a mild heart attack. It has nothing to do with A.I., technology, slavery, androids, or electric sheep. My guess is that Villeneuve is just borrowing an air of intellectual legitimacy from Nabokov. And yet, I find an amusing link that must be unintentional: the bulk of the novel Pale Fire concerns a scholarly parasite who, in the course of 200+ pages of commentary totally dwarfing the poem, tries to co-opt the poet’s work into something of his own. I cannot think of a better metaphor for these movie sequels and prequels that seek to capitalize on the success of earlier works by more original writers and directors.

Okay, onward. Another complaint I have with the movie is the music. The original film had a gorgeous score by Vangelis, which was fundamental to its atmosphere. (I even bought the soundtrack.) But this 2049 movie barely has music … the main instrument is a big drum. We get a bunch of silence and then this big somber BOOM and then some more silence. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if we’re hearing some sound effect or something that’s supposed to be music. I have just discovered, via IMBD, that “Composer Jóhann Jóhannsson was attached to compose the music for the film; however, in August 2017, he dropped out from the project for unknown reasons and composer Hans Zimmer, along with Benjamin Wallfisch, were hired to replace Jóhannsson.” Aha, so the new “music” was tacked on at the last minute, like an afterthought. Well, it shows. Why spend $150 million on a movie and then skimp on the music? What a bonehead move.

Gosh, I’m starting to sound old and crabby and constipated. Look, it’s actually a pretty fun flick. I had a nice time seeing it with my teenage daughter. (Being a source of info and insight into the preceding movie, I suddenly had some cred in the eyes of a teenager, which is a rare thing.) And 2049, whatever opportunities it may have missed, does look really good. Go ahead and see it—don’t wait for DVD or whatever.

Now that that’s over with, let me complain some more. The screenplay for this movie is a mess. It’s based on a sparse 110-page novella, but there’s way too much going on to properly depict even in a rather long movie. A number of scenes must have been thrown out, because there are tons of loose threads. We also get subplots that could be their own movie, and flaws in logic that I can’t forgive. I won’t go into these because I don’t want to give anything away, but I could point to at least three gaping plot holes that any moviegoer who isn’t stoned ought to have a problem with.

All this being said, there is one scene more thrilling and chilling than anything I have seen in recent films. I can recount it without spoiling anything only because it’s so utterly disconnected from anything else in the movie. K, fairly shattered by all the beatings he’s been taking both physically and emotionally, is sound asleep when Joi wakes him up at like 3 a.m. and says, “We gotta change Deckard’s bag.” So they go to his room and Deckard’s ostomy bag has totally blown out, all over his gown, the sheets, it’s everywhere, like a massacre. K and Joi have never changed one of these before and the stench of the military-green quasi-stool is almost enough to make them wretch. (If you don’t think it’s realistic for a replicant and an A.I. projection to be grossed out by this smell, you’ve obviously never encountered it in real life and should consider yourself lucky.) So the whole bag apparatus is soaked in this foul goo, even the wafer that’s stuck to Deckard’s ostomy. The last nurse to change the thing screwed up and left some of the backing on the wafer’s adhesive, which is why it failed. Deckard, bearing considerable discomfort and indignity, is grumpy even by Harrison Ford standards, and K and Joi are obviously winging it, without much brio. K takes a deep breath (big mistake) and sticks down the wafer. He presses it down firmly which makes Deckard groan in pain. Now K’s got to attach the bag, which affixes via this thing kind of like a Ziploc but it’s round, and the bead is really narrow. “Hurry!” Joi cries, because a new flood of green goo is crowning from the ostomy. The ordeal seems to take forever, bringing the movie’s runtime to 164 minutes.

Wait, hold on. I think I’m confused. That whole scene recounted above? That wasn’t actually in this movie at all—why would anybody film that? I’m sleep deprived and confused and not sure where that came from.

It feels like over a month since I watched 2049 and you know what? I’d love to escape into a dark theater and see it again. Maybe this whole review is unfair. At a minimum I guess I should go delete that last paragraph, but I’m just too tired. Maybe I’ll rewrite this someday when I have my normal life back, and maybe then I’ll give Blade Runner 2049 a rave review.

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  1. The Tao of Blade Runner" refers to the philosophical underpinnings and existential themes embedded within the Blade Runner universe, exploring the complexities of identity, humanity, and the ethical implications of artificial intelligence, prompting audiences to contemplate the blurred lines between man and machine.

  2. Well said, trench coat!