October 9, 2017 § Leave a comment
Daylight is rationed in Bladerunner 2049, as one might expect, given the drizzly urban night and claustrophobic interiors of its source film. Punctuated by pitch darkness flickering with neon and digital colour, the light that increasingly prevails comes in various shades of sulphur, trembling from water reflections on the walls of a corporate villain’s den, massed into a dull orange fog or seeping more palely through once luxurious rooms filled with the relics of a high culture whose artefacts belong nowhere else in the episodic world that we’ve seen so far.
Here we find a hologram of Frank Sinatra shrunk under a glass dome of the kind the Victorians used for dried flowers and forever singing It’s a quarter to three… And this is where Ryan Gosling as officer K (why choose that initial unless you want to remind people of Kafka) of LAPD finally meets the aged Deckard of the original Bladerunner, Harrison Ford again – aged 75 and displaying a welcome vitality and world-weary wit that at last lets 2049 shake off the ponderousness of its metaphysics.
I’m beginning towards the end because the film makes us wait for it so long. When you’re not being bludgeoned by Dolby Sensurround’s clankings and grindings, there’s a lot to be impressed by on the way: the look of things, a screen-drenching scenography that shapes moods of unease and dread; some good performances, notably from the female actors, and even Gosling’s bland good looks and acting style are roughened and bloodied into characterful humanity (he’s a replicant) by the final stages; and yes, though I wouldn’t agree with the critics who’ve praised its philosophical profundity, I’d say the film has no lack of ideas. But they’re scattered across an action-impelled plot heading always towards the main event between Gosling and Ford. And squandered by being incidental, hence over-literal.
In the original Bladerunner, Deckard swerves from his course as the killer of rogue androids because he falls in love with one of them. The film’s strengths lay in its density, both in mood and through the questions it suggested about humanity and consciousness, identity and feeling. 2049 sacrifices depth and themes to the expediency of fast plotting and stretched set pieces that intimate sundry references: Dickens (child exploitation), James Bond (fiendish cruelty), Ballard (apocalyptic devastation) and Tarkovsky. Yet it manages to be hurried where those ideas are concerned.
Officer K has a live-in hologram girlfriend, Joi, a product we see customised to supply his every fantasy of woman, showing off an extensive wardrobe (women’s clothes matter in this film), before she settles into the warm personality of a sensitive, intelligent partner, ahead of K in his detective work, seizing on what’s about to surface from his unconscious; in other words she’s a projection of it, anticipating wishes, desires, insights. Or might such a fine-tuned, albeit fleshless being (or device? app?) have a will of her own, selflessly motivated by devotion to K? And what about that replicant unconscious of his, apparently programmed for those instincts beyond the rational that any detective needs?
There’s enough here to take a stand-alone film much further than Spike Jonze did with Her, but the narrative moved on and away from Joi, as I was on the verge of being moved by her. Indeed, each of the film’s four main female characters has a narrative function and potential significance that’s stopped short of resonating. This, need I say it, is a boys’ film. With no shortage of flying cars, explosions and punitive violence, even enforced by a replicant woman.
When the boys do get together it’s in Las Vegas, in a deserted nightclub where full-size holograms of Elvis and Marilyn live on. Gosling and Ford start their bonding with a cartoonish fight. Ford terminates it, less as Deckard than as Indiana Jones, with an invitation to have a drink. We can relax now, knowing we are in good, entertaining hands that have an ample supply of Johnny Walker Black Label, more than enough for himself and his boozy, suitably shaggy dog, who might or might not be real, for he doesn’t bark, regardless of the mayhem that ensues.
The problem of being real or not and its role as the engine of the film’s quest to root out a threatening anomaly proves to be something of a MacGuffin when we realise that the replicants outnumber humans, who seem to have fled the planet they’ve largely destroyed. That the replicants long not just for equality but a share in being human carries a sad streak of irony. Maybe it’s intentional, or maybe the film just lost its own plot.