Eco-SF or Sucking it Dry? Blade Runner 2049, Denis Villeneuve, 2017
I went to see this film with great anticipation, and a little anxiety, for the original (Blade Runner, Scott, 1982) has a kind of ‘sacred’ status to me, having been such a massively influential experience when I snuck in to see it at the cinema aged 12. Having watched in many times since (and listened to the Vangelis soundtrack on a kind of loop throughout my teenage years) it has grafted itself onto my consciousness until it has become almost part of my identity – a constructed memory, imported into my mind. Take it away, and would I still be the same person? I was hoping the long-time-coming sequel by the Canadian director, Denis Villeneuve, (who had impressed me and the critics with Arrival) wasn’t going to steal my dreams, as so often happens when films are remade or rebooted. Hollywood, intellectually bankrupt these days, it seems, has turned to remaking its own successes –safe bets in hard times, feeding on people’s craving for the comfort drug of the past, nostalgia. The present is dysfunctional, the future unbearable, so only the past remains in which to seek shelter – even when that past is a hauntingly bleak vision of a dystopian future. Rewatching Scott’s masterpiece it strikes me how much of it is about the past – people living in the ghosts of cities amid the wreckage of their lives, clinging onto precious shards of memory; the Marlowe-esque presence of Deckard (even sans voice-over Bogie’s spectre informs his performance); the retro hairstyled ‘ice-maiden’ (Rachael the replicant); the multi-cultural melange that could be out of Casablanca, Edward James Olmos’ Gaff with his city-speak a kind of one-man version of that city; the haunted city of shadows like an echo of post-war Vienna from The Third Man; the double-coding of the Tyrell Corporation’s pyramid-like HQ and the classical grandeur of the executive level; the art-deco/neo-Fascist Union Station police station; and of course the crumbling elegance of The Bradbury.
Blade Runner 2049 takes this idea and runs with it. Set 30 years after the events of the original, Ryan Gosling’s replicant blade runner ‘K’ spends a lot of the time wandering around vast old ruins, working out which memories are real, which are fabricated, echoing what it feels like to return to the cinema 35 years after seeing the first film (that Ur-cinema itself an art-deco ghost). As soon as the opening shots appeared – an extreme close-up of an eye cutting to a vast iris-shaped solar farm extending to a field of them extending into the haze – underpinned by the pulsating electronic Wallfisch/Zimmer soundtrack I knew I was in safe hands. Rather than try to replicate (excuse the pun) the classic ‘apocalyptic sublime’ of the original – the Hades landscape of an environmental disaster zone Los Angeles 2019, which had such a deep impact on an impressionable 12 year old, Villeneuve drew upon a scene cut from the original screenplay for Hampton Fancher (then called ‘Dangerous Days’). With Fancher back on board as the writer, the scene (which was going to be the opening of Blade Runner) consolidates the sense of a movie haunting itself. This time it is K in the role of ‘Rick’ (Gosling a chip off the old block, like a younger Harrison Ford). The twist is that K is ‘outed’ pretty much straight away, dispensing with the existential question of the original – in which it is implied Deckard himself is a replicant (as the unicorn dream/unicorm origami implies); and the fact of Deckard’s continued existence evaporates any doubts about his flesh-and-blood credentials. According to recent interviews, Ford said he always played Deckard as a human; it was Scott who wanted him to be a replicant. So, in a way, both possibilities exist in the original – giving it the Buddhist koan resonance. Here, the paradox is retired. And yet the film is still a masterful meditation on the nature of reality (trademark Philip K Dick territory); on metaphysical concerns (which have often haunted Scott’s work) around origins, around creators and their creations. It is a poem of light and dark. Set after ‘the Blackout’, an event that crashed and wiped the world’s computers, this Los Angeles is less ‘neon’ than the original – in the original light intersected every scene, moved about it, was an active presence. 2049, masterfully lit by Roger Deakin, is darker – despite it having several day scenes (Blade Runner was largely filmed at night because of the restriction of a filming on a Hollywood backlot – it was one of Scott’s tricks to make up for a lack of budget). The sky is a perpetual sepia haze. America has become a denuded wasteland, has become Mars (and The Martian Chronicles goes full circle). Shadows, rather than night, dominate each scene, threatening to engulf it entire. Deakin lights each set piece like Caravaggio, deploying that master’s trademark chiaroscuro. And in the visual illusions he plays upon our eyes, he homages another master, De Chirico. ‘The Mystery and Melancholy of a Street’ is a frequent visual reference; in the giant figures through which K walks, ‘Melancholia’; and in the Piranesian architecture, a homage to the original. Villeneuve , to his credit, eschews CGI for model and matte shots – giving the whole thing a suitably old school ‘analogue’ feel. The magisterial pace of the film some may find ‘slow’ but I found it a refreshing contrast to the attention-deficit teenage-screen-tested biff-bang-pow of most mainstream movies these days. This is an elegant spinner of a movie – gliding along in a dream-like fashion. It lacks the adrenalin-pumping edge of the original, which simultaneously managed to achieve a metaphysical register in a fraction of the time. Scott’s visions was the blueprint, and this works to that, extending it but not necessarily adding to it. Nothing is taken away – it is a towering tribute to the original – but nothing is really added either. In many ways, we didn’t ‘need’ this film – but that’s where we’re at. As PKD would say, ‘we can remember it for you, wholesale’. Nevertheless, it a well-acted, well-scripted, well-made film. This is a journeyman work of a director who I suspect is going to keep astounding us for, hopefully, years to come.
Kevan Manwaring 17 Oct. 17