Blade Runner 2049's bleakness breaks your heart, only to pick up the pieces one by one
Only time will tell if Denis Villeneuve has made a masterpiece in Blade Runner 2049, but he sure has done justice to an enduring classic, writes Manas Mitul
What makes us human? Is it the fact that we can love, hate or experience jealousy? Is it our dreams or is our memories? Or is it something just as simple as the fact that we can stand in the rain and feel every drop against our skin? There is no single answer, but there is a better one. Maybe the fact that we can ask these questions and search eternally for an answer without really finding one is the most human quality of all. The search for an identity, of knowing who we are and why are we here is one of biggest philosophical dilemmas there is.
Ridley Scott's 1982 cult classic Blade Runner held a grimy mirror to this dilemma and we saw an unpleasant, rain-drenched and neon-soaked reflection and it enamoured us no end. Blade Runner didn't try to answer what it meant to be human, but in turn, through allegory and origami, the film compounded that question. What did it mean to be human amidst beings that are 'more human than human'? It isn't too hard to see why Replicants fascinated us. Because they were us. Walking, talking, dying beings grappling with their existence and its meaning. They were eager to forge an identity before time ran out. Ah, to feel alive before you die.
Towards the end of Blade Runner, Rutger Hauer's Roy Batty, the leader of the rogue Replicants, indulges in a dying soliloquy, now considered as one of the finest monologues ever in films.
"I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die."
We, embodied by the puzzled Harrison Ford looking on in that scene, were explicably empathetic towards Batty and the cause of the Replicants. Nobody wants to vanish away without a trace. As the rain lashed down, the score swelled and Batty bowed out, Blade Runner, reached an emotional high point that its sequel — Blade Runner 2049 — never really does, but it is no less mesmerising or confounding. It perpetuates the themes and motifs of the original film, while also smartly subverting some, and in the end stands quite well as its own film and as a sequel to one of the greatest of all time.
It is a tricky task. How do you follow a masterpiece? You make another one. Only time will tell if Denis Villeneuve has made a masterpiece, but he sure has done justice to an enduring classic. And he sure had help.
The first thing one must mention when one talks about Blade Runner 2049 is that it is one of the best shot films you will ever see. Its haunting landscapes truly feel like the futuristic cousin of the stunning environments of Blade Runner: grey buildings, packed like sardines, housing equally grey lives. The never-ending storm, incessantly trying and failing to wash away the decay. Monolithic neon perversions, staring down at seedy streets and seedier men. Eyes talk more than tongues as bleak alleyways and rising wisps of steam and smoke can only hide so much. Pleasure playgrounds turned to radioactive nightmares drenched in a sunset glow, but there is no sun. Humans, Replicants living in sub-human squalor, crushed beneath the weight of social hierarchies. Those higher up, live in pristine, symmetrical chambers made of straight lines.
It is nothing new, of course. We saw it all first on Blade Runner. But to say it is improved is an understatement of considerable magnitude. Roger Deakins has weaved magic on the screen. And you find yourself asking, is it a trick? How did they shoot that? But of course, a magician never reveals his secrets. In one ridiculous shot, embers from a fire rise and dance in the wind and dissolve into Los Angeles. In another, Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford have a surreal encounter in a Las Vegas casino as a malfunctioning Elvis Presley hologram croons "Can't Help Falling in Love" in the background. You will often find yourself picking your jaw off the floor. And if the King is there amidst the radioactive ruins, so is the Voice. In a room full of whiskey and dread, Frank Sinatra lights up his cigarette and sings "One for My Baby, and One More for the Road" as Gosling listens in rapt attention to a man from a world he has never known. Together, Villeneuve and Deakins have conjured a world so utterly devastating and magnificent at the same time, that it breaks your heart and then preciously picks up the pieces one by one. The latter, a cinematographer of unparalleled brilliance and body of work, has been nominated for an Academy award 13 times but is yet to give a speech on the stage. If the Oscars do not acknowledge his genius this time around, it would only serve as proof for the sham the awards are.
Yes, Blade Runner 2049 owes a lot to its predecessor. But it also indulges in subtle subversions, in addition to call-backs and nods to the 1982 film. In Blade Runner, the central mystery that has puzzled the audience for 35 years, is a question about the identity of the eponymous Blade Runner Rick Deckard himself. Is Deckard a Replicant? Subtle clues answer the question in varying degrees, depending upon which cut of the film you have seen. But, the answers are vague too. You never really know, even though you know. Blade Runner 2049, however tells you that its eponymous protagonist, Ryan Gosling's K, is a Replicant, right off the bat.
This subversion almost feels like a slap, but it warms well on your cheek with time. K, short for KD9-3.7, a newer model, is not just a Replicant, but a Replicant who reads. From Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island to Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire, the allusions in Blade Runner 2049 run deeper than they seem. K finds himself at the centre of an explosive mystery which could shake the foundations of an already weathered world. And within that mystery, he also finds what he has secretly yearned for ages: his soul. He is a Replicant built to obey and meant to 'retire' his own kind without asking questions about it. His lover is a holographic artificial intelligence, whom he cannot touch, kiss or make love to. And his name is a serial number. Still, he yearns to be more, to be human, to be special. And the film is a long meditation on that yearning. In a way, K is a coming together of both Batty and Deckard, if they weren't already one and the same.
Villeneuve has peppered the film with subliminal symbols and sub-surface meanings and it will take multiple viewings to uncover all of them, just like it did with the first film. Blade Runner itself owed a lot of its imagery and symbolism to many films that came before: Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal, Orson Welles' Citizen Kane and John Huston's The Maltese Falcon to name a few. And in turn, it went on to stamp an unparalleled influence on films that followed: Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira, Mamoru Oshi's Ghost in the Shell, and basically every science fiction and neo-noir film made since. You'll find traces of Spike Jonze's Her and Nicolas Winding Refn's neo-noir masterpiece Drive in the DNA of Blade Runner 2049. The latter, which also featured Gosling as a nameless, largely silent protagonist, has a more notable presence in the film, if you look closely.
Some symbols and allusions are apparent, some not so much. When K meets Deckard for the first time, the latter has a companion: a shaggy dog. You could read into that in as many ways as you want. And the scene is followed by yet another clever subversion of a moment in the original film, which, in turn, echoes that famous scene from the James Bond reboot Casino Royale, where a waiter asks Daniel Craig's Bond whether he would like his Vodka Martini shaken or stirred and he replies, "Do I look like I give a damn?". The film also references itself on more than one occasion, re-invoking visuals and context. Early on in the film, Gosling's K gifts an 'emanator' for his holographic live-in girlfriend, Ana de Armas' Joi. The device enables the holographic Joi to temporarily attain a corporeal body. Virtual made real. In a stunning moment in the film, Joi goes out on the terrace, closes her eyes, stretches her arms and soaks it all in as raindrops lash against her new-found physical form. Now, if that isn't human, what is? Later on, that moment is invoked again when K, grasping with the nature of his identity, stretches his palm out and feels the snow dreamily falling down on him. Like humans do.
Clearly, Villeneuve took on an incredible test, a 'Voight Kampff' test, if you may. In fact, if you pay attention to his past work, he might have been the only candidate who could have passed. If there were any doubts about Villenueve's credentials as one of modern cinema's most original, visionary and confounding filmmakers, they are now lost in lashing rain, in thick smoke and in large neon faces looking upon a bleak world. Enemy, Prisoners, Sicario and more recently Arrival, are distinctly human tales, that grapple with humanity's nature in their own ways. Often, that struggle reveals dark corners that we don't want to see even if they have been staring at our faces all this while, even if what we eventually find is not what we were looking for. But only that struggle, that search matters. For K, that search is purpose. It is meaning. It is a name, not a serial number. And by the end, you realise that a Replicant has become a real human being and a real hero.
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