Dir. Denis Villeneuve. Starring Ryan Gosling, Sylvia Hoeks, Ana de Armas
Since the beginning of this isolation business, I’ve been working from home and drinking…look, we don’t have to talk about how much tea I’m drinking, because I’m not trying to give you anxiety about my future kidney stones on top of what’s going on in the rest of the world, but suffice it to say that it is a lot of tea, more tea than I usually drink when I’m at work. I have been making tea three mugs at a time: one Earl Grey, one Irish Breakfast, and one Red Rose, which is my go-to inexpensive black tea, and that I drink first. The difference between the Red Rose and the two Twinings I’m drinking is substantial, although if I were to just drink three mugs of Red Rose, I think I would be perfectly happy. The Red Rose clarifies just how good the Twinings is, and if I weren’t out of my Palais des Thés, I imagine that the Twinings would clarify that in much the same way. This is more or less how I feel about Blade Runner 2049, which is a good movie, maybe even a very good movie, but which only serves to clarify just how exceptional Blade Runner is.
In this movie, as in its forerunner, a replicant tries to fall in love. Roy Batty and Pris have electric chemistry together. Rachael and Deckard, whatever you make of his origins, come via an uneasy path to be devoted to one another. Whether or not replicants have the capacity for love is something that’s left up to us to decide, although I think the film is glad to push towards the affirmative. In BR2049, the thought experiment is altered. K (Gosling), a replicant, has a program called Joi (de Armas) who “lives” in his apartment and whose figure is projected where she might be if she were a flesh-and-blood woman. She certainly acts like a devoted girlfriend is supposed to act (as long as the supposition comes from the mind of the 18-35 year old boy this movie was marketed at), flouncing and smiling and so on. K comes home with a device that allows her to be projected outside his apartment, and she goes outside and feels the rain on her skin, as it were (I know), and she follows him on the missions he goes to. K invites a prostitute up to his apartment so Joi can be projected onto a human body, which sounds deeply weird and which the movie adequately pretends makes a lot of sense. When Joi’s emulator is destroyed, she’s gone, and her last words to K are a hastily spoken “I love you.” Later on, a giant, nude, and pink version of Joi comes down from a building-sized advertisement and flirts with K. He does not react; it’s not his Joi, and we are to take this as a proof that he loved her, not her program. It’s effective, I’d say, at least as far as studying the replicant side of the equation; Her does a better job of wondering whether a program can love back than BR2049 does. All the same, I’ve seen a movie in which we’ve tried to figure out if these near-human beings can genuinely fall in love, and it considers the question deeply and provocatively: it’s called Blade Runner, and it does a better job.
This is a sequel, even if it’s a non-traditional one, and I think it’s remarkable that it goes as well as it does. There are moments which are meant to speak to the original, and while they are done well, they’re still a little clunky; they are designed to make us think of another movie, after all. The extreme close-up of the eye, the updated Los Angeles; the aforementioned rain; a vaguely sinister tycoon with some ocular oddities; an underworld of people who seem to be able to procure just about anything. In the end, a replicant who has recognized his humanity dies after a few moments of reflection. These are fine, and thank heavens no one thought it would be a good idea to update the “Tears in Rain” monologue; in its own way, K’s death, his lonely look up to the sky as little snowflakes fall upon him, is a moving one. In a lifetime of doing a job, he can finally look back on what he’s done and judge it as meaningful, as having improved someone else’s life in lieu of stoking someone else’s rancor. (It’s almost certainly the best acting that Gosling does in the movie, as his performance conflates a man who has no idea how to feel with someone who is just plain wooden.)
I think it’s a heck of a flex, all things considered. It is right gutsy to want to draw a through line from the perfect opening of Blade Runner to your own movie, and there’s no doubt that the beginning of BR2049 cannot drop a jaw the way the original’s always will, but these aren’t unmanageable risks. It is also quite a flex to invoke as much Tarkovsky as VIlleneuve appears to be invoking. A fair bit of the action in the beginning of the movie jumpstarts when a skeleton is discovered underneath a dead tree with a date carved into its roots. The tree looks suspiciously like the dead tree on the beach in Ivan’s Childhood, and that suggestion of a robbed and ruined adolescence is furthered when we discover that the skeleton belonged to Rachael, who died in childbirth. There’s rushing water practically baptizing K later on in the film, and one can’t help but read that in a similarly allusionary vein after seeing that tree. Nor can one help feeling disappointed that Villeneuve appears to have thought it was wise to invite any kind of comparison between this film and any of Tarkovsky’s work.
What doesn’t work as well in the movie, and which has absolutely nothing to do with Soviet arthouse, is the genre it thinks it ought to belong to. Part of what made Blade Runner exceptional was its ability to bring noir to a genre where it had only rarely tiptoed, and to create a Los Angeles with as much personality as the Los Angeles of Chinatown or Double Indemnity. Watching Blade Runner 2049, it’s plain the beats are not drawn from noir but from action. For example. Wallace (Jared Leto), this movie’s answer to Tyrell, has Deckard (Harrison Ford) captured by his right-hand replicant, Luv (Hoeks), who kicks and punches with equal aplomb. He has Deckard brought to his shadowy lair, and in an offhand, almost metaphorical way, demands that Deckard tell him what he wants to know. He offers Deckard a clone of Rachael. Deckard hangs tough. The clone is killed; K comes to the rescue while Luv and Deckard are in transit to take him to be tortured elsewhere; K ends up defeating Luv in a one-on-one kicking-punching-drowning battle. The difference between this and a Marvel movie is that no one makes a single dad joke. It would not be a bad thing, necessarily, if the beats in this movie were for action, but the movie itself is not really an action movie. There are stretches where you can sense the contemplative mood that Blade Runner was so good at indulging in, but structurally one wishes for the payoffs to be in different spots. You watch the movie and it’s like listening to someone try to play a waltz in common time.
Blade Runner 2049 tries to paper over those issues with its looks. I am hardly a Denis Villeneuve expert, less an aficionado, but the man certainly knows how to work with a production designer. Dennis Gassner is not Syd Mead or Laurence G. Paull, but in his hands the California of the future, ravaged now by climate change as well as whatever else it was that sullied the world in 2019, is remarkable. Mountains of trash have replaced San Diego. The casinos of Las Vegas, are still, somehow, basically intact, but they are eerie in how misfitting they are in this new world where everything is either streamlined within an inch of suffocation or a pile of rubbish. I am a little less enamored of Roger Deakins’ cinematography here, which, sure, is very pretty, and which I’m very sure looks wonderful on the big screen. All the same, what’s really the difference between Deakins in this movie and Hoyte van Hoytema in Ad Astra? The movie likes to cut from one scene to the next without transition, so as to make its heavy colors contrast all the more starkly; what comes across in this editing is that the looks matter more than the action does, that style is superior to substance. Yes, it’s all very pretty, but it does not necessarily strike home as having a purpose other than its own aesthetic loveliness. Better for us to appreciate Malick, even if he is not exactly enamored of his action setpieces, than to unwisely give too much praise to cinematography which does not have much purpose other than its own self-advancement.