Back in my university years, one afternoon during media studies class, the tutor relayed a story about a friend of his who had recently been dumped by his long-term girlfriend. Emotionally devastated, the man walked to the shops in the throes of despair, bought a bottle of booze then lumbered across to the local park.
Sitting on a bench next to a pond, he slugged straight from the bottle – still in a brown paper bag – while he gazed at ducks. What a cliché I’ve become, he thought. Then he wondered: am I acting this way because I feel like it, or because I’ve watched this scene unfold so many times before, in films and TV programs?
The new Blade Runner, like the old, is dark, soulful and biblical in a ghost-in-the-machine kind of way.
Director Denis Villeneuve’s atmospherically stunning, belated sequel to Ridley Scott’s rain-clogged, neo-noir chef d’oeuvre, initially under-rated when it first arrived in cinemas in 1982, caused me to ponder a question of my own. Would the tale about the broken-hearted man in the park be more or less interesting if he was a robot?
Just as we saw Joaquin Phoenix, a human, dating his operating system in Spike Jonze’s 2013 film Her, we see Ryan Gosling, a robot (or ‘replicant’) going steady with his home entertainment system in 2049. Gosling plays Officer K, a member of the LAPD whose robo-girlfriend is projected as a semi-transparent hologram of a person (Ana de Armas). If she/it broke up with him, he could be that guy in the park.
The question of whether Deckard (Harrison Ford) was human or replicant was at the core of the original film. Villeneuve does not waste time repeating questions already answered, ascertaining in the sequel – early and without ambiguity – that K is a robot.
Cinematographer Roger Deakins conjures visuals that find eye-watering ways to look grand and impersonal.
An initial assignment sees him ‘retire’ fellow replicant Snapper (Dave Bautista), a worm farmer who, like Roy Batty before him, waxes philosophical as he is forced to contemplate leaving the mortal coil.
The farmer condemns K for killing his own kind. But the ‘blade runner’ (a term to describe an assassin of replicants) either misunderstands this criticism, or deliberately reframes it – with a comment about how he is a newer model, and he has never killed newer models because they don’t run.
K reports to the surly Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright) who, in crisis management mode, due to a first act revelation that will remain unrevealed here, maintains a steely gaze and clenched first. Titan-sized holographic advertisements perform on loop in the dark, dank, neon-lit streets. They stomp around like electric gods, as in Ghost in the Shell.
Thirteen time Oscar nominee (!) Roger Deakins is in seventh heaven. The cinematographer conjures visuals that find eye-watering ways to look grand and impersonal – from buildings that connote ancient, Egyptian appearance to aerial shots of a sunless, climate-ravaged city, that from high above resembles sheets of ice or metal.
Harrison Ford is wheeled out for a high impact supporting performance, sans the nostalgia-mongering that defined his return as Han Solo in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Audiences probably won’t be whooping and cheering when the grizzled veteran reappears in 2049 (they didn’t at the screening I attended). Not because they won’t be grateful to see him, but because it’s not that kind of movie.
My favourite scene in Blade Runner 2049 contains a cameo, of sorts, from Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe.
The new Blade Runner, like the old, is dark, soulful and biblical in a ghost-in-the-machine kind of way. Villeneuve’s penchant for deathly serious, sweltering largesse makes his style obviously comparable to Christopher Nolan – and vice versa. This year both directors, Nolan with Dunkirk, are playing their A game.
My favourite scene in Blade Runner 2049 contains a cameo, of sorts, from Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe. It is a moment that says something about where the zeitgeist is currently at, technologically and artistically, or where it will be soon: ghosts of the past re-imagined as light shows for alternate realities – dispensable or divine, depending on your point-of-view.
In real life, the long-gestating medium of virtual reality is now available to consumers on the mass market. Advanced augmented reality and holograms are in the mail; whales are currently flopping around on basketball courts. The robot revolution is coming. The simulation theory is considered a credible scientific theory to explain the creation of the universe.
All this is another way of saying: now is a good time for a big-thinking blockbuster movie to explore, with real philosophical backbone, just like the first Blade Runner, questions such as how a robot with implanted memories can know the difference between real memories and fake ones. On this subject, by turn, Villeneuve and his screenwriters ask, without directly phrasing it as such: what are human beings, if not the sum of our recollections?
Blade Runner 2049 commands to be seen on as big a screen as possible.
Blade Runner 2049 also arrives at an opportune time for cinema itself. As speculation increases about the scale and impact of streaming service providers, and fewer people seem to appreciate or value the word “cinematic”, along comes a production that commands to be seen on as big a screen as possible. The idea of watching 2049 on any surface less than several metres wide feels like sacrilege.
Film was widely considered to be the art form of the 20th century. Not even the most devoted cinephile with half a mind would suggest, however, that the same will apply going into the new millennium, unless we are talking about film in terms of its oldest definition: as motion pictures.
How will we absorb them in the future? A lens over our eyes? A chip inserted into our bodies? A conversation, perhaps, for another time; one for the media studies class of the future.