I consider myself someone who takes cinema very seriously. But “serious” in this sense is a question of attitude and sensibility rather than tone. I take seriously the ability of cinema to plumb its inner-depths and expand its outer-registers, to twist and turn preconceptions about existence, to interrogate its own mortal coil and material medium as well as to dialogue with social context, to refresh itself, to treat every moment as a contingency rather than a certainty. But above all, I take seriously cinema’s ability to play: with itself, with the world, and with its conception of the world. Play does not imply glib triviality or even humor but the giddy effervescence steaming off of even the most solemn and sober film as it treats its medium as an experiment in any tone whatsoever. Serious play incorporates thematic, intellectual, emotional, philosophical, visual, spatial, temporal, and aural play in all its registers, the excitement of a film that is gloriously unsettled in its always-roving, never-finished mental exploration of self. Seriousness, in this lexicon, does not entail giving a pass to so-called serious cinema, especially cinema which wraps itself up in its seriousness as a hermetic seal, as a shield from real self-interrogation, or as position of sacrosanct refuge.
Exhibit A: Awestruck with its predecessor’s decorum, Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 is too totally and totalizingly reverent, too eager to appease its parental film and wrap itself up in that film’s shell rather than dangerously dive out on a limb to tease out the frictions that earlier film knew so well. While Blade Runner questions, 2049 stabilizes. While Blade Runner slinks toward uncertainties with the reptilian negative energy of a B-picture, 2049 is too blown-away with its grand-scale cosmic queries and universe-conquering ambition to skulk or skitter or do anything surreptitiously or with more than one voice or mood at a time. While Ridley Scott’s film found a home in the back-alleys not only of its neon-tinted physical world but in the back-alleys of the mind, exploring equivocal questions to fascinatingly ambiguous ends, 2049 pushes everything to the surface, including, ironically, its obvious, on-the-nose, calculated and unearned aura of ambiguity. This new film is certainly attentive to the aesthetic of the original, but it crucially misses that film’s smoky aura. It’s wonderful to look at, but it does not understand that part of the sublime is the sensation that something is lurking just beneath the surface, waiting not simply to twist the narrative order but to cross-examine our vernacular for understanding narrative or theme altogether.
Director Villeneuve’s work, as it is always is, remains highly attentive and responsible to the rules about sequels, but its conscientiousness kills the curiosity of this cat. The film ultimately mistakes a glowering and self-serious import for the feline ferocity of the original film. Its precious few real eccentricities – character super-impositions, a spellbindingly pungent if too-short performance from Dave Bautista, a jittery, nerve-jangled Elvis hologram giving a facsimile of life to a decomposed casino – are breaths of fresh air. But 2049 is too transfixed with its lethargic beauty that it disables the possibility of other moods, immobilizing the ragged heart and mongrel energy ticking in Scott’s original film. While that earlier work was imbued with a breathless affective charge, 2049 seems to occupy a state of unwavering, constant, bloated breath-holding. Impacted with its own pseudo-intelligence, this leviathan of a blockbuster crucifies itself on a cross of calculated depression.
While the original Blade Runner teases us about the bonafides of protagonist Rick Deckard’s humanity, whether this human is actually an android replicant, 2049 questions whether the self-defined replicant at its center – a male-body-type indebted to American mythology, high on his own hip, so desperately wanting to be a genuine person – isn’t the more human after all. This Bogart-figure is played by Ryan Gosling, an inspired feat of casting, allowing the character to wear Gosling’s precious gift for looking silently flummoxed without succumbing to the kind of torpid largesse the rest of the film mistakes for self-questioning. His character, K, is a replicant – early on, there’s no doubt about that, unless you want there to be – and like the character Harrison Ford played in 1982, and here again in 2017, K hunts renegade androids while himself being a form of slave for the man, here played by Joshi (Robin Wright).
K, incidentally, loves old-school cool. He needs no genetic biology proof to be human; he merely has to perform humanity. In the film’s few pointed moments, it suggests that the “humanity” he adopts – like many flesh-and-blood American men – is the performative masculinity of the no-nonsense, emotionally-stunted, unreflexive masculine archetype who treats the world as a purely reactive agent to his masculine will. The film suggests that K’s quest to be human is flummoxed not because he is composed of robotic tissue but because male humans aren’t worth being in the first place. This android’s definition of humanity – in other words, humanity’s external definition of ourselves, the image we project – is not one of complicated, empathetic people but of personalities sublimated to bell hook’s inimitable quote about masculinity: “the first act of violence that patriarchy demands of males is not violence toward women. Instead patriarchy demands of all males that they engage in acts of psychic self-mutilation, that they kill off the emotional parts of themselves. If an individual is not successful in emotionally crippling himself, he can count on patriarchal men to enact rituals of power that will assault his self-esteem”. K wants to be an archetypical American male, but the film ponders, when it remembers to, whether that archetype really wasn’t itself sucked dry of humanity to begin with.
This is surely superior politics to the original Blade Runner. But this new film sacrifices nuanced social commentary at the altar of an over-baked and under-written slavery allegory that analyzes nothing that dozens of analytical science fiction films haven’t explored with more zest and thematic texture before. If you cannot miss the calculated beauty of this new film’s too-curated visual energies, one would have to be non-existent to avoid the political perspective of this new Blade Runner. Androids are slaves, and the severity of the commentary on dehumanization – the film’s willingness to just say what Blade Runner was either too cunning or to hesitant to – teeters between liberatingly matter-of-fact and too-pat, as though the film is name-checking its liberal credentials and self-appeasement with its politics. But if the original was cunning – which it wasn’t always – this new one is clever, too much so for its own good. The smarts are distended so that they engulf the film in its own torpor, cauterizing any loose ends, stray dogs, or rough energies and molding them into a kind of museum exhibit to the original. Everything is safely packaged, far too cleanly, to fit the vibe of a 21st century “sci-fi-for-adults” Blade Runner sequel. The moments of inspiration start to feel like sudden, surprising portals to the unknown, final currents of leftover curiosity, lone tributaries away from (and, unfortunately, back to) the film’s calculated mysteriousness. Ultimately, 2049 bathes itself in good intentions – corporations prey on slaves – and then washes away the itch to truly get lost in the dirt or explore the thickets of this particular observation.
Ultimately, 2049 also sacrifices the melancholic frissons and confounding instabilities of its vanguard predecessor, a more oblique work whose elusive and slippery opacity and relative minimalism suggested a malnourished world that 2049, with all its self-admiring showmanship, cannot even imagine. But that’s the problem: it imagines too much and too little. Or rather, it imagines a great deal, but without contesting the terms of the “thinking person’s” blockbusters of the recent century that are still hemmed in by the limited frameworks of intelligence accepted by Hollywood producers. While Blade Runner explored implications, unexpressed potentialities, and strange emotions dancing between half-presence and not-quite-absence, this new film’s vision of “intelligence” only includes words, sentences, plot-points, and events. Much like Villeneuve’s Arrival from last year, 2049 is given to the manicured brand of boldface ambiguity that art-pop directors love so much, creating the sorts of films that love telling us how much they’re telling, and not telling, us. Within these films, weaving a seemingly-thorny but ultimately surface-level web of fancy terms, signifiers, and concepts takes precedence over plumbing the more subterranean undercurrents of sensation, perception, and human experience that complicate and befuddle those concepts. (I particularly hated some of the symbolic character names in this film, although not as badly as Arrival’s “ask him what the Sanskrit word for war means” bit.)
All of this is intentional, but the film is too perfect for its own good. The smoky, combustible suddenness of the original has been replaced with a dripping self-consciousness about its own importance. 2049 is entirely neo-classical, bled dry of the messy instability and excitable energy of Ridley Scott’s loopy cross-fertilization of world influences implying a swarming, faux-transnational melting pot compared to 2049’s intentionally-stultifying homogeneity. Everything is in its place. The little off-hand moments of splintered human interaction in the original are now packaged into even smaller, more disaffected corporate slices; any dialectical nuance to the supreme misery, any human comedy or messiness at all, would be anathema to the one-size-fits-all-mood, so the film mostly cuts out human interaction entirely except when it is purely functional for the narrative. Solemn and sober, even sanitary, 2049 is – like most of Villeneuve’s films – convinced of its commitment to ideas. 2049 isn’t unlike K in this regard: lost in the past, a dead glaze in its eyes, convinced of its own importance, and ultimately hollow not because it doesn’t try to question, but because it spends too much time thinking it knows what questioning really is. It’s certainly never a bad film, but if it were, it might at least be more personal and welcome more messiness and imperfection to its name. As with so many of these sumptuous art-adjacent R-rated blockbusters of recent years compared to their artier antecedents – think how The Revenant banalizes Terrence Malick by replacing Malick’s mood of meditative reverie and introspective transcendence with sheer, mere visual magnificence – 2049 wraps itself in its predecessor’s divinity at the expense of its subtlety and shading.
Score: 6/10 (it sure looks good though, but I waver on the score)
Update: I still stick to the score I gave this film – maybe I’d up it to 6.5 – but a second viewing clarifies the very real strengths, or at least adventurous thematic failures, of this film. Plus, that Elvis scene – although it’s an obvious metaphor, the scene is a breathtaking poem of negative space, visual half-presences, and audio-visual asynchrony, placing K and Deckard in bas-relief against a swarm of equally jittery, collapsed icons of America that can be perceived as either last bastions of truth or, more likely, deluded, artificial, pitilessly fading memories of a fictive truth trying to convince themselves there ever was a true “Americana” worth embodying – is worth a point or two all on its own. For a film that is too willing to wear its ellipticism like a badge of honor, the scene clarifies how elegant a meditation on the fragility of perception and identity this film can be when it gets out of its own way.