18 October 2017

Notes on Blade Runner 2049


To write responsibly about Blade Runner 2049, I would need to see it again, and to explore what I want to explore I would need to watch Denis Villeneuve's previous film, Arrival, again (I last saw it on its theatrical release), and I would need to watch all of Villeneuve's previous films (a couple of which I've missed), and I would need to watch the original Blade Runner again (a film I cherish and have seen a dozen times, at least, though I'm always happy for an excuse for another viewing), and—

I do not have time for any of this at the moment. But, before my thoughts disappear like — well, if wanted to insert an obvious and tacky allusion here, I'd say, like tears in rain, but you can fill in the simile yourself — before my thoughts disappear, I will jot down a few notes, on the off chance that they may be of use to you or somebody or me or nobody—

For me, Blade Runner 2049 is a sometimes visually interesting movie and not much other than that. Among the people I know, mine is a strikingly minority opinion: via social media, I've seen that many people I know and respect not only enjoy the movie, but respond to it in a way I have no access to. This is always an intellectually interesting moment for me (frustrating, because I would rather have access to pleasure than be barred from it, but interesting). The situation raises aesthetic questions: What is it within this film that works powerfully on the mind and emotions of many people but not others?



I saw Blade Runner 2049 in 3D, against my preferences. That's what was showing at the time I and my companions were at the theatre, and I'd driven an hour to meet my friends and have an outing, so it was the version we saw. I mostly find 3D distracting and annoying. Aside from shots where what was in the foreground was out of focus, I didn't mind it too much this time. I would never choose to see a film in 3D rather than 2D, but I've had vastly worse experiences with 3D than this movie. Some of the landscape gained interesting depth. Nonetheless, the 3D may have affected my experience. If the movie were not 3 hours long (and felt to me longer), and if I had more spare time at the moment, I would go see it in 2D to test my experience.

Side note: I don't think Blade Runner 2049 is Roger Deakins's best work as cinematographer by any means, but it's darn good, as always, and he ought to get an Oscar finally, dammit.

Side note: What is the purpose of Jared Leto's character? It seems like a storyline that got truncated, and while I am glad there wasn't more of him, Leto's scenes felt like a waste of time. And what about his character's replicant-assistant, whose performance seems to be from a different movie (maybe Karate Grrrrls From Outer Space)? The plot needed them, I suppose.

My indifference to Blade Runner 2049 is surprising because I so highly value the original Blade Runner. Blade Runner 2049 extends much of the mood and style of the original film. As a passable simulacrum of Blade Runner, the new movie ought to be an exciting experience for me. It is not. The differences must be primarily stylistic, because I do not value the original Blade Runner for its plot, such as it is. I'm not a plot person. (I want an architecture to a movie or book, some organizing principle to engage me, which is a purpose plot often serves, but I don't care about plot as plot.) The similarities between Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049 are easy to point to (and have already launched 1,000 thinkpieces and listicles), but working through the stylistic differences would be a more valuable project.

My indifference to Blade Runner 2049 may be an extension of my feelings about the films of Denis Villeneuve. The first I saw was Incendies, parts of which I found compelling, but ultimately I thought it was overlong, and I don't remember many details now, some years since first seeing it. Next was Prisoners, which I flat-out hated and saw no redeeming value in whatsoever. Having disliked Prisoners so deeply, I skipped his next couple movies, then saw Arrival, which I liked for almost an hour, then thought fell apart. Thus, my problem with Blade Runner 2049 may be an extension of my problem with the films of Denis Villeneuve. His aesthetics and mine are clearly at odds not only in an intellectual way, but in the deeper affectual and sensual structures of his narratives and images.

If I were writing an essay about Blade Runner 2049, I would want to look at the idea of reproduction, family, and childhood in it and Villeneuve's other films. According to Wikipedia, Villeneuve is married to a woman and has 3 children from an earlier relationship. It does not surprise me that he is a heterosexual man who apparently likes to reproduce. All of Villeneuve's films that I've seen are concerned with parents and children, and they show a deep undercurrent of sentimentality regarding children. This is hardly unique — sentimentality and children are hallmarks of most popular narratives, and writers like Dickens built successful careers from it — though the cool surface of Villeneuve's films disguises the sentimentality that shapes the narrative structure. (Aesthetic frigidity is often the flip-side of sentimentality.) The way the narrative logic is shaped by an idea that children are sacred miracles is clearest in Arrival and Blade Runner 2049.

Arrival deviates from Ted Chiang's original short story at the end by giving its characters more freedom of choice. In doing so, it seems to me that it makes the mother, at least, into a monster who wants to reproduce no matter what. Children are miracles, therefore they must be made, even if they and/or their parents will suffer terribly. (I would love to know Villeneuve's opinion of abortion...) Blade Runner 2049 is premised on the idea that the replicants want to be able to reproduce "naturally" (rather than by having another one built) and that the humans are horrified by this idea. The movie ends with a father reuniting with his daughter, for whom he sacrificed almost everything.

An academic could have fun applying work in queer theory to Villeneuve's movies, starting with Lee Edelman's No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive and Jasbir Puar's Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times, as well as the many useful and passionate responses those books engendered.

A friend of mine said, "Blade Runner 2049 is okay, but it's no Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning." This is the best critique of the film I've yet read.