Saturday, June 15, 2024

‘Blade Runner 2049’ Is A Visual Treatise on Why Movies Must Be Seen In Theaters

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My god is Blade Runner 2049 a sumptuous bleakly gorgeous film. It is quite simply a sensory experience of technical precision. More than any film this year, and this includes the visually orgiastic Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets; it successfully argues that movies must be seen in theaters.

I can not imagine seeing this on my laptop, cellphone, or television; no matter how big the screen is. Denis Villeneuve and the legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, have cobbled together a series of dreamlike images that seem inspired by the German expressionism of the silent film era. Blade Runner 2049 is both epic in scale and intimate in feel.

There is a common misconception that great imagery is about what is within the boundaries of the frame. This is a lie or at the very least not completely true. What makes images cinematic is not just what is on the screen but what is not on the screen. The negative space that the object or person inhabits. Close-ups rarely have the actor’s face filling the whole of the screen, it merely feels like that. What we feel and remember is the impression of that face based on the surrounding nothingness of the face around it. We imprint our own desires, feelings, and theories upon it.

Blade Runner 2049 plays with our perception. It is a story about replicants trying to be human, yearning for humanity, while also playing with our own perception of things as humans ourselves. ‘K’ (Ryan Gosling) is a blade runner who hunts down other replicants. For the uninitiated replicants, or skinwalkers, are sort of a bio-engineered artificial intelligence. They are used primarily for off-world labor. Blade Runners are bounty hunters of sorts, who hunt them down after they run away, to ‘retire’ them.

All of this is explained at the beginning of the movie both with text and a scene between ‘K’ and Sapper (Dave Bautista). It’s exposition without feeling like exposition. The dialogue is crisp and poetic without sounding or feeling pretentious. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner was a mix of film noir and science fiction. Villeneuve and Deakins take that idea and pump with steroids.

Blade Runner 2049 has the audacity as a mega-budget major studio release to fill its runtime with punishing silence. There is a moment where ‘K’ meets Deckard (Harrison Ford), and Deckard punches him. The punch is quiet. There is little to no foley sound added to ‘punch up the sound’ as it were. Moments later after the punch, once we’ve realized it’s Deckard, the score blares to life. Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch’s score doesn’t underline the movie so much as it demands to be a part of it. But the moments where their score is used are calculated. Villeneuve’s uses music as it was meant to be used; as an aide to help increase tension or as set dressing. Zimmer and Wallfisch’s score is utilized as an exclamation point at times but never as a shortcut to tell us how to feel.

‘K’ discovers a chest of bones buried at Sapper’s farm. Back at the LAPD, they perform an autopsy. They discover the bones belonged to a woman who died giving birth. ‘K’ then notices that the skeleton has a model number on it. The bones belonged to a replicant, but replicants aren’t people. Therefore, they can’t reproduce. His boss Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright Penn) charges ‘K’ with finding the child and ‘retire it.’ “The World is built in a wall that separates kind. Tell either side there’s no wall…you’ve bought a war .”

I am delighted to be alive for what seems to be the rediscovery of the towering talent of Robin Wright. What she can convey simply by sitting or pouring a glass of whiskey is nothing short of a masterclass of acting. She plays the stereotypical tough as nails superior officer. She doesn’t feel for ‘K, ’ but she also doesn’t feel antipathy for him either. There is a point, as indeed there must be whenever the plot of your movie has a police department and a seemingly simple murder investigation that morphs into a byzantine revelation that could unmake the world, where ‘K’ is asked to hand over his ‘gun and badge.’ Notice how Penn and Gosling look at each other. The emotions conveyed in just a few glances.

Blade Runner 2049 because of its structure allows it’s actors to act, to explore the dark little corners of their character’s psyche. We’re allowed to see Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), a replicant enforcer of Wallace’s (Jared Leto), spy on ‘K’ while she’s getting her nails done. Or the scene where ‘K’ comes home and activates Joi (Ana de Armas), a holographic girlfriend. We watch as the two merely spend time together. These scenes don’t move the plot so much as inform the characters in a sort of Dickensian fashion.

Villeneuve along with his screenwriters Hampton Fancher and Michael Green imbue the world with a sense of humor. There are the typical dry quips such as when ‘K’ finally meets ‘Deckard’ and asks if his dog is real. “I don’t know. Ask him.” Or when ‘K’ and Joi are together on the rooftop baring their artificial souls to each other, the music swells, they lean to kiss, and Joi freezes. ‘K’ has received a voicemail. There’s even a bit of surreal fun as when ‘K’ and Deckard duke it out in the lounge of a futuristic Las Vegas lounge. Holographic images of Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, and go-go dancers play throughout the fight in the background.

Harrison Ford is experiencing a renaissance himself. Unlike Wright, his seems rooted in simply reviving old characters from his career. He’s great here, granted he should be he nailed this part some thirty years ago. But there’s an aura of regret and anger about him now. His cragged features highlighted by the lingering love he held for Rachael (Sean Young).

There’s so much to recommend Blade Runner 2049 that the stuff that doesn’t work feel minor and nitpicky. The villain of the piece Wallace, a business magnate who has taken over building replicants.  Wallace tasks Luv with hunting ‘K’ down and finding the ‘child’ so they can replicate it. Of all the characters his is the least flushed out. Every other character feels alive and fully formed. Wallace feels inspired by Snidely Whiplash, an old cartoon character more concerned with twirling his mustache and tying Dudley Do-Right’s girlfriend, Nell, to the railroad tracks because the script mandated he do so whether than because of any real internal desire. Leto is actually quite good despite the script’s shortcomings. It’s a measured performance from an actor who tends to swing a little too hard for the fences for my taste.

Yet, for every scene with Leto, we get scenes with Joi, the holographic companion of ‘K.’ Ana de Armas gives a deft and complex performance as she dances along the line of a program and genuine affection. Her character flickers throughout never fully solid, always a little transparent. Armas projects a great sense of self for a role that structurally, in the beginning, serves only to prop up ‘K’ and reaffirm his ‘special-ness.’ Wonderfully nuanced as her performance is I can’t help but feel Joi’s place in Blade Runner 2049 is more allegorical than functional. Her role is to represent not so much to exist. A tragedy because Armas proves herself to be quite enjoyable and nuanced in her acting.

The biggest flaw is the sort of anticlimactic fight between Luv and ‘K.’ Not because it is not gorgeous but because Ryan Gosling’s name is above the title. When your name is above the title, you do not get killed by the villain’s henchwoman, replicant or no replicant. It’s also a letdown. Up until this point Blade Runner 2049 has been a thoughtful enrapturing cinematic event. The fight just feels rote and lazy. It seems a slap in the face to everything the movie has been working up to only to have this one key moment devolve into a fist fight.

There was a period during the film where I began to revolt against it. The relationship between Joi and ‘K’ is a fascinating one. But there is a point where Joi tells ‘K’ that he is special, that he is more than what he thinks and that she always believed in him. A wave of disappointment washed over me as I began to sense the ‘chosen boy’ trope reeling it’s ugly and stupid head. But this too is by design. I will not say more suffice to say I was pleasantly surprised.

Ryan Gosling as ‘K’ turns in one of his best performances so far. He is at once removed and present at the same time. His eyes a mirror into his processing unit. It is a performance of such effortlessness and intensity that it almost rivals Kristen Stewart’s performance from Personal Shopper. This may seem odd, but there are hints of James Cagney in Ryan Gosling’s performance. The way he grimaces and stalks across the screen. He has a magnetic charisma about him as he struggles to process all that is happening to him.

Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 is straightforward yet oddly enigmatic. It plays fair with you only to reveal that you noticed exactly what it wanted you to. It’s visual scope, and its audacity is truly breathtaking. Technically Blade Runner 2049 is a marvel and must be seen in a theater near you. Strangely though as the movie drew to a close, while I was affected by the beauty of the images onscreen and in awe of what I had just witnessed, I was strangely empty.

It’s not that I didn’t get ‘it.’ It’s just that I was more taken with its beauty and mastery of its craft than anything it had to say. Still, as the credits began to roll, and I clapped excitedly, I can’t say I was moved by anything that had happened; even though the emotional arch and basic structure of the story behaved like a Shakespearean tragedy. Blade Runner 2049 is more hypnotic than it is emotionally satisfying but the trance it puts you under is well worth it.

Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

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