Sunday, May 19, 2024

Blade Runner 2049’s Three Shorts Whet the Appetite

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With the release of Blade Runner 2049 only days away and the first glowing reviews beginning to roll in, the hype for director Denis Villeneuve’s sequel to the 1982 sci-fi classic has begun to ratchet up immensely. Some critics have even mentioned Oscars in the film’s future. After all the worry of reviving this franchise over 30 years later, it’s looking increasingly like the film has managed to live up to its predecessor.

Increasing the hype even further, Villeneuve had three short films created by friends. These shorts provide helpful backstory and context to their parent feature film. But do they really increase the hype, or perhaps dampen the enthusiasm? Yeah right, like I’d bother to talk about these shorts if they sucked. Come on.

Let’s take a look at each of them, starting chronologically with the anime short titled Blackout 2022.

Created by anime legend Shinichirô Watanabe of Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo fame, Blackout 2022 covers the titled event which led to a ban on Nexus android production. Following the events of the first Blade Runner, a new line of Nexus androids, the Nexus-8, are produced and given natural lifespans rather than the limited few years of the original’s Nexus-6 androids.

This leads to your typical dystopian type of story with humans hunting down and killing these new androids, using a Replicant Registration system to find them easily. The short follows the events of a group of rogue androids who plot to detonate a nuclear missile over Los Angeles in order to knock out all the power in the city.

For anime fans, and especially Watanabe fans, you know what you’re getting here. Gorgeous visuals reign supreme, while the dialogue and voice acting are a bit uneven. The story holds no real surprises (unfortunately in one instance). As a short, I didn’t go in expecting anything too complicated. Blackout 2022 has one job, to tell the story of an event key to 2049.

In that regard, it more than succeeds. The connection to the other shorts and larger story is clear. The style is impeccable. The short captures the Blade Runner aesthetic quite well. The intro of Nexus-8 models creates a possible explanation for Rick Deckard’s inclusion in 2049 supporting the “Deckard was an android” theory. Watanabe knows how the hell to make a compelling story, even if you know every beat to come. However, I imagine some Blade Runner fans lack a taste for anime’s…finer points and will be less than impressed by the awkward exposition and dialogue.

There’s also an issue which serves as part of a larger criticism with all these shorts, regarding the Trixie character. Look, I get that certain elements always exist in dystopian stories, be they cyberpunk, post-apocalyptic or anything else. The sex worker android dying, in the end, did not surprise me. Unfortunately, that’s the problem. I hate that I’m not surprised when stuff like this happens. I can’t help but wonder why she alone has to die of the three characters the story follows.

Still, the larger success here definitely outweighs the flaws.

Alright, as much as I like the anime the real hype takes place in the two shorter, live-action shorts featuring two of the main cast members from Blade Runner 2049. Here’s our first look at the actors involved, the characters they play, and the style of the main movie itself. Like the anime short, they definitely do their jobs creating anticipation.

The first (and chronologically earlier) of the shorts is Blade Runner 2036: Nexus Dawn. We get our first look at Jared Leto’s Niander Wallace. He makes his case before a group of people to lift the ban on Nexus production using a newly developed android’s willingness to follow any order, no matter how extreme, as an assurance against yet another blackout incident.

As a first look at Leto, I found Blade Runner 2036 interesting. He certainly dominates the screen both in appearance and dialogue. He pretty much nails the “businessman with a god-complex” ego.  Perhaps too much, in fact. Some reviews of 2049 have described Leto’s performance as too heavy-handed, and I can see a movie full of scenes like his in Nexus Dawn grating on some viewers. Here, though? It worked for me.

Combined with the strong dialogue, I liked this introduction to Niander Wallace. I just hope for a tad more subtlety in the movie itself.

The short is also shot really well, providing a glimpse of the editing and cinematography critics have penciled in as an Oscar frontrunner.

However, Nexus Dawn’s visuals have nothing on the third and latest of the shorts, 2048: Nowhere to Run. This short gives us an intimate look at the iconic style of Blade Runner’s citizens and streets. Nowhere to Run shows off Dave Bautista’s Sapper Morton, a renegade android. Again, the story here is short and sweet, as you’d expect from a roughly 5-minute short film.

Well, maybe not sweet. We see the squalid conditions citizens live in, including Morton; crowded streets, little money, threats of violence on every corner. The short ends with Morton killing a group of thugs kidnapping a mother and daughter he knows. The fight scene where this takes place happens in brutal, well-choreographed fashion where it’s made clear he was built for violence. In the process, he accidentally reveals himself and puts his secrecy into doubt.

Nowhere to Run gives easily the best look at the gorgeous visuals and editing work we can expect from 2049. Blade Runner’s aesthetic is captured beautifully. The artificial glow, the threatening shadows, and the excellent sound design work to damn near perfection. Even in such limited time, Morton more than displays the questions of humanity and life so central to the original film.

Even cooler, Bautista absolutely steals the show here, making for my favorite character of any of the shorts. As a former wrestling fan, I love his continued rise as a legitimate actor. The man has clearly worked hard to improve, and you see the fruits of his efforts here. I’m not calling him Daniel Day-Lewis or anything, but he does an impressive job showing a character brimming with violence built into his very nature and trying to hold it back. He’s far more than Drax the Destroyer here.

The first two shorts did a good job whetting my appetite. Nowhere to Run was the one making me hungry for more.

Overall Thoughts

As a big fan of Blade Runner, these three short films were a wonderful gift. They accomplished every single goal they needed to. The backstory filling in the events between the original and 2049 help my understanding of the upcoming film, a potential problem otherwise. They showed how Villeneuve understood and retained the style and themes of the original film. You get a pair of solid introductions to two important characters.

Most of all, I’m left desperately wanting to see Blade Runner 2049.

My one big problem with two of the shorts is something I’m somewhat hesitant to bring up, simply because of the expectations inherent to such dystopian societies. However, perhaps the question needs to be asked at this point; why must dystopian violence so consistently involve the suffering of women, and why must it always involve sexual assault?

We meet Trixie in the midst of sexual assault. She is the one character who dies, as well. Sapper Morton rescues the mother and daughter from rape. I’ve seen it a thousand times at this point. Perhaps exposure is the reason I can’t help but roll my eyes and wish for something else. I’d rather believe I’m just sick of such a default setting in dystopias when you can easily portray suffering for women or anyone else in ways more unique than these scenarios.

Hopefully, the main movie will avoid these tiresome stereotypes.

To reiterate, this is a personal issue I think the strengths of these three shorts outweigh, perhaps even significantly. The main storyline walking away from these stories and the many glowing reviews so far should be the successful return of Blade Runner after all these years. Denis Villeneuve has seemingly done it.

Much like Mad Max: Fury Road, Blade Runner 2049 looks like a triumphant, unexpected resurrection of a classic film franchise. The initial reactions have been much the same, and the hype as well (though unfortunately, I doubt Blade Runner will have a Furiosa). You might want to hit a theater this coming weekend. We may have a modern sci-fi classic on our hands.

Video and Images Courtesy of Warner Bros.

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