Saturday 21 October 2017

Slow future: "Blade Runner 2049"

The rain, at least, hasn't slowed any. It would not be an overstatement to say that Blade Runner 2049 has arrived among us as the most keenly awaited film of 2017: the Star Wars sequels have by now been placed in such safe corporate hands that fans can rest assured they know exactly what they're getting, whereas this feels like a risk, revisiting a vision even Ridley Scott never seemed to settle on in the course of three separate cuts, and spending vast amounts of Sony money on trying to develop rather than dissipate its mystique. The French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, working from a script by original scribe Hampton Fancher and recent Scott go-to Michael Green, seems keen to keep us all waiting. This is the second Villeneuve film in a row I've seen with a paying multiplex crowd - after last year's Arrival - and the second time I've witnessed this filmmaker lure restless popcorn-munchers into a state of hushed anticipation. He does this by giving us other matters to chew over. Where is this story headed? When will Harrison Ford return? Is Ryan Gosling - as Officer K, the replicant cop set on old Deckard's case - ever going to develop a second expression?

While waiting for these questions to be resolved, we can admire, even lap up, a meticulous recreation and expansion of the established Blade Runner universe. Villeneuve's mid-century L.A., as with Scott's earlier conception, is a work of notably intelligent design, both macro (a metropolis now overrun with Russian rather than Asian influences, plagued by freak shifts in climate) and micro (lots of boxes: crates buried underground, tobacco tins for trinkets). We need, and are afforded, plentiful time to take it all in, for 2049 runs just shy of two hours 49 minutes, the size of an iceberg in multiplex terms, and for much of that duration it moves like an iceberg, too. What's remarkable is the extent to which the new film tessellates with what came before: that very Scott-like immersive design, the hazy ambient soundscapes, a toy horse that rhymes with the first film's unicorns. Villeneuve even holds to the glacial pace of the original - which always felt like a depressive art school student's response to Star Wars's matinee hijinks - but now there's nearly an hour more of it, and all but the most obsessive BR fans may find themselves checking their watches. Worse: they'll have time to question how much human interest there really is here.

What Fancher and Green have written forms both a continuation of Philip K. Dick's existential explorations and a reverse-angle upon them. Where Ford's Deckard was a weathered, human presence whose genesis was laid open to interpretation in the course of hunting replicants, Gosling's Officer K is a replicant given cause to wonder what it is to be human. That's a workable new line of inquiry, certainly, but it would only have held had the actors on screen not seemed quite so much like the last element to be dropped into these sets, and by far the least significant. Scott had the advantage of Ford, movie star of the old school, the Bogart of New Hollywood, to keep us interested. His Deckard, however, doesn't show up here until the cusp of the third hour, at which point 2049 picks up the pace a little, interrogating the events of the first movie in much the same way later episodes of Twin Peaks: The Return interrogated Fire Walk With Me. For the most part, alas, we're stuck with monoface Gosling. That lights-on-nobody's-home mien might have been useful for the projection of androidry, but strip Gosling of his gift for light comedy, and he defaults to the setting of mopey passivity: several times, we find him looking on blankly as K's superior Robin Wright barks dialogue at him ("The world is ending!", "You just stopped a bomb from going off!") which is entirely at odds with the film's general lack of urgency.

Lightness will apparently be off the books completely inside three decades, but even when Villeneuve is aiming for colourful, all you see and feel is strain. The revelation that K's corporate nemesis Sylvia Hoeks is getting a mani-pedi while phoning in an air strike might, in a fleeter-footed proposition, have counted as the kind of quick-fix sight gag that jabs a laugh out of drifting viewers. Yet Villeneuve spends so long getting to it, and then dwelling on the peculiarities of the manicurist's uniform and the precise shade of polish being applied, that the gag loses its snap: it's another instance of the film stifling itself with its own design. When Gosling initiates a quasi-threesome by meshing the bodies of a flesh-and-blood working girl (Mackenzie Davis) and his hologrammatic homehelp (Ana de Armas), the scene's forever too clever to be as kinky as it thinks it's being: the blood runs north as the mind wonders how the techies pulled off the effect, and besides Villeneuve cuts away to an advert on the side of a skyscraper just as things are getting interesting. (Something else this filmmaker has inherited from Scott: he doesn't do sex, which partly explains the film's chilliness around women, and presumably seals its director's place in the modern-day studio system.)

This may be the eternal flaw of the Blade Runner movies: that they offer so much on a visual and conceptual level, yet so little to quicken the pulse or stir the emotions; that, whichever way you cut them, they're Tin Men headed in search of a heart. Maybe that's why Scott was compelled to keep tinkering with the first film, and why this one, which counts as a success in some ways (not least in how it honours its predecessor), feels in others like some grand, expensive folly. Not one scene in Villeneuve's film displays the spontaneity or spark of that much-memed This Morning outtake in which Gosling and an uncommonly spry Ford proceed to get lightly tipsy in a Park Lane hotel room: that's what it means to be human, revealed in a little over four minutes, and without recourse to clunky, heavy-handed dialogue or Jared Leto stumbling round in dark corners as a beardy blind genius. Blade Runner 2049 is imaginatively conceived, brilliantly designed, and often plain astonishing to look at; its saving grace is that it's a hell of a movie to zone out before. Yet zone out I did, and each crawling frame only served to confirm how a storyboard's panels can become as oppressive as any other prison. Imagine how great the film would be if its images had any life in them.

Blade Runner 2049 is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

No comments:

Post a Comment