Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

12 October 2017

Androids Dreaming of Electric Dads

Blade Runner 2049 is a long film. That is probably the first thing you ought to know about it. It clocks in at a totally unnecessary 2 hours 45 minutes. This movie is taking its time doing what it wants to do.

The next thing – and you already know this – is that the film is visually stunning. Its production design, costume design, cinematography, and visual effects are all award-worthy, awesome achievements. It just looks so good. The photography and lighting, honestly, are even better in the movie than you can tell from the trailer. There are sequences that are absolutely visually breathtaking.

And God remembered Rachel, and God hearkened to her and opened her womb. –Genesis 30.22

But Blade Runner 2049 is a self-important, pretentious movie, that expects its audience to do a lot of intellectual labor. It doesn't clearly articulate the ethical questions at the center of its filmic puzzle, either, so that if the characters are thinking through questions of right and wrong, or if they're making bold decisions that contradict their programming or their caste in society, we don't really have much access to the thought processes (or perhaps software processes) that lead to those decisions. In short, the movie doesn't really let us in to the characters. Even if I loved Ryan Gosling's character K, I only rarely felt like I understood the conundrums with which he was struggling. (Robin Wright and Carla Juri's characters are notable exceptions to this.)

More than that, the film's characters are obsessed with, and long for, natural things like wood, water, air, and animal life. But Blade Runner 2049 doesn't make this clear enough, and the audience never shares the characters' wonder at the real. So things that seem wonderful or awesome to these people in 2049 are completely ordinary to the film's viewers. And how could they be anything else? Blade Runner 2049 doesn't spend enough time setting up the world for us; it avoids allowing us into how the characters feel about the slum slash police state in which they live.

The King
There is a famous robot play by Karel Čapek – the man who invented the word robot – called R.U.R. or Rossum's Universal Robots. This is also an overly long story, and it aims at questions similar to Blade Runner 2049: viz. What if robots could reproduce? What might it mean for two androids to have a child? R.U.R. is mostly a problem play, and it spends its time talking us through the various ethical and emotional questions involved in having robots working as slaves (the word robot in fact means slave). In other words, there is much to discuss and therefore much time is needed for the play to do what it wants to do. Blade Runner 2049, by contrast, squanders its time, seemingly extending every sequence by at least 45 seconds so that the camera can drink up more of the gorgeous production design. This makes for a ponderous film that is nearly emotionally empty. (A part of this is due to having Ryan Gosling as the lead. He goes for stoic and silent in these kinds of roles – an obvious heir to Harrison Ford's famous sullenness – but this film needed emotional vulnerability in order to stop itself from being one of Christopher Nolan's soulless adventures.)

But it is visually and aurally stunning, and now that I've laid out all of my problems with the movie, all of the reasons that I know the film is not great, I can't say that I cared very much about any of these objections. I really liked Blade Runner 2049. Do I wish Villeneuve had made a better movie? I do. But I was delighted, astounded, even shocked by this one. Roger Deakins' cinematography feels completely fresh in every sequence. The neon-red-on-one-side-neon-blue-on-the-other-side visual that you can see in seemingly every movie – and about which I have complained before – never happens in Blade Runner 2049 even if it is used on the poster. Instead, Deakins' use of color feels inventive, novel, even revelatory. Now, one might easily object: but in service of what, exactly? and this objection would make sense, but for me these images were actually enough. They evoked plenty of emotion for me as colors and light: It was like staring at a Mark Rothko or a James Turrell or a Doug Wheeler.

So, I guess I can't really recommend Blade Runner 2049. If I really liked it, I know that I liked it for very specific reasons. I expect that for most people, this film's self-importance and pretenses will weigh more heavily against it, and those people are – sigh – probably right.