On being and becoming, collective memory, physical harmony, and Blade Runner in the age of spiritual machines
Blade Runner 2049 Warner Bros.
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Screenplay: Hampton Fancher and Michael Green, based on characters from the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, by Philip K. Dick
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Sylvia Hoeks, Ana de Armas, Harrison Ford, Robin Wright, Mackenzie Davis, Carla Juri, Dave Bautista and Jared Leto
Rated R / 2 hours, 43 minutes / 2.39:1 (1.90 IMAX)
October 6, 2017
(out of four)
A body flashes into space - a towering neon figurine, the glowing billboards of decades past having practically been made flesh. It tiptoes around the bodies beneath it, or shoots them a seductive glance, and then they glide right through each other untouched, unfazed.
Bodies flicker in and out of existence with the electric pulse of a disrupted signal, oblivious to the figures brawling amidst them - between, within, around them - like spectral dance partners.
Bodies live together side by side, greet each other at the end of the day - talk, sleep, eat, even dance together - but they cannot touch. They dream together, too.
Denis Villeneuve's mesmerizing Blade Runner 2049 doesn't just take place within a dystopia - more specifically, a generation-later extension of cinema's most recognizable dystopia - but within a concurrence of different evolutionary timelines. Artificial consciousnesses yearning to be physical beings. Artificial beings yearning to be human. Humans who want to be gods. The luminous holograms that float triumphant through the otherwise shadowy haze of this still-familiar megalopolis are facsimiles of them all, in one manner or another - a taunting reminder of what they are not, an icon to their own self-image, a nod to their own replicability.
For K (Ryan Gosling), a self-aware replicant working for the LAPD to "retire" his own kind - Deckard's old job - the blue-haired goddess who eyes him from above during his walks through the city is a copy of his own live-in partner, Joi (Ana de Armas), a digital intelligence whose appearance changes by mood (his more than hers), who fills their home with the warmth of a long-time lover, who repeatedly tells K she loves him, who can disappear at a push of the button on the entryway console. The feelings are mutual - both the affection itself and the painfully slim distance between it and the real thing. Her appearances on those walks through the city are practically a provocation. She's probably one of the year's best sellers.
2049's ontological meditation exists in the anguished limbo between one state of being and another, its coexisting intelligences fixated not merely on freedom or survival, but metamorphosis - of self, and of kind. The characters' preoccupation with their bodies - what they are, what they can or can't do, and what they represent - is matched in Villeneuve's filmmaking, which makes the body its primary object of expression. There is a constant conflating of physical and digital forms, most memorably in a sex surrogate* scene in which K and Joi hire a prostitute (Mackenzie Davis) to be her body. It's overtly reminiscent of a similarly conceived scene from Spike Jonze's Her, the key conceptual difference being that, in this case, Joi syncs her holographic self (and everything it contains) with Davis' character, an intimate fusion of corporal and technological that reminded me of the way characters' souls enter (and take control of) liminal bodies in George Saunders' Lincoln in the Bardo. (The concept is repeated in other contexts during the film as well - always a tender gesture, touch without touch.)
* Incidentally, the two actresses who play the surrogates in Her and Blade Runner 2049 - Portia Doubleday and Mackenzie Davis, respectively - have both risen to recent prominence in tech-based TV dramas, the former for Mr. Robot and the latter for Halt and Catch Fire. An amusing coincidence. The two surrogacy scenes play out differently - in Her, Doubleday's presence as a sexual object only reaffirms the divide between the film's romantic partners; the experience is alienating for Joaquin Phoenix's Theodore, its failure devastating for Scarlett Johansson's Samantha. In 2049, the surrogacy isn't exactly perfect, but the experiment at least works, at least in the basic way they expect it to (if not in any lasting sense, or in any way that solves the inherent problem).
The pseudo-Ménage à trois is 2049's best scene - not just because of the way it embodies the identity dilemmas that haunt these characters, but in the specifics of how Villeneuve and his effects team visualize the presence of two individuals occupying one body. When they're blended together, it's as if we (and more importantly, K) are looking through one to see the other ... except it's not entirely definitive who is on what side of that equation. Davis clearly becomes the dominant physical shape, yet de Armas is somehow - almost wordlessly - the dominant consciousness. Maybe it's in the eyes, or a softening of features, or an invisible blending of the two that I can't begin to detail, but it's a remarkable accomplishment. There's such an exquisite delicacy to the physical union - the way their outlines are just barely out of sync in motion, like one set of physical movements is chasing the other set, infinitesimally behind. A soft reminder that there are two people in there.
Blade Runner 2049 is, if nothing else, thoughtful about the intersections and imitations of life that so often get taken for granted in movies about various forms of artificial intelligence. Its recurring attention to the human form and its various simulacra get across much more about the state of life and identity in this dystopian world than do the common dovetailing A.I. narratives of master/slave rebellion and androids learning what it means to be human - both of which find their way into the film and are by far its shallowest areas of inquiry.
The contrasting impressions of Ana de Armas - as a giant neon hologram or an appearance-shifting domesticated one; an erotic mirage or a benevolent, omniscient voice inside K's head - say more about the film's existential state of mind than the room full of replicants professing their humanity and detailing the purpose of their burgeoning rebellion. Ditto the rain-blurred visage of Robin Wright - K's (human) boss, Lt. Joshi - through a high-rise windowpane. Or the way a designer of artificial memories (Carla Juri in a small but crucial role) and the man who visits her are framed against one another, on opposite sides of the glass in which she's been sequestered. Or the newborn replicant, sliding out of a plastic birth canal, covered in neo-amniotic fluid as her creator, Niander Wallace (Jared Leto, in a bad, self-consciously ponderous performance), philosophizes about her purpose. Wallace's coldly grandiose corporate office/factory - darkly lit in amber tones, its ripples of light cascading off the walls giving the whole place the feel of a lonely cavern - is filled with vats of empty replicant vessels, as if molded out of clay to their architect's exact specifications.
But while he may see himself as a god creating for a specific purpose, his creations will, at least eventually, have other plans. Indeed 2049 is largely comprised of odysseys of self-discovery - though the key characters are, almost invariably, not on quite the journey they think they are. Their self-discovery is discovering they aren't who or what they quite emphatically believed themselves to be. As conveyed through Ryan Gosling's K, that disconnect between knowledge and purpose - identity and meaning - achieves a remarkable and sorrowful depth. This is an example of a movie finding a great application of a specific side of an actor's persona - in this case the stoic, steely-eyed stare that has become an occasional signature for Gosling in recent years, particularly in his Refn collaborations Drive and, most infamously, Only God Forgives. Here, Villeneuve finds in that stare a constant state of anxious introspection for a character who doesn't even know how lost he truly is. His expression is simultaneously one of grim determination and barely suppressed sadness.
In filling the gaps between its timeline and that of Ridley Scott's original (often through clunky exposition), the film continually touches on the balance between two tiers of society - the powerful and/or human, the lower classes and/or replicants. And yet as expressed, both of those classes are basically ciphers - stand-ins for Powerful and Acquiescent, acting out those roles in a way so compulsory as to be nearly abstract. The script carefully withholds almost any superfluous details of what this Los Angeles, or the world itself circa 2049, really is - culturally, economically, practically. There are the powerful, and there is the disposable workforce. This is the order; the finer details don't matter.
The most important detail we learn about the interval between Blade Runner's past and 2049's present is something they call the Blackout, a sort of collective memory of the early replicant era that got wiped out - eliminated along with whole other portions of this society's historical record. Watching this civilization operate with so much of its own memory excised, it's as if the world already ended and everyone just kept on going, like gliding through a fog, with only the severed impulses of a forgotten time to guide them.
In that sense, K is entirely a product of his time - haunted by recollections and truths he only understands in fragments, if at all. So much so that he has to essentially go back in time - to a derelict Las Vegas (which seems to have hired the architect of the Korova Milkbar) to find Deckard, who may hold the answers to his own existence. Or, not.
There is a dreamlike Herzogian mood that hovers over much of Blade Runner 2049, and in its enigmatic depiction of existence and purpose as a cryptic philosophical struggle (not to mention the locations, often made up of mere remnants of civilization, like fractured memories, their meaning elusive), it contains clear echoes of Tarkovsky's Stalker. At other times, it plays like a grown-up but lesser version of Spielberg's A.I., right down to the Pinocchio references. (Although in fairness, Pinocchio is a pretty natural reference point for both.) And considering Scott's own recent preoccupation with the nature of human and technological evolution, 2049 would make a fascinating companion to both of his recent Alien prequels, Prometheus and Covenant.
It is, perhaps, the abstract nature of the search for meaning - any search for meaning - that makes K's whole pilgrimage so urgent, yet so impossible. What torments him is the sense that something is missing. And so it is. So it always will be.