When we finally meet Deckard in Blade Runner 2049, it is inside a Las Vegas Casino he is living/hiding in. It is reminiscent of the large banquet room in The Shining or Brando in the 3rd act of Apocalypse Now. A character talked about and occasionally heard until nearly 2 hours later he finally appears. But Deckard does not have a village of followers, he has memories. A place that is a large memory of what once was. Holograms of Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe entertain him. And amongst the memories is a not mentioned painting; Boy Leading a Horse, by Picasso.
Much as a unicorn was years ago, a horse is an important part of the story in this sequel. One of the best sequels ever made and a film that elevates the original.
|Every civilization was built off the back of a disposable work horse.|
When I saw Ex Machina, my favorite film of 2015, I wrote, "this is the movie everyone tells me Blade Runner is." Blade Runner has for me always been understandably influential with its visuals and effects.
But the film always left me hallow. Despite Rutger Hauer's "tears in rain" speech, I wanted to care as much throughout the film as I did at the end.
I rewatched it the day before seeing 2049 and to my slight delight, I did care more than I previously had. Not by leaps and bounds, the film to me is still in many ways better on paper than in actuality. But the "Final Cut" version, or heck probably any version NOT the theatrical release version I had previously seen, is far superior than what the studio made Ridley Scott turn his film into originally.
While a sequel to any film that is now regarded as a classic, as well as starred Harrison Ford, will have enough reason to exist for those reasons alone, Blade Runner 2049 feels like a natural progression of the story. And while money is why most any movie is made, Producer Scott and others decided to make a great film above all else and let the chips fall where they may. What results is a movie that is hard to believe exists.
This is not a retelling of the original like Star Wars: Force Awakens was. Just like the original Blade Runner, there is not nonstop action. The movie is philosophical and paced, and if you count the previews, about 3 hours long. And while Ryan Gosling is a famous actor, his penchant for doing mostly independent movies means he is not an established Box Office draw. Indeed much has been made of 2049's disappointing opening weekend, which also happens to be the biggest of Gosling's career. They could have banked on a bigger star as the lead. Thrown in Jennifer Lawrence and made the film non stop explosions for 2 hours. Instead we have a perfectly cast Gosling in a rich film you might find yourself thinking about for days afterward. That might not make it a hit, but like its predecessor, hopefully it will make it a classic.
When Sci-Fi is at its best, it makes the viewer think. It can pose philosophical questions. In college I took a philosophy course where we watched Star Trek episodes every day. Far from a cake class, the material was fun but tough. That is exactly what the best of the genre can provide.
Gosling's "K" is a replicant. Something we find out from the very beginning. Being a blade runner as well, he is asked how it feels to "retire" (kill) his own kind by farmer and fellow replicant Sapper Morton. The "new versions don't run," K explains. Morton tells him he can only do what he does because he has "never seen a miracle." A curious line that proves to be far from a throw away one.
K by almost any standard is real. Which of course raises the question again, "what is real?" This is not new territory in science fiction, but the triumph of the film is not in exactly what it is about but maybe more how it is about it. Not an android but a "synthetic human with paraphysical capabilities." They bleed. They eat the same food real humans eat. Have sex. As the Roy character from the original film said, "We're not computers...We're physical."
K desires companionship, and has purchased a mass produced one in "Joi," a hologram helper/girlfriend who is as "real" to K as can be, only he can not touch her. At the end of the day she is just a program.
The fact that her name is Joi is of course not coincidental. But neither is the fact that one of the film's villains is named "Luv."
When ordered to retire a replicant that may have actually been born, K responds with uncharacteristic hesitation. Hesitation in following orders is literally meant to be programmed out of him. And yet there it is. When asked why he pauses he replies, "I never retired something that was born. Maybe to be born is to have a soul."
And such leads us down our journey of the Boy Leading a Horse. Or rather a boy remembering a horse and what exactly that means to him.
K desires to be significant. As Joi calls it, "special," while at the same time fearing what it all means and realizing the consequences. Shown in one of those great Gosling moments of raw emotion that are only so powerful because of how understated he has been previously.
Which brings me back to Gosling. Director Denis Villeneuve said he never thought of anyone else for the role. No known actor today could better what he does here. An expert of quiet understatement that conveys emotions through his eyes or a look. The film is his, and it is a performance superior to his recent Oscar nominated one in La La Land. But there is no singing or dancing here and because of that, there will be no Oscar nomination or Golden Globe award this time. But in a just world there would be.
Much as there should be for director Villeneuve and (for certain will be) for cinematographer Roger Deakins. What Villeneuve has achieved is rather remarkable and exceeds his excellent Arrival.
But despite all the technical achievements, it would feel hollow without those performances. Especially Gosling's K and Sylvia Hoeks's Luv (whose performance is also worthy of nomination in a deep and defined character) and Ana de Armas as Joi. And without such a solid narrative written by original Blade Runner script writer Hampton Fancher with Michael Green.
If you are going into the film hoping the notorious "Is Deckard a replicant or not?" question will finally be answered for you, well think again.
Blade Runner 2049 is too smart for that. The answer is inconsequential. It is the questions raised that are of most importance.
Nabokov's book "Pale Fire" is referenced more than once. "Treasure Island" is mentioned. We hear the opening notes from "Peter and The Wolf." In the short film: 2048: Nowhere to Run directed by Ridley Scott's son Luke as a sort of introduction to the Sapper Morton character, we see he gifts a book to a young girl; "The Power and the Glory."
It was impossible not to think of other strong films. The Spielberg/Kubrick film A.I. Spike Jonze's Her. I even thought of Gosling's, Lars and the Real Girl (and chuckled) when a woman tells K, "I figured you for liking real girls."
And while the influences are there it is not a film that feels void of its own identity or ideas. Much of what I love of the screenplay is that it takes us up to a place we have been before and then says "nope, not going down that road." It is that kind of movie. Admitedly familiar, but too good to be that easy.
And one of the very best things about 2049 is there is a genuinely great love story here.
A love story between K and Joi that is far better told than the one between Deckard and Rachael in the original movie. (Though 2049 actually much improves the Deckard/Rachael dynamic)
And what then elevates the K/Joi relationship from good to wonderful is the fact that we, through K, question how "real" it actually is. Joi was programmed to literally tell K what he wanted to hear. So did she always do this or at least once, break away from her programming and tell him her "true" feelings? K wonders this himself and the implications of it are heartbreaking.
Why do we love? Is it all physical? Is it because our partner tells us "what we want to hear?"
Would I love my dog as much if she were not as cute as she is? If she were less dependent on me?
Does love sometimes extinguish our joy?
In the original 1982 movie, the Voigt-Kampff Test is used to distinguish if someone is a replicant or not. One of the ways they determine this is through a series of questions that detect empathy. The replicants do not have the emotional capacity a human would have, at least the replicants from the first film, who will not age long enough to develop that trait.
But some models of replicants live longer than others. When K in fact, fails the 2049 version of the VK test (repeating words after hearing lines from "Pale Fire" recited over and over) it appears he is no longer at an accepted baseline because he is now experiencing too much emotion. Programmed to do whatever he is told to do, this would prove a flaw.
As stated, the questions are usually more important than any answers. Because the answers are up to the individual viewer.
So is Deckard a replicant? It is one of the biggest questions in movie history. Not even the actors and writers and filmmakers of the original movie could agree on that answer. I have my own answer and reasons for it. You probably have yours.
But there is one possible answer that 2049 seems to offer. "What does it mean to be human?" Is it mere physicality or is it choices? Is it being born, as K states, thus having a soul?
"Dying for the right cause. It's the most human thing we can do," K is told toward the end of the film.
This springs him into taking an action; into making a choice.
But Blade Runner 2049 surmises that the ordinary can still be extraordinary.
Boy Leading a Horse is yet another masterpiece critics praise without trying to explain. Either they believe it has no meaning or that explaining it is impossible. That is no reason not to try. The more difficult an image is to interpret, the more you experience aesthetic satisfaction when you do start to understand it.