October 20, 2017

The last man

Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve, 2017). I could have spent all of the film in that radioactive orange light, among the ruins of the sex park and the casino in the desert. At that point, heading east from Los Angeles to what was Las Vegas, the new Tokyo of the first film that has been reproduced in the second, but as a city that now seems darker, wetter, less populated and less thrilling, gives way to a landscape that feels almost post-Soviet. The giant, Clockwork Orange-ish statues help but it also made a surprising and weird sense to notice so many eastern European names in the closing credits. I had no idea going in that Blade Runner 2049 was shot in Budapest and that the Las Vegas casino and hotel complex was partly found in the city’s old stock exchange that has survived empires, wars and communists. There is an old world ambience that seeps into the story just as the Bradbury Building in Los Angeles contributed so much to the post-war noir sensibility of the original Blade Runner.
This is an astonishingly beautiful film, even (especially) when it dwells on ruins – besides the two locations mentioned, there is a bleak farm that again feels eastern European, like something from Bela Tarr, and a city-sized junkyard that somehow contains vast orphanages full of grimy children. The aesthetic achievement is not just in the cinematography by Roger Deakins: it is in how well that is synchronised with the ominous score by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch, the production design by Dennis Gassner, the editing by Joe Walker and other technical elements. This is a film made with genuine care and love, a $150 million art film that is as happy to wallow in religious allegory – there is an appropriately heavy mood of awe, sadness and doom, a sense of a world too fallen to even be worth saving – as it is to join the dots of a science-fiction detective plot that kicked off in the 1980s.
What does it mean to be human when everything is degraded? What would a new start look like? Is there a feeling of expectancy coming out of the sense of dread? Those are three of the questions the film asks, and it earns the right to ask them – this must be the most profound science-fiction film since Children of Men. It is also a Philip K Dick adaptation (indirectly) that honours the Gnostic Christian vision of its creator, which was a dark and distressing belief that the world is something other than what most perceive it to be. Blade Runner 2049 has that sense, which Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly adaptation also had, of showing us a time and place that seems false, simulated or remote, where a flawed or incompetent creator is in charge and events are never clear (hence all the rain, the fog, the darkness). But I’ve barely mentioned the actors: besides familiar movie stars Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Robin Wright and Jared Leto (as the ultimate form of an Elon Musk-style tech visionary), the two people who made the strongest impressions were relative unknowns Ana de Armas and Sylvia Hoeks – both women convey the pitifulness of those who are not quite human but not entirely manufactured either, stuck between human and not-human.