The highly stylized 1982 science-fiction film Blade Runner was probably an influence on 2046, Wong Kar-wai’s wondrous, poetic art-movie investigation into a science-fiction writer’s romantic history with several women. Now it appears that 2046 has, in turn, influenced the reboot of remake-crazy Hollywood’s Blade Runner, which appends a random date to its otherwise pointless title: “Blade Runner 2049.”
Here, the conflict between human police and replicants (rogue robots who long to be human) gets replayed by K (Ryan Gosling), an officer whose trek into the future’s vast wastelands repeats the same mission — and the same turquoise-tinted miasma — depicted in the original film. Once again, the job is to terminate unruly replicants, but this time they must stop an impending revolution.
The replicants in Blade Runner 2049 present no political allegory (unless panic-stricken viewers see Antifa clones — inhuman despoilers of liberty — under every bed), but their conflict with K revives a problem that already existed in the first film, based on Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?: The man-vs.-robot concept is banal except to those who admire Dick’s dystopian fantasy as prophecy.
There is a political problem when sci-fi fantasy trivializes technological complexity (whether social media or artificial intelligence) and then makes matters of intercommunication and self-knowledge, such as K’s internal crisis, a tiresome predicament. Hollywood fails its social and artistic purpose. Yet something about Blade Runner appeals to the imagination of sci-fi fans who can’t get enough of it and to filmmakers such as Wong and now director Denis Villeneuve, who get caught up in its chic, mysterious clichés.
In Blade Runner 2049, dystopia fatigue is unavoidable: Pollution and culture-mixing of whites, blacks, Asians, and Latinos still plague mankind’s future, although K takes it all in stride (in his flying patrol car). K is so hopelessly alienated that his only relief is to employ a hologram, Joi (pouty Ana de Armas), who willingly goes from domestic servant to sex worker. In the most interesting stunt, Joi and a hooker-spy named Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) form an interlink to dupe K into simulating physical intimacy. But this disingenuous scene will disappoint anyone who remembers how Wong’s 2046 delved into desire, sexuality, and personal ethics through a man’s sensual recalling of his troubled love life (plus the passionate, unforgettable performances by Tony Leung, Ziyi Zhang, Gong Li, and Faye Wong). To depict human sexuality less sensitively than Wong does (and as simplemindedly as in Ex Machina) minimizes Blade Runner’s poetic potential, and it doesn’t enlarge Villeneuve’s artistic potential, either.
Look at the failure in cultural terms: Ridley Scott’s reputation was made 35 years ago by Blade Runner’s canny mix of sci-fi and film-noir nostalgia. Its story roused anxiety about the past and future as embodied by replicant-hunter Deckard — Harrison Ford, direct from Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark, in his first major adult role.
The illusion of zeitgeist seriousness was based primarily on the visual extravagance Scott learned from his work as an advertising wizard. That first nighttime cityscape of a despoiled, rain-drenched Los Angeles was breathtaking, like a dense, upside-down vision of a faraway galaxy. Scott made the basic detective plot sumptuous and visually textured. He furnished aesthetic surprises in the retro/futurist design, and either pathos or tragedy in the hunted-down replicants themselves — Sean Young’s teary Rachael, Daryl Hannah’s muscular Pris, Joanna Cassidy’s voluptuous Zhora, and Rutger Hauer as the platinum blond arch-replicant Roy Batty, who, like the most compelling film-noir villains, seemed a projection of the hero’s dark side, given fallen-angel profundity in a poetic farewell speech.
Yet Blade Runner’s legacy was trashed by Scott himself when he authorized a “director’s cut” that repudiated the film’s poignancy by making Deckard just another replicant. I saw Scott confess his hypocrisy at a Museum of Modern Art tribute from the advertising industry — he renounced any artistic commitment to the film and upheld the prerogative of studio executives who altered the narrative simply to exploit additional sales.
Baker’s new exploitation mode includes lurid, nursery-school pastels and ragamuffin kids who curse, vandalize, and set fires. Halley’s foul-mouthed daughter Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) apparently never goes to school, but Baker teaches us the delights of childhood poverty when Moonee and her motel peers consume jelly sandwiches and look at rainbows and fireworks from afar. This juvenile emphasis exposes Baker’s dishonesty; it’s classic liberal patronizing to regard poor folk as children. When the do-gooder motel manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe) criticizes Halley, she screams, “You’re not my father!” — implicitly blaming patriarchy for her slatternly behavior. When Halley dislodges her sanitary napkin and throws the bloody item at Bobby, she evidently earns Baker’s admiration for being a Nasty Woman.
Halley passes immature self-pity on to her daughter, whom Baker rewards with a trip to Disney World in a closing fantasy scene. It’s intended to jerk tears, like feeding a hungry child, but Moonee’s unstructured freeloader life already amounted to living Disney World everyday, so the fantasy ending is pointless.
Baker loves irresponsible, antisocial types, and his method is similarly undisciplined. Most scenes are wild confrontations, and even those end wordlessly, with a shrug. Baker’s most expressive gimmick is his zooming in for a close-up of Halley’s tonsils as she screams an obscenity at the unfair world — a world to which she and Baker contribute nothing.
— Armond White is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles, at Amazon.