Film & TV

Blade Runner 2049 : The Politics of Hollywood Hacks

Ryan Gosling in Blade Runner 2049 (Photo: Alcon Ent.)
Dystopia fatigue sets in, and boredom results.

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.

Thus, Blade Runner is, infamously, the most compromised of any modern film project that some regard as an artistic work. Scott’s role as producer of Blade Runner 2049 confirms that this sequel, like his director’s cut, will also be a dubious proposition. The human-or-replicant question doesn’t satisfy the current zeitgeist ruled by Marvel and Pixar, because the art-or-junk issue remains unresolved. (That same crisis plagues Zack Snyder’s removal from DC Comics films.)

Blade Runner 2049’s problem stems from more than its nearly three-hour length. It starts with director Villeneuve, a once-promising surveyor of political and spiritual matters (Incendies, Prisoners, Sicario) who is now taking his place in the long history of hackdom, alongside Scott. Villeneuve does nothing with K’s initial thought: “To be born is to have a soul, I guess.” The impassive Gosling lacks the existential cool needed to carry that “soul” line. He’s told, “You’ve never seen a miracle.” But K’s human–replicant opposition, staged as a loud, brutal fight with Dave Bautista as a scarily imposing replicant, doesn’t answer that challenge. Scott made Blade Runner look miraculous; but, except for a couple of extraordinary images (falling snow melting in the palm of K’s calloused hand and a pet dog watching as drones carry his master off into the distance), Villeneuve never strikes the moral terror that has distinguished his best films.

When K’s encounter with Ford’s Deckard finally occurs, Villeneuve forfeits the emotional power of the parent-child reunion one expects for a series of ridiculous last-minute hazards. This ending is cheap. When a subsidiary character announces, “There’s a bit of every artist in their work,” it doesn’t justify Villeneuve selling out his usual grasp toward profundity. (The subplot of an underground revolution led by Hiam Abbass as a one-eyed radical evokes Incendies, but it’s a frustrating distraction.)

Because Villeneuve has submitted to Scott’s director’s-cut pseudo-profundity, he loses the chance to make Blade Runner 2049 mean something in the current moral upheaval, in which dystopia and the distance between humans and apparatchiks are everyday realities. Ultimately, Villeneuve’s sequel is more ultra-hack Scott than visionary Wong. Blade Runner’s awesomeness is gone.

*****

The Florida Project represents a new low in class condescension. Director Sean Baker follows Halley (Bria Vinaite), an unwed mother covered in tats and lip-piercings and wearing ripped Daisy Dukes, who hustles to pay her bill at a low-rent resident motel on the outskirts of Disney World in Orlando. Baker’s style is familiar from TV’s “ratched” reality shows. Tangerine, his 2016 debut famously shot on an iPhone, similarly gawked at Los Angeles transsexuals as fascinating, irresponsible sociopaths.

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 — Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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