Tuesday, 24 October 2017

What Does It Mean to Be Human? A Blade Runner Case.

The best sci-fi films usually are a mirror to the age in which they are made. So, what can we learn from the future, and what it means to be human, in Denis Villeneuve’s film?
Movies are by their nature hybrids of technology and sentiment, machines for the delivery of human emotion. The first Blade Runner approached this as a philosophical problem and an artistic challenge. Ridley Scott used imagery borrowed from old Hollywood and German Expressionism to create a dazzlingly artificial environment where authenticity was out of the question. Except, of course, that it was the question: How do we know what is real, ourselves included?

Few people wanted to hear what the original Blade Runner had to say in 1982. The economy was beginning to come out of recession. Blade Runner gave us a world where everything that could go wrong had gone wrong: environmental degradation, pollution, urban sprawl, corporate dominance, technology run amok; prototype of all dystopias. No wonder audiences preferred the upbeat embrace of Steven Spielberg’s E.T. Indeed, dystopian movies could be seen as the hardest sell in cinema. Who wants to see a film telling you that everything will go wrong and we all live miserably ever after? But increasingly, it seems that, this is what we want to see, looking at recent hit sagas such as The Hunger GamesPlanet of the Apes, Divergent and now a Blade Runner sequel. The pill has to be romanticised with spectacle and romance, but dystopian futures perform a function. They show us where we are going off-course and what we are afraid of, not in the future, but in the present. In the same way, we are doomed to repeat history if we don’t understand it.  

Where most sci-fi movies quickly date, Blade Runner has improved with age. Of course, it was always a fantastic ride, superbly detailed and steeped in a neo-noir environment; but its deep, troubling ideas about technology, humanity and identity chimed with postmodern and cyberpunk theory, and launched a thousand PhD theses. Having chosen Frankenstein by Mary Shelley as my Master degree dissertation primary source, I came across a lecture from the French theorist Jean Baudrillard. He stated that nothing is really real anymore. Replicants are superior beings. “More human than human,” as their manufacturer, Eldon Tyrell, puts it. This was the part Baudrillard was so keen to engage with: what was “real” when the copy was better than the original? “The real is not only what can be reproduced but that which is always already reproduced. The hyper-real,” wrote Baudrillard. Human status was no longer a matter of biological or genetic fact. You couldn’t trust your memories, they could just be implants. So how do any of us know we are human?

Beyond Baudrillard thesis, thinking about “how do we know we’re human?”, Blade Runner 2049 asks what it means to be human, and it boldly ventures in some suggestions. It is the ability to form connections, to empathise with others, to love, to have values. It is also the will to act, to resist, to fight for those values. “Dying for the right cause is the most human thing you can do,” says one character. It is a call to revolution. Not tomorrow but now. We’ve got a new set of fears to feed into the dystopian machine nowadays, and Blade Runner 2049 seems to have processed them. For a start, there is the fear of social relations in the digital age. Our new hero is a replicant cop named K, played by Ryan Gosling. He has no friends, partner or family. His only real companion is Joi, played by Ana de Armas, a holographic girlfriend beamed into his cell-like apartment, who can switch from compliant housewife to sexy vamp in a flicker. By the way, this might be in the mid-21st century but gender politics haven’t much moved on since the 19th century, the city seems entirely geared towards pornified male sexual desire. Though, if K had seen Spike Jonze’s Her, he might have realised his personalised dream girl is actually a mass-produced app who is probably simultaneously dating 50,000 other lonely guys around the city. Yet, K’s relationship with Joi is the most sincere and romantic in the movie. he tells her he loves her, and we believe him. He is not “human”, she isn’t even non-human. All that is real is the love.

2049 beautiful images are there to trigger awe or even a kind of ecstatic despair at the idea of a post-human future, and what it means to imagine the wreck of our current form of homo sapiens. Evolution is not over, not any more than it was finished 100,000 years ago. As so often in literature and cinema, we are reminded that science fiction is there to tackle big ideas, and makes realist genres look dreamy. The film’s blend of nostalgia and dystopian prophecy captured a mood of self-conscious melancholy. Maybe the real world never quite achieved the smoky neon-noir glow of Ridley Scott’s Los Angeles, but the map of our collective dream world was permanently redrawn.

These are realms where Hollywood sci-fi does not often venture – although HBO’s Westworld did a fine job of it on TV last year. They are far down the road from movies about dangerous technology, or artificial intelligence or malevolent cyborgs, or even space travel. We are talking beyond the final frontier. Just as Villeneuve did with his previous feature, 2016’s Arrival whose piercingly emotional core elevated its pulp alien-invasion premise, in Blade Runner 2049, he subverts the genre in favour of a rich inquiry into the nature of the soul itself.

The scientific particulars of Blade Runner 2049 are only nominally interesting, whereas its science-fiction framework allows for audiences to interpret the allegory as they see fit. Certainly, there is an obvious parallel to past slave-holding societies; in the first instance the dominant race or class has cited its dubious superiority in order to rationalize the harsh treatment of so-called “sub-humans” and human’s fear of the reproduction of a superior and stronger race. All of which can be summarize by the fact that people are afraid of what they do not know. It is perhaps the central irony of Blade Runner 2049, which depicts a future where humans have gone astray, while new-and-improved androids know precisely what they want: to be human.

Sunday, 22 October 2017

“You’ve never seen a miracle…”

A young blade runner’s discovery of a long-buried secret leads him to track down former blade runner Rick Deckard, who has been missing for thirty years.

Arthur C. Clarke once wrote: “Two possibilities exist, either we are alone in the universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.” In 2049, in the cold urban environment of Los Angeles, the former option feels like the only conceivable answer. Though that raises another and even creepier dilemma, which looks like storm clouds knotting in the sky overhead. The world as we know it has nearly caught up to the one Ridley Scott imagined when he directed the original Blade Runner set in 2019 and yet Scott’s vision of Los Angeles still looks as mind-blowingly futuristic now as it did in 1982. It is not far-reached to say that Blade Runner was a cultural touchstone and influenced countless pieces of art, from design to music, fiction, filmmaking, and fashion. Blade Runner has become as much a part of our DNA as any film has before or since, almost to the point where you cannot look at rain and neon in a film and not think of it. Blade Runner 2049 is a spectacle of eerie and awe-inspiring vastness, by turns satirical, tragic and romantic. This is the sequel to the 1982 sci-fi classic, directed by Ridley Scott and based on Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?. 

The 2017 follow-up simply couldn’t be any more of a triumph: a stunning enlargement and improvement. It just has to be experienced on the biggest screen possible. Blade Runner 2049 is co-scripted by the original screenwriter, Hampton Fancher. There are poignant theme-variations on memory and crying in the rain and a cityscape full of signs in different languages, ghostly VR advertising avatars and flashing corporate logos. This sequel alludes to films the first Blade Runner helped inspire, such as James Cameron’s The Terminator, Steven Spielberg’s AI Artificial Intelligence, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, Andrew Stanton’s WALL-E and Spike Jonze’s Her. The references reach even further back to the Kubrick hotel-bar and spaceships, and to the desolate final moments of Planet of the Apes. You could recall that ancestor-worship attitude for this sequel but the new franchise already deserves its own ancestor status. In fact, the sequel slightly de-emphasises the first film’s intimate and downbeat noir qualities, in favour of something more gigantic.

This film is a world away from the superhero smackdowns and sabre-swinging galactic wars that dominate modern blockbusters. 2049 is a methodically paced, thematically rich neo-noir detective story that contrast action sequences with a favoured moving melancholy, isolation, identity and humanity. In other words, it is a Blade Runner sequel through and through. “You’ve never seen a miracle”, Dave Bautista says to Ryan Gosling’s Officer K during the opening sequence; the real miracle is that Villeneuve and his teams have crafted a successor to Ridley’s Scott genre-transcending masterpiece that exceeds any expectations.    

In terms of characters, first, there is some weighty material here that Harrison Ford fully commits to. His recent Star Wars homecoming was pure and glorious fan-service, but this is something very different, and unexpectedly unsettling. It is an extraordinary part, brilliantly played to perfection, which reminds you just how much more Harrison Ford can do with his charisma. He even gets cracking chase that flips an iconic sequence from the original on its head. But it is important to note that this is Ryan Gosling’s movie, and better for it.

The sheer electric strangeness of everything that happens throughout the film is what stroke me the most. Every time K finishes a mission, he is taken to an interrogation module to be debriefed, decompressed, deconstructed or I don’t what other things. He is subjected to a fierce kind of call-and-response dialogue in which he has to respond to keywords such as “cells” to see if his humanoid/android identity balance is off. It is utterly bizarre, and yet entirely compelling, and persuasively normal in this alienated universe. Ryan Gosling character is very far from a reheated Rick Deckard, K is a different beast entirely. Gosling delivers a performance of impressive nuance and anguish while proving to be more than a match for the role’s physical demands. Even if he has considerably bulked up since last year’s La La Land the naturally charismatic Gosling is back in the somewhat zero-emotion mode of Drive and Only God Forgives channelling his Alain Delon coolness demonstrated in hit-man masterpiece Le Samoura├», in order to create a character who is every bit as cool, and twice as inscrutable. As undeniably handsome as Ryan Gosling is, there has always been something missing in Gosling’s closely spaced, slightly misaligned eyes. Here, it is suggesting a “synthetic” human who is 99% perfect, but still just a bit off. That subtle flaw serves the actor well as K, a rule-abiding Blade Runner who takes orders from plausibly tough LAPD Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright). Putting her House of Cards severity to excellent use, Robin Wright is the standout in an all-around terrific but unfortunately and largely female supporting cast. Speaking of avatars of alienation, this is impeccable casting. Gosling’s ability to elicit sympathy while seeming too distracted to want it makes him a perfect warm-blooded robot for our time. He is also, in 2017, something close to what Harrison Ford was 35 years ago: the contemporary embodiment of Hollywood’s venerable ideal of masculine cool, a guy whose toughness will turn out to be the protective shell encasing a tender soul.

Sure, 2049 is a homage, shamelessly repeating Blade Runner beats and echoing familiar scenarios, but it is done respectfully, delicately and beautifully, too. In fact, it is unlikely you will see a better-looking film this year. As a must-see-on-IMAX experience, it is the equal of Dunkirk. That vast screen will swallow you up and draw you deep into an impeccably envisioned reality that you will not want to leave, for all its deadly and unsavoury peculiarities. It is sensually impressive. The studio has been unusually insistent in its pleas to critics not to reveal plot points, which is fair enough. Like any great movie, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner could not be spoiled and this time around it is still the same. 2049 still calls for repeated viewing because its mysteries are too deep to be solved and do not depend on the sequence of events. Denis Villeneuve’s film is a carefully engineered narrative puzzle, and its power dissipates as the pieces snap into place. As sumptuous and surprising as it is from one scene to the next. His investigations, both philosophical and physical, are slow and deliberate. This is not an action film. We are not here to witness vertiginous action sequences. When violence occurs, it is brief and brutal. 2049 requires a robust attention span as much as it does concentration. It is uncompromising and uncommercial. After all, the original did not earn its esteem by smashing the box office. Its audience did not rush to Blade Runner, but once they arrived they were smitten for life. And it is clearly for them above all others that the sequel has been made.

Denis Villeneuve has proven to be a filmmaker at the top of his game with last year’s Arrival. Before that, Prisoners and Sicario were full of violence and psychological intensity, but what distinguishes them from other high-end genre spectacles is an unnerving calm, as if Villeneuve was exploring and trying to synthesize the human and mechanical sides of his own sensibility. Now he proves himself an irrefutable maestro of his craft and more than a match for Ridley Scott as a world-builder. He preserved perfectly the dirty design of the original. Certainly, if anything has changed in the almost three decades since Blade Runner, it is the speed at which modern people are expected to process things, and yet, in 2049 the simplest actions take an impossibly long time. Consider the almost sadistically long sequence in which a key character retrieves a personal object from a long-ago hiding place, fulfilling an expectation audiences have put together minutes earlier. You totally get that sentence - I am so good at keeping the mystery alive.

Technically, it is nothing short of a marvel and you will not find a better-looking film than this all year - or maybe ever. The production design by Dennis Gasner and cinematography by Roger Deakins are both delectable. Weirdly, I had forgotten about one of the little-discussed pleasures of the big screen: the simple effect of dialogue, echoing in a movie theatre. This film’s scale is extraordinary and the special effects team created zones of strangeness that occasionally rise to the level of sublimity. Moreover, Roger Deakins's cinematography, which, when it is not gliding over dust-blown deserts and teeming neon lights, keeps finding ingenious ways to make faces and bodies overlap, blend and diffuse. Characters gaze at each other through glass screens and see the ghosts of themselves gazing back. If Roger Deakins does not win an Oscar for this, then the universe is clearly broken. The screen just washes over you, to the point that you will almost forget to blink in spaces.

Finally, thirty-five years ago Blade Runner was misunderstood and dismissed in the summer of E.T. It remains to be seen whether today’s mainstream audiences will prove more receptive to this equally esoteric follow-up. Denis Villeneuve’s film is a direct continuation in every respect. It is difficult to imagine anyone, even Ridley Scott making a better Blade Runner sequel. The film crackles with a thrilling finality and as I walked out, I felt like I had just watched the last blockbuster ever made. A lot like Mad Max: Fury Road before it, it shows you just how much further this medium has to go. Villeneuve earns every second of his 2 hours and 44 minutes running time, delivering a visually breath-taking movie which unconventional thrills could be described as many things, but never “artificially intelligent”. He gets it right on his first attempt, operating from the premise that when androids dream, their innermost desire is to be human. Following that thread to its natural conclusion, Villeneuve has crafted a slick, 21st-century Pinocchio story, in which a replicant yearns to be a real boy. Although that is just one facet of the film’s many dimensions. Make no mistake, this sequel ranks as one of the great science-fiction films of all time and maybe the most spectacular, profound blockbuster of our time.

Overall, there is a something to think about here, a fair amount to feel and even more to see; this film delivers pure hallucinatory craziness that leaves you hyperventilating. I truly have seen things you people wouldn’t believe…