There’s a nagging question at the heart of Denis Villenueve’s Blade Runner 2049, and it’s to do with need. Why does Ryan Gosling’s Detective K need a robot wife (Ana de Armas), programmed to speak in a diaphanous lisp? Why does he need an apartment? What purpose is there for a robot to blend in? Everyone in his world can almost smell his oiled gears, his falseness. So why does he need the trappings of reality? Like Twin Peaks: The Return, Blade Runner 2049 has to interrogate its own incongruous existence so many years after the artifact that gave it life first entered the cultural bloodstream. Why does this film exist, beyond the potential box office? Why have writer Hampton Fancher and producer Ridley Scott gone back here? Who needs this? The film seems aware of itself as an automaton theatrical event. It watches itself; taking place behind glass, windows, bodies of water, memories, windshields, holograms, cameras, audio recordings and in the eyes of replicants. It seems designed to watch itself even if no one showed up, like a rotating hall of mirrors. The film doesn’t need us. The sterility and unfussiness of the edit, the smoothness with which each of its tableaux move, like an iPhone slideshow, as if it were constantly admiring itself in an empty gallery. The film shouldn’t be smooth and clean, so manicured. It should have rough edges, but even the blood-matted hair is gorgeous. What is there to learn from abject pulchritude?
This film is best understood as an echo of what happened to the Alien films. After all, it takes most of its visual cues from David Fincher’s Alien3. Like that film, its dystopia is one of empty basements and lost purpose, of harried men in big cloaks spinning in government-designed hamster wheels waiting for divine purpose to come claim them. The orphanage is right out of Fincher’s prison planet, as are the blood orange skies and the silhouette of its lonely hero pondering life’s mysteries during a walk down a soot-blown beach. The film is a silhouette of other films, bits of Jean-Pierre Melville without the firm existential underpinning, loads of Ridley Scott. When Scott came back to Alien with Prometheus the script threw acres of meaningless incident down so that Scott could try to understand himself better. He was investigating himself as an entertainer and Hollywood court painter. He shows one of his surrogates, the android David, reading the dreams of his charges during their long flight to space. This is what Scott’s been trying to do his whole career—read people’s desires and give them the mass entertainments they crave while also expressing his artistic purpose. It hasn’t always worked. Alien: Covenant doubles down on the dark creation myth Scott wove himself, splitting its runtime between a headlong gallop towards a slasher-movie bloodbath and a stroll through the dank basement of his imagination. He asks whether his art is worth what followed.
Movies still look like Blade Runner. “There’s no need for eighties nostalgia – because…the eighties never ended,” wrote Richard Brody on Die Hard a few weeks ago. It’s true that we’ve been stuck in a Möbius strip of its images, properties and ideas. Our President even seems like a bloated, waterlogged zombie of all of its worst excesses. Film Grammar in the U.S. very rarely makes strides past what Scott made a household form during that decade. Between Blade Runner’s chic garbage-strewn wasteland L.A., Someone To Watch Over Me’s ivory tower Manhattan and Tony Scott’s The Hunger and Top Gun weaponizing femininity and masculinity, respectively, there isn’t much we don’t owe the Scott brothers. Returning to Alien and Blade Runner seems only natural but completely superfluous. Every third blockbuster is already Blade Runner (Dunkirk, Ghost In The Shell, War for the Planet of the Apes, John Wick 2, Logan, Valerian), Top Gun (Baby Driver, Kingsman: The Golden Circle, Fate of the Furious, Transformers: The Last Knight, The Mummy, Kong: Skull Island) or both. Scott was taking stock of his legacy. What’s Villeneuve’s excuse?
Alien: Covenant is the more interesting artifact of nostalgia because its backward glances are an excuse for Scott to understand his obsessions and his place in the universe, especially as he nears his 80th birthday. Scott takes obvious joy making images and slaughtering hot people with the verve of a much younger man. After all, he never got to sew his wild oats, so to speak: he was too busy being an artist. In all of Scott’s early work, there’s talk of sex, even heavy suggestion of sex, but it’s tasteful or nightmarish, all metaphor. The alien piercing skulls, Tom Berenger and Mimi Rogers having music video-tame carnal congress, even the earth-shattering orgasm of Thelma and Louise is done with an eye towards Brad Pitt’s Adonis-like form rather than really reveling in two bodies touching. Blade Runner is wild and kinky and sweaty and dirty, but he was breaking new ground, rewriting The Big Sleep in color, neon and fog. He never got to make movies the way his brother did. Tony had an artist’s visual sense, but he wasn’t afraid of genre or silliness, of pitting the naked forms of Susan Saradon and Catherine Deneueve against one another, or of watching Tom Cruise roger his way across the late 80s in heavy shadow or silky soft light. Ridley seemed afraid of sex for so long, and all his violence was symbolic, tragic and for the most part, slow. When you pair it with Blade Runner 2049, Alien: Covenant’s relative purposefulness is staggering. It goes somewhere in a great big hurry. Blade Runner 2049 circles around itself, eyeing its own hollow existence like Gosling looking at his translucent robot wife, never properly asking what its purpose is. The film is an exercise in collapsed time, like shuffling through decks of old trading cards as the childhood memories associated with them come flooding back. It simply extends the memories associated with the artifacts without doing anything new with the images.
Well…maybe that’s unfair. There’s a love scene that feels genuinely new, the kind of thing Alain Resnais might have come up with if he’d been given a few more years on earth. Villeneuve is quite clearly a Resnais fan, having borrowed the structure of Arrival from Je t’aime je t’aime. If making films at this budget means getting to see a handful of ideas from the old master’s playbook fleshed out, then I don’t mind him making inconsequential films. The scene in question is also a self-reflexive comment, which makes it quizzically impressive. Mackenzie Davis’ guerilla street walker lets de Armas’ program/wife surrogate step into her figure and merge with her so that they can present a flesh and blood woman for Gosling to enjoy. The scene is the only time the movie lets its emotions runneth over, allowing us to ponder whether Gosling can feel anything (for a movie with oodles of fake blood, it’s rather anemic). And it’s also the whole movie in a single, more efficient scene. Every few minutes it introduces characters who look and feel like the old cast (Davis is purposefully styled after Daryl Hannah, Gosling after Ford, Sylvia Hoeks after Sean Young). Villeneuve banks on the charge of the familiar, even as he attempts and frequently achieves novel images and sounds all around them. An agreeably schizophrenic color palette washing over everything, water pouring out of great dams, a 50-foot neon woman flirting with a bruised and battered Gosling, a snow covered incubator for a damaged inventor. The film is visually and aurally fun even if the tone is relentlessly downbeat and miserable. Directors can’t help but turn on the sadness whenever they get their mitts on Gosling’s perfect face. Gosling is good in the film. Almost everyone is. Davis especially is a livewire, crackling through her few short scenes. Bautista, Hoeks, Armas: these are all performers who shake with momentum, they move the film even if the frame is still. Hoeks’ taut visage crying instead of cracking as she murders her way through a mystery is consistently compelling. The film is not without excellent soloists, it’s just the symphony that needed another revision.
The love scene troublingly mirrors one in Spike Jonze Her when Scarlett Johansson’s sentient computer program hires a woman to stand in for her so Joaquin Phoenix’s clingy nerd can sleep with a woman instead of masturbating to a voice. Both films never question why a program would ever want to be human—Colossus: The Forbin Project put the lie to that almost fifty years ago. Humans are a pestilence, why would robots aspire to be like them? Dave Bautista’s renegade medic seems to love and respect what humans are capable of, which makes sense from a programming standpoint—program the fear of god into your work force, which is exactly what white Christians did. But when we meet this former slave in the first act of the movie, he’s still going through the motions of his old career, while safeguarding the bones of the mother of humanity’s supposed savior? That’s not a metaphor, that’s genuinely what he’s up to. The framework here is self-serving: the object (bones, the original movie) must be seen as holy and worth protecting, or none of the effort to extend and ostensibly protect its legacy will seem worth it. Why return to Blade Runner? Because the change it instilled in film grammar has to have been worth it. Blade Runner has to be sacred, or what is film culture in its wake? What use will have been our clinging to the decade and its aesthetic principles? What was it all for?