“When less than everything has been said about a subject, you can still think on further. The alternative is for the audience to be presented with a final deduction (…) no effort on their part.
What can it mean to them when they have not shared with the author the misery and joy of bringing an image into being?”
― Andrei Tarkovsky,
“In my experience there are billions of dollars available for pieces of shit. As soon as the material distinguishes itself by something interesting, financing becomes a problem.”
― Rutger Hauer
Our perception of modern cinema is a varied and fickle animal with today’s audiences. There is no more greater argument for this statement than the disappointing results of the recent release of Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049. Hollywood took a gamble on fronting the big budget cost on a philosophical science fiction sequel to Ridley Scott’s original film, released over 30 years ago, also considered a disappointment that later became a cult sensation. Villeneuve, the French Canadian writer/director, chose to expand upon the original film’s themes and incorporate a languid pace which makes the viewer reflect much more upon what is being presented on screen. The running time of 2 hours and 44 minutes challenged the American audience attention deficiet and stamina, but was necessary to tell the story as envisioned. Sadly, Villeneuve’s film came and went from theaters before having a chance to gain any sort of footing. What went wrong? When audiences clamor for something original, instead of disposable action entertainments , they chose to stay away in great numbers from this film as if confused or fearful of its daring to be something else.
To fairly judge the situation, this dismal outlook of Hollywood’s risk taking cinema ventures, one must look at some key points that appear to have caused the failure of Blade Runner 2049 to catch on with the public as a whole.
It is apparent that imagination is still loved by the general movie going audience (look to the Star Wars universe as a prime example), but it needs to be light and very easy to digest in registering as a success. The great Russian filmmaker, Andrei Tarkovsky (quoted above), is correct in his argument that it is supremely more interesting to have audiences challenged and not spoon feed all the answers. In fact, director Villeneuve pays tribute to Tarkovsky throughout much of Blade Runner 2049 in the look and feel of the story. You need to go no further than Tarkovsky’s mesmerizing film Stalker, from 1979, and Villeneuve’s images are readily recognizable from that past film and take on a whole new meaning. This was not by chance. This was deliberate in order to give weight and depth to Villeneuve’s film. The story telling techniques do not have all the answers. It never purports to uncover its mysteries all at once. That is what makes one return to it again and again to search for ourselves; not to marvel at the special effects, but to engage with the story on another level with clues you may have missed the first time around. It is perhaps the sad fate of story telling today that audiences, in this increasingly fast paced society, feel they are wasting their time (and money) if all of these mysteries are not displayed in a cold hard light immediately. Blade Runner 2049 did not subscribe to that philosophy and therefore, the public never took a chance to discover its riches.
Ridley Scott’s original Blade Runner was released in 1982 to dismal box office and poor reviews. Steven Spielberg’s much more easily digestible film, E.T. The Extraterrestrial, was king of the box office that same year. Furthermore, audiences were confused at star Harrison Ford’s protagonist, in Blade Runner, that was a universe away from his iconic roles of Han Solo and Indiana Jones. It was a dark foreboding world which the public was not ready for yet. It was not until many years later, with a growing number of admirers and fans of the original film, that Scott’s film became a sensation which prompted him (much to the dismay of many) to alter many different versions of his film. Now, fast forward to 2017. The sequel to Scott’s film hits the theaters and the majority of the movie going public, young people ages 15 to 25, do not remember or care to know about Scott’s seminal cyberpunk film all those years ago. So, why would they understand the significance of this sequel? Villeneuve’s film was a critic’s darling, but the studio failed to market his film properly to a broader audience. The public that grew up on Scott’s film as fans, was too narrow of a marketing niche to become a hit at the box office. In the years to come, perhaps the film will find its broader audience as perceptions and tastes change.
In the age of instant gratification and a spoon fed mentality, asking people to sit through 2 hour and 44 minute film, with previews adding another 15 minutes, is like pulling teeth with a rusty pair of pliers. Technology is partly to blame where one can laugh, cry, and be amazed within a 2 minute time span with YouTube and then move on to the next entertainment. It is actually asking a lot for some people to sit quietly and contemplate a story being told, which also does not give all the answers (gasp)! Our endurance for such tasks is at an all time low. The blame can go to a lot of areas, but ultimately, it is us. We simply cannot abide anything wasting our time when we could be enjoying the next new trend. Is this the dismal future of cinema for general audiences? An endless array of short takes, loud music, blatantly absurd plots with endings all wrapped up in a nice neat bow? The awe and mystery is absent in those films. This is not accounting for the excellent independent film culture where risk and technique is ever expanding. This is the state of Hollywood big budget film-making today. The bottom line has always been money and if we cannot fill the seats in the theater, why take any chances? We will make sure they have a good time with an easily forgettable experience until the next new hot film comes out. This is a very negative take on things, but the evidence is there for all to see.
What makes Blade Runner 2049 a unique big budget film that warrants such sadness over its suggested failure to win audiences? Why is this any cause for concern? The answer lies with director Denis Villeneuve’s aspirations to treat his viewers as educated individuals and not shoot the film as some big action epic, but an epic of the heart and mind. Too often big budgets are by-the-numbers films with little or no mystery to them. David Lean’s Lawrence Of Arabia is an excellent example of a film that combines the epic with the intimate on a huge budget. Audiences at that time appreciated the time it took to tell the story in such rich detail. It was daring for the makers of Blade Runner 2049 to adhere to the original themes and then take them one step further. What if technological advances acceded beyond mere convenience to produce these self aware replicants that are “more human than human”, as the old Tyrell Corporation tagline went. Where is the line drawn between souls in humans and souls in these replicants? What if man himself becomes God and manually produces the next step in the human evolutionary chain? What is love, and can it be experienced by artificial beings as well? Are memories false, if they seem real to us? What cause is worthy enough to give our lives for? These and many other questions are asked and we are expected to pull ourselves, from our own personal perceptions, all those answers or, perhaps, no answers.
Technically, Blade Runner 2049 is a superb achievement in image and sound. Roger Deakins’ miraculous photography gives this world a grounded reality, but with an alien-like mystery. Much like Tarkovsky’s Stalker, Deakins manages to etch a beauty in details amidst such grim surroundings. The sound is at times thunderous, the percussive score by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch echoes Vangelis’ original score, and can also be so utterly quiet at other times which makes one pay attention to the image on the screen. The whole experience is lush and overwhelming at times, which may detract from recognizing essential details when first viewing the film. It requires a second or third viewing to appreciate everything the film-makers placed within the story. Not catching everything the first time around has the markings of a potentially great film.
The question of memories and their validity is at the heart of this quest for humankind. The protagonist K, the latest genetic replicant Blade Runner, begins to question his own memories and the truth of who he is in a relevant scene that explodes in anger. While talking to a doctor specializing in memories, K gives her one of his most prized memories to view and validate it as something real.
Dr. Ana Stelline: [crying] Someone lived this, yeah. It happened.
K: I know what’s real.
K: I know what’s real.
K: GOD! COME ON!
[hurls the chair against the wall in anger]
It is an astonishing scene filled with a powerful remorse for K, as he bitterly clings to the realness of his own memories, although he knows deep inside they are not his to cherish. We, as human beings, cling to our own memories even though we change, or enhance them to fit our emotional needs as time moves on. It is these kinds of themes that distinguish a film like Blade Runner 2049 from those disposable entertainments churned out by Hollywood; the “pieces of shit’ as actor Rutger Hauer succinctly voices it. The film aims for the stars, which cannot be said for many other big budget epics.
In time, like Ridley Scott’s effort before it, Blade Runner 2049 will hopefully find its audience that it so richly deserves. It is a failure in the eyes of the bottom line seeking executives in Hollywood, but a soaring success in the eyes of cinema loving individuals. A film made for adults with intelligence, daring, and passion for its subject. Let us hope the future is not dimmer because of this effort’s failure to score five hundred million in ticket sales the first week in release. Let us hope that we recognize soon that cinema for the general audience has the potential for so much more. We have a smartly written and directed film that will last beyond those revolving door decision makers in Hollywood, and we are all the better for it.
Blade Runner 2049 / 2017 release / directed by Denis Villeneuve / written by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green / photography by Roger Deakins
I always told you. You’re special. Your history isn’t over yet. There’s still a page left.