The Existential Legacy of Blade Runner

I watch Blade Runner 2049 every few months. Like getting together with an old friend, rewatching a film you love offers the chance to learn about the subject that you didn’t before. The more you watch a film, the closer you feel how the filmmakers do. Every line of dialogue, choice of lighting, camera angle, inflection from the actors develop a life of its own, telling a story that enriches your experience and appreciation of the film.

2049 is the closest thing to a masterpiece that I’ve seen this decade. From a technical front, director Denis Villeneuve’s masterful filmmaking coupled with Roger Deakins’ immaculate cinematography is an achievement of sight and sound. I can hardly think of another film with a better marriage of visual effects and practical work. Couple that with the time of the film’s release: 2017 was yet another lucrative year for sequels, reboots and remakes. Films like The Last Jedi, Guardians Vol. 2, Beauty and the Beast, and even Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle have all become smash hits for their respective studios, reinforcing their insistence on pushing well known properties and betting less on original stories. Yes, 2017 was admittedly a fruitful year for originality, with Get Out, Baby Driver and Dunkirk all turning up a considerable profit on just name and filmmaker alone.

The success, or lack thereof, of the original Blade Runner is well documented. It failed to match the success of its sci fi contemporaries like Star Wars or E.T. It was also met with polarized reviews from audiences who likely expected something resembling those films, not an existential dream in a potentially realistic future. Harrison Ford wasn’t the quippy wise guy, instead playing a character who felt instead of reacting, seeing instead of watching. There is also the near comical number of versions the film has: the theatrical, the theatrical international, the director’s and the Final Cut. Sure, this finally gave Ridley Scott the chance to realize his vision, but probably left some viewers cold, especially those who loved the theatrical version as it was (ask David O’Russell).

Alas, the Final Cut is the definitive, most comprehensive version of Blade Runner. It’s use of symbolism, lack of narration and sudden yet fulfilling ending make for a hallmark of the science fiction genre.

Now, about that ending. Deckard and Rachel board the elevator, the screen cutting to black as it closes. Where do they go? Where can they go? The ambiguity of the ending is clearly intentional, as for once in his miserable existence, Rick Deckard made a decision for himself: not as a Blade Runner, or an errand boy, but as a free man. There was never a clear cut ending, those questions were never answered, just the fact those questions were being asked in the first place is the answer itself: he chose to run.

That’s why the idea of a sequel bothered me. The lack of true resolution was the point. To continue the Blade Runner story almost certainly meant the mystery was going to be solved, and any answer to those burning questions was never going to be good enough. How was revisiting Rick Deckard not going to wipe away the mystique of his decision to take his life into his own hands?

2049 answers some questions, yes, but, miraculously, retains the original’s ambiguity and even improves it at some points: focusing on Deckard, the revelation that his first meeting with Rachael was not only planned, but was purposely done to attract him to her, the first Replicant who can reproduce. That iconic moment in cinema, that fateful moment in Deckard’s life, once thought to be the prelude to his eventual liberation was actually another example of him being a pawn to an infinitely bigger game. Sure he was no longer a hired gun, but in place of a gun, it was love, love that would act as Tyrell’s next advancement in Replicant technology. He was never free, even with the person he loved most. It makes it all the more tragic when we finally do see Deckard. It’s lightyears away from Han Solo’s homecoming in The Force Awakens or the iconic silhouette of Ford’s Kingdom of the Crystal Skull introduction. Here is a man who never wanted to be found, whose main claim to his supposed freedom was his absence, a refusal to be part of the bigger picture.

The subject of his humanity is sneakily brought up, with K asking if Deckard’s dog is real, with his follow-up being, “I don’t know, ask him”. It’s a quick exchange and viewers can easily miss its importance on first viewing when they’re expecting a grand build up to the biggest mystery of the Blade Runner mythos. Deckard’s dismissal of that question reveals more of his identity than “yes, he’s a Replicant” could ever do. It never mattered if he were human or replicant: the original showed the lust for life that were present in the rogue Replicants and were perpetually missing in the aimless humans of Los Angeles. They made more with their limited time than what humans could ever dream of. They were fully aware that they were on borrowed time, and in the search of prolonging their lives, they had more purpose and conviction than the lowly Blade Runner hired to retire them. The real question was never whether or not Deckard was a Replicant, it’s whether or not he actually lived at all.

In a way, Ryan Gosling’s K goes through a similar crisis in purpose. A Replicant Blade Runner made to retire all older models is the epitome of a lost identity. He justifies his killing because he sees the older models as runaways, criminals who purposely avoid punishment. His journey begins when Sapper Morton ridicules him and his life’s choices. “Because you’ve never seen a miracle”, he tells him, moments before meeting his end. That bit of dialogue sticks with K especially when the LAPD discovers the remains of an older model Replicant who had the ability to reproduce, a first in Replicant technology. He then recounts his childhood memories, acknowledging they’re not his own given his species. Assigned to find the identity of the Replicant child, his trip to an orphanage triggers those very memories, making him wonder if they were real. Once the memory is confirmed to be real by Replicant memory designer Ana Stelline, K is distraught, traumatized by the idea that he himself is the child.

Of course, it turns out to be false. He wasn’t Rachael’s or Deckard’s child. The idea of a “special” person has never been Blade Runner’s cup of tea. Deckard and K are protagonists, yes, but are vessels, biproducts of the world around them. It was only through virtual assistant Joi that K ever felt a sense of community. Achieving existential sobriety when he finally wises up that Joi said, did and was whatever he needed her to be. From Wallace Corporation’s view, he’s a satisfied customer. As a living being, only a delusion of grandeur gave him purpose. K rescues a kidnapped Deckard and stages his death, throwing off the scent of antagonist Niander Wallace as well as the Replicant Freedom Movement. He sacrifices himself so Deckard can finally and safely be a father to his daughter (earlier revealed to be Stelline). K genuinely achieves obtains the freedom of choice, while Deckard was given the chance to do more than choose, he can finally, truly, unconditionally love. They were never special, even when Deckard discovers the mere illusion of choice, and K confronting the possibility of his greater destiny. This exceptionalism just isn’t so.

 Perhaps that’s why 2049 was seemingly destined to commercially flop. For all the series’ fans and critics who deem either film as a masterpiece, it never adhered to the easy whims of nostalgia or fan service. It was never designed to be a gateway to more films in the series, a trend that is prevalent to this very day. Villeneuve committed the ultimate tight rope act in making a sequel to a film whose reputation and significance within cinema was arguably misguided. This was never going to have the same pomp and circumstance that a traditional sequelwould have. It was never going to be a walk down memory lane, because people hardly get nostalgic over their last existential crisis. When the opening text crawl fades and all that is left are the red letters of “Blade Runner”, it was never meant to be a sign of triumph or endearment: It was pity.  

The Top 10 Films of 2017

Over the past year, I have had the absolute pleasure of watching truly great films. Though there have been a variety of sadly disappointing movies, I feel that 2017 has been the year where new, original motion pictures have been championed and celebrated. Making this list has proved to be a gut-wrenching affair. The rankings aren’t necessarily a statement on one film’s superiority to another. I believe these films to be amazing in their own, respective right. However, not making this list would be a disservice to my love for the following films.

Honorable Mentions: Split, Thor: Ragnarok, John Wick: Chapter 2, Logan Lucky, IT, War for the Planet of the Apes, Wonder Woman, and Star Wars: Episode VIII: The Last Jedi

  1. Spider-Man: Homecoming

*Tony Stark reveals Iron Spider Armor*

“Why don’t you try that on, and we’ll introduce the world to the newest official member of the Avengers: Spider-Man.

Spider-Man’s debut to the motherland of the MCU in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War was a glorious highlight in that film. To see Marvel’s most popular hero interact with Cap, Iron Man, and almost the rest of that film’s cast was just a taste, a tease of what Tom Holland can do as Spider-Man’s third cinematic incarnation. Homecoming was exactly that: a welcoming celebration of the title character, giving us a fresh, yet faithfully familiar portrayal of the web-slinger. While this is no means an origin story of Spider-Man, Homecoming truly delights and excels as a coming-of-age tale of Peter Parker turning into Spider-Man: the hero. Bombarded by adversity and clear and present dangers, witnessing Peter Parker scream “Come on, Spider-Man!” on the top of his lungs brings levity and much-needed vulnerability to comic book’s greatest anomaly: a frightened, at times delusional boy behind a mask claiming to the outside world to be a man.

  1. Get Out

Chris Washington: All I know is sometimes, when there’s too many white people, I get nervous, you know?

[pause, Georgina laughs creepily with tears in her eyes]

Georgina: Oh no, no. No. No no no no no no. Aren’t you something? That’s not my experience. Not at all. The Armitages are so good to us. They treat us like family.

Certainly one of the biggest surprises of 2017, Jordan Peele’s directoral debut is a hauntingly brilliant, hilarious and terrifying commentary of racial and class prejudice. There is such a fine line to walk on if one wishes to make a horror film. You want to be flashy, yet subtle; terrifying, but palpable. Not only does Jordan Peele pass with flying colors on this front, but to add the social commentary in the mix seemed to inevitably result in a pretentious, preachy film. Miraculously, Get Out manages to stray away from cinematic convention, resulting into a timely, smart and genuinely unpredictable film. As far as debuts go, Peele is a force to be reckoned with. Delivering Hitchcockian suspense in his first feature from beginning to end, Get Out works superbly well on all fronts of the cinematic experience.

  1. Lady Bird

Marion McPherson: I want you to be the best version of yourself.
Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson: What if this is the best version?

Speaking of debuts, long time writer and actress Greta Gerwig delivers her first feature on the director’s chair in the form of Lady Bird, chronicling the life of high school senior Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson as she tries to answer that all important yet impossible question: Who am I? What’s with the name, you ask? “Lady Bird” is her name, given to her, by her. Gerwig delivers a snappy, often hilarious screenplay, anchored with a direction that is lovingly intimate, making the viewer truly feel they are with these characters as they interact. As rich the direction might be, however, a film also hinders on what is presented on the screen, a la the actors, this film’s greatest strength. Laurie Metcalf beautifully plays the mother of the title character, displaying a generational disconnect between her and daughter. She loves her to death, but feels her advice has and always will fall on the seemingly deaf ears of Lady Bird. In addition to Metcalf, Saoirse Ronan delivers yet another career defining performance with a charismatic relatability and wisdom once thought to be lightyears of her youth. Along with last year’s amazing The Edge of Seventeen, the once dead young adult drama is on a full-on revival with this recklessly adolescent masterwork.

  1. Dunkirk

The enemy has driven the British and French armies to the sea. Trapped at Dunkirk, they await their fate. Hoping for deliverance. For a miracle.

When I think of 2014’s Interstellar, I think of a director’s masterwork with somewhat paradoxical execution. I felt the last act of the film to have much too dialogue for a film that prides itself in its visual sophistication, especially in regards to its themes of love and parenthood. Christopher Nolan’s latest war epic Dunkirk, however, completely rights the wrong of his last odyssey. Gone are the expositional science lessons. Standing at an uncharacteristically lean 106 minutes, Nolan delivers his most intense, cutthroat, and bombastic picture to date. The war genre has been gradually, and jadedly, glamorized, as if war is to be encouraged, like the loss of life is something to be fond of. Dunkirk strips away every convention that has plagued this cliché ridden genre, making a new, original beast of a war film. Character development is at a deliberate minimum, focusing on the horrors and sheer intensity of the event itself. Dunkirk shows Nolan at his most potent, focused and bombastic, a true lover of the cinematic art and experience.

  1. The Shape of WaterRelated image

When he looks at me, he does not know – how – I am incomplete. He sees me… as I am.

It’s weird. It’s different. It’s beautifully tailored by the mad mind of Guillermo del Toro. Easily his best and most wondrous feature since 2007’s Pan’s Labyrinth, The Shape of Water pits del Toro delivering a gorgeously original love story between a sea creature and a mute janitor. The premise alone sounds offputting and inadvertently comedic, but del Toro’s confident and fearless direction matched with pitch perfect performances from Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon, Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Jenkins and Doug Jones as simply “Amphibian Man” makes this odd love story into a whimsical and joyous anomaly of a film.

  1. The Big Sick

Emily: I didn’t heckle you, just woo-hoo’d you. It’s supportive.

Kumail: Okay, that’s a common misconception. Yelling anything at a comedian is considered heckling. Heckling doesn’t have to be negative.

Emily: So, if I… if I yelled out like… “You’re amazing in bed!”, that’d be a heckle?

Kumail: Yeah. It would be an accurate heckle.

By far the most straightforward film on this list, The Big Sick sees the beginnings of Kumail Nanjiani’s and Emily Gordon’s relationship and the all-too true tumultuous happenings around it. Not only does love interest Emily fall into a coma, but the internal conflicts practically blossom almost in spite of this. Kumail sees himself in the cross roads of his life, reminded of his cultural upbringing, being a first generation American from Pakistan, and his life of a stand-up comic despite his conservative parents’ wishes. They don’t know about his relationship with Emily, having the guise of actually wanting an arranged marriage. This well-intended deception is eventually revealed, leaving for some truly heart wrenching moments that perfectly encapsulates one’s wish to please their parents but, at the same time, trying to live their own, satisfactory life. The drama is ever present, but the comedy is where The Big Sick truly shines, giving Kumail Nanjiani a star making performance with pure and perfect comedic timing, layered with the aforementioned cultural dilemma. The straightforward nature of this film is almost deceptive to the naked eye: this is a smart, hilarious and honest film about love and the insanity it can bestow.

  1. The Disaster Artist

Greg Sestero: You’re really gonna make this thing?

Tommy Wiseau: No, Greg. We are going to do it. Together.

The irony. The Room, the cult phenomenon often touted as the ”Citizen Kane of bad movies” is a true paradox of cinema. The film is so bad, so incomprehensible and odd, that the story of how The Room was conceived and made turns out to be one of the most gratifying experiences in the theatre. The Disaster Artist is not a 100 minute-long bashing of its source material; it shows the power of friendship, with two unlikely friends pushing each other to their very best, because anything less than the best won’t cut it in their world. James Franco annihilates the role of Tommy Wiseau, the writer, director, star and producer of The Room. This isn’t an imitation of Wiseau, so much as it is a portrait of the man, and all the oddities that come with it. The Disaster Artist is a peak behind the curtain, a character study of a man too odd and eccentric for those around him. He accuses others of not understanding his vision, misguided at it is. The film is ultimately a surprisingly heartfelt love letter to friendship, and one’s will to present his uncompromised vision and the greatest pleasure of all: to call it his.

  1. Baby Driver

Mozart in a Go-Kart

Original films are slowly becoming an endangered species, though 2017 has seen a resurgence in original material, not unlike 2014. Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver is the epitome of original filmmaking and the excitement that new stories can bring. Nearly every aspect of the film is fresh and new: Wright’s snappy dialogue matched with his break-neck paced direction, the way the characters interact with each other, and the soundtrack that quite literally acts as the DNA of the film entire. Music often acts as the backbone, the pulse of the film, acting as an emotional commentator to what is happening on screen. Baby Driver’s soundtrack does more than amp up the suspense or turn the action into a glorified music video; it is the driving force (shameless pun not intended) of the film by acting as a second screenplay of the film. Edgar Wright has hardly been better and more razor sharp, and with an already legendary soundtrack and all-star cast (Kevin Spacey not withstanding), Baby Driver is an insatiably sweet piece of celluloid.

2. Logan

Image result for logan

Laura: You are dying. You want to die.

Logan: How do you know?

Laura: Charles told me.

Logan: What else did he tell you?

Laura: To not let you.

Last year’s Deadpool was a much needed deconstruction of the superhero genre, relentlessly poking fun at the plot holes that have become commonplace in the genre. It was a satire, a lampooning of the genre that has become too long at the teeth. Logan also deconstructs the prototypical superhero film, but decides to reside within convention to do so. Gone are Wolverine and Professor X, as Logan and Charles live tragic lives almost in spite of their former glory. The very things that made them special, what made Charles the poster boy of mutant/human equality, is the exact thing that causes harm to the people he wishes to befriend. Their gifts, mutations, or abilities haven proven to be the catalyst to the predicaments seen in this film. Logan is a brutal, violent and honest portrayal of a beloved character who actually reaches the final act of his life, something that seldom happens in this generation of remakes and reboots. Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart deliver award worthy performances of these characters who they know like the back of their hands. Steven Spielberg spoke of the superhero genre, saying that it will go the way of the western. The Western had Unforgiven, a last hoorah for the heroes and villains who encapsulated that era of film, due to meet a brutal and unceremonious end. In Logan, these heroes, once titans among common folk, meet a quiet demise, with the world having already forgotten them.

  1. Blade Runner 2049

Luv: You can’t hold the tide with a broom.

There’s a phrase many use when discussing current films: “They don’t make them like they used to”. It is a presumptuous dismissal of an entire filmography simply based on its youth. Films are made all the time, and good films are made some of the time. Blade Runner 2049 is a straight up masterpiece. Every single facet of filmmaking is done to effortless and sheer perfection. The performances are convincing and captivating. Hans Zimmer’s score perfectly compliments Vangelis’ hypnotic work in the 1982 original. The sound design is the thing that dreams are made of. From the opening logos to the closing credits, 2049’s sound immerses you into 2049 Los Angeles and the film’s task at hand. The cinematography is pure, cinematic ecstasy. Roger Deakins’ command of color and silhouettes has never been better, which is quite the statement considering the man’s legendary body of work. Every single shot is done with the grace and focus only befitting of Deakins’ loftily high standards. If this doesn’t win him that elusive Oscar, literally nothing will: this is some of the best cinematography of all time. However, all of these attributes would go in vain if helmed by the wrong director. Hell, not even Ridley Scott himself could make a better film than the original. So it must be noted that Denis Villeneuve’s direction will surely become the thing of legend, making the sequel that dare not be made, resulting in the best sequel of the decade, and one of the best ever. The idea of a Blade Runner sequel has been in the cards for some time, but the idea of actually making it was a hypothetical many cautioned to have it stay as such. It is because of Villeneuve that 2049 didn’t end up being a trainwreck, using the amazing aforementioned individual aspects of the film and making a picture that is greater than the sum of its parts. As a sequel, it perfectly captures the iconic dreamy and rain soaked neon Los Angeles of the original, also capturing the methodically patience testing pace that has divided moviegoers. As a film, it stands on its own with the greatest of ease, constantly rewarding your patience with a beautifully realized behemoth of a film, delivering the quintessential cinematic experience, reminding us why movies are made and why we watch them: to see the impossible come true.