TEARS IN RAIN -- Blade Runner 2049 and the Culture that Missed Something Special

So empty...where is everyone? Blade Runner 2049 once again proved that excellence does not always guarantee easy acceptance in the mainstream. Courtesy Warner Bros.

So empty...where is everyone? Blade Runner 2049 once again proved that excellence does not always guarantee easy acceptance in the mainstream.

Courtesy Warner Bros.

In advance of Blade Runner 2049, I was aware that my profound excitement leading up to it was not shared by everybody. Early critical assessments were unusually glowing, and I assumed that a cultural buzz would grow.  But I knew that many people didn't even know there was a Blade Runner sequel coming, and of those who did, many didn’t care. I knew this in advance, but assuming the moviemakers were successful I also thought that something thoughtful and out of the ordinary had the potential to catch fire, to present something fresh.  Alas, it was not to be. In a nation where football still dominates Sunday afternoons and political theater has become must-see-TV, a moody, brooding, sci-fi, film noir meditation about ontology and existentialism was not the thing the masses wanted to watch in a theater.

I should have known, I should have known, I should have…sighhhhh.

Now is the Monday morning of my discontent.

For myself, I was rewarded richly. It’s rare that movie expectations live up to anticipatory excitement, but BR2049 delivered the goods in every way. The movie stunned me by it’s overwhelming brilliance and clarity, it’s honesty and fearlessness and attention to even the most nuanced details, including character back stories, believable emotional journeys, and a mise en scène designed to present place where people actually lived and worked.  I loved it immediately.

My problem was not with the sterling reviews. Dozens of film critics raved about the film, gushed about its smart writing, superb performances, daring art direction, and courage to speak about challenging subjects. My problem is with what happened wider afield. On Monday morning after its opening weekend, I pulled up the box office tallies. It took me a few moments to realize what I was seeing. In retrospect I shouldn't have been surprised, but nonetheless, I blinked at the numbers. Blade Runner 2049 had opened with a whimper, not a bang.

Before I offer my analysis on that, I must first offer down a few additional notes why I regard this as a masterpiece, and before I get rolling, you should note that not a single element of the following includes the default statement of geekery, “Wow, that was cool!"

It is desperately rare for Hollywood to invest big money in daring art projects designed to provoke serious conversations. In fact it is so rare that when it happens it’s practically a unicorn. But here was that project. Blade Runner 2049 was explicitly made to address hard subjects. Head on, it tackled issue of slavery, colonialism, imperialism, police states, thought control, civil disobedience, civic unrest, and environmental disregard. It asks the audience to ponder free will, and it asks the audience to reconsider the value of life, pertaining to the individual as well as to greater philosophical ideals.  It did not shy away from close examinations of the unraveling social contract. It did not shy away from describing a bleak world we are collectively creating, speaking truths that we cannot pretend away. Even though it’s set in the future, it is a mirror held up to our present, a world completely recognizable even as it imagines things that do not yet exist.

It’s smart, too. The movie doesn’t spoon feed the audience. It demands that the audience pay close attention, have patience, lean in to story details that will be revealed in context as opposed to a linear sequence. It asks us to make connections and consider implications, and in so doing it makes us complicit in the story’s meaning rather than simply spectators to a tableau.

From a narrative perspective the movie steps into comparatively courageous territory. Movies by their very nature are an inherently middle-brow art form. Hitting paint-by-number marks isn’t so hard, with good guys and bad guys typically sporting obvious signifiers to tell us the rules. But in rarer atmospheres like this one, movies are theoretically capable of vast artistic and narrative expression. Here’s an example from Blade Runner 2049: in an ingenious, revelatory moment, the film turned the tables on audiences by intentionally bucking a conventional plot contrivance and then telling audiences that of course that contrivance isn’t how the world works! (I will not divulge that extraordinary moment, but I will hint that it has to do with how much each us regard ourselves, foolishly, to be the most important thing relative to the rest of the world.)

The movie is a visual feast. It is not simply beautiful in an art school sort of way; it is exquisite in its fully lived in detail. In the grime, the neon, the confined hallways and offices and apartment blocks juxtaposed against vast vistas of a degraded future California, there’s an honesty and matter-of-fact clarity that can only come from a creative team who cares to keep us immersed in the service of dynamically presenting what they have to say without compromise. The movie presents a sophisticated palette of color, texture, lighting, and movement. Sets and scenes are actively part of the story, not simply backdrops and locations. How the camera moves, or—with tremendous restraint considering a movie of this size—often doesn’t move plays a vital role in our involvement with the narrative. The camera moves only when it must in the service of propelling our attention. It does not move to impress us with filmmaking chops.

Then there’s the sound. Not a score, exactly, it’s an aural environment that fully envelops the viewer, amplifying the narrative without overwhelming the audience in unnecessary Hollywood themes. When a Frank Sinatra song plays softly at a vital moment of contemplation, the surprise of hearing a familiar melody about melancholy humanity shocks the audience as much for its content as for its feeling. In that song we realize what we’ve lost as a society, that things have gotten complicated and cold. In that soft moment of nostalgia we cannot help but feel how there were once different ways to dream.

Blade Runner 2049: a unicorn in every way.

I'll admit that my views suffer from a significant confirmation bias based on extremely high regard for the original movie. I wanted to like the new one,  but I like to think I can call ‘em as I see ‘em.

Everybody has their own media darlings. Some people like particular musicians; some people like certain sports teams; some people follow the Kardashians (I have no idea why). In the grand scheme of things, with threats of war and economic upheaval and civil unrest around the world, I am fully cognizant that BR2049 is only a movie. But if I zoom in to the microcosm of what artwork means for the long influential arc of culture, the tepid response from the mainstream public is a grand exasperation. To some extent, the ho-hum box office confirms for me what I already lament, namely that the culture has turned away from thinking hard thoughts. The culture has turned away from things that are not clickable or pre-digested. The culture does not care to be challenged. The culture cannot tell the difference between fast food and fine cuisine.  It can only tell if it's feeling hungry, and if it IS hungry, it would rather get the eating process over with rather than appreciate sights and smells and subtitles. It’s certainly not going to stick around for coffee and conversation after the meal, either.

It's ironic that a big budget sci-fi movie like this should prompt dismissal from anti-elites. Conversely, I would hate to think that so-called elites are the only ones who recognize its brilliance. What the lack of enthusiasm for BR2049 tells me, however, is that there are dark cultural days ahead. (Perhaps this is the greatest example of cultural irony, considering how dark the movie is in the first place.) Hollywood is not likely to make challenging, daring films of this vision and scope without audiences voting with their wallets. That experience can only reinforce aregular regurgitation of more predictable, easily digestible narratives. Certainly there will be great smaller works produced in years to come– – there are always terrific artists waiting to be discovered – – but for large, daring works that require vast resources, there will be fewer risks than ever, and they were already very, very few.

Many pundits have already opined that this movie was a colossal act of hubris on the part of some completely starry-eyed cinephile producers. People have suggested that it was doomed from the start: who ever wanted to sit through a long, brooding meditation in the first place?  It’s interesting, however, that the original film, which itself did middling business when it opened in 1982, has gone on to shape an entire generation not only of filmmakers, but musicians, philosophers, writers, architects, urban planners, advertisers, and much, much more. The original Blade Runner re-shaped movies. Of all the zillions of irrelevant, dystopic, rage-against-the-system books and movies that have overwhelmed popular culture of late, most can trace their genes DIRECTLY back to the original Blade Runner. The literature and even the reporting on this genesis is crystal clear.  

The philosophical courage for artists to create requires cultures to have enough collective courage to support creators. Audiences must be willing – – occasionally! – – to stretch. The creative team of BR2049 helmet by director Denis Villeneuve created a fully realized world, created down to minute detail. It is a giant work of art and an exquisite one, worthy of serious consideration and conversation and cultural respect.

Stories matter. Where journalism keeps track of events on the calendar, stories keep track of the culture that shapes events. I take storytelling seriously. Stories are how we figure out what's important to us, and by “us” I don’t mean our private little groups of friends. Stories are refracting facets of the larger culture, simultaneously thought experiments and news reports about the daily remaking of the world. No matter how fantastical the scenery, our stories are always shadows and reflections of ourselves.

When the movie ended in the theater where I was watching (a sold-out IMAX in Georgetown, Washington DC) a woman seated next to us reached over and touched me on the arm. She was palpably amped by what she had just seen, thoroughly jazzed and excited to share the buzz. “So real!” she exclaimed, before shedding electrified sparks about when a character showed up near the movie’s end (I won’t spoil that here). Then she said “This is the kind of movie I wish they made more often!”

Oh, kindred spirit, I feel you. I do, I do, I do.

The book from which the Blade Runner tale springs is Phillip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” One has to wonder if it’s electricity at all that powers mainstream sheep who just want to binge-watch more of what they’re already used to seeing. The sinking of this major work into vast murky seas of mediocrity simply confirms that we are a long way from creating a future powered by the potentials of our imaginations. The cultural confirmation bias against big ideas suggests a trajectory towards a collective abdication. When culture does not want to consider challenging visions of where it’s headed, it’s a pretty good bet that it’s headed there in a hurry.

@michaelstarobin             facebook.com/1auglobalmedia

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