A Subjective Review of Blade Runner 2049

Dear 2120,

As you can probably tell from my frequent posting on the matter, Blade Runner 2049 is kind of a big deal here. The legacy of the original Blade Runner from 1982 spreads far and wide, and rolls deep with die-hard fans from director Chris Cunningham to EL-P of Run the Jewels fame singing its hypnotic praises. It’s the kind of movie that inspired a lot of other movies, not to mention an astronomical amount of music, fashion and art. For better or worse, Ridley Scott’s futurist meditation on the nature of human existence has been seared into our collective consciousness. Personally, I wasn’t really sure what to expect from the Denis Villeneuve-directed follow-up. It seemed a difficult proposition for a variety of reasons.

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Full disclosure: if I’m honest with myself, I was probably never a die-hard fan of the original. While I can totally appreciate its dense, melancholy atmosphere, singular vision and stunning visual innovation on a more cerebral level, I’ve always found it hard to get emotionally invested. In spite of its unquestionable strengths, it never really got me in my feels. There’s a distinct possibility that I’ve just found it hard to see past the dated bits. For some people, the wonky, early 80s kitsch is the movie’s main appeal, but for me it sometimes becomes the wayward, pointy projectile that sends the soaring Hindenburg of a movie crashing down to earth in cyberpunk-tinted flames. My ADHD-riddled internet brain probably doesn’t do me any favors when it comes to Scott’s meditative sci-fi odyssey, and I certainly can’t rule out that I’m just so used to fast-paced Netflix entertainment that its relentless dwelling on idiosyncratic detail – soundtracked by sticky synths and self-indulgent saxophone solos – is why I sometimes catch myself zoning tf out. This is a movie that’s drunk on its own imagination. It wallows in its own melancholy. That said, I do think parts of Blade Runner, like Rutger Hauer’s dying in the rain with its inspired monologue, are earth-shatteringly great.

What I’m trying to say is that my relationship with Blade Runner is fairly complex, if not a little agnostic. From my perspective, parts of Blade Runner are flat out tiresome, while others are borderline genius. In other words, Blade Runner 2049’s potential was hard to determine. It could go either way, as far as I was concerned.

For the purposes of making this review more orderly and palatable, less rambling and ranting, I’ve divided it into four segments: the soundtrack, the plot, the world-building and the politics. Let’s jump in at the deep end with the heavily contested soundtrack. Spoilers ahead!

The Soundtrack

As I mentioned, there was a bit of an uproar in Nerdland when Denis Villeneuve gave Jóhan Jóhansson the boot in favor of Blockbuster titan, Hans Zimmer. Murmurings that Denis Villeneuve was losing his neuve (lølz) flourished in many a geek-driven corner of the internet, and I can totally see where they’re coming from; with Jóhansson’s timelessly yearning, neo-classical sound, Blade Runner could potentially have followed in the footsteps of its avant-garde predecessor by turning everything on its head. By flipping off an increasingly ossified sci-fi establishment. Then again, A Blade Runner movie that completely neglects the soaring Vangelis synth, wouldn’t really feel like a Blade Runner movie. You can sense Villeneuve’s pickle.

If we start out in the nitpicking department, the main problem with Zimmer’s score is that is has the all the subtlety of being bro-slapped at a toga party. On more than one occasion, I felt compelled to grab the German composer by the scruff of the neck and tell him to cool it with those massive ‘BWAAAAH!’ sounds that he also pummelled to death in Inception. And it’s nice to be overwhelmed by an all-encompassing wall of surround sound in the cinema, but when the wall is so frequent and so loud, it kind of feels like that episode of The Simpsons where they’re making fun of surround sound ads and people’s teeth and valuables get torn off in the soundwave.

Moving on to the good parts, Hans clearly knows what he’s doing. A seasoned craftsman with a proven track record in mesmerizing the big screen sci-fi audience, his vast, immersive tones compliment, contextualize and enhance the movie’s grave, larger-than-life themes. At one point when K flies into the foreboding Wallace monolith, the ambient background noise suddenly turns into a weird, heavily processed, guttural tribal chant that manages to stay on the right side of outrageous. Strange, fucked-up, colossal buildings where they engineer human slaves necessitate strange, fucked up, unholy sounds.

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As an old synth-freak I can’t help relishing the generous washes of Vangelis-indebted synth-work that Zimmer implements with knowing precision. Hovercraft ride with AI-girlfriend: Vangelis-synth. Dying in the snow for a bigger cause, which is the final proof that you’re not a ‘skin job’, but a real human being with a real soul: Vangelis-synth. It works a charm, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

All in all, I’d say the the good outweighs the bad by a long shot. 7 out of 10 vintage Yamaha synthezisers.

The Plot

Here lies the centre of my struggle, my main gripe with 2049. I mean, I love the introductory text describing how the Tyrell Corporation had its downfall and the ecosystem collapsed making way for Wallace and his ‘mastery’ of synthesized farming. The scene is set for an epic, downcast, post-apocalyptic adventure.

But then comes Robin Wright’s lackluster claim that they need to ‘keep order’ and if they don’t – if everyone finds out about the replicant baby – civil war between humans and replicants will break out. With no tangible backstory, no discernible character motivation, to underpin this pivotal claim, the premise that the entire movie rests on becomes one person’s half-baked opinion.

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It’s a bit flimsy for my tastes. And the combination of uninspired acting and sloppy screenwriting kind of kills the plot for me. Theoretically speaking, I can see how a baby born to a replicant could stoke the fires of an insurrection. The way in which this crucial plot device is delivered, however, just makes the point of no return fizzle out into mediocrity – and I find it very hard to get fully invested in what comes next. Adding to that, the completely overshadowing focus on cinematography can sometimes make it seem like you’re watching 10 different, isolated short films in succession instead of one, unified whole. The plot gives way to the visuals. Now, depending on who you ask, this is either a strength or a flaw. More on that in a second.

These are my main points of contention with 2049. In no way do they make it suck, but they don’t do it any favors either.

The World-Building

This is where Denis and crew really nail it down to a tee. 2049 is a visual cornucopia of sci-fi boner-inducing imagination. I realize that I’m contradicting myself here, but the lack of backstory and character motivation actually serves an engaging purpose in this particular respect because it pushes us straight into the vertigo-inducing action, and sort of makes us observe what these strange people who are so unlike us, but still kind of similar get up to in a fascinating, distorted reality. It becomes a window into an alternate universe that’s taken a hard turn for the worse, and its immersive properties are by turns exhilarating, enticing and deliciously melancholy. Channeling the true, maverick spirit of the original, 2049 makes few attempts to guide its audience along a traditional blockbuster narrative, opting instead to enmesh its viewers in colour, mood and atmosphere with relatively open-ended thematic conclusions.

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This is one of the most visually appealing movies I’ve ever seen. If cinematography is your bag, this is your holy grail. It also sits incredibly well with the atmospheric, world-building of the original while building on and expanding its prescient ideas into the present and beyond.

The Politics

At the end of 2017, making a big budget movie can never not be politicized. Sure enough, accusations of misogyny came flying left and right when Blade Runner 2049 first premiered. I-D fired a few rounds at Villenueve, castigating the film as ‘a misogynistic mess’ saying that women in the movie are either prostitutes or ‘violent boss vomen.’ If you judge the new Bade Runner according to criteria that usually apply to contemporary movies, this is a very fair point. In that case, the portrayal of women is straight-up barbaric and very one-dimensional. In other words, most of these women make for dubious role models.

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In my humble opinion, this critique is fairly short-sighted. It also kind of misses the point. First of all, this is cyberpunk. We find ourselves in a post-apocalyptic society that’s gone off the rails. It’s creative extrapolation, making us live a worst-case scenario. We have to assume, I think, that untamed capitalism, unchecked patriarchy, toxic masculinity and all the other ills of this world are factors in the precipitous descent into debasement, leaving our protagonists with the sad, broken pieces of a world in rapid decline. Or rather, the decline is over and they’ve hit rock-bottom. Their job is to navigate this hyper-oppressive dystopia where human beings are commodities, and their use-value is the only thing they have going for them. None of these people – neither the men, nor the women – are role models. They’re misguided outcomes of a society based on the every- person-for-itself- rule. I’d agree that creating a visually titillating dystopia could be construed as irresponsible, but that’s a different discussion. (Also, if you’ve read this blog, you’ll know that I’d love to see a full-on utopian movie).

But like Black Mirror, Blade Runner is, partially at least, about seeing how bad shit can really get if we don’t stop and think – if we don’t find a way to curb our most self-destructive impulses. The 2049 universe is the opposite of woke; it’s a scenario that plays out how the world might look if we don’t find some way to change. Hence, big-breasted statues of women in the abandoned, toxic desert are not reinforcing patriarchy, they’re pointing fingers at it. They’re showing us how obsolete, dehumanizing and damaging the commodification of human beings can be.

True, 2049’s themes are subtle and ambiguous. I don’t know about you, but I prefer my entertainment subtle and ambiguous to obvious and lecturing. You could argue that today’s political climate requires lecturing, but that’s another discussion for another time – and one that I’d like to keep out of a Blade Runner debate. Simply put: if you’re going to make a movie or music about how things should be with themes that should be taken literally, that’s amazing and commendable. It has nothing to do with Blade Runner, though, and from my perspective Villeneuve does a good job of orchestrating a bold, new take on the groundbreaking Blade Runner legacy.

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I can see how people can get pissed off by Blade Runner 2049 (and a few of my friends actually have). Still, I find it hard to be offended by it. If anything it depresses me. It reminds me that we’re pushed with increasing speed into the totally insane task of changing the course of humanity, so we can avoid living in a real-world dystopia where brute force, dickheaded antagonism and soulless technological innovation and are the only constants in a terrifyingly chaotic universe.

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To my own surprise, I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around this movie despite seeing it twice. I’d love to give you a clear-cut answer along the lines of ‘it’s really great’ or ‘it’s embarrassingly bad’, but I can only say It’s mind-blowingly great in some respects, but kinda half-assed and sophomoric in others. Which is more or less what I have to say about the original, so I guess everything is as it should be.

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Interestingly, the original Blade Runner got crap reviews when it first came out in 1982. 2049 being so ahead of its time that I just don’t fully get could be within the realms of possibility. Maybe Villeneuve’s sequel will be to your generation what Fritz Lang’s ‘Metropolis’ (1910) is to us. It manages the unlikely feat of being a beautiful, depthless void favoring form over substance, as well as a deep-seated visual poem on the intersection between technology and humanity all at the same time. The fact that it can be both may be too much for my binary, early 21st century pea brain to handle. I might even have to watch it a third time to see if I can make more sense of it all. Maybe that’s what Blade Runner is: a beautiful, confusing mess of conflicting energies.

Wherever you are, whether it’s your version of cyberspace or somewhere on an off-world colony, I sincerely hope it hasn’t aged too poorly and that you’re able to watch it without feeling embarrassed for your early 21st century ancestors. Who will probably all be gone by the time you read this. Like inactive Google+ accounts deleted from the internet.

 

 

 

Watch Blade Runner Black Out 2022 – a Dark Slice of Anime Heaven Scored by Flying Lotus

Dear 2120,

We’re big on fictional dystopias in my time. Maybe this is down to some warped, Freudian impulse or maybe it’s just plain, old human boredom manifesting itself in decadent, thrill-seeking fantasy. In any case, I’m pleased to report that Blade Runner 2049 just got propped-up by Blade Runner Black Out 2022, an Anime short-film made as a prequel to the main event, scored by Flying Lotus with music by the illustrious Kuedo. Watch the whole thing here.

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With 2049 weighed down by mounting soundtrack complications, this expansive cyberpunk gem directed by Cowboy Bebop creator Shinichiro Watanabe is a breath of fresh, wide-eyed replicant air in the increasingly cynical human media racket surrounding the new Blade Runner movie.

Who knows, Blade Runner 2049 might still be great. But this tight, little short packing deliciously melancholy Anime-noir is kind of amazing. Denis Villeneuve needs to stay at the top his game to keep up with Blade Runner Black Out 2022.

 

Building for 2120: the Pragmatic Utopianism of Bjarke Ingels

Dear 2120,

Sometimes it’s hard to see the forest through the trees. This is part of the reason, I think, that Bjarke Ingels’s hedonistically sustainable, pragmatically utopian architecture has managed to stay out of Letters to 2120 up until now. On the utopian side of things, he’s undoubtedly a shoe-in. However, as an occupational side-effect of my work with design coming out of KiBiSi (which Bjarke constitutes one third of), I guess I’ve watched the global design media lose their collective shit over the charismatic starchitect and his inspired, information-driven buildings on one occasion too many. It seemed to me that everyone had had their fill of Ingels and then some, so I thought it pertinent to give him a miss. At least until the tidal wave of hype had subsided.

Thing is, though, that I keep coming back to his conceptual ingenuity and unparalleled story-telling ability. It’s inspiring. On more than one occasion I’ve found myself thinking that the man is the personification of the old adman expression ‘lightning in a bottle.’ He’s Don Draper without the alcohol, tortured soul and annoying, forced facial expressions – with an added, disarming infusion of giddy, boyish enthusiasm.

Of all the contemporary cultural moments featured here so far, I’d say that his work probably stands the biggest chance of making it to 2120. Which is down to the simple fact that they’ll have a hard time tearing down all of that robust construction over the course of a century. Even if he’s not your bag, you’ll have to admit that he’s a seriously prolific son of a bitch.

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The pyramid-shaped Via 57 West Courtscraper in New York designed by Bjarke Ingels Architects. 

If I were to sum up BIG architecture glibly and superficially, I’d say that it’s the real-world manifestation of all that ingenious, uninhibited free-thinking you did when you were slurping on your homemade bong in the 8th grade – realized on a momentous scale and backed up by some pretty hefty, multinational budgets. Take one look at their sci-fi-inspired, smoke-blowing power plant-turned-skiing slope, and you’ll realize that the stoners have won.

Somewhat inevitably when an organization achieves success on BIG’s scale, there’s been backlashy murmurings here and there, allegations of implementing cheap materials, criticism of gender imbalances at partner level and claims positing Ingels as a ‘shameless self-promoter.’ All of which amounts to critique that would have stopped, stunted and impeded the careers of lesser, more fragile architects.

Bjarke Ingels, on the other hand, just goes ‘Yes is More.’ Which could be loosely translated into: ‘The haters can suck it – let’s get on with the more pressing business of blowing everyone’s mind with trailblazing construction.’

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One of the twisting towers that make up Grove at Grand Bay in Miami, Florida.  

The ‘Yes is More’ maxim has the added benefit of placing BIG, forthrightly and unpretentiously, in a lineage of paradigm-shifting, world-shaking architecture. First there was Mies Van der Rohe’s modernist ‘Less is More’ dictum; then came Robert Venturi’s postmodern antidote in the form of ‘Less is a Bore’; and now there’s BIG and its ‘Yes is More’ manifesto, the deceptively simple yet unequivocally clever, new rallying cry for a new age that’s charmingly zealous, unflinchingly ambitious, empathically intelligent, and genuinely down-to-earth all at the same time. This succession of characteristics is central to BIG’s sensibility, I think, and it translates directly into Bjarke Ingels’s prodigious gift for architectural story-telling:

For me, the true merit of BIG and Bjarke Ingels lies in turning problems into challenges. Instead of approaching the ecological crisis with downcast, puritanical, crypto-protestant eyes as most of us are inclined to do, he turns it into problems that can be solved in a pragmatic way balanced with a utopian mindset. The process of solving it to the best of human ability, in a way that fuels our collective imagination, becomes a gratifying game. A kind of fun obstacle course, which matter-of-factly names and demystifies our fears by compartmentalizing them into decipherable complications that makes the future markedly less unpredictable, volatile and scary in the process.

It’s easy and very human to succumb to the notion that we have to pay for our sins and make sacrifices for our ignorance and inadequacies. For all our gung-ho secularism, the narrative of redemption still runs deep in our supposedly post-religious veins. As a dubious consequence, never has guilt-tripping the public into buying a bunch of self-righteous, hokey products they don’t really want or need been so easy. But what if it doesn’t have to be that way? What if we don’t have to kiss modernity and technology goodbye as a means of appeasing our new secular God, the vengeful Mother Earth? What if we don’t have to wear crap sandals and go vegan to have a decent future? What if we can judo-trip the the multitude of problems we face, not only solving them in process, but slapping them around a bit to make their pressing energy work to our advantage? That’s the inviting, seductive question posed by Bjarke Ingels’s ‘Yes is More’ manifesto. And one that he consistently answers in style with uplifting, ‘unremittingly radical’, and downright incredible architecture.

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BIG design for the Dubai Hyperloop high-speed transportation system.

My money’s firmly on this guy’s legacy being around in 2120. With a little bit of luck, you guys will eat the synthetic dust of my great-great-grandchild who’s puffing away on her space-age bong while casually skiing away from a giant smoke ring that lights up the Copenhagen horizon.

 

Special Request’s ‘Brainstorm’ is the Perfect Soundtrack for Fighting off White Walkers with a Flaming Sword

Dear 2120,

One of my main worries about this extremely one-sided correspondence is that you’ll have no idea what the hell I’m talking about. To that end, I’ve decided to merge a contemporary, cultural phenomenon known as Game of Thrones with Special Request’s latest junglist piano house banger in the attempt to accurately convey how music can make people feel about things in 2017.

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Picture the scene: you’ve been walking for ages in an unforgiving winter wasteland with only the obstinate, smart-alecky interjections of a hideously scarred, smelly sociopath called The Hound to keep you company. The quest: acquire a hissing, undead corpse for the Dragon Queen. It’s the only way she’ll ever believe there’s an army of White Walkers coming to kill life itself. Things go awry at some point and you end up in the middle of a frozen lake surrounded by a vast phalanx of hungry zombies in various stages of rot and decay. The Hound is a belligerent fuckhead, so he throws rocks at your enemy, which ends up setting everything in motion, including the patch-eyed, Lord of Light servant’s flaming sword.

Enter Special Request’s ‘Brainstorm’:

 

As the undead army approaches, you press play on your medieval/fantasy soundsystem to get pumped for battling the Night King’s army of skeletal reprobates with your boss weapon forged from newly excavated dragonstone.

 
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The booming kick makes the rocky foundation you’re standing on reverberate with the golden age of rave – and you have to slap some sense into the ginger wildling to keep him from busting trippy, Fiorucci Made me Hardcore/ 90s warehouse moves. The dead-eyed freaks come at you in droves and the Kool Keith sample eggs everyone on. You’re putting up a formidable fight, swords singing and gleaming in the pale winter light, White Walker heads fly left and right. At some point, though, you run out of steam and the Walkers start eating your buddy’s face and pulling people into the lake.

But then. A soaring, HI-NRG piano riff accompanied by slaying diva vocals lights up the sky; the Dragon Queen Khaleesi has arrived on her surly dragon to save your ass and incinerate the enemy. You barely manage to hang on to the scaly beast at it leaves and in your mind’s eye you can’t help but notice how Paul Woolford’s hardcore barnstormer of a track makes the perfect soundtrack for fighting off White Walker’s with a flaming sword.

If you’re a connoisseur of popular culture in the 2010s, this will all make perfect sense. If you’re not, I suggest you start reading up on things. Some people have given up on GOT here. They don’t know what they’re missing.

‘Brainstorm’ by Special Request is out now on Houndstooth

The Trailer for ‘Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams’ has Landed

Dear 2120,

I can’t speak to the newsworthiness of this in relation to people living a hundred years from now. All I know is that few sci-fi writers have managed to mess so masterfully with my head as Philip K. Dick, which makes the appearance of a trailer promoting a TV show based on a range of the volatile writer’s short stories something of an event here in my present. When the space head who dreamt up shadowy, literary masterpieces like ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep’ gets his small screen debut, you can’t not post about it. At least not if you’re a nerd like me.

The trailer isn’t exactly mind-blowing, and it looks like they might have borrowed a little too heavily from Black Mirror, but I’ll reserve final judgment for when ‘Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams’ lands in my digital entertainment system.

Afrofuturist Writer Octavia Butler Predicted the Rise of Trump in 1998

Dear 2120,

Grasping the bigger, more significant perspectives of your era can sometimes be a challenge when all you have at your disposal is the sluggish, old human sensory apparatus. Our 2017 brains have limited processing capabilities, which makes it difficult to comprehend and analyze the total sum of everything that goes on around us. When you’re caught in the hurricane of all these overwhelming, hectic impulses and impressions, your memory is compromised and your ability to make connections between cultural, technological and political events is stretched beyond its means like a cheap balloon enlarged by the ruddy cheeks of an overzealous 7-year-old.

However, some people, particularly certain science-fiction writers, are blessed with the ability to make those connections, enabling them to process the relevant information of the present and make startlingly accurate predictions about the future. Cases in point are George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four“, Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” and, as it was just highlighted in the New Yorker yesterday, Octavia Butler’s 1998 novel ‘Parable of the Talents.’

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I have to admit that I’d never heard of Butler (despite Queen Beyoncé mining Octavia for inspiration on her latest album), but that’s an oversight I intend to rectify posthaste. As Abby Aguirre puts it:

‘In the ongoing contest over which dystopian classic is most applicable to our time, Octavia Butler’s “Parable” books may be unmatched.’

Lately, with the rise of Trump, people have been falling over themselves in the quest to name the classic dystopian book that most aptly describes the present ‘Trumpified’ moment. Orwell’s media-controlled totalitarianism and Huxley’s culture held captive by trivial hedonism are inevitable science-fictional touchstones, but maybe Octavia Butler’s ‘prescient vision of a zealot elected to make America great again’ (actual words) is the novel that got it right. In ‘Parable of the Talents’:

The Donner Administration has written off science, but a more immediate threat lurks: a violent movement is being whipped up by a new Presidential candidate, Andrew Steele Jarret, a Texas senator and religious zealot who is running on a platform to “make American great again.’

In 2120, you might be asking yourself why we’re not doing anything if some people can see the train hurtling at us at breakneck speed. I can only say: good question. At the moment, a lot of people don’t really seem to care what smart novelists have to say.

Monday Music: Bullion’s Blue Pedro

Dear 2120,

Thought I’d share a newish track with you. I can’t decide if it’s really stupid or really great or an interesting mix of the two – which might be what makes it really great, to be honest. It’s been a while since I’ve heard news from Bullion, and Blue Pedro is an interesting proposition to say the least. Regardless of what you think of the music, I can’t help thinking that making a track, which sounds like the next Hobbit movie (in which Gandalf and Bilbo throw caution to the wind, venturing out to sea for a rowdy knees-up with their jolly dwarf brethren) is a pretty ballsy move. After more than half a decade of moody techno ruling the airwaves, this shines a joyful little light on my Monday. Have a listen:

 

Maybe it’s just the jam you need to set your Mars-based graduation party on fire?