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“Blade Runner 2049” and the Importance of Theatrical Competence

Blade Runner 2049!

All things considered, such a beautiful film made it extremely hard to choose just one moment for our lead photo.

When I was 10 the original Blade Runner was the first R-rated film I ever saw in theaters. Mom had a strict policy against them till I was a teenager, but made the first exception while we were on vacation visiting family who wanted to see it. I’d already read and enjoyed the Marvel Comics adaptation by Archie Goodwin and Al Williamson, and did Mom the unspoken favor of asking her to lead me to the bathroom as soon as I knew Joanna Cassidy’s nude scene was coming. It was the least I could do in return for the opportunity to see revolutionary science fiction cinema unfold before my eyes.

Other kids had the first two Star Wars films, neither of which I saw till adulthood. I had Blade Runner. I never needed or expected a sequel. Not every story needs to be a never-ending saga. 35 years later, here we are anyway.

That was the intro I wrote before I saw Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 on its second weekend of release, capturing my trepidation in advance regardless of whether it blew me away or offended me with corporate greed. I’m sad to say that evening was an unpleasant experience.

It wasn’t the movie’s fault. It was Regal Cinemas’.

Short version for the unfamiliar: In the future beyond the Blade Runner future that we passed in real time a while back, eccentric rich scientist Jared Leto has corrected the error in the replicant birthing process that turned them into short-lived murderers. Thanks to the advances he’s made in his creepy lair composed entirely of echoing modernist caverns, replicants are now perfectly functioning lifeforms subjugated to humans and their every whim. One of their number, a police “Blade Runner” named K (Our Hero Ryan Gosling), has an odd mystery on his hands involving a peculiar replicant corpse, a potential replicant rebel alliance, a stray memory, and a toy horse. K follows the ominous trail of exquisitely designed camera shots, some of which also contain clues, until it inevitably leads him to post-apocalyptic Las Vegas and its lone resident: former leading man Harrison Ford, reviving yet another franchise but this time negotiating the privilege to wear his own comfy clothing.

Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Robin Wright returns from Wonder Woman still on point as K’s boss, Lieutenant Future Amazon. Dave “Drax” Bautista has the honor of playing K’s first replicant combatant. David Dastmalchian (Ant-Man, The Dark Knight) nets two scenes as Blade Runner CSI. Beyond that we get a lot of single-scene guest stars:

* Returning OG Blade Runner alumni Edward James Olmos and, well, one that’s supposed to be a bigger surprise
* Wood Harris (Avon Barksdale from The Wire) as another Blade Runner
* Mackenzie Davis (AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire) as a, uh, pleasure replicant
* Academy Award Nominee Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips) as a helpful hacker-y guy
* Lennie James (Morgan from The Walking Dead) as a shady underworld-y guy

Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? A number of Ridley Scott’s old Blade Runner motifs are back in full effect — garish neon, depressing downpours, animal arts, and invasive eye exams. You can count them as they occur and take notes so you can dwell on their perpetuated significance for later.

For once the idea of artificial beings having emotions is taken for granted. Two key characters in particular explore the ramifications of life after Data. K has a personal dissembodied AI named Joi (Ana de Armas), a descendant of Siri and Alexa who tends to his needs but at times evinces an individual expressiveness beyond rote video-game NPC scripting. For all intents and purposes Joi is his confidante, possibly more than that. She either yearns to continue transcending her already robust programming, or was designed with thought patterns so next-level beyond our current 4K-platform limits that her complex responses only feign spontaneity for us backwater 2010s dwellers. On the opposite end of the alignment chart is Jared Leto’s head of security, the replicant Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), who’s in charge of kicking butt and taking lives when the mission calls for it. Soldiers may be known for following orders, but Luv approaches her wetwork with an optional gusto unbecoming an ostensibly soulless automaton. She’s a little too happy in her work and eager to please.

Much of the plot is tough to delve into without spoiling the core of the mystery, but relevant tangents include replicant evolution, the fluid nature of memory, absentee parents, and the ever-present dominance of the patriarchy in giving its creations female designs, silly names, and lousy jobs.

Nitpicking? The clues are chained through such far-fetched devices that there should’ve been a subplot elaborating on the wonder of thermodynamic miracles so the coincidental leaps would feel meaningful instead of ludicrous. There’s one spoiler-ish “uncanny valley” moment that was a little off-putting until I gave it some thought and realized in context it actually made sense as a sort of nostalgic throwback. Also, at nearly three hours long, BR2049 can be a test of patience if you’re not fully immersed and enraptured in its otherworldly ambiance.

Unfortunately, I was not immersed. Here’s the thing:

This year some of the theaters in our area have been redefining themselves as more upscale entertainment centers than they actually are. Time was, you’d go sit in an adequate seat, choose between the same three or four traditional snacks, watch a movie, and you were done. “Not good enough!” say local megaplexes that want excuses to charge us even more. Behold a few theatrical amenities we didn’t have within ten miles of our house in the primitive era of 2015:

Recliners!

Plush electric recliners! Now you can lean all the way back and pay twelve bucks to accidentally fall asleep through Hollywood’s newest films!

Korean BBQ Tacos!

Foodie fare such as these Korean BBQ tacos! Somehow I doubt they have a chef behind the counter all day slow-roasting their pulled pork and mixing his family’s sauce recipes using only obscure ingredients found on Chopped.

Mutant Pecans!

Fanciful nuts with toppings selected from a Bingo ball cage! A weird melange of cranberries, orange zest, and black pepper is a long, long way from peanut M&Ms.

Their theory, I suppose, is that patrons will happily pay extra to be spoiled rotten and treated like upper-class gourmands, especially when they aren’t. I can’t deny a modicum of truth in their fiendish capitalist ploy. But on this fateful day in October when my son and I went to see Blade Runner 2049, they forgot one basic truth:

We’re there to watch a movie. Bells and whistles notwithstanding, in our minds the theater has one job.

Showtime arrives. We’re sitting patiently through the usual eight hours’ worth of trailers, nearly all of which we’ve already watched on YouTube. Halfway into this preshow comes an unexpected message on screen:

“PUT ON YOUR 3-D GLASSES.”

The audience looks at each other, confused. None of us paid for a 3-D showing. The next few trailers are blurry. At first I thought it was my old-man eyes, which give me more issues than they used to. Thankfully it’s not just me. But we don’t care because we’re not here for trailers. As long as the movie is in 2-D, we’ll be fine.

Movie starts. Still blurry. Ryan Gosling has visible tremors like either he’s drunk or we all are. The luscious visual craft of cinematographer Roger Deakins, and the thousands of hours of efforts by grade-A set designers and visual effects artists, are wiggling and jiggling like someone set the entire camera on Vibrate. A few other patrons run to go pester the staff. My son glares at me as if I went senile and chose a 3-D showing by mistake and the clerk forgot to give us glasses. I point out no one else around us has the glasses, either.

Shaky Gosling gets all the way to his methodically staged encounter with Dizzy Drax, which devolves into a buzzsaw wrestling match in the middle of an earthquake. It’s impossible to appreciate anything on screen while we’re waiting for the projectionist to wake up or the manager to put down his Korean rotisserie tongs for a second.

After the fight scene ends, the lights come up and the screen goes black for a few minutes. Behind the scenes, someone switches cameras or camera settings or Windows 10 files or whatever. The lights dim again, and Blade Runner 2049 starts all over from frame one, this time in 2-D. A sense of relief slowly pervades the auditorium. Some viewers forget quickly and get into the spirit of moviegoing once again because a Dave Bautista encore is kind of a treat. Others, like me, or maybe only me, persist in being bitter about the interruption for the next 45 minutes until the tension subsides and we/I can concentrate on Ryan Gosling yelling at computers to enhance some images in a feat of accidental meta-irony.

With the 2-D/3-D presentation issue fix, another new issue came into focus. Literally. In the middle of the screen was a long, ugly, distracting smudge. We couldn’t tell if it was schmutz on the camera lens or if someone had tossed a bag of artisanal popcorn at the big screen itself and left a trail of grease dripping from top to bottom.

Our viewing experience for the next three hours was approximately like this:

Regal Cinemas Sucks.

[artist’s dramatization]

The smudge lurked large and taunted us for ALL THREE HOURS. Three solid hours of trying not to stare at that blasted spot may have driven me a liiittle mad.

So what’s to like? In conclusion, this is why I found it hard to write about Blade Runner 2049 for a while. Thanks to a poor night at our nearest Regal Cinema, I didn’t think it was fair to evaluate a movie that suffered from an amateurishly detracting environment. Some of the blemished imagery shone brightly and seared the imagination nonetheless because Deakins and Villeneuve can be awesome like that. And once we get past Ford’s grumpy exterior, his becomes a deep performance as a grizzled former cog in the machine, haunted by regrets and disappointed in a brave new world that only gave him one or two reasons to care about anything. But the film clearly needed more Robin Wright, and it deserved a better venue than what we got.

I look forward to seeing BR2049 again someday under better controlled circumstances, most likely on Blu-ray where I can manage the equipment myself. I also take pride in the fact that my next four movie outings were not at that theater. Their trendy leisure advancements don’t mean a thing to me if they can’t handle basic viewing pleasure.

How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the Blade Runner 2049 end credits, but I did confirm the “uncanny valley” moment did indeed involve the actor I thought it involved, and wasn’t just a pure digital recreation like Schwarzenegger in Terminator Salvation. And the music section reminded me the very familiar recurring tune I couldn’t place was Peter and the Wolf, which my wife rightfully chided this aging guy later for forgetting.

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