The Hollywood Movie That Feels Like a French Movie

Dennis Clemente

Photo by Gage Skidmore

By Dennis Clemente

Who remembers Blade Runner 2049? It was released in 2017 but like its predecessor, Blade Runner, it hasn't really attracted humans to watch it, to borrow a line from the original “Blade Runner” released in 1982. In the latter, Eldon Tyrell, the god-like maker of androids known as replicants, describes replicants as being “more human than human.”

Thirty-five years later in 2017, the cyberpunk “Blade Runner 2049” pushed this mantra further. There’s a highly evolved Siri- or Echo-like companion who can read you a book, cook and talk you into doing anything — even become heroic. Which would have been a perfect companion for the times we live in now.

The movie is beautiful in its bleakness. This maybe one reason the movie was doomed at the box office. However, many of 2049’s critics (even those who lauded the movie — and most of them did) have done their roll call of culprits from the audience’s perspective: It’s too long at nearly 4 hours.

It’s devoid of memorable action set pieces. It’s too slow when every action movie these days (a superhero movie, that is) bombards us with non-stop rote carnage. The most common culprit: social media and its tentacled grip on people. They can’t be bothered to watch an art house sci-fi or sci-phi(losophy) flick where a replicant quotes “Pale Fire.”

Too subtle? A French film in disguise

“Blade Runner 2049” seems more of a French film — for its certain je ne sais quoi — than a Hollywood blockbuster. It’s definitely “un-American” — not its patriotic meaning, but its filmmaking style. Villeneuve is French Canadian, for one. French cinema carries strong social, existential and political subtext.

Not that Hollywood doesn’t tackle heavy themes, but the French also do it subtly, letting ideas worm in slowly into your psyche. In “Blade Runner 2049,” climate change is merely hinted at when a spinner (flying car) passes by a sea wall keeping post-apocalyptic Los Angeles afloat.

Yes, “Blade Runner 2049” also borrows heavily from Hollywood conventions in terms of its unbridled zeal for spectacle, but the movie has the ethos of French, if not European cinema, for its celebration of the unconventional as the convention. 2049 is an English-language movie, but people may have as well watched it with subtitles. It’s simply outside the mold of the Hollywood machinery.

It doesn’t have Hollywood’s formulaic plot-driven DNA. It’s a replicant of a movie.

Hollywood plays by its own rules of what constitutes a blockbuster film, of course. It has to reach a mass audience. So by its standards, “Blade Runner 2049” is its “illegitimate” child. It doesn’t have Hollywood’s formulaic plot-driven DNA. It’s a replicant of a movie, so to speak.

International affair

What makes this movie more of an international affair? Look at the casting. It leaves many American actors out, but what they have is an inspired group of international actors giving nuanced performances.

Other than the French-Canadian director, you see Ryan Gosling (detective K) who is Canadian along with Mackenzie Davies (the prostitute), Ana de Armas (K’s AI girlfriend, Joi) is Cuban and the scenery-chewing Sophie Hoeks as Luv is Dutch — as Dutch as Rutger Hauer in the original. The other actors are also of foreign stock — Dave Bautista is part Filipino (quietly affecting in his role), Lennie James is British, Barkhad Adbi is Somali, Hiam Abbass is Israeli and Carla Juri is Swiss.

Harrison Ford (Rick Deckerd) looms larger than life for his celebrity and cache as the American archetypal hero. As soon he appears on the frame, the movie suddenly remembers it’s a Hollywood movie.

Asking Ryan’s K “Why are you here?”, he might as well be asking, “Why are you in my movie?” Or “Why make this movie now when the audience only cares about superhero movies and sci-fi fantasy flicks?” Talk about an even bleaker thought, considering 2049 feels more timely and relevant than all the action spectacles now, even the original flick in 1982.

Now if casting international actors was detrimental in 2049’s effort to attract the American audience, this is more incidental than the cause. It’s the thinking behind it that prompts the question: Were the filmmakers emboldened by their international kinship to think they can make an European art-house film click for a mass audience used to formulaic movies?

Was it nostalgia for the time a film could be considered a work of art? Or was the successful resurrection of the Star Wars enterprise at the box office the impetus?

Movies as social events

Sci-fi films show potential blockbuster appeal these days because of the advances of technology and social media’s power to fashion them as social events. “Blade Runner 2049,” made for $150 million, was expected to make it big. Unfortunately, it has reportedly under-performed or to use the industry term out there, bombed.

The people behind 2049 may have had high expectations, because the movie was a sequel (which supposedly raised its chances) and was therefore considered a social event the way the new Star Wars movies have been embraced by a new generation of younger viewers.

But unlike older viewers who grew up when European movies were as popular as American movies, people nowadays have no patience for slow-burn movies (the original was a commercial flop as well), although long episodic content is taking off on some streaming platforms.

The superhero-fantasy movies coming out of the Hollywood machinery do not help; they even sideline other genres who have fortunately found a home in streaming sites.

Like the outstanding dystopian “Children of Men” by Alfonso Cuaron, “Blade Runner 2049” is probably too dreary for those who rely on movies to be more entertaining than contemplative. For many, movies have to be straightforward, as commercial Hollywood movies are. The Star Wars saga is a swashbuckling sci-fantasy: childlike, heroic and pretty much black and white with the issues it tackles: good vs evil without shades of grey.

Why have the filmmakers not settled the matter of Deckerd being human or a replicant. But why would anyone want to know? Where’s the fun in knowing the answer?!

And it doesn’t even matter if majority of the critics heaped praises on “Blade Runner 2049.” If it’s not being talked about, no one is going to show up. As we know, many American films no longer thrive in the theatrical space; they have moved to streaming platforms as movies or TV movies — and if a movie is not a social event, audiences don’t mind waiting it out. And unlike Star Wars, 2049 likes to keep the persistent questions up in the air.

Like: Why have the filmmakers not settled the matter of Deckerd being human or a replicant, some sci-fi fans ask. But why would anyone want to know? Where’s the fun in knowing the answer?! If you want to know, you wouldn’t like “Blade Runner 2049.”

Like other European movies, it thrives on ambiguity. For those who don’t watch European movies because they cannot stand reading subtitles (this writer reads subtitles even with English-speaking movies), “Blade Runner 2049” will feel too foreign.

We have become inured or hardened to think a movie can only be one thing — entertaining — when it can also be an immersive experience.

These days, we have become inured or hardened to think a movie can only be one thing — entertaining — when it can also be an immersive experience.

To millennials who haven’t seen it, check it out. The movie is close to being a VR movie without the glasses — testament to the power of cinematographer Roger Deakins’ inspired lensing who reportedly advised viewers not to watch it on 3D to fully appreciate the movie; it’s meant to be seen in IMAX.

What you may fail to notice in the movie at first is how it’s the non-humans who have the tender scenes (humans are gruff, disillusioned and all-mighty); even Luv as the henchwoman gets misty-eyed when she goes in for the kill.

But pay more careful attention to one scene when K gives Joi, the AI companion, her first taste of the outside world. The scene plays out as if in real time as she marvels at every drop of rain on her holographic visage. Rain here is meant to be oppressive; she delights in it.

It’s a beautiful unraveling of someone experiencing freedom for the first time, made more poignant because she’s experiencing the feeling of being human, for all its joy and the pain that follows her “human” decision. It’s a poignant scene because we know her happiness is short-lived, because she and her replicant-partner will be never be satisfied. They’re doomed like the rest of us...humans. But they’re not jaded like us.

Our stoic hero fulfills the movie’s mantra for us with tears in the snow. He has become more human than human. He’s the idealized version of us.

Their idea of being human is to love and sacrifice for someone unconditionally, without asking for anything in return. In the end, our stoic hero fulfills this and the movie’s mantra for us with tears in the snow. He has become more human than human. He’s the idealized version of us.

That sounds like a Hollywood ending, right? You know you have to watch it.

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I write extensively about movies, startups and remote work of late but I have more than 10+ years of journalistic writing experience in various media disciplines: news and business features, essays, entertainment, film criticism, lifestyle, and technology. Worked as a copy editor for a news daily. Also published in BBC Worklife, NBC Asian America, Inquirer and Rappler.

Pembroke Pines, FL

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