Atmospheric, claustrophobic and restless - a society deeply in turmoil between the ambitious task to settle on new planets and the dystopian reality of hell on earth.
It's been a while since I saw the original Blade Runner movie. It seemed to be kind of obscure at that time. The atmosphere, though, was one to remember. It felt dark, it felt lonely, it felt hopeless. Until - there was love. At that point, I was convinced that this film is a love-story. And on the side, it was also about the question what makes us human - which supposedly is love. (Careful now - Spoilers lie ahead of you...)
So when I went to see Blade Runner 2049, I was eager to see how they would follow up on this milestone of dystopian urbanism. My first impressions of the artwork were similar to those of Blade Runner. Cold, hopeless - dystopian (duh). The visuals are naturally better than the ones in the original, though the original seemed more rugged, rougher around the edges, which was part of its charm. Blade Runner 2049 still looks overcrowded yet lonely, dark and forlorn, but not as grimy as its predecessor. Following Officer K (played by Ryan Gosling - whom I've somehow not yet seen on screen) through the city, while he is trying to solve the mystery of his past and the wooden horse that is somehow tied to it, gives the audience an idea of the life one leads in this place. There is the loneliness we already saw in Blade Runner, the glaring streetlights and the obvious differences between the rich and the poor, between blissful ignorance and hopelessness. The visuals are sharp and striking, often artful and alien. The place of the blind Niander Wallace was irritating to my eyes at best and disorienting most of the time with its wandering light and the shimmering water. Water is often used in this film as a prop for great, if not somewhat depressing, visuals - be it in the firm and the house of Niander Wallace (played by Jared Leto), or in the scene when Officer K kills Niander's secretary who claims herself to be the best of them all - meaning the replicants. With this, we come full circle in the sense of emotions, especially one: Love. Sylvia Hoeks plays Luv so perfectly emotional while being a being that is supposed to be unable to love - because that is supposedly the one thing that makes us human. Or was that procreation?
Luv is driven by her desire to be loved by Niander whom she is devoted to with all her programmed heart. Her antagonist, the good one, is Officer K who loves his maid-programme, Joi. When we see Joi being advertised for on the streets it makes her death and the knowledge that her algorithms turned her into something truly special the more jarring. It nearly made me tear up to see machine lovers parted by... death? Or how do you call it when a programme is deleted? The love that once drove Blade Runner Rick Deckard to question his inhumanity and procreate with Rachael (which leads to an entirely different question of whether Deckard is, actually, a human being believing himself to be a replicant or whether he is a replicant that is mysteriously able to reproduce which is why Niander is so highly interested in him and his offspring) now drives Officer K, Joi and Luv to act the way they do, blurring the lines between humans and machines.
This circle was unexpectedly expectable, yet, I was not disappointed by the lack of new storyline that unfolded before my eyes; I was mesmerised by the atmospheric density of the city, the vast, shrouded immensity of what once seems to have been Las Vegas and the hopelessness of the slums.
The soundtrack blew me away, too, not only because it was eardrum-shattering loud at moments. Its loudness made sense. It emphasised the dejection one feels in this dystopian world, where many are forced to scuttle over an earth that is struggling to feed them all and only the rich, hopeful ones are able to leave the world and settle on new ones that seem to be better, an escapist fantasy that cannot become real for the masses. Hans Zimmer, Jóhann Jóhannsson and Benjamin Wallfish created a score that is able to tie the city, the wastes and the slums together in one kaleidoscope of sound and silence, of hope and desperation, of emotions and cold calculation.
When I left the cinema, I was flashed. Even though the storyline is not big, not really new or surprising, it makes for interesting food for thought. What is humanity? Can machines be humane without being human? Can you be human without being humane to other beings? Are you the sum of your memories or of your choices? Is dying for someone else really the most human thing you can do (I had to think of I-Robot here)? And what does it mean for us humans, if machines can be like us, if we can build humans/machines that are like us, but expendable to us, to use them as we want on other planets as an expendable workforce?
The ethical questions you can discuss afterwards are manifold and I am not sure how I would answer them. But if you ask me, whether I would watch this film again, I have no doubt about my answer: Yes, I would.
The expectations I had when I sat down in front of the big screen were not fulfilled because the film was different. I had expected a somewhat traditional romance within the story that envelopes different strands of storytelling.
In short (for those who are afraid of spoilers), it was:
- frightening and upsetting
- historically accurate (compared with what I know through my studies in Indology and British Studies)
- surprisingly honest
For those who are not afraid of spoilers: continue down below.
I do not know a time in which India was not divided. I have ever only known India and Pakistan as two different countries and somewhat part-time mortal enemies (without wanting to get into an endless discussion about religion and beliefs - I think it is so incredibly sad and pointless that so many people have been dying worldwide due to an argument about whose god/s is/are better). "Viceroy's House" sheds light on a turbulent, bloody, horrible part of India's history that became Pakistan's history, too. In the scene when the household is being divided, it also shows the senselessness and lunacy, the hectic with which the subcontinent was parted in two... or three... or rather four (?) parts, if we count West-Pakistan, East Pakistan, India and Karachi as separate entities.
The scenes of the fleeing people, the hopelessness in some of the people's eyes upon hearing the dismal news from burned homes, massacred children was partly acted and partly provided through historical film-material.
I had known that it was the biggest mass-flight in history, but to read of 14 Million people losing their home, the place they had lived in with their families sometimes for generations, and to read of 1 Million dead people saddened me deeply. The film did not spare the audience from the view of dead bodies, neither of men, nor women, nor babies. For someone who feels sometimes like crying when watching the news, the film was a bit more than goose-bumping.
The difficult love story of Jeet and Aalia is intertwined with the more heartwarming story of the Mountbattens who are depicted as honest, well-meaning people who were trying to make the best decisions for a country that had been neglected, to say the least, by the British during their rule. They give you the positive moments in this film when you think, "wow, they actually tried", which makes it so much more unbearable to see them being used. There is some pathos in the way the Mountbattens fight for the people and in the way Jeet and Aalia are reunited after losing everything they ever had - a home, family, their future - but it is a much needed against the harrowing historical film-material that makes you want to cry and rant and scream at the unfairness of it all. Especially when you are from the future, so to say, and know how much these two new countries have... butted heads ever since.
In order to steer the subject away from the politics a little, I want to come to something that I really liked in the film: the casting. Not only is it great to see that they tried to cast the actors according to the likeness they had with the originals, but that they also considered the skillset of the actor. Hugh Bonneville as Mountbatten is not a perfect visual match, he is, though, perfect in his role as Mountbatten (I guess after Downton Abbey this film is "just" the next historical step towards our times). He portraits the amiable, yet determined nature of the Viceroy with natural ease and is believable in his role. You feel with him, especially when he discovers that he has been used by his own government and that his name will forever stand for a plan that divided a country for the benefit of Great Britain. "Divide and Rule" comes as a flashback like a brick to the head.
Mountbatten's wife, portrayed by Gillian Anderson, is cast visually as well as actor-wise perfectly. She walks the line between subversiveness and submissiveness - arguing intelligently and strategically with and against her husband, and then again supporting him in order to not divide country and people further. She knows when she has lost, but she is always the voice of reason and humanity - and she is headstrong, much more a politician than her husband.
The daughter, played by Lily Travers, is also cast for her likeness with the original and has a supportive character. She is not included in the discussions and is more or less just "there". She seems to be included because there was a historical model for her, and in one scene she acts as a conduit for her father's helplessness when he lashes out at her for interrupting a conversation. For the film, she was not absolutely necessary, though.
Jeet and Aalia, on the other hand, are important. Very important. By the means of these two characters, the anguish, grief and sorrow of the Indian people are made palpable to the audience. Their tears and heartrend are hard to see because they are inherently likeable. Jeet is a Hindu and Aalia is a Muslim. Those who have seen Veer and Zaara know how Bollywood sees the lovestory between a Muslim and a Hindu - The family is against it, which leads to a prison sentence, a human-rights lawyer and very emotional songs. "Viceroy's House" shows families that are not against their marriage, a pair that does not care whether the person they marry is Muslim or Hindu. What separates them are entities out of their control, fueled by religious hatred and insecurity, led by figureheads that were more into power than into caring for the people they should have been working for. Jeet, the honest, good-hearted ex-police officer is played by Manish Dayal. Jeet loses his whole family, his sisters, his nieces and nephews, his mother when his hometown is reduced to cinders. The short, clipped information that is given as to what has happened in his home village makes you envision the most horrible of fates for everyone. Aalia, an independent woman who supports her blind father (who in turn had supported Gandhi) is played by Huma Qureshi. She loses her father to a massacre on the night-train to Lahore, which she escapes only because her father pushes her from the still running train. The scene of Jeet and Aalia finding each other in a camp is heart-wrenching - all this loss and needless bloodshed in their lives have scarred them -, but it is also uplifting and hope-giving to see that there is a way out of this horror: love.
Before the end-credits, the audience is shown slides of facts, containing the losses, the bloodshed, in short: the horror in numbers. And it shows history coming full circle: Gurinder Chadha, the director and co-writer of this film, is a grandchild of one of 14 Million refugees that lost house and home.
All in all, I can say that the film moved me. It seemed to me an attempt at neutrality and historical correctness. It showed the hard negotiations and the political discussions that were held. It shows the pampered life of the British and has them called "rats that flee the sinking ship". The film also shows the unwillingness of the parties to work together and how this unearthed in the squabbles and fisticuffs between household-staff members. The film doled out blame to every party, except maybe Gandhi - an old man without teeth who only speaks of unity and peace makes not for a good target. The movie also showed that there were good people in all the fractions - Aalia and her father who wanted only peace, the cook who wanted Pakistan without being aggressive about it, the Hindus had their heroes in Jeet and Gandhi and the British in Lord Mountbatten and his wife. This is why I say, it was an attempt at neutrality and historical correctness.