Stick your nose in the business of the rich and powerful, and you just might lose it. Or get it cut. Or broken.
But then, what are you supposed to do when you get a whiff of something foul? Isn’t that what noses are for; to encourage the rest of us to act accordingly?
For the sleuths at the center of both Chinatown and Blade Runner 2049, doing the right thing will cost you; but it will earn you your humanity in the process.
When Chinatown came out in 1974, it traveled back some 30 years to tell a neo-noir mystery that started small, got big, and got small again. Blade Runner 2049 is a period piece that does the same; moving the needle three decades into the future to tell a story with similar stakes.
Both movies explore the corrosive ways in which human beings are swallowed up by the systems they create. And in the universe that almighty Hollywood hath made, it’s unsettling to see how the arc of time has not bent toward justice.
In Chinatown, the cynicism of the ‘70’s was slapped onto the familiar (dare I say, comfortable) private-eye formula that Raymond Chandler had birthed into existence decades earlier. Like a gooey new lifeform dropping from a plastic sheath, Chandler created America’s classic detective yarn; the kind where bad guys did bad things, but they always got what was coming to them. In Chandler’s world, things weren’t great, but they were always going to get better. Chinatown was the movie that showed us the 1940’s weren’t quite as black-and-white as the films of the decade might suggest. It reminded viewers that, even back then, some wrongs didn’t get righted; and the tough detectives we relied on to right them were vulnerable and imperfect.
It’s what eventually made the film a logical next-step in the genre, and ultimately, a classic.
It’s also what makes the movie somewhat quaint to look back on now.
The film centers around a plot to create a drought in the Owen’s Valley on behalf of the businessmen of Los Angeles. They want the farms in the area to go under so they can buy up the land for themselves. But today, a scheme like the one in Chinatown would barely warrant a tweet by the social media manager of The New York Times. Messing with people’s water for profit is something that literally happens all the time, and even in the 70’s, the paper of record reviewed the movie’s story with a sense of nostalgia for simpler evils.
Jump forward through a century’s worth of film time, and Blade Runner 2049 shows us a world where living beings are now the ones being manipulated for private gains. Not only the clearly-living Replicants who can walk, talk, think, and feel, and are still treated with the regard of cattle (albeit, very sexy cattle), but also the humans who are convinced that this fact affords them the privilege, even the right, to treat them inhumanely.
In 2049, the slow devolution of humanity is caused by the very thing people were certain would save it. The technological advantages humans saw as the answer key to all the world’s ills did not not solve much of anything. In fact, they so confused what it meant to be human, the concept became corrupted entirely.
These are themes and topics that make the film timely and meaningful in this day-and-age. And what makes its appearance in theaters a welcome surprise; even if it’s a sequel no one thought they wanted or needed.
In 2017, we are now living in the time of the film’s original predecessor (Blade Runner takes place in 2019). And while Atari might not be the world power Ridley Scott thought it would be, and flying cars have not yet arrived (damn you, Chevy!), we are still living in a new age of dehumanization, and hoping that technology will save our world from all that ails us.
By the time the calendar lands on 2049, every problem we are facing today has reached a dystopian, although logical, fever pitch. It’s a bleak future to be sure. But it’s a testament to the incredible cast that the film’s nearly three hours fly by like a Peugeot. And it’s a testament to director Denis Villeneuve, cinematographer Roger Deakins, and production designer Dennis Gassner that the entire experience is a bewitching, intricate marvel to behold.
The fact that I wanted to clutch this movie to my chest like a tiny wooden horse is what makes Blade Runner 2049 a logical next-step in the neo-noir genre; and what will make it an eventual classic.
While I’ve mentioned the way 2049 looks, Chinatown is no different. And make no mistake, both create their magic with the same trick; the way they shine a light on the shittiness of the world while still showing us how gorgeous it can be. It’s what makes them feel so lived-in, so real, so visceral. They are dystopias to be certain, but dystopias are not all bad. The city of angels may be deeply flawed, but there is always something worth saving.
In that way, the tragic beauty of these films make them the perfect mirrors of their heroes. Finding a bit of good in a bad world is what their struggle is all about. And whether they choose to do so or not, the ultimate decider of their worth.
Over the years, a lot may have changed for LA detectives, but when the time comes, both Jack and Joe will get asked the same-old, fundamental question:
What kind of person are you? When the shit hits the fan – are you the kind of guy who will stick around and try to clean up the mess?
It’s their desire to fight the tide that makes living in their wake so enthralling. It’s what gives us hope in a seemingly hopeless place.
After all, these large forces we fear are only made by us. And if two set-in-their-ways heroes can change, can’t the rest of us? Can’t the systems we create? Can’t the world?
Whether looking to the future, or pontificating on the past, these two films remind us that tomorrow is what matters; and that what happens today can still make a difference.
There may be 100 years between them, but the same forces are still at work.
Forget it, Joe and Jake; it’s Los Angeles.