Blade Runner 2049Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 10/01/17 22:32:30
I cannot easily think of another film in recent years that has filled me with such equal amounts of anticipation and trepidation as “Blade Runner 2049,” the long-awaited sequel to the 1982 cult classic that has overcome its initial critical and financial drubbing to become one of the most celebrated and influential sci-fi films of all time. On the one hand, it is a film that I have pretty much adored ever since I first encountered it as a kid 35 years ago and to be able to dive once again into the futuristic noir environment that Phillip K. Dick envisioned on the page and which Ridley Scott brought brilliantly to life is an undeniably enticing notion, especially with the original film’s star, Harrison Ford, back for more in the latest stop of his recent encore tour of his most iconic roles. On the other hand, the original film was just about perfect as is (although it may have taken a couple of decades and several recuts before Scott finally worked out all the kinks) and to continue it after so much time seemed to be redundant at best and pointless at worst—after all, when was the last time that any of you gave much thought to “2010”? My other major qualm with the film came when it was announced that while Scott would be participating as a producer and original co-writer Hampton Fancher would be one of the screenwriters, the directing chores were being handed off to Denis Villeneuve, the absurdly overrated man behind “Prisoners,” “Sicario” and “Arrival,” films which do have their supporters but which have struck as ridiculously overblown and pretentious genre films made with some style but no idea of how to tell a straightforward story, especially in regards to wrapping them up. The announcement that the deeply annoying Jared Leto would be playing a key role as well did not exactly help matters either, especially after it was recently revealed that one of the people discussed for the part that he played was none other than the late David Bowie.For me, it took only a few minutes for that sense of trepidation to completely disappear and be replaced with sheer slack-jawed wonder for “Blade Runner 2049” is a dark, dystopian dream come true. Like “Mad Max: Fury Road,” it is a film that takes all of the elements that made its predecessor into a cult sensation and transposes them into a staggeringly ambitious and epic-sized work that expands upon those ideas in intelligent and intriguing ways while at the same time moving in new and interesting ways instead of attempting to simply service the fan base by offering retreads of what worked before. Despite the gap between the two films and the change in creative personnel, it fits in beautifully with the previously established universe, both in terms of visuals and in the weighty philosophical ideas that it embraces instead of ignores, and even though it clocks in at a weighty 164 minutes, it so effectively ensnares viewers into its world that they will not even register its length. While I do not exactly feel comfortable with calling it a classic on the level of “Blade Runner”—after all, I have only had about four days since I saw it to contemplate it—but I would put it alongside the likes of “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence” and “Inception” as one of the best and most inventive sci-fi films of the century to date.
However, to explain exactly what it is that makes “Blade Runner 2049” so great is going to be a bit difficult, partly because I don’t to spoil any of the key plot points and partly because I am in possession of an email from Warner Brothers insisting that I not make reference to anything that they consider to fall under the heading of spoiler territory, even if said spoilers a.) seem to be revealed in the coming attractions previews that they have put out a b.) deal with plot points that the film itself deals with within the first five minutes or so. What I think I can reveal is that the film is set 30 years after the events of “Blade Runner” and in that time, a series of violent rebellions from their Nexus series replicants plunged the once-powerful Tyrell Corporation into bankruptcy, a massive electromagnetic pulse in 2022 has wiped out virtually all digital records and data saved before then and a worldwide famine problem was averted at the last minute by the creation of a new artificial protein by reclusive scientist Niander Wallace (Leto) who plunged some of his billions into buying the remains of the Tyrell Corporation and developing his own line of super-advanced replicants that are less twitchy than the Nexus models and easier to spot. However, some of the Nexus-era replicants are still out there hiding and this means that there are still so-called blade runners out there working as part of the LAPD whose job is to track them down and terminate them.
One of these blade runners is K (Ryan Gosling) and as the film opens, he has been sent by his superior, Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright) to a remote protein farm to bring down a suspected Nexus model (Dave Bautista). After doing his duty, K is about to leave the farm when he spots something strange out there on the barren land and when it is later excavated, it yields a discovery so potentially shocking that whatever remains of recognizable society could collapse if it were to become known. Of course, K, with the aid of loyal girl Friday Joi (Ana de Armas), decides to dig deeper into the secrets behind his discovery and this leads him to encounters with an odd array of characters that includes Wallace’s ruthless right-hand woman, Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), a prostitute (Mackenzie Davis) who we see engage in one of the weirdest threeways in cinema history, a scientist (Carla Juri) who specializes in developing the memory implants for the replicants and the leader (Hiram Abbass) of an incident rebellion against the status quo. Inevitably, K’s investigation leads him—and since he gets second billing and is in all the advertising, I hardly see how it can constitute a spoiler—to Deckard himself, who has hidden himself away for the last couple of decades and who may indeed hold the key to any number of the mysteries that K is pursuing.
So what about “Blade Runner 2049” can I comfortably talk about without tripping into spoiler territory? Well, for starters, there is the visual style of the film that is as stunning to behold as the original film was to viewers in 1982. The army of behind-the-camera people that have been brought on to bring this film to life, especially cinematographer Roger Deakins and production designer Dennis Gassner, have done an astonishing job of giving the film a look that both honors how the original film established the world of 2019 (right down to the neon billboards advertising the companies that infamously went out of business in the real world in the years since it came out) while at the same time smartly suggesting how things might plausibly develop in the next thirty years. (Spoiler Alert—don’t make any plans to spend time at that lovely wooded glen where Deckard and Rachel (Sean Young) inexplicably departed to in the compromised ending of the original film’s initial theatrical release.) While the first film relied on practical effects, this one leans more on CGI and while I wish that I could have seen a “real” spinner or two blazing across the scene, the effects are beautifully done so that they fit seamlessly into the proceedings instead of standing out like sore thumbs consisting of ones and zeroes. Also helping to set the mood is the score by Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer that has the unenviable task of following in the footsteps of the memorable score composed and performed for the first film by Vangelis—although it does rely a bit too heavily on the kind of bleating noises that have become all the rage since “Inception,” the score mostly does a terrific job of evoking both the worlds of futuristic sci-fi as well as film noir.
What is really impressive is the way that the screenplay by Fancher and Michael Green manages to logically extend a story that did not necessarily need extending while at the same time serving as a leaping-off point to new ideas and concepts. Obviously, I cannot really go into to them for fear of blowing things, even inadvertently, but this screenplay does not shy away from the philosophical concerns that elevated the original from being just another flashy sci-fi potboiler—it has serious ideas about what it means to be human in an increasingly inhuman world that it treats in a serious, smart and engaging manner without dumbing things down in the hopes of somehow reaching the mass audience that avoided the first one for the lighter likes of “E.T.” and “Rocky III” when it came out in the summer of 1982. One especially neat addition is the notion of the EMP wiping out all of the digital records and data from everything leading up to 2020—with such information not available at the touch of a computer key, K is required to do some actual detecting in order to track down clues and information and this helps to further accentuate the noir trappings of the story. Although the narrative has a couple of bumps here and there, this for the most part a clean and focused narrative that still manages to not only keep viewers guessing throughout but which effectively uses its elongated running time without ever feeling bloated or overdone. Even better, unlike his previous efforts, Villeneuve at long lasts proves that he can indeed tell a story that has an effective and dramatically satisfying ending.
The casting is also pretty much top-notch as well. Shifting to the cooler and more remote performance mode that he demonstrated in “Drive,” Gosling is extremely effective as K, who is a bit of an emotional cold fish, for various understandable reasons, but approaches it in such a way so that he still manages to capture the sympathies of the audience. Surprisingly, the film’s supporting cast is pretty much dominated by women—most, with the exception of Penn, on the unknown side to boot—but they all turn in strong and affecting turns as well with their audience unfamiliarity working for them so that viewers cannot immediately get a fix on who they are or what they might be up to. And while Harrison Ford does not appear until quite a bit into the proceedings, his first appearance should have roughly the same impact on the “Blade Runner” cult that he engendered among “Star Wars” fans when he initially turned up in “The Force Awakens.” Even better, it turns out that his work here is one of the most focused and committed bits of acting that he has done in a long while and if it weren’t for his contributions, the ending would not have a fraction of the power that it possesses. As for Leto, I will simply say that he isn't in it long enough to wreak any kind of havoc on the proceedings as he did with "Suicide Squad," though it is heartbreaking to think of how Bowie might have worked in the part.“Blade Runner 2049” is a stunner through and through, a film that works both as a continuation to an all-time classic and as a superior cinematic experience in its own right. If it does not ultimately measure up to its predecessor, it comes close enough so that the idea that such a thing could possibly happen is not as heretical as it might sound. I wish I could say more about the film—this is one that easily lends itself to long and detailed post-screening discussions—and it seems that the truly incisive writing about this film will only occur after it has been unleashed upon the world and people have had more of a chance to absorb all that it has to offer. Will people who have never seen the original “Blade Runner” be able to see this film without coming away from it completely confused? For the most part, they could, I suppose, but one really does need to have some working knowledge of the original for it to have its greatest and most significant emotional impact. Look at it this way—if you have already seen it before, then you have one absolutely overwhelming cinematic experience to look forward to but if you haven’t, then you have two. Even a replicant could not possibly have a problem with that.
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