Blade Runner 2049 (2017) – dir. Denis Villeneuve

[originally published in early 2018]

We want to believe we’re special. This a broad statement, one that could imply many things. In one way or another, though, we all want to excel in ways those around us can’t or won’t. We want to be better known, or smarter, or more talented. We try so hard to be right, even about the most minute details, because we want to believe our understanding of the universe is the clearest. The truth is that we never really know anything. We do our best to make sense of our surroundings with as little resistance as possible, because humility and compassion, accepting the endless complexity of existence is brutally exhausting. When we live in an era as volatile and divided as ours, that extra effort is vital.

For as grand and audacious as Blade Runner 2049 is, that intimate sense of self is what drives Denis Villenevue’s long-gap sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1982 adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep?. Villenevue’s take on Dick’s sci-fi mystery meditation on humanity is the ideal sequel to a cult touchstone like Blade Runner, by staying true to the legacy and aesthetic of the original work, without simply resting on nostalgia. In fact, Blade Runner 2049 is not only a faithful sequel, but improves upon every aspect of Scott’s initial vision.

As impersonal as I attempt to be in these reviews—barring, of course, that these are my own thoughts and feelings—I must contextualize this piece by admitting how little affection I have for Blade Runner. Blade Runner is a classic, but contrary to popular belief, a film’s ascribed acclaim does not require universal adoration. No requirement exists where I, nor anyone, has to love anything. Sure, Scott’s film is undoubtedly important, influencing our vision of the future, as well as the vocabulary with which we discuss computer technology. I can even accept an author of film such as Ridley Scott taking significant liberties with the work of an author of written word such as Philip K. Dick—possibly the most notable science fiction writer of his generation. Without offering a laundry list of qualms I have with Scott’s interpretation of Dick’s material, Blade Runner is a film ostensibly about the nature of “being alive,” but is an impotent, style-over-substance slog. Blade Runner more or less amounts to art porn, while the performances and dialogue are about as thoughtful and convincing as those of actual porn. With that in mind, I’ve been impressed with Denis Villenevue’s work—particularly the mounting classic that is Arrival—and one would be remiss to think Scott’s film had poor fundamentals, as opposed to limp execution. So, I was going in down the middle for Blade Runner 2049.

As has been said, though, Blade Runner 2049 is an out-and-out upturn. Picking up roughly 30 years after the 1982 film, 2049 focuses on a new blade runner—a bounty hunter for humanoids known as replicants—named K (Ryan Gosling). K is tasked with sifting out rogue replicants who were to be retired years prior. The trick here is that K himself is a replicant. As is pointed out from the get-go, K’s an Uncle Tom. Following a confrontation that starts the film, K notices a box of remains that we soon learn belong to a replicant that died in childbirth—something previously believed to be impossible. What ensues is a solid mystery that finds K conducting an investigation that may uncover his own parentage, as well as intervention from the Wallace Corporation, whose eponymous CEO (Jared Leto, want to use the newfound potential for their own enterprises.

What Blade Runner 2049 goes on to explore is identity, or rather, the weight of identity and legacy. On the surface, K accepts his work. By all accounts, K is content with the notion that he’s essentially a traitor. Yet, we get the sense that he has the mildest of ambitions. K comes home to a virtual wife Joi (Ana de Armas), who provides him the artifice of an adoring significant other—a sort of Amazon Alexa who happens to have a knockout projection. K is a part of a whole, a cog in a machine. K wants to know that his predetermined life matters, that he’s the beneficiary of a larger narrative, as opposed to the consequence of an indifferent hierarchy. His arc is in coming to terms with his place in the film’s larger puzzle. This applies to the expected self-reflexiveness of Blade Runner 2049 as a film. Villenevue shows so much affection for his film’s lineage, but is still telling his own story. 2049 can never escape the legacy of Blade Runner, but certainly, the world in which both films take place is big enough for the both of them, and many, many more like them.

And what a stunning world Villenevue has crafted. Whatever flaws Blade Runner may have, no one could successfully argue that Scott didn’t make a beautiful film. Blade Runner 2049 goes for broke, giving DP Roger Deakins a sandbox to make every frame a painting, often copping from Kurosawa by including textures of weather and background activity to give a sense of momentum to a patiently paced story. Even better is the production design. Entire cities are drowned in rain, buried in sand, or obscured in billowy mists. No matter how mechanized modern life becomes, nature finds a way. After all, even robots are making babies. Compare the homes of the farmer K retires at the beginning. The farmer’s home is dimly lit, and entirely spotless—tomblike, really. Still, the house isn’t beyond getting a little roughed up by a replicant brawl. K is similarly well-kept. His house is empty, with only Joi to give any real color to his personal life. As the film progresses, the film lets more and more of the elements, with the climax taking place in a rising tide. The crowning achievement of the film, though, are the visual effects. I don’t know how a character like Joi, who’s essentially a hologram, exists the way she does, but her presence is something that has never been depicted quite the way 2049 has. By all accounts, Blade Runner 2049 is a feat of visual craft so fresh and exciting.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise of Blade Runner 2049 is how well-acted the film is. For as reserved in tone as the film is, an emotional core emerges. As much has been made of Harrison Ford returning, yet again, to a sci-fi staple, little can be said about his return as Rick Deckard, who doesn’t appear until late into the film, and whose story may be the weakest thread. Still, Ana de Armas’s Joi certainly provides enough pathos through the first two acts, and Robin Wright’s faux maternal Joshi is warmer than one might expect, and even Jared Leto—a loathsome presence in any movie—is quietly menacing, but K remains the wounded soul at the center of the picture. Ryan Gosling is no stranger to giving a minimalist performance—see his two films with Nicolas Winding-Refn, and particularly Lars and the Real Girl—and he’s as affecting here as ever. K’s sense of longing is so palpable, and his journey to satiate that longing is profoundly moving, right up to his last frame.

Blade Runner is a film about “being alive.” Blade Runner 2049 is, more or less, a film about past lives, and how we live because of them. A lesser film would be a nostalgia trip with a rank-and-file mystery at the center, maybe with more attention paid to the hallmarks of the previous film. Yet, 2049 understands that this wouldn’t have much philosophical value. When filmmakers like Villenevue can bring a dimensionality to this film’s universe that didn’t previously exist, who could want a retread of the past? Instead, we’re giving something tougher, but more hopeful. We can preoccupy ourselves with a past that we wish was ours, with a life and goals that we think we want. Blade Runner 2049 suggests that who we want to be and who we’re supposed to be are not always synonymous. Certainly, the film knows what story is being told, and that narrative is more necessary than ever.


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