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Josh Reviews Blade Runner: 2049

October 16th, 2017
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Let me get right to it: Blade Runner: 2049 is a masterpiece, a worthy sequel to Ridley Scott’s iconic original film.  I would not have imagined it possible, but here it is.  Blade Runner: 2049 is as mysterious and thoughtful and enigmatic as the original, asking deep questions about the nature of humanity and about our relationship with technology.  The film is visually stunning and richly emotional.  I saw it in glorious IMAX and it absolutely blew me away.

The original Blade Runner took place in the apocalyptic far future: the year 2019.  (It’s funny how that is now right around the corner!!)  This sequel takes place 30 years later, and introduces us to a new Blade Runner, “K” (Ryan Gosling).  Just like Harrison Ford’s Deckard was, K is a cop tasked with hunting down “replicants” (synthetic people) hiding within society.  His mission to track down and kill a replicant named Sapper (Dave Bautista) at first seems routine, but then he discovers a box buried next to a dead tree outside Sapper’s home.  Hidden in that box is something that blows K’s life out of its precise orbit, a secret that threatens to unravel all human society, and that sends K on a search for Rick Deckard, who has been missing for thirty years…

For many years I’d been reading rumors and talk of a sequel to Blade Runner, and I always thought it was a bad idea.  On the one hand, the ending of Ridley Scott’s original film is so enigmatic that a sequel seems like a natural thing, as there still seemed to be so much story yet to be told.  And yet, that original film is such a unique and mysterious concoction that trying to recapture its magic felt to me like a fool’s errand, and I was not in any rush to have a sequel give definitive answers to the many wonderful and thought-provoking questions raised by that first film.  Nor did I want to see the cerebral and intelligent Blade Runner turned into a dumb action-adventure movie, which seemed to me the likely path a sequel would take.  Making a successful sequel three decades after the original movie seemed doomed to failure.  (True, Harrison Ford just recently starred into another thirty-years-later sequel, a small movie you might have heard of called Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and that was a success, but Star Wars actually feels to me like an easier film to sequalize.  Mr. Ford’s previous return to an iconic character many years later, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, was horrendous.)

The only reason I was excited about Blade Runner: 2049, was that it was being directed by Denis Villeneuve.  I adored Mr. Villeneuve’s recent film Arrival.  That was an intelligent, gripping, rich sci-fi film, and it made me a fan of Mr. Villeneuve’s for life.  I was very intrigued to see what he would do with a Blade Runner sequel, and the trailers were very encouraging.

Even so, I was not prepared for how much I enjoyed Blade Runner: 2049.

The film is absolutely stunning.  The original Blade Runner has visual effects that are gorgeous and haunting, and that hold up incredibly well to this day.  Designed by futurist Syd Mead, the look of Blade Runner was a huge part of the film’s overall impact, and it has been hugely influential, ripped off by countless other movies over the years.  So this sequel has enormous shoes to fill, and yet incredibly it does so.  If this new movie does not finally earn cinematographer Roger Deakins (The Shawshank Redemption, Skyfall, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and twelve films so far with the Coen Brothers including Fargo and The Big Lebowski) an Oscar, then nothing will.  Blade Runner: 2049 is a parade of breathtaking imagery, from the rain-slick, grimy urban nightmare of downtown Los Angeles; to the water imagery inside the stark, pyramid headquarters of the Wallace Corporation (formerly Tyrell); to the bright, desolate sand-filled wasteland that was once Las Vegas.  The visual effects are extraordinary, gorgeously recreating and building upon iconic imagery from the original film, while also creating many memorable new images.  But the beauty of Blade Runner: 2049 isn’t found only in the film’s visual effects shots.  Every frame of the film is meticulously composed, whether it is a character juxtaposed against a grand setting (there are moments in this film of enormous scale and majesty) or just sitting in the dark in a tiny dingy room.  Watching this film, I relished in the way Mr. Villeneuve and Mr. Deakins played with light and shadow, with silhouette and color.

As I noted above, I saw this movie in IMAX, and I exhort everyone to see this on as large a screen as possible.  On enormous IMAX, every frame of this film absolutely sung.  It was breathtaking.

Wisely, this sequel doesn’t make Deckard (Harrison Ford, reprising another iconic role) the main character.  Instead, our protagonist is this younger Blade Runner, K.  Ryan Gosling is spectacular.  Mr. Gosling has often played terse, laconic characters, but he takes this type of minimalist performance to a new level here with K.  K speaks very little in the film, but Mr. Gosling shows us exactly what is going on behind K’s eyes in every moment he is on-screen.  The screenplay by Hamptom Fancher (who co-wrote the original!) and Michael Green is fantastic, giving K a rich character arc.  I want to tell you so much more, but I don’t want to spoil anything.  (I will comment that there’s an element of K’s back-story that fans spent a lot of time guessing about based on the trailers in the months leading up to this film’s release.  The trailers play this like a secret, but the film was surprisingly very up front about this right away.  I was very pleasantly surprised by that!  It was good to have that information about K right away, so that you can completely understand the impact of everything else he discovers about himself as the film progresses.)

The film makes you wait a good long time before you see Harrison Ford’s Deckard on-screen.  This could feel like a cheat, having Deckard only appear in the third act.  But it works because everything with Ryan Gosling’s K is so good and so interesting that I was never impatient for the film to hurry up and get to Harrison Ford already.  And it works because when Mr. Ford does appear, I loved how his character was used and where his story went.  He is critical to the story without being the central focus of the story.  There’s some great action stuff (Mr. Ford can still throw and take a punch better than almost any other actor ever) and some wonderful character moments.  There’s one scene in particular which features an extreme close-up of Mr. Ford’s face, in which we see him react to some pretty heavy shit; it’s probably the best acting Mr. Ford has done on-screen in two decades.  It’s terrific.

There are so many other wonderful new characters in the film, many of whom — just as in the original film — are wonderfully enigmatic, leaving the audience lots of questions to chew on after the film.  (There are at least two characters about whom I find myself going back and forth on whether I think they are a replicant or a human.)  Let’s start with Ana de Armas who plays Joi, a digital consciousness (the film is playful as to whether or not Joi is sentient) who appears to be a program purchased by K, with whom he nevertheless appears to develop an emotional relationship, and she with him.  This is a rich character, and Joi’s relationship with K ties directly into the film’s central questions about what it means to be human.  This whole relationship is wonderful, beautifully played by Ms. de Armas and Mr. Gosling.  Joi doesn’t have any direct connection to the film’s main plot — it’s easy to imagine a version of this movie with this character completely excised — but she is CENTRAL to the film’s thematic concerns.  There are quite a few scenes with Joi that are absolutely heartbreaking.

Robin Wright plays K’s superior at the LAPD, Lt. Joshi.  I love this character and Ms. Wright’s performance.  There’s a lot of layer and nuance here.  She is cruel and thoughtless to K and also tender and motherly to him at times, with a hint of sexual attraction.  I love the look of her character, and I love that K’s superior is this tough woman.

Jared Leto plays the blind and brilliant Niander Wallace.  With Tyrell dead (as seen at the end of the first Blade Runner), Wallace has become the sole remaining genius able to create replicants.  This character might be one of the film’s few off notes, as I can’t entirely track this character or his motivation.  Does he love replicants or hate them?  Does he see them as sentient or just as slaves?  Does he want replicants to have more free will or is he satisfied that all the new models are perfectly compliant?  The scene that introduces Wallace could be the weakest scene in the movie, as it’s a little too weird and makes not quite enough sense.  (Why does he murder that newly-born replicant in the same scene as he is complaining that he can’t possibly manufacture replicants fast enough to meet demand?)  Still, Mr. Leto’s performance is so bizarre that it’s sort of hypnotic, and Mr. Villeneuve keeps him restrained enough that he doesn’t tip into the realm of over-the-top silliness as seen in his performance as the Joker in Suicide Squad.

Sylvia Hoeks plays Luv, Wallace’s dressed-in-white assistant and ass-kicking replicant.  This is a fantastic performance, one mostly dominated by Luv’s utter stillness, punctuated by brief moments of intense physical action.  We don’t truly understand Luv’s motivation until her very last line of dialogue, which clicked everything into place for me.

Mackenzie Davis plays Mariette, a prostitute whose path crosses K’s early in the film, and their lives then intersect in several more interesting ways.  (I am having a hard time writing about any of these characters, because I truly believe that this is a movie that you are best off going into knowing as little as possible.)  The scene in which she and Joi merge is breathtaking, beautiful and erotic and sad.  For much of the film we don’t quite know where Mariette stands, and Ms. Davis plays this perfectly, allowing the audience to read a number of different possibilities into who she is and what she does.

Other thoughts:

* One of my fears for this sequel was that it would give us a definitive answer to one of the main unanswered questions of the original Blade Runner, which is, is Deckard a replicant?  (The original theatrical version of Blade Runner plays Deckard as human, whereas Ridley Scott’s Director’s Cut and the released-to-DVD “ultimate cut” strongly suggest that Deckard is a replicant.)  To my delight, this sequel managed to leave that question open!  I do think the film leans strongly towards the Deckard-is-human camp (that’s why his relationship with the replicant Rachael, and what happened next, is so significant in this film) which surprised me, since most fans now consider Ridley Scott’s “ultimate cut” to be the preferred version of the original film.  But this all worked for me, and I loved that the film managed to tell its story while still keeping this question open.

* I loved seeing Edward James Olmos back, briefly, reprising his role as Gaff.  (And I’m glad his origami hobby was still with him!)

* That brief sequence with the digital recreation of Sean Young’s Rachael, looking just as she did in 1982, was terrific.  A great scene, with well-executed visual effects.  (Will the people who hated the young CGI version of Carrie Fisher at the end of Rogue One hate this too…?)

* I thought the score (by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch) was terrific, evocative of Vangelis’ iconic score for the original while being a nice, modern update.

* I loved the late in the game revelation regarding K.  For much of the film, when I thought this was going in one direction, I thought that it was a whopper of a coincidence, but so many films are built on that sort of thing that I was willing to forgive it.  But I was delighted to discover that this was all misdirection, and this wasn’t a coincidence at all.  Fantastic, and a devastating emotional punch late in the game.

* It’s interesting that the film leaves Wallace’s fate completely unresolved.  Were they planning on making another sequel?  (Plans likely dashed by this film’s poor reception at the box office…)

* After seeing the film, it’s worth watching all three of these short prequel films released on-line.  They’re each wonderful and intriguing in their own right.

Blade Runner: 2049 is a magnificent achievement, a worthy sequel to Ridley Scott’s original Blade Runner.  It captures much of the greatness of that extraordinary original film, while also daring to be its own thing.  Whereas that film was often cold, keeping the audience at a distance from its characters (particularly its “hero,” Deckard), this new film is deeply emotional, with a compelling, fascinating journey for the new main character played by Ryan Gosling.  It’s gorgeous, visually stunning, with incredible skill and love and attention to detail visible in every single frame of the film.  The film is long — clocking in at over two and a half hours — but I loved every minute, and I applaud Mr. Villeneuve and his team for creating such a leisurely paced, thoughtful work of art when I had expected (feared) a simpler, crasser cash-grab on the basis of the well-known Blade Runner name.  This is a tremendous film, entertaining and thought-provoking.  It’s a dazzling piece of work.  I don’t know how I could have possibly asked for anything more.

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