"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Friday, October 20, 2017

Blade Runner 2049

When Blade Runner was released in 1982, it was savaged by critics and failed to make back its budget. Over the years, however, its reputation grew, as did its influence. The look of the film’s dark, dystopian futureworld could be seen in films (The Matrix) and video games (Deus Ex) as well as the Cyberpunk movement thereafter (author William Gibson famously left a screening midway through for fear it would influence his novel Neuromancer). Despite its influence, no one was really clamoring for a sequel – certainly not the studio nor the filmmakers who ended the film on a deliciously ambiguous note that didn’t really need to be explained.

“This is a bad one, the worst yet. I need the old blade runner, I need your magic.” – Bryant

It is 2017 and here we are with Blade Runner 2049, a sequel co-written by returning screenwriter Hampton Fancher and Harrison Ford reprising his role as the titular character. However, Ridley Scott chose not to return to direct (too busy driving the Alien franchise into the ground), handing over directing duties to Canadian auteur Denis Villeneuve (Arrival). Does this new film have anything of interest to say or does it fall into the same trap that doomed Tron: Legacy (2010) – all style with little substance?

Thirty years have passed since the first film and the world has only gotten worse. The Tyrell Corporation is no more – bankrupt and bought out by wealthy industrialist Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), who has created a new generation of replicants that are much more subservient. Blade runners still exist but now with the sole purpose of finding and “retiring” older generation replicants – a sly commentary on the generation gap that exists between older models being made redundant by the newer ones.

We meet Detective K (Ryan Gosling) doing his job – hunting down a Nexus 8 replicant (Dave Bautista). At the crime scene, the detective finds the remains of a Nexus 7 replicant that was pregnant and had a child – an impossibility! He’s ordered to erase all knowledge of it – but of course he doesn’t. K investigates the identity of the mysterious replicant – this leads him to a startling reveal that links this new film with the original. Intrigued, he digs deeper and uncovers the dead replicant’s link to retired blade runner Rick Deckard (Ford), who he seeks out.

Unfortunately, Wallace learns of this and orders his right-hand woman Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) – a ruthless new generation replicant – to find the child so that he can study it and figure out what Tyrell was able to achieve that has eluded him. He’s the film’s morally sordid puppet master with grand designs for the future – a warped reality where he is revered as a deity.

K is himself a replicant, which presents intriguing, fascinating implications that the film touches upon throughout, like how he is resented by his fellow (human) cops as well as his neighbors; old prejudices don’t go away over time. Ryan Gosling is first-rate as a replicant used to doing what he’s told and learning, or rather feeling compelled to disobey by what he discovers about the Nexus 7 replicant. The actor maintains an emotionless fa├žade of a machine that knows what’s expected of him and does it without question, but over the course of the film he undergoes a journey of self-discovery, delivering an inquisitive, thoughtful performance.

K’s girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas) is a hologram, which seems rather fitting for a replicant. Their relationship is a fascinating one that is explored throughout the film. For example, the greatest gift he can give her is an upgrade that allows her to actually feel the rain outside – a basic sensation that we take for granted.

Blade Runner 2049 explores the notion of illusion vs. reality. Joi is a hologram that longs to experience reality. Later on, K questions his memories – are they implants or are they real? What constitutes real memories and how do we know they are authentic?

Los Angeles hasn’t gotten any better. If anything it’s worse – denser in population and the weather is more extreme, alternating between oppressive rain and snow. This new film maintains the original’s lived-in look and incredible attention to detail. In sharp contrast is Las Vegas, which resembles a mausoleum of a bygone era – an irradiated ghost town, frozen in time. In fact, the film is populated by holograms with “ghosts” from the present – Joi – and ones from the past – Elvis and Sinatra’s holograms, ghosts of spirits long gone.

Like Blade Runner, BR2049 features richly textured cinematography, courtesy of Roger Deakins, which is a marvel to behold. His past collaborations with Villeneuve (Sicario) have been excellent and this new one goes above and beyond by creating a fully immersive experience with evocative sights and sounds of a decaying world. Take Wallace’s inner sanctum: an astounding example of set direction – courtesy of Dennis Gassner – a tranquil, water-themed room that has to be seen to be believed. They take the world that Ridley Scott and company created in Blade Runner, build and expand on it, making it their own while it still feels like this is the same universe.

I like that Villeneuve lets the story breathe, taking his time with deliberate pacing for certain scenes. He lets us soak in the mood and atmosphere while also having the characters talk to each other for extended periods of time, much like in the original film. He also spends time developing Gosling’s K so that over the running time it feels like we’ve been on a journey with him. This is such a rarity for a big budget genre film, but at this point in his career Villeneuve has earned it.

Blade Runner 2049 is a rare contemporary science fiction film that is actually about something, instead of using CGI to gloss over a weak script. The film delves deeper into the notion of replicants used as slave labor, from Wallace creating his own army of replicant slaves, to the underground army that wants to be free. This was touched on to some degree in Blade Runner but is explored in more detail here.

“It’s too bad she won’t live! But then again, who does?” – Gaff

Villeneuve hasn’t merely made a film that is slavishly faithful to the original. He certainly pays tribute to it with a few visual nods but for the most part takes the film off in a new direction that is very much its own thing, just as Blade Runner was back in 1982. This may antagonize purists or those looking for easy answers but the original film was never about providing a safe resolution to everything and while Blade Runner 2049 has an emotionally satisfying conclusion, it doesn’t do that either. Kudos to Ridley Scott for convincing the powers that be to bankroll a very expensive art film. Much like the original, it has been underappreciated by mainstream movie-going audiences. It will, however, be studied and written about for years to come.


  1. Yeah, main stream audiences wont embrace it, but usually that's a good thing for lovers of more intelligent films. Agree, this is one expensive art film! We're lucky it was made I think! Ridley probably convinced the producers based on the films iconic cult status that it would make its money back. I hope it does, I'd love to see another one.

    1. We really are lucky that this happened at all. Good point! This film stayed with me and I thought it was a worthy sequel.

  2. Agreed. I really loved this movie. It is a great example of how to handle a sequel, by developing the world and characters and creating a new story, and yet not rehashing the previous film. Visually and sonically it is amazing. The cast was perfect and the results were top notch. This and "War for the Planet of the Apes" made 2017 a great year for science fiction films.

    1. Yes and yes! Good points. I was so nervous going into this one. How do you make a sequel to such a great, iconic film but Villeneuve nailed it.