Movie Review: Blade Runner 2049
Blade Runner 2049 is a sequel 35 years in the making. Taking over for Ridley Scott, Denis Villenueve crafts a story with lush visuals, compelling characters, and an evocative soundtrack.
Sequels/Prequels/Reboots of long dormant franchises are films fraught with peril. Can it recapture the vibe of its predecessor without the artifice of the act being transparent? Should it even try? What about bringing back old cast, even if it requires digital trickery? Blade Runner 2049 runs up against all these dilemmas. Thankfully, Denis Villenueve (Sicario, Arrival) threads the needle expertly; if Blade Runner was the hand, 2049 feels like the glove smartly crafted to fit it like a second skin.
Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
“K” (Ryan Gosling) is an officer of the LAPD in the year 2049. K works as a Blade Runner: a detective that hunts down and eliminates rogue replicants. Replicants are engineered humans, used as slave labor in humanity’s bid to colonize the stars. K does his job effectively, and is able to go toe to toe with these enhanced humans… because he himself is a replicant: a newer model psychologically engineered to obey.
K’s obedience is put to the test when the elimination of a “runner” replicant leads to a bombshell: a female replicant gave birth decades ago (something that should be impossible), and the child may still live. Self replicating replicants could turn modern society on its head, so K’s Lieutenant (Robin Wright) orders him to destroy all evidence of the replicant birth – including the child, should he find it. Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) is the de facto source of modern replicants, and is also on the hunt for this child. Both of their roads lead to Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), a retired Blade Runner who has dropped off the grid.
Awash in Grime and Grandeur
The visuals in Blade Runner 2049 are a modern update on Ridley Scott’s neo-noir dystopia. Moving the series ahead 30 years gave Villenueve the chance to update Blade Runner with all new cinematic tricks (there is one scene that I will not spoil, but it was one of the most novel new visual effects I’ve seen in a long time) while keeping enough of the old aesthetic to remain faithful to the original motifs. It’s a truly beautiful film, which is noteworthy, seeing as LA in 2049 is a dump. Making dystopia visually pleasing is quite the accomplishment.
The soundtrack similarly wallows in beautiful destruction. Klaxons blare, synthesizers drag, and the bass is deep enough that fish in the Mariana Trench had their teeth rattled. But rather than an assault on our senses, it feeds the tension, tugging your attention from scene to scene. Interspersed between these sonic overtures are old pop songs, Sinatra and Elvis, letting you know that this alien landscape is still Earth. Once again old and new fit hand in glove.
More Human Than Human
In the original Blade Runner, it was pretty much the Rutger Hauer show. He stole every scene he was in, both charming and menacing. If I had to place my money on who steals the show this go around, it would have to go to Ana de Armas who plays Joi, Ryan Gosling’s virtual lover. There relationship is truly engaging: tender, furtive, and intense. Gosling and de Armas work in a way that completely made this film for me.
Everyone else is good-to-great in the film as well…except for Harrison Ford. I’m so tired of his grumpy old man shtick. It worked in Air Force One. He’s been doing it ever since. Give it a rest (home). And kudos to Jared Leto, who managed to keep his role fairly restrained… by Jared Leto standards.
The actors are helped by a story that once again strikes a fine balance; at times myopic and personal, other times expansive. The one thing it wasn’t was preachy. It also didn’t get abstract or pedagogical. It didn’t have anything grand to force down your throat about what it means to be human, or man enslaving man, or the bonds between parent and child. It lets you take what you want from the story of a detective and the people swept up in his investigation.
A Modern Retro Classic
This isn’t the best movie I’ve seen this year, but it’s a refreshing example of old and new blending harmoniously. It had enough of 80’s Sci-Fi epic in it to hearken back to classics like Dune or Alien, as well as touches that homage and improve upon the original Blade Runner. The visuals similarly weren’t the greatest thing I’ve ever seen, but they were excellent, and had some novel new uses of state of the art tech that are worth the price of admission. The only real knock I had (besides grandpa Ford) was that I noticed how damn long the film was. It didn’t overtly detract from my enjoyment, but I didn’t walk out thinking “Gee, those three hours of my life just breezed by” either.
If you liked IT or Stranger Things, you’ll probably love Blade Runner 2049. It gets nostalgia right, while also having its own things to add to the art of making films. Denis Villenueve strikes again, and I’ve firmly joined Neil in the camp that can’t wait for his next project.