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Blade Runner 2049

October 16, 2017

Blade Runner 2049 poster

Nostalgia is a funny thing. With rose-colored glasses, it’s easy to see Blade Runner as a potentially hot piece of intellectual property, but the irony is strong with this one. Ridley Scott’s 1982 movie didn’t fare particularly well at the box office and divided critics upon initial release. It is revered today, but that lofty status has been decades in the making. You’d be forgiven for thinking that Blade Runner 2049 is a somewhat unlikely sequel. Apparently, 35 years is about how long it takes to forget that a prickly, unaccommodating R-rated sci-fi noir isn’t exactly the safest way to invest the kind of money that typically funds summer blockbusters. I’m glad they forgot, because Blade Runner 2049 is wonderful.

Denis Villeneuve’s take on the replicant universe offers much of the same for those familiar with it. Replicants are physically identical to humans but were engineered as a labor source. Replicants are so lifelike that they even have memory implants. The problem with this level of verisimilitude is that humanoid androids with memories and nascent emotional capacities eventually begin to think of themselves as fully human. The occasional rogue android necessitates enforcers known as blade runners.

So, what is Blade Runner 2049? It’s a sequel, to be sure, though it doesn’t really pick up any of the obvious story threads from Blade Runner. Instead, 2049 inserts the audience into a vaguely post-apocalyptic version of L.A, this time using K (Ryan Gosling) as the point of entry. It’s more a detective procedural thriller than a glitzy sci-fi action flick. Also, at 163 minutes, a word like “ponderous” hardly even begins to explain this one. 2049 is very similar to the original, in that it gives you so much to chew on and yet doesn’t seem too interested in being easily digestible. It’s just the latest in a long line of defiantly singular science-fiction films including 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stalker, and more recent fare like A.I. and Under The Skin.

K is a blade runner, and a replicant, a newer model able to reconcile unwavering obedience with having memories. He is ordered to “retire” a number of older-model replicants. The assignments plunge K into a mysterious plot involving a replicant-tech mogul (Jared Leto), a long-simmering replicant uprising, and a reclusive ex-blade runner (Harrison Ford) who might have some answers.

As with its predecessor, and Philip K. Dick’s source novel (Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?), Blade Runner 2049 focuses on what it means to be human. When the obedient K is exposed to ideas he never knew were possible, even he begins to question what he knows. Much of 2049 follows K as he grapples with his existential contradictions. He may have memories, but he also knows that they were implanted. Whose memories are they?

blade runner 2049 poster

2049 adds layers to the discussion, particularly with Joi, a holographic A.I. character, who is K’s closest confidant, possible love-interest, but also a retail product programmed to manifest the desires of the purchaser. Joi (Ana de Armas) feels heartbreakingly vulnerable, and yet viewers must question whether she has developed a real relationship with K, or if her programming is simply causing her to reflect his own longing.

There is a lot to love about 2049, and Joi is high on the list. The character is a perfect vehicle for deepening the film’s themes, and the special effects used to bring her to life are indeed spectacular. If sad replicants aren’t really your thing, Blade Runner 2049 is still likely to make 2017’s list of most visually beautiful films. The colors and production design recall the marvel that was the Ridley Scott’s movie, and it is all lensed by the portraiture of cinematographer extraordinaire Roger Deakins. This film is drop-dead gorgeous. The atmosphere of the 1982 movie is further replicated by Hans Zimmer doing his best Vangelis impression. It works.

2049 is not perfect. It may be a bit overstuffed, and Leto’s character mostly fails as a compelling villain, but it succeeds in earning the name Blade Runner. Blade Runner 2049 is a great achievement in science fiction. It somehow manages to be sparse and overwhelmingly dense at the same time. It’s undeniably impressive, yet enigmatic.

Ryan Gosling gives a strong performance, though perhaps intentionally opaque for the majority of the runtime. Dave Bautista, (the scene-stealing ex-wrestler who broke through in Guardians Of The Galaxy), Sylvia Hoeks, and Robin Wright all give memorable performances in supporting roles, headlining a deliciously eclectic cast. Harrison Ford really does deliver in his truncated role, just don’t hold your breath waiting for him to appear.

French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve handles the material well. With recent films like Prisoners, Sicario, and Arrival, Villeneuve has really made a name for himself Stateside. He has been one of the most exciting and daring storytellers in recent years and Blade Runner 2049 is no exception. The plight of Villeneuve’s replicants just might continue to haunt you long after you’ve experienced it.

I mentioned the irony of spending blockbuster money on a divisive piece of I.P. Blade Runner 2049 is simply not a movie that people are going to flock to. Not the way they did for Avatar and not the way they continue to for Star Wars. It’s too bad. In the end, 2049 feels like a magnificent sequel to the original classic. The themes and trappings are largely the same and it repeats the trick of leaving audiences with more questions than answers. Seriously, I can’t even promise you’ll leave the movie knowing which characters were human and which were replicants. And yet the story goes in an entirely new direction, meaning 2049 manages the rare feat of being a sequel that gives us just about everything we loved from the original while forging a bold new path for itself. It can’t be all things to all people, but comes pretty close to being all things to all Blade Runner fans.

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