Review: “Blade Runner 2049”

3.5 out of 5 stars.

“Blade Runner 2049” opens with a shot that calls back to Ridley Scott’s original 1982 film: a close up of an eye, staring straight into the camera.  It’s an unsettling image that sets the tone of the film, as well as one of its main themes: the perception of what is real and what is not, and what is human and what is not.

Set in 2019, “Blade Runner” depicts a dystopian future in which bioengineered humans called replicants are created to work on colonies outside of Earth.  When the replicants go rogue and begin revolting against humans, their existence is declared illegal, and special officers known as Blade Runners are hired to hunt them down and kill—or, as they put it, “retire”—them.

“Blade Runner 2049” works off the same basic premise—or at least, it starts off that way.  Thirty years later, replicants have become a necessary part of society to help ensure human survival, but there are still older rogue models out there that have to be tracked down.  That is what we see in the first scene of the film—K (Ryan Gosling)—a blade runner for the LAPD, confronting Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista), one such rogue replicant.  But the plot quickly thickens as what initially appears to be a minor scene introducing K and the world he lives in turns in to something bigger when K finds a box containing human remains.  Those remains prove something that was previously thought impossible—that replicants can have children—set off a chain of events that set the course for the rest of the movie.

The original “Blade Runner” has a distinct noir look and feel.  “2049” distances itself from that somewhat (this definitely feels more like a Denis Villeneuve film than a Ridley Scott one), but it does quickly turn in to a detective story and uses the mystery to unpack humanity’s many problems.  The sense of urgency increases with each clue K uncovers.  It’s important to mention here that K is in fact a newer model of replicant, but this case causes him to question his actions and his implanted memories.  As a replicant blade runner, K is outcast from his human colleagues and reviled by the other replicants for hunting his own kind, never really fitting in anywhere.  This mission gives him reason to believe he might be special, might belong to something or someone.  Gosling gives one of his best performances here as a person who isn’t supposed to have any emotion juggling a whole range of feelings, especially when confronted with life-altering information.  There are so many scenes where he doesn’t need to say anything, but the audience feels everything.

Blade Runner 2049 2

I mentioned that “2049” doesn’t feel quite so much like a noir movie.  The cinematography isn’t as dark, there’s no femme fatale, no voice over (if you’re going by the original theatrical cut).  But this film is even more gorgeous.  Both the script and the visuals feel like they exist in the same universe as the first film, but are updated both to take place in that universe 30 years later, and to be relevant in ours.  This is a bleak movie, but a gorgeous one, from the ravaged landscapes and desolate remnants of once great cities, to the gaudy neon lights of the populated areas, to a quiet snowfall.  The CGI effects are also stunning, almost seamlessly integrated into the rest of the film.

One of K’s closets companions is Joi (Ana de Armas, in a stunning breakout role), a computer who can take the form of a holographic human woman, but who somehow feels emotion and develops a deeper personal connection with K.  K’s boss is the hard Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright).  K is pursued by Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), a replicant acting under Niander Wallace (Jared Leto, doing his usual weird Jared Leto thing), the head of a huge corporation that produces replicants, and who wants the information K is looking for because replicant reproduction could increase the number of synthetic humans he could produce.  It’s interesting to look at all these characters together.  “2049” is such a solid sequel because it builds upon the story and themes introduced in the original film so well, and one of those instances is in its exploration of humanity.  Often, the characters who are technically not human display the most humanity, show the most compassion for others, while the humans are the ones who are selfish and merciless.  Joshi has no problem telling K to retire the replicant who was born; K does.  And K and Joi, one a synthetic human, the other a computer, have one of the most loving relationships in the film.  This blurring of the lines between humanity and technology is even more disturbing in today’s environment, as so much of what exists in this universe on screen no longer seems so unfeasible.

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Harrison Ford as an aging Deckard

The unraveling of the case leads K to Deckard, the former blade runner portrayed by Harrison Ford in the first film, and who reprises his role here.  K and Deckard’s stories between the two films are very similar—both are forced to do things as blade runners that make them question their humanity—providing them with an instant bond.  I don’t want to give too much away, but K finds Deckard hiding out in Vegas, and their initial encounter—a fist fight in a theater as a faulty hologram of Elvis performs in the background—is one of the film’s most memorable scenes.  Ford doesn’t appear until around the last hour of the film (and remember, this is an almost three-hour movie), but he makes the biggest impact.  It isn’t just because we are seeing Ford reprise one of his most famous roles from over thirty years ago (I feel like I’ve said that before) but because he brings a new dimension to the character that becomes the heart of the movie.

The running time of this movie clocks in at right around two hours and forty-five minutes.  It’s long, and often times it feels long.  Director Denis Villeneuve takes his time to gradually build this story, and while it pays off in the end, there are some scenes that drag.  And just as events escalate toward the end of the film, it’s over, leaving a few loose ends and the possible of a another sequel.  Villeneuve also helmed the fantastic 2016 sci-fi film “Arrival,” praised for being an intellectual science fiction film that challenged the viewer.  The same thing can be said about “Blade Runner: 2049,” and even Scott’s original film.  While peppered with some action here and there, “Blade Runner” is not so much entertainment as it is a gorgeous puzzle for the audience to unravel and find meaning in.  It’s one of the most profound sci-fi movies in recent years, which makes it great filmmaking but also difficult to love on a personal level (I felt the same way about “Arrival”—you can read my review for that film here).  Regardless, this is the rare sequel that builds on its predecessor in a way that makes it feel like its own film as well as an extension of the original.  At the end of the first “Blade Runner” (and we’ll reference the 2007 final cut here, as that is supposedly the version that this film follows) Deckard was a man on the run.  Thirty years later, he still is, living in hiding, alone.  The prospect of finally being free to be with people he loves, to go where he wants to go, is overwhelming.  Ford proves once again what a fine actor he truly is; as with Gosling’s performance, he often never has to say a word.  If the first film ended with Deckard facing an uncertain future, this one ends with him finally finding closure.

Runtime: 163 minutes. Rated R.

 

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