Friday, July 12, 2019

Movie Review: Blade Runner 2049

In 1982, Ridley Scott released one of the most visually influential sci-fi films of all time, a hard-boiled film-noir set in a dystopian future, involving a police officer (Harrison Ford) tasked with hunting down and killing four replicants (artificial humans engineered for off-world manual labor).  Fast-forward 35 years to the Denis Villeneuve-helmed Blade Runner 2049, which picks up the story three decades later with a new Blade Runner character (Ryan Gosling), who not only has to "retire" unauthorized replicants but gets mixed up in a mystery that could unravel civilization as we know it.

Villeneuve takes great care in preserving the imagery and feel of Scott's original universe but adds some of his own art-house sensibilities and expands on the story considerably.  Where the first film's narrative was exceedingly straightforward (cop has to find and kill four robots, and does so), BR 2049 embroils its protagonist in a much more engaging story with numerous plot twists and an emotional arc.  As a big fan of the original film, I will say that its greatest weakness is the thinness of its plot.  It took me several viewings over nearly a decade to fully appreciate Blade Runner, and it's not surprising that mainstream audiences were not enthusiastic about it upon its release.  It's a bleak, slow-moving film with not much in the way of story reveals, and ultimately becomes more of an exercise in style.  The sequel retains that tone but also gives the audience more relatable characters and a plot that requires a more active viewer. 

The casting is excellent across the board; Ryan Gosling is note-perfect as the gritty, impassive lead character, who becomes increasingly conflicted as the story unfolds.  Harrison Ford, despite limited screen time, is given much more to do emotively than in the original, and his rather forced love story with Sean Young in that film actually works better now because of its aftermath; the events of this film lend more emotional depth to that one.  Blade Runner 2049 boasts three very strong female performances as well, starting with Robin Wright as Gosling's stern, pragmatic police Lieutenant, whose only concern is preserving the delicate, uneasy harmony between humans and replicants, no matter the questionable ethics involved.  Ana de Armas has a touching, sympathetic turn as Joi, Gosling's holographic love interest, who displays more humanity than perhaps any other character - think Scarlett Johannson in Her, but with a physical manifestation.  Finally there's Sylvia Hoeks as Luv, a cold, fearsome replicant working for Jared Leto's Niander Wallace, who orders her to unravel the film's central mystery before Gosling's character does.

Writers Hampton Fancher (who co-wrote the original) and Michael Green have crafted a science fiction script about ideas and settings rather than heroics and action, which is always a welcome change from the Hollywood norm.  They've developed further the concept of whether androids have legitimate emotions and basic human rights, or whether they are simply a series of zeros and ones programmed to simulate real people.  Are they entitled to live and find fulfillment on their own terms or can they be simply shut down at will like any other machine?  If a replicant's "childhood memories" were implanted from someone else's mind, does that make them any less genuine or persuasive to the replicant?   These questions are at the forefront of Blade Runner 2049 and the screenplay explores them in greater detail than in the first film.

Much like its predecessor, this film is an absolute triumph of production design.  Villeneuve and veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins provide literally dozens of jaw-dropping visuals, exploring this richly detailed, excessively lived-in world in a way that echoes the original without being a copycat.  The expansive cityscapes look and feel like real places and I wouldn't be surprised if there were some practical miniatures being used for some of these locations.  2049 California is a dour, environmentally ravaged locale, with almost constant downpouring rain and thick smog.  If anything this film might be a shade TOO enthralled with its settings, occasionally lingering on establishing shots a bit longer than necessary.

My one complaint about BR 2049 is its running time.  At an unwieldy 2 hours 43 minutes, this is a long movie to sit through, and I'm guessing that's the main reason for its rather anemic box office receipts.  With a Blade Runner film you're already targeting a pretty specific audience, but that hard sell is compounded when you add a duration north of 150 minutes.  Some trims here and there would've helped I think; 2:25 seems like the right length for this movie.  But if you're looking for an immersive sci-fi film rich with ideas, Blade Runner 2049 will be right up your alley.  It's easily on par with, and in some ways superior to the original.  I predict in thirty years this film will be nearly as revered as that one.

I give the film ***1/2 out of ****.

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