Review: Villeneuve's 'Blade Runner 2049' is Emotionally Affecting, Artificially Intelligent
Based on the Philip K. Dick's 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Ridley Scott's 1982 science fiction thriller, Blade Runner, introduced audiences to a dystopian future where synthetic humans, known as Replicants, are bio-engineered for use in off-world colonization. When these Replicants go rogue, special police units called Blade Runners hunt down and "retire" them. Despite its initial lukewarm critical and commercial reception, Blade Runner has become one of the most influential movies of the last 40 years, pioneering what became an entirely new genre: neo-noir cyberpunk. 35 years later, thanks to subsequent releases like the 1992 Director's Cut and the definitive 2007 Final Cut, Scott's film is now heralded as a groundbreaking visionary masterpiece and one of the most important motion pictures ever made. Now, another visionary filmmaker, the Oscar-nominated Denis Villeneuve, attempts to honor the original film while expanding its influence with a sequel, the highly anticipated Blade Runner 2049.
Directed from a screenplay written by Blade Runner scribe Hampton Fancher and Michael Green (of Logan, Alien: Covenant), Blade Runner 2049 picks up thirty years after the events of the first film. A new Blade Runner, LAPD Officer K (Ryan Gosling), is on assignment when he unearths a long-buried secret that has the potential to send what's left of society into chaos. This startling revelation leads K on a journey to find Deckard (Harrison Ford), a former Blade Runner who's been missing for 30 years. In the process, K’s detective work earns the attention of Replicant manufacturer Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), who sends his devoted assistant Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) to acquire K’s target before he does. Normally, I would provide a few additional details on the plot, but the publicist at the press screening conveyed an important message from Villeneuve asking us to avoid discussing specifics about the story and its characters. Respecting Villeneuve’s wishes, I will keep things as vague as possible.
What I can say about Blade Runner 2049 is that it takes everything Scott was attempting with his ambitious feature and improves upon it by imbuing impressive visuals with interesting characters and a story that is intellectually engaging and, more importantly, emotionally affecting. For all its influence in terms of world-building and special effects, I've never really cared for Scott's original movie. It's too much like a Replicant — a cold, synthetic representation of humanity that somehow convincingly conveys emotions, but doesn't fully understand them. I certainly respect the craftsmanship of conceptual artist Syd Mead, production designer Lawrence G. Paull, art director David Snyder, and cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth, but the iconic imagery doesn't make up for a surface-level story that leans on ambiguity to give the appearance of deeper meaning. The 2007 Final Cut is my preferred version, but even it can't accomplish the colossal task of making me give a damn about Deckard.
This is thankfully not the case with Villeneuve's sequel. Every character, from Dave Bautista's Sapper Morton to Robin Wright's Lt. Joshi to Ana de Armas' Joi, is remarkably human, even if they aren't. Even Leto, who I often find unpalatable, is convincing in his role. As the soft-spoken Niander Wallace, Leto delivers an understated performance that exudes arrogance and ambition without chewing the scenery. As for Gosling, the La La Land star provides a moving, measured turn as a lonely man in search of something greater. He's got chemistry with every member of the ensemble, and his interactions with the story's various characters reveal different aspects of his character in a way we never got with Deckard in the original.
Speaking of Ford, when the grizzled veteran reprised the roles of Indiana Jones in 2008's Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and Han Solo in 2015's Star Wars: The Force Awakens, he was slipping back into the old clothes of characters who were immediately recognizable as icons. By comparison, there isn't much going on with the character of Deckard. He's the hardboiled detective in a film noir — a cynical man's man whose dogged persistence is his only distinguishable trait. When we catch up with him in Blade Runner 2049, he's been through the ringer. Instead of playing the tough guy, Ford gives Deckard much-needed dimensionality by playing him as a man past his prime, haunted by tragedy, but ready to earn his redemption. You feel the weight of his age — the years of solitude he's endured — and the vastness of his loss. It's a standout performance in a movie filled with great performances.
Another great performance comes from legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins (currently with 13 Oscar nominations but no win yet), who expands upon the original film's stunning imagery in new and exciting ways. Like John Seale's work on Mad Max: Fury Road, Deakins' masterful use of light and shadow, of color and texture, captures this dystopian future so beautifully, you wish the world would end so you could see it firsthand. 2049 marks the third collaboration between Villeneuve and Deakins, following Sicario and Prisoners, for which Deakins received two of his 13 Oscar nominations. Rest assured, Blade Runner 2049 will be his 14th nomination, and maybe – hopefully – his first win. Equally exquisite are the production and costume designs by Dennis Gassner and Renée April who, like Villeneuve and Deakins, are committed to remaining faithful to what came before while exploring new, uncharted territory.
Despite its 163-minute runtime, Blade Runner 2049 moves at a steady clip and doesn't get bogged down by the kind of drawn-out dialogue scenes that make the original feel so protracted and ponderous. It isn't action-packed, but it's never boring because you're invested in the characters and the mystery they're trying to solve. It's still very much a movie where you feel the length, but it doesn't feel as laborious as the original, which is considerably shorter (117 minutes). If there's an issue with Villeneuve's latest, it's that it's too obvious about its various reveals and revelations. If its predecessor was a Replicant trying to feel like a human, the sequel is a human trying to think like a robot. It tries to outsmart you with its twists and turns, but its brain isn't as big as its heart. The predictability doesn't take away from the enjoyment of Villeneuve's work, however. I would much rather have a Blade Runner follow-up that is more thoughtful and affecting than cold, cynical and calculating.
Denis Villeneuve's Blade Runner 2049 is a soulful work of human sensitivity at the height of digital art that elevates the original film in ways I didn't think possible. It invites the audience to not only analyze, but empathize, and that is exactly what we need more of right now.
Adam's Rating: 4.5 out of 5
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