Film Review: Blade Runner 2049

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Genre: Sci-Fi/ Drama

Cast: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, Robin Wright, Mackenzie Davis, Carla Juri, Lennie James, Dave Bautista, Jared Leto.

Some may find it hard to believe the tremendously positive hype surrounding Blade Runner 2049. The original Blade Runner was misunderstood by both critics and audiences upon its release, yet it eventually became recognized not only as a sci-fi classic but also a hugely influential one. Its vision, however alluring, was hard to pierce through and digest; the futuristic way it presented its ideas about technology, the environment, consumerist culture, surveillance society, and human nature itself was far ahead of its time. Blade Runner embodied postmodern ideology like few pieces of pop culture dared to, which was why it immediately sparked interest in the academic sphere. However, Blade Runner 2049 could not just recreate or imitate the original like a true replica. Today, trying to evoke a dystopian vision of the future or exploring the distinction between artificial and human life have become common tropes in science fiction films (think everything from Dark City to A.I. Artificial Intelligence to Ex Machina). But Blade Runner 2049 manages to do more than challenge genre tropes. It has successfully identified that the important and necessary change it needed to make lies in something deeper; in adapting and avoiding the nihilistic attitudes of the original while still honoring it. Where Blade Runner asked profound philosophical questions about humanity, Blade Runner 2049 seems more dedicated to finding meaning.

Anyone familiar with Denis Villeneuve’s filmography will understand why he is such an appropriate choice to capture what Blade Runner is about and push it forward. He has used the genre of science fiction as a medium to delve into similar themes: his 2013 film Enemy pondered the multiplicity of selfhood while at the same time exposing the subtle and invisible ways that power is imposed – you might say it likens that process to how subconscious desires restrict us from having a stable identity. Even more fittingly, in last year’s massively successful Arrival he tackled grander concepts such as time and communication, and the film also showed that Villeneuve could still concentrate on intimate human drama in the context of a big, imposing sci-fi thriller. In terms of visual style, his films are known for being quite astonishingly spectacular, especially when he teams up with Roger Deakins, simply one of the best cinematographers alive – and it is in the visual department that even the harshest of critics agreed that the original Blade Runner was outstanding. Denis Villeneuve is also one of the few directors working today who simultaneously understands the demands of modern Hollywood and is dedicated to the craft of filmmaking as an art like a true auteur – and unlike others such as Christopher Nolan, he still has the space to make more independent, esoteric films like Enemy. Which makes it sort of ironic that it is Nolan collaborator Hanz Zimmer (alongside Benjamin Wallfisch) who ultimately took Jóhann Jóhannsson’s place as score composer for Blade Runner 2049, and he does a pretty respectable job of living up to the iconic status of Vangelis‘ dreamy soundtrack (though I am curious to know what Jóhannsson’s score would have sounded like, considering how innovative his work has been when working with Villeneuve). It is a delight to see that all these things make their way and are combined in his new film.

Indeed, Blade Runner 2049 does not disappoint – in fact, it far exceeds expectations. Dennis Villeneuve has made a film that’s not just artful but also more rewarding. Ridley Scott’s original was criticized for having a story that’s hard to follow and relate with, and though this weaker side of the film is less important in retrospect, one can more or less understand where these claims were coming from. But Blade Runner 2049 manages to be narratively gratifying, captivating and coherent. That is not to say that it has commercialized the concept of Blade Runner – mainstream audiences may still find themselves dissatisfied with its almost 3-hour runtime, calling the film unenjoyable and (somehow) boring. But Villeneuve shows that he knows how to make a film that’s meditative, challenging, and uncompromisingly slow yet still effective.

The reason the film is rewarding has less to do with the actual filmmaking – that the film’s presentation is gorgeous is really no surprise – and more with the content. Writers Hampton Fancher and Michael Green have focused a lot on developing the film’s main character, K, portrayed by Ryan Gosling. K is a replicant who works as a “blade runner”, which means his goal is to hunt down and destroy older-model replicants. Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard was doing the same job thirty years ago, except now the Tyler Corporation has been replaced by Niander Wallace’s (Jared Leto) even more evil corporation. Ryan Gosling is the perfect casting choice for K, his expressionless face often suggesting hints of underlying emotion as it did in Drive. When he does appear, Ford evokes, with both subtlety and passion, the growing psychological pain that Deckard has had to endure due to his past and isolation.

 A series of developments propel the narrative, but what really remains the focus is K and his desire to understand who he really is. If in Ridley Scott’s original it was the film that made you think about Deckard’s identity, in Blade Runner 2049 it is also K himself who seeks those answers – and his personal journey makes us care. The only reason the character obeys his orders, one of the replicants (played by Dave Bautista) warns him early on, is because he hasn’t seen a miracle. And K then finds brief moments of life here and there: a rare flower he picks up, the memory of a toy horse, a few notes from an old piano that’s out of tune, a Frank Sinatra song playing in the background. In one of the most evocative scenes, a kiss, frozen in time, transcends for a soul-crushing moment the physical and reaches the reality of emotion. And since the movie is set on a dying planet where more and more people decide to move “off-world”, where everything seems emptier than even the original Blade Runner‘s dystopia, these few moments become all the more impactful and resonant. And they don’t get lost in the rain.

 

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