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The Art and Experience of Blade Runner 2049

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Warner Bros.

Studio Pitch: Yes, the original film bombed, but we think people are ready for more Blade Runner!

With Blade Runner 2049 slipping onto the schedule in a time when audiences are numb to remakes, sequels, and soft reboots, it was greeted with something of a shrugging, “of course.” At least by me. The sequel machine has come around to Ridley Scott’s original 1982 film despite its cult audience not really clamoring for more. I was not prepared for what a straight, faithful Blade Runner sequel from the consistently excellent Denis Villeneuve (director of Arrival and Sicario) would look like. I wasn’t prepared for how committed the movie would be to the cold aesthetic of the original film or to using the open questions left by the first film as springboards to explore new themes and ideas.

Scott’s Blade Runner is remembered for a lot of things: its production design, its melding of mystery noir with sci-fi (creating its own sub-genre that movies like Dark City and Minority Report would later explore), its sex-bots, its numerous different director’s cuts, and Scott’s own assertions outside the film that attempted to spark the debate about whether or not Harrison Ford’s character is a replicant. What it’s not known for is its story, which is where 2049 picks up and builds on masterfully.  Ryan Gosling plays rogue-robot-hunting blade runner “K,” who we are shown is a replicant in the very first scene, the first of many times this sequel will play on our experience with the first film to subvert expectations. Gosling is back in Drive mode here, perfecting the icy cold stare of a robot, whose mind ticks lively behind a façade that shows no expression. He dons a classic PI trench coat, sits in the dark, opens himself up only to a hologram of a female companion (Ana De Armas, becoming his unlikely side-kick and an ironic heart to the film,) and silently follows the tiniest clues.

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Instead of being constructed around a series of action scenes, as the modern template for reboots has low-bared for us, the movie is action-light and moves along with K’s detective work. The script is clever enough so that each new clue branches off into several possible directions. The mystery in 2049 is dense and complicated and Velleneuve uses some clever misdirection, but it’s also entirely solvable, engaging the keen-eyed cinemaphile to follow it. It unfolds slowly, at almost 3 hours, but thoughtfully and with purpose. Watching the pieces that looked like world-building details wind back and pay off in the story is incredibly satisfying. I was completely and totally drawn into the film.

The mystery works in congress with the visuals, which reflect a clear respect by Velleneuve to preserve Scott’s universe – right down to the Atari advertisements that would seem like an anachronism in our world but perfectly extend the future-verse of Blade Runner. As he exhibited with the cold hues of Arrival and Prisoners, the movie swims in a rich color palette that varies with each set piece; from the grey of the replicant’s farm to the red of the radioactive desert to the shimmering dome of Jared Leto’s God chamber. The movie is gorgeous – start to finish, top to bottom. Every shot looks like a damn painting, a precisely staged and beautifully rendered piece of sci-fi techno-art.

Warner Bros.

While I respect and recognize the influence of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, I was never a big fan of the movie itself. I never felt the movie’s lofty sci-fi themes of questioning-your-humanity broke out of traditional sci-fi themes and connected. It was a mood, a world, a style, and a broad theme. 2049 deals in a lot of the same pseudo-scientific psychobabble about what makes us human and the levels of power as we create and our creations begin creating. This isn’t particularly new at this point and a continued theme rippling underneath a lot of Scott’s work (most recently Prometheus and Alien: Covenant.) The film even hangs on the now well-worn Very Important Hybrid trope. While I wouldn’t call it quite a McGuffin, much of it comes from Jared Leto’s Wallace (the head of the Wallace Corporation, building the latest line of more obedient replicants) whose rambles about angels, slaves, and gods are perfectly in keeping with the madman monologue-obsessed villain type. It’s not particularly thought-provoking, but it serves the narrative just right. By pushing the creation subtext to text instead of wallowing in it, Velleneuve makes it work here. He makes everything work. He makes the most mature, adult, layered, and visually delicious neo-noir movie I’ve seen, even making the genre’s previous high, Steven Speilberg’s phenomenal Minority Report, look wacky by comparison.

Warner Bros.

As I’ve gotten older and seen more classic cult movies, I’m drawn more to mood pieces and lived-in worlds than by cinematic tricks and scripted twists. Blade Runner’s world isn’t just a unique dystopian future, but a fully realized lived-in one where everything high tech looks run down and dusty. The grimy police station, the hologram girlfriend who freezes when a call comes in. Villeneuve’s visual eye fits right in here, but it’s also the mood he recreates that sets 2049 buzzing with life even when it’s moving at a glacier’s pace. It is awash in a rhythmic pace and long tracking over dystopian city ruins. The movie is positively in love with its neo-noir design. The thumping score works to turn synth ‘80s techno into an auditory assault on the nerves in the movie’s few, but effectively anxious, action sequences. 2049 is a wonderful marriage of filmmaker and material. I can’t imagine this sequel in the hands of anyone else, even, at this point, Ridley Scott.

Warner Bros.

The Oscar-heavyweight cast lives up to their reputations as all the performances here are just right. From the maniacal humans trying to hold the world together in Robin Wright and the maniacal humans trying to create a new one in Leto, to the reappearance of the original Blade Runner, Rick Deckard, for which Harrison Ford delivers the best and most subtle performance he has in probably a decade. Then again, this is the first movie he’s been in… in about a decade, actually, that gives him an emotion to play instead of some fan service homage role. Sylvia Hoakes also stands out as Leto’s replicant right-hand woman, whose dedication to doing his dirty work turns her into K’s most vicious adversary.

Blade Runner 2049 is a thrilling, wonderfully immersive journey and a prototype for sequel crafting that loves and pays tribute to the original while expanding its lore in fresh new directions. It’s a niche film that challenges and trusts the audience, but it’s worth seeing even for those not a fan of Scott’s original. It’s for any post-Arrival fans of Villeneuve or anyone who likes Blade Runner’s dystopian sci-fi detective world but hasn’t yet seen it executed to its fullest potential. Nearly perfect, Blade Runner 2049 is one of the best movies of the year and the new neo-noir standard.

 

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