Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner is not only one of the greatest films ever made, it is also the definitive cinematic portrait of the future. As the year it was set, 2019, fast began approaching at the beginning of this decade, it felt surreal (still no flying cars, dammit!). I was beyond surprised to hear that Hollywood was actually going to follow through with a sequel.
Any film critic reviewing Blade Runner 2049 has been asked to write about the film without providing virtually any plot details. While that makes writing this a little hard, I see their point. The film is best seen knowing as little as possible about what is to come (as most films are). So what can I say?
Well, I can say that my experience watching it was a uniformly positive one. I can say that Ryan Gosling stars as an L.A.P.D. officer named K, who works as a titular “Blade Runner.” A Blade Runner’s job is to hunt down Replicants, humanoid A.I.’s used predominantly for slave labor. During a routine stop at the home of an apparent Replicant, K comes across something unusual buried under ground. The findings of the excavation set the plot in motion, setting K on a collision course with his own boss, Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright). Also on that course are the CEO of the new world’s mega corporation Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), his henchwoman Luv (newcomer Sylvia Hoeks), and eventually, Rick Deckard himself (Harrison Ford). It’s a meditation on all of the same things the first one explored (the nature of humanity, memories, dreams, our very souls), while incorporating new themes as well (how about reality itself this time?). It is one of the best movies of the year.
I am happiest to say that Blade Runner 2049 is a Blade Runner sequel, yet very much its own thing. It stands apart visually and thematically. At 163 minutes, it is a slow burn, a lengthy mood piece that is still never boring. It is one that you have to settle in for. Whereas the first film is a dark and muddled experience that sidesteps any type of three act structure, it feels easier to find your footing in this film; to know where you are in the story and the universe.
Most of that can be attributed to cinematographer Roger Deakins, an unsung hero of cinema who has been nominated for more than ten academy awards but never brought one home. If his work here doesn’t finally earn him one, cancel the awards for the rest of time. He has created one of the most visually stunning experiences one can have in a movie theatre- and one that is completely right for the story. This is the third time Deakins has worked with director Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Sicario), and the two are a true match of artistic vision.
Speaking of the sound, Hans Zimmer has had his best year ever in 2017, between his work here and on Dunkirk. I had always seen the composer as a middlebrow master of four note patterns (the minor sixth, the root note, the minor third, the major second, for you music geeks). This year he has taken major risks and made scores that match the high intensity of these films. Some parts of this sound like a chainsaw getting put to a Ferrari revving in neutral at 160 MPH. Villeneuve had to part ways with his usual ride or die composer Johan Johansson for some unknown reason; yet Zimmer rises to the occasion, making a score that recalls the iconic Vangelis work of the original while making it his own. Still present are his signature BWAHS- but they’ve taken a subtler shape, now sounding more like underwater depth charges, as opposed to a tuba playing right next to your ear. Nevertheless, they are powerful and theater shaking. God bless the Ritz East theater, but its very fine sound system still stood no chance against this film- the ceiling was shaking frequently throughout the screening, with anything not bolted down rattling loudly. It felt like an incidental 4D theatre-going experience.
It is perhaps telling that I’ve barely spoken of the story itself yet, or the characters. Perhaps that is one of the film’s weaknesses. 2049 is missing a character as compelling as, for example, Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) was in the original. Hauer steals that film from under Harrison Ford, as a Replicant with a thirst for life so great that he will murder and confront his maker to extend his precious few years in the universe. Yet 2049 brilliantly flips this idea on its head. If anything, actual human life here is treated with caution and fear. In this world, it seems easier and more desirable to be a Replicant, to play by the rules and fit into a neat and comfy box. Any human experience, be it love, companionship, learning, or sex can be easily achieved through advances in technological simulation- so why risk the real thing? That may be a reason that there are few characters here who feel alive. Nobody is really alive in this world. The discovery of the soul, of reality, of being born at all, is treated at first as a burden. Then, as it’s experienced, as something that one cannot live without.
If Blade Runner 2049 feels a little empty, the viewer can easily fill that space with what is inside of them. In it, I found a powerful, poignant story about overcoming ambivalence to life itself. I imagine that every person will come away with something different. It is that kind of great movie going experience.
1982’s Blade Runner offered a vision of our decade that, thankfully, turned out not to be entirely accurate. That’s how the best sci-fi works though- not by trying to predict, but by using metaphor to reflect our reality back to us. But it got some things right – as we inch closer to 2019, corporations have human rights, technology has irreversibly altered our minds and ways of relating, we are more numb and more isolated, and our weather has gone insane…and yet plenty did not come to pass. Rather than try to offer a corrective, 2049 wisely decides to continue with the vision originally offered. They’ve doubled down on the Asian influence and even added an influx of Russian language and culture. Many of the same advertisements from the original are present here, wisely deciding to forego advertising for some of the bigger brands who have popped up since 1982. It is the world of Blade Runner 2049, not necessarily our 2049. Yet it will probably end up getting a few things right about where we end up. Forests and animals are disappearing. Our cities keep growing in population, leaving our exurbs and rural areas emptier. It is increasingly easier to live in a fantasy world than in reality. It increasingly feels like more work to access our empathy for fellow mankind.
But some things, we learn, will never change- our love of art, our fascination with film and the warm cocoon of creativity…and of course, we’ll always have our memories- whether real or implanted.
Blade Runner 2049 opens in Philly theaters today.