by Philip Price
The plan for “Blade Runner 2049,” the 35 year later sequel to director Ridley Scott's 1982 now classic “Blade Runner,” was to watch Scott's "final cut" of the film prior to seeing director Denis Villeneuve's (“Prisoners,” “Arrival”) follow-up. The original “Blade Runner” is one of those movies that I was always told I needed to watch and indeed started countless times, but never actually made it all the way through. Whether it was due to a lack of intrigue, bad timing, or something of the like I somehow ended up feeling rather familiar with the world Scott created from this Philip K. Dick short story without ever really becoming aware of the narrative it was relaying. Alas, there wasn't time to squeeze in a viewing of the original film prior to my wife and I's planned date night this past Saturday (things happen when you have an almost three year-old and Friday night, “Blade Runner” didn't happen) and so, with little knowledge of exactly what to expect from “Blade Runner 2049” other than a visually stunning experience (cinematographer Roger Deakins is once again responsible for what we see here) this second, seemingly more intrusive story into the world of replicants and their version of the future happened. So, did I understand everything that happened? I think so. Did I appreciate everything as much as the guy behind me who said "wow" out loud no less than seventeen times throughout the two hour and 45 minute runtime? Probably not. Still, “Blade Runner 2049” is a movie that is able to stand on its own to a degree, but certainly benefits from having the knowledge of what occurred in the prior installment. Having gone back since seeing ‘2049’ and watched the final cut of the original film I feel as if I've had a unique enough experience with the larger story being told that my individual experience with the film is something of a reverse of the rose-tinted glasses idiom in that the original film is not one that has been unduly idolized because of its stance in pop culture before I had the opportunity to make up my own mind about it, but rather my perspective on the original is of more significance because I know where these characters go and I know what the actions took in that initial film lead to. This inverse experience while, not necessarily recommended, tends to only make ‘2049’ that much more mystical-that much more epic and that much more meaningful.
Going in with a larger shroud of mystery than even those who might have seen the original prior to ‘2049’ only seemed to amplify the air of preciousness that the first frames of Villeneuve's sequel contain. They are glorious, to say the least and the tone is immediately set, but I digress. This is a movie shrouded in secrecy due to the revelations that come quick and early, but are not obvious from a standpoint of what fans of the first film might expect. Much like the original though, “Blade Runner 2049” is a detective story with elements of noir-even if Villeneuve and screenwriters Michael Green (“Logan”) and original “Blade Runner” writer Hampton Fancher push the noir elements in favor of those traditionally associated with science fiction save for the integrated production design. In ‘2049,’ what Fancher and Green's story (which was apparently based on a novella that Scott wrote) attempts to do though is conceive of more of a mystery for our protagonist, simply referred to as "K" (Ryan Gosling), to work out. The key being that this mystery deals in a particular revelation concerning replicants that could potentially "break the world" as Robin Wright's LAPD Lieutenant Joshi tells us. This is what convinces more casual spectators such as myself to believe in the hype around the “Blade Runner” brand though, as it's easy to see the visuals that Deakins has constructed are jaw-dropping and of the most epic in scope one could ask for while Villeneuve, who was somehow granted a $150 million budget for this thing, has based his characters and scenarios in practical sets and tangible locations that feel as mammoth as the scope the director intended the whole of his film to have. Outside of all of these extraneous elements that naturally enhance the experience overall is a story that is captivating and complex from the word go. That this narrative draws us in and muses on the evolving sciences of artificial intelligence, of what it means to truly be human, and how our memories factor into this perception are endlessly fascinating while filtered through an equally intriguing plot. This is what hooks the uninitiated. Harrison Ford, who returns to the role of Rick Deckard that he originated in the 1982 film, has described ‘2049’ as something with a particular kind of ambition and a film that is epic and huge-a cathedral of a movie, not a little church you stop into along the way. And I think this is an appropriate comparison as there is something inherent to not just the breadth that Villeneuve covers in this sequel as there is the beauty that sweeps the walls and ceilings of a cathedral, but it also has a depth to it much like the book those buildings are built on-both of which no doubt have countless interpretations that come from those who take something from it. That isn't to say I'm comparing “Blade Runner 2049” to the Bible as I'm hardly fit to dissect and criticize this particular film given my history with the series much less the prose of an ancient text, but here we are.
I recall hearing Damon Lindelof say on the commentary track for “Prometheus” that most of the time the mysteries are always going to be more interesting than whatever the solution might come to be. Mysteries and questionable circumstance have always stood to be the more intriguing factor than whatever reveal any number of spectators might imagine in their heads-the reality of such always failing to live up to expectations, but with ‘2049’ the film plays it so straight by essentially giving only a few options that the outcome might be that there are only a few ways in which the conclusion might prove to ultimately be disappointing. Spoiler alert: it is not. For all the visual grandeur, the monumental set and production design, the soundscape between both Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch's pulsing score as well as the entirety of the sound department that give each gun blast a jolt and each crunching bone a distinct and hollow sound it is all supported by a story that really digs into what the first film only scratched the surface of. While others may draw this conclusion, having viewed the two films in reverse order it is all the more clear how much ‘2049’ amplifies and examines the themes of what it means to be alive and have memories and how those memories inform our past and future; what "more human than human" actually means. In order to accomplish this, Villeneuve and Editor Joe Walker (a frequent collaborator of both Villeneuve's and Steve McQueen) first approach the subject matter by allowing themselves and the audience time to bask in these ideas. The cutting of ‘2049’ is extremely measured and what some may ultimately find to be boring, but never for a moment was I checking my watch or phone wondering what point of the movie we were at or how long we might have left. Rather, this intentional pacing of the film makes it that much more alluring as we continually inch toward the edge of our seats waiting for the film to deliver on what it is setting up. What it is setting up then, is following through on this idea that wasn't fully presented in the first film, but only hinted at through Ford's character. In Rick Deckard there is much debate over the nature of who he truly is and while you could have it either way even after seeing ‘2049,’ the implications for one are certainly greater than the other despite both being rather groundbreaking. That said, while the original “Blade Runner” took this central conceit of artificial intelligence and kind of streamlined it into a rather simple story about four fugitive replicants what ‘2049’ does is unpack this conceit and the heart of what Deckard may or may not be by utilizing the mystery and moral ambiguity of the noir genre to explore the repercussions and further possibilities of these technological advancements as well as the evolving definition of what constitutes a soul. It is a fascinating deep dive into several other branches of these aforementioned ideas and themes that have been preserved in this narrative that is both compelling, absolutely a continuation and improvement upon the original film, while also possessing its own vision.
So, what I'm basically saying is that “Blade Runner 2049” is a $150 million art house film as it is solely the product of Villeneuve and the team he has put together to bring this new chapter to life in the best and most respectful way possible as it is clear the filmmaker adores Scott's original. This is all without even mentioning much of the actors involved in bringing this story to life. Most of this lack of mention comes from a fear of spoiling the dynamics and story at play between most of them, but much like every other facet of the film the performances here serve the overall purpose of the film very well. As the main protagonist of the film, Gosling's K is a man who is a blade runner for the LAPD that is beginning to have doubts about his job, and as the film progresses these doubts become more about his life, and as the film progresses even further-there are doubts about his purpose. For a fair portion of the runtime Gosling does that stoic, emotionless thing he does so well and perfected in “Drive” while the re-introduction of Ford's Deckard allows for K to become less of a puzzle to himself and more someone who finds that purpose he was beginning to lose sight of. What might go most underappreciated though is that Gosling essentially shepherds this behemoth of a movie on his appeal alone. Our willingness to follow him and stay with him on this unboxing of a decades old mystery is not an easy task, but the charismatic presence Gosling exudes even when he's acting detached is really something that shouldn't be taken for granted-especially when it is so effortless you almost forget to notice it. K's woman of choice is that of a lifelike hologram named Joi (Ana De Armas), a product of the Wallace Corporation that rose up in the wake of the Tyrell Corporation falling into bankruptcy. As Joi, De Armas has the difficult task of being both a broad answer to K's specific needs while at the same time convincing him and us that there is genuine emotion to be felt towards K despite all of what Joi does coming from coding. It is a fine line to walk and for much of the film, De Armas is given the opportunity to pull us into this web of deceit which she does in alluring fashion only for the script and a cold turn by the actress showing us just how tragic those emotions K might have developed for Joi actually are (any hint of a soul we might have seen being taken away through the removal of her eyes is a devastating touch). Sylvia Hoeks, an actress from the Netherlands, gives a star-making performance as Jared Leto's Niander Wallace's right-hand woman stealing nearly every scene she appears in even when she is opposite heavy-hitters like Gosling, Wright, and Ford. A scene between Hoeks' Luv and Wright's Joshi is especially memorable not only for the violence inflicted, but the lack of compassion displayed. Speaking of Leto, while-as my wife pointed out-his CEO is reminiscent of Teiresias, the blind prophet whose help Odysseus seeks in the Underworld in Homer's The Odyssey, his performance itself is so limited in terms of screen time that the indulgence of it all is nearly pitch perfect. Add to this Dave Bautista and Mackenzie Davis making honorable contributions and “Blade Runner 2049” is kind of everything I ever want in a movie. It is a movie I want to see again and for a movie that runs just shy of three hours, that is really saying something.