(2017—Director: Denis Villeneuve)
(out of 5 stars)
“Dying for the right cause is the most human thing we can do.” — Freysa (Hiam Abbass) to Officer K (Ryan Gosling)
French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Sicario) took on immense pressure when he agreed to helm the long-awaited sequel to Blade Runner, Ridley Scott’s landmark 1982 science fiction neo-noir. The original Blade Runner’s dazzling visuals and probing look into the nature of humanity are almost matched by its often tiring viewing experience and need for two improved cuts. The task of renewing the original film’s strengths while attracting new audiences may have turned out too daunting, even for Villeneuve. Blade Runner 2049 fills an exhausting watch with more advanced and beautiful cinematic technology. These come at the cost of many of the murky touches that gave the cerebral first film its earthy, punkish charm.
Humanity in the future has resorted to the use of replicants (bioengineered humans) to ensure their survival. The mighty Wallace Corporation built obedience into these newer replicants. One such replicant, LAPD Officer “K” (Ryan Gosling, La La Land), works as a “blade runner” to kill or “retire” older, less docile replicant models. At the end of one mission, K discovers the remains of a female replicant that appears to have died in childbirth. Paranoia and mistrust over the ramifications of replicant sexual reproduction begin to brew between K, his LAPD superior Lt. Joshi (a bored Robin Wright, Netflix’s House of Cards, Wonder Woman), and blind CEO Niander Wallace (Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club) and his replicant assistant/enforcer Luv (Sylvia Hoeks). In search of answers, K journeys to find Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), a former blade runner who went missing after the events of the first film.
Like Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk from several months earlier, Blade Runner 2049 is the latest towering technical achievement from director Denis Villeneuve. The visual effects crew have harnessed gorgeous practical effects before enhancing them on the computer, blurring the line between the real and the artificial. The production and post-production sound teams have constructed a most mighty audio experience, aided by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch’s score that is equal parts moody, pulsing, and restrained when necessary. Chief among Blade Runner 2049’s stellar craft efforts is the majestic and seering cinematography by the esteemed Roger A. Deakins (Skyfall, Sicario). While I remain a champion of Dunkirk’s Hoyte Van Hoytema, it is now clear that Deakins is Van Hoytema’s main competition for 2017’s Best Cinematography Oscar. Lastly, while their acting abilities are often limited to how well-written their characters are, Ryan Gosling as K and Harrison Ford reprising as Rick Deckard carry the story with confidence from start to finish.
Unfortunately, Blade Runner 2049 (co-penned by Michael Green (Logan) and original Blade Runner screenwriter Hampton Fancher) struggles to keep me engaged with its narrative and character choices, many of which make worse issues I have with the original Blade Runner. A film’s lasting influence on future works does not necessarily render it immune to criticism, especially when its straightforward and sometimes convenient noir story necessitates two post-release cuts. Cinematic successors like RoboCop, Total Recall, and The Matrix, anime classics Akira and Ghost in the Shell, to the less distanced Her and Ex Machina, cement Blade Runner less as an unquestionable masterpiece and more as a pioneering parent with gifted offspring. Blade Runner succeeded best in foretelling a society that mixes the gritty and the shiny, overflowing with inhabitants dependent on electronic screens to fulfill their every desire. Taxing as much as it is beautiful, the original Blade Runner’s runtime of just under two hours does not outstay its welcome.
At two hours and forty-one minutes, Blade Runner 2049 feels a half-hour longer than it should. The updated and polished visuals are too awe-inspiring for a story with a hollow emotional core. Whereas the first film made the mighty corporation the unfortunate victim caught in the middle of the hunt. 2049 reduces the dynamic to a mere race between the LAPD and the corporation’s CEO and his trusty assistant to capture the living proof of replicant sexual reproduction. As with Logan from earlier this year, the main villain and henchwoman are severe letdowns. Jared Leto overplays Niander Wallace as a literal blind mad scientist and self-solemn, corporate world conqueror—a far cry from the poetic and fatalistic waxing of Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty. Sylvia Hoeks as Luv is a ruthless, Terminator-like henchwoman, even though she does express her cocky intent to rise to the top of replicant-kind and Wallace’s highest graces—a minor modification of many a fictional henchman’s goal to make proud or surpass their employer. Lacking a deceptively-innocent introduction like that of Daryl Hannah’s Pris from the first film, 2049 only presents Luv as a killing machine. This is most demonstrated when a dull Robin Wright tells Luv, “Do what you gotta do,” before Luv disembowels her in the second of Luv’s two inexplicable infiltrations into LAPD headquarters.
One character that 2049 seems to borrow from a stronger source and struggles to exploit is Officer K’s holographic girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas, War Dogs). De Armas instills great sympathy into Joi and her character’s payoff is tragic, but her scenes feel lifted straight from Her, the (better-written) 2013 Spike Jonze sci-fi gem. This is particularly the case when she convinces K to make love to her via a surrogate prostitute (Mackenzie Davis), in a needless scene midway through the film’s second hour. Joi is one supporting character and futuristic technology commentary point too much in a story already outstaying its welcome.
In my “Top 10 Best Films of 2016” article, I noted that, compared to the apt and masterful Prisoners and Sicario, director Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival falls just short of meeting its lofty ambitions. With Blade Runner 2049, Villeneuve may have revealed his ambition/effectiveness limit as a filmmaker. Villeneuve remains a technical master, but the visual beauty and challenging ideas he helps bring to audiences can only have as much meaning behind them as the stories they serve. It is a shame that Blade Runner 2049 could not outpace the influential original. But then again, what sequel does?
(Parental Note: Blade Runner 2049 has been rated R by the MPAA “for violence, some sexuality, nudity, and language.” It has also been rated 15 by the BBFC for “strong violence, language, and sexualized nudity” and rated L (Limited adult audience) by the Catholic News Service for containing “female nudity, a discreet sexual encounter involving a holograph melding with a human prostitute, frequent rough language and some profanities.”)