Film Review – Blade Runner 2049

Blade Runner 2049

Blade Runner 2049

An eye opens and a world is reflected. A wide landscape filled with white towers, surrounded by an expanse of agriculture. From its opening frames, Blade Runner 2049 is making statements that it is both beholden to its predecessor and going to be something of its own. Like Blade Runner (1982), we open on not just a wide, establishing shot of a world, but a declaration of its current state. The original burst opens with a spouting flame and a dark, nighttime world polluted with industrial waste and overpopulation. Here we are greeted with daylight and more white than the original ever presented. This sets a tone for what’s to come.

Agent K (Ryan Gosling), a Blade Runner, is on a mission to bring in a replicant. The mission though brings up a mystery and solution that if true could quite possibly defy a certain understanding of the way the world in 2049 works. A lot has happened since Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) and Rachel (Sean Young) went on the lam in order to save Rachel’s life from “retirement,” the term given to killing replicants. Sometime between then and now a “blackout” occurred when an EMP wiped out all of Los Angeles’s power and erased all recorded data. In its wake, production of replicants was declared illegal. Until billionaire Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) devised a new way to create totally obedient replicants. It’s now a Blade Runner’s job to hunt down replicants that were made before Wallace’s new breed.

Director Denis Villaneuve takes over where Ridley Scott left off, but jumps the time distance from a place that is used, dirty and overcrowded to a place that’s antiseptically sterile and more wide open in comparison. The production design here is less tactile than before and more coldly detached despite the comfort of warmer lighting.

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There’s a moment in Dangerous Days, the documentary about the making of Blade Runner, where Scott tells a story about convincing screenwriter Hampton Fancher to think about and write what the world the story inhabits looks like. “What happens when you go out the door?” Ridley asked. Blade Runner 2049’s attitude about the world it inhabits is far more in line with Fancher’s original idea for the script being mostly indoors, in rooms and caring very little for what’s going on outside. The world of Blade Runner is presented here almost incidentally. An afterthought that’s only required to be there because the original was so steeped in it.

Villeneuve and company are certainly trying to make this its own thing, with its look, its feel and its sound. However, the movie’s story is entirely predicated upon the events of the original. It’s not possible to separate this movie and to fully evaluate it on its own. Whereas Ridley Scott’s film is a self-contained artistic statement, Villeneuve’s movie is mired in solving the riddles of the past while creating very few for the future. Everything about Blade Runner 2049 is so over-stated and matter-of-fact that when it’s done, there’s hardly any mystery left and there certainly is no debate over who’s a replicant and who isn’t. One of modern cinema’s greatest debates is solved. This will upset fans who saw the original one way and confirm for the others who saw it the other way.

Unfortunately, so much of this movie itself feels like an afterthought. The original is one of the most influential science fiction films of all-time. It created a wholly new look and atmosphere out of the combining of nostalgic elements. Since its release, countless science fiction, films, books, music, television shows, and comic books have tried to replicate the original’s look and feel. Now, with an official sequel directly indulging in that world so sought after, Villeneuve seems far less interested in asking what happens outside the doors and is instead again concerned with what is going inside.

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It’s not that this isn’t without its complexities or its own ideas and themes. Like the cinematography though, most of these things are rather exposed in broadly lit shots. Roger Deakins‘ work is gorgeous and the matte landscapes look great, but Deakins rarely gives us a shot that’s truly interesting to behold. Gone are the dark noir shadows, truncated by bright lights intruding into personal spaces. Instead this movie is lit to reveal. If the overall idea of the original was about hidden conspiracies, then the overall idea here is exposure. The truth is out. And now the question is, what do you do in the face of that truth?

Questions of the nature what it means to be human and what is a soul, and who or what possess a soul are the center of the themes here. The desire to be real postulates a realness that is born of such desire. How could one want to be real if one isn’t already real? There’s a truly deep resonance in what this movie is saying, the frustration comes from so many of the choices made in the ways in which to say it.

For a bulk of its two hours and forty-three minute runtime, scenes are quiet, almost void of the constant ambient sound design of the original. The pacing is in no hurry to get anywhere, even after the movie reveals its hand in the first twenty or so minutes. But unlike its predecessor, this is less hypnotic and absorbing. The visuals are great to look at, but all of it feels less poured over in detail and merely an affect of what was established in expectations from the first movie. Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch’s score has some excellent moments but lacks the ferocity and vitality of Vangelis’s.

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Ryan Gosling is typical Ryan Gosling, even mannered and otherwise stoic, until he’s not, but that’s never really a place this goes. Ford brings his crusty, gravelly voice like dirt in an operating room to a rather smooth sounding world. He looks both weary and excited, sometimes at once. Sylvia Hoeks’s performance as Luv, Wallace’s personal henchwoman, has good moments but almost overdoes it every chance she gets. It’s a case of tones being switched by performances that may work perfectly for some but may feel forced for others.

There’s nothing here that makes this a bad movie but it’s also not necessarily a great one. It, without question though, presents things to think about and its conflicting nature in its approach to the material makes for something to discuss instead of a movie that is unanimously loved or hated. That alone may require multiple viewings. And while it may not have the subversive plot of the original, it does present a commentary to that subversion that will ultimately be up to the viewer to decide if it makes for a lasting experience or not.


Benjamin Nason is a writer, film-maker and critic from the Pacific Northwest, where he lives with his cat Lulu.

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