The Iconic Story Continues: A Review of “Blade Runner 2049”
“Who am I?” It’s the question at the core of self-philosophy and existential crises everywhere. Few films have approached this question more directly and effectively than Ridley Scott’s classic picture “Blade Runner.”
The film was hardly a critical or commercial darling in its release year of 1982, but it’s praised in modern settings for good reason. It created an artistic, technically revolutionary world, and it contains a heartbreaking story of being that culminates in one of the most emotional final monologues in the history of popular culture.
Still, the original “Blade Runner,” from where I stand, is deeply flawed in its pace, performances, and main character. When I watched it for the first time, I was certainly disappointed. However, the further I get from it, the more I want to talk about it. There’s so much to say. If nothing else, “Blade Runner” makes you feel, and makes you think hard.
My anticipation for the sequel to this messy masterpiece, “Blade Runner 2049,” was high for sure. Scott’s director’s chair was filled by Denis Villenueve, one of the most interesting filmmakers of our time. He was the man behind my favorite film of 2016, “Arrival.” I’ve seen him craft a movie that is elite in almost every aspect, and now he had one of the most iconic film universes to play with. “2049” was destined to be something special. And that it is.
Much like “Arrival,” Denis’ latest effort doesn’t feel right in the time and industry it has been released into. While it is the sequel to a beloved film, it is not an action flick. Its blockbuster budget will deceive you, as this is intimate, psychological sci-fi, or, as I will refer to all films with similar attributes in the future, “psy-fi.”
It has a massive scope, but we are very close to the world that is being portrayed. It’s slightly ironic, but “2049” probably is a better projection of our current world’s state than the original is, which is set two years from now in 2019. This isn’t necessarily a fault, as I doubt the intention of the original’s world was to predict the future, but rather a simple observation that I made while watching.
The protagonist of our story is K, played by Ryan Gosling, who is later on in the film given the name “Joe” in an accidentally hilarious scene. He’s fairly bland on the outside, and his issues are mostly a rehash of the problems that face the core characters of the original film, which almost always come back to that pesky question: “Who am I?”
But K has a big role to play, both in futuristic Los Angeles, and in his own head. Out of respect for Denis, I would rather not spoil his arc, but I found it satisfying. Did I care a crazy amount about our main character? Not really, but that’s not totally necessary. His story is tragic, the stakes are high, and when K gets emotional, Gosling hits it out of the park. That’s enough for me to stay interested in his story.
The original blade runner, Rick Deckard, is back as well, with Harrison Ford reprising another one of his prime roles. Ford’s performance is solid, but it’s not Deckard. He plays him cranky, but he’s way too sarcastic. The original’s Deckard was extremely tame, and that was kind of the point. “2049’s” Deckard is Ford playing himself, and that’s not consistent with what we know of the character. If anything, based on what the film tells us, he probably should have gotten more stoic and cranky as the years since the original have passed.
Sylvia Hoeks, Robin Wright, and Jared Leto play a trio of moralistically confusing characters that pose a threat to K and Deckard’s affairs being successfully completed. Hoeks is fine as Luv, the physical antagonist of the group, but she doesn’t get a whole lot of development. Leto blinded himself for his role as Niander Wallace, a spiritual successor of sorts to the original’s replicant creator Tyrell. He’s over-the-top weird, and it’s incredible to watch.
My favorite supporting role, however, was K’s pixelated wife Joi, played by Ana de Armas. Her existential dilemma is more powerful than anything else going on in the film. It’s hard to tell if she even knows she’s going through it, and so the audience gets to feel it for her. She’s written extremely well, and her final scene is perfectly abrupt, and just the emotional kick that’s needed for us to feel the weight of every other character’s drama going into the film’s final act.
Technically, “Blade Runner 2049” can stand proudly next to its groundbreaking predecessor. The great Roger Deakins is teamed up with Denis once more, and the results show up. There’s a sweeping shot in the first quarter of the film where the LAPD’s hub is shown for the first time, and it was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen on film, CGI and all.
Later on, when K goes to Las Vegas, the orange of the desert blurs our sight, adding a layer of mystery that only a master like Deakins can portray. The film is also perfectly lit, even subtly calling back to the noir elements that gave the original film symbolic strength. There’s also a lot of contrast going on, with a lot of settings being bright, but the action in the front being in shadow. In short, there isn’t a bad frame that sticks out.
The question still remains, though. “Who am I?” “Blade Runner 2049” is loaded with characters who want to know, but will be dissatisfied with whatever answer they get. For a nearly three-hour movie, it feels like it’s moving pretty fast. It only has a few moments that will really stick out, but there is a lot to discuss. It has only one character that validates the journey, Deckard is not implemented well, and, despite the solid pacing, it’s unnecessarily long. I think it’s a step back in quality when compared to the original, and to Denis’ own “Arrival,” but those are some of the greatest films I’ve ever seen.
Without watching the original “Blade Runner,” “2049” won’t hit terribly hard. But the two films together form a combination of thought-provoking pieces of art best mulled over for some time before rushing to judgment.