Sonic Cinema

Sounds, Visions and Insights by Brian Skutle

Blade Runner 2049

Grade : A- Year : 2017 Director : Denis Villeneuve Running Time : 2hr 44min Genre : , ,
Movie review score

I just wrote in my “Movie a Week” review about how I’ve never really loved Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner.” Upon my recent viewing, I can say that I love the look of that seminal 1982 film, adore the Vangelis score, and appreciate the film noir mystery at its center, the sci-fi elements of the narrative, based on a story by Phillip K. Dick, continue to not really interest me. There are compelling ideas, to be sure, but even in Scott’s “definitive” “Final Cut,” released in 2007, I don’t think it lands its punches that effectively. That being said, the new sequel produced by Scott, “Blade Runner 2049,” takes a deep dive into the ideas that were only on the surface of the original film. And in the hands of another fascinating, versatile storyteller (“Arrival” director Denis Villeneuve), “2049” takes a big, visionary leap on top of what we saw in the first film, and does something wholly original in its own right.

After a rebellion at the hands of Replicants, the humanoid slave labor created by the Tyrell Corporation, after the events of the first film, Tyrell went under, and all previous Replicant versions were outlawed, and older models began to be “retired,” en masse. Picking up the pieces was the industrialist Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), who has helped develop synthetic farming to save humanity from Earth’s increasingly-dire environment, and in the 29 years since the rebellion, he has been working towards perfecting Replicants, and their subservience towards mankind. As the film opens, a Blade Runner known as K (Ryan Gosling), who, we learn, is a Replicant, is hunting an older model Replicant, Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista), who has been living as a protein farmer. After a brutal fight, Sapper is dead, and while scanning the area near a dead tree, he uncovers a box, buried in the ground, the contents of which will kick off an investigation that could rock the world to its core.

From here, I am going to tread very carefully, because even more so than the original “Blade Runner,” a huge part of why “2049” is such a rewarding experience is the surprises screenwriters Hampton Fancher (who also co-wrote the first film) and Michael Green have cooked up for Villeneuve and executive producer Ridley Scott, and how they play out. As I discussed in the first paragraph, I feel like the sci-fi in the original film exists entirely on the surface, and the detective story of Blade Runner Deckard (Harrison Ford) is the driving force of the film. Here, Fancher and Green’s ideas on the nature of artificial intelligence, and what it is that makes a sentient being, whether human or android, truly alive take center stage in some terrific and smart ways that add to the impact of the original film, and also delves into the nature of memory, which was such a powerful idea in “Arrival” for Villeneuve. This isn’t just about humanity vs. Replicants, though, as one of the key relationships in the film is the one K has with Joi (Ana de Armas), with whom he shares a unique bond at home. Neither character is human, but it’s probably the most emotionally strong bond I’ve seen two characters share in any movie this year, as it’s clear Joi means a lot to K, and vice versa. In many ways, this brings up a central paradox Spielberg’s “A.I.” did back in 2001 with regards to Monica and David, the robot who wanted to be the son for Monica that she lost- can AI display genuine feeling, or are they simply programmed to? Another film I thought about was Alex Proyas’s “Dark City,” and how memories, and their authenticity, was called into question. K shares one with his superior (Robin Wright) as the case gets more and more complicated that he understands to be a construct to make him more human, but when he goes searching for particular answers, he finds something that makes him wonder whether he can trust his reality or not.

As with its predecessor, this is, first and foremost, a breathtaking technical experience. Building upon the work Scott and his team did in the first film, especially visual effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull and composer Vangelis, Villeneuve and his collaborators expand upon Scott’s world, and take it to a new level of imagination. The MVP in doing so is the legendary cinematographer, Roger Deakins (whom worked with Villeneuve on “Prisoners”), whose use of light, along with desolate production design, recalls the work of Andrei Tarkovsky in some of the most truly haunting passages, as in the opening scene, when K is investigating where a child essential to the case went 29 years ago, and when K makes his way into a deserted Las Vegas in search of where Deckard went after the rebellion. And obviously, Deckard does show up, and Ford does solid work in returning to the role, although not quite as good as he was as Han Solo in “The Force Awakens.” But Deckard is a very different role than Han or Indiana Jones, anyway, and in two scenes, in particular, with K does Ford really deliver something quite special as the two Blade Runners bond over a secret that was hidden with the remains found in the box at the start.

I kept coming back to another sequel to a 1982 cult sci-fi classic while watching “Blade Runner 2049”- “Tron Legacy.” As much as I enjoyed that film, this film is everything I wanted in “Legacy” as a continuation of the original story, and an expansion of the original world. Of course, 1982’s “TRON” isn’t nearly the film, in retrospect, that “Blade Runner” was, but there was a way for “Legacy” to add something to its predecessor that it really didn’t. “2049” does that effortlessly in Villeneuve’s hands, as he and Deakins take us on back into the dark, imaginative world of Scott’s original film, and give us something tactile and unpredictable. Villeneuve, as he has in all his previous films I’ve seen, gets amazingly strong work from his team, whether its Deakins or composers Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch (who pay tribute to Vangelis’s score with strong work of their own), Gosling or Ford, or Leto, Wright, Bautista, and especially de Armas, Mackenzie Davis (as a Replicant who shares a lovely, romantic moment with Gosling and de Armas) and Carla Juri as Dr. Ana Stelline, who comes up with the memories for the Replicants. More so than any continuation of a long-dormant cult sci-fi universe that has been brought back to the big screen, “Blade Runner 2049” finds something fascinating in its earlier iteration, and digs deep into the soul of what ideas it was exploring in the first place. The result is every bit as good, and I would argue, better, than what came before it.

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