By Jack Dignan
Where does one even begin when discussing Blade Runner 2049? It's a film shrouded in anticipation and secrecy, even more so than that of the latest Star Wars movies. A written message popped up on screen moments before the film's opening logos, written by director Denis Villeneuve himself. It asks of us film critics to not spoil any of the film's plot, allowing audiences, such as you dear reader, to go in fresh. I respect that. And having now seen the film, I agree. Don't be late. Don't miss a minute. Every moment matters in Blade Runner 2049, and I don't think I can talk about a single one of them without ruining something (fear not, there'll be no spoilers here). This is without a doubt the most daunting review I'm ever going to write.
Just last week, I was fortunate enough to watch the 4K restoration of the original Blade Runner up on the big screen. It was my first time experiencing it how it was made to be seen. My enjoyment of the film was all the better for it. Some movies are made to be seen wherever. You can watch them on TV late one night or early one morning, but there are others, such as the original Blade Runner, that deserves the biggest screen possible. Blade Runner 2049 continues that ideal. It's an immersive, enlightening cinematic experience comparable to almost nothing else. This is a film with 30 years of anticipation behind it. That's 30 years of speculating, discussing, analysing and dissecting every frame of the original in an attempt to understand it's deeper thematic meanings. Theories are aplenty.
Going into the sequel, the writers (Logan's Michael Green and original Blade Runner's Hampton Fancher) no doubt had an even more daunting task than I. I'm just the awkward young adult talking about science fiction on the Internet. They're living it. But when writing a sequel to Blade Runner, a lot does need to be considered. Do you tie up loose ends? Do you continue Deckard's story? Do you delve into similar themes? Have those themes evolved at all? I'm happy to report that I'm not going to answer any of the listed questions. You can find out for yourself. However, the route this film takes is not one that I anticipated, but it's one I certainly welcomed. I have an epic one liner summarising what this film is about and it's killing me that I can't put it in this review, for if I do, and an unsuspecting fan reads it, I may not live to see the weekend. Please pretend you heard it, loved it, and now have a greater appreciation for my writing.
Let's look at what I can talk about, or at least in terms of the plot. It's not much, but it's something. Replicants (very advanced artificial intelligence taking humanoid form and capable of emotion) are outlawed. They were once utilised as mechanical assistants to off world colonies, but times have changed. We live in a post-blackout world now (for context watch this short film). But the Nexus 8 model still exists. They're scarce, spread throughout the globe, but they exist, and it's up to the Blade Runners, AKA futuristic LAPD cops, to take them out. Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright) runs the joint. K (Ryan Gosling) follows her guidance and regulations. He's a Blade Runner. An opening case sparks a new investigation, and this investigation sparks another, and eventually it all leads him to the mysteriously vanished Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), who is somewhere doing something for some reason. Cue the Blade Runner theme song.
Narratively and structurally, Blade Runner 2049 is an entirely different beast in comparison to its predecessor, yet it fits right in alongside it as the perfect companion piece. It doesn't raise as many questions as the original does, but it doesn't try to. It's something different, something audiences may not expect, and I applaud what they've done. The primary reason we'll still be talking about this film decades from now is because we'll still be talking about the original, but that's not to say it fails to stand on its own merits. Blade Runner 2049 blows things out of the water. Through its immaculate visuals, captivating narrative and deep thematic resonance, it creates a poetic story of artificial intelligence unlike any before it, even the first film.
You don't have to look far to find a story that deals with what it means to be human. Just recently, Westworld damn near perfected it on the small screen. Blade Runner 2049 presents something different and original, and it does so through a provocative screenplay that's as perfect a sequel that Blade Runner could get. They literally couldn't have done a more perfect job with the narrative. It's not without its flaws, which I will delve into shortly, but this is one I no doubt will be coming back to time and time again, even if it's merely to gaze upon its incomparable beauty. Roger Deakins has been nominated for thirteen Academy Awards, yet he's come home empty handed every single time. Thirteen! That's thirteen more than I'm ever going to get. If Blade Runner 2049's cinematography goes unrewarded, I'll finally side with those against the Academy's ways.
Much like the original, this is a very visual story. It embraces every corner of the frame to tell a lustrously executed experience that deepens the soul. Visual effects are used sparingly, replaced with practical set design. You can feel it all. Every single dollar. A shot from the trailer, where Ryan Gosling stands on a bridge looking up at a giant pink hologram, is entirely practical. The effect it has the actor's performances is unquestionable. They blend seamlessly with the perfectly lit staging, adding to the artistic feel of the production design. Every performance is fantastic. A lot of actors take on minor roles, even Jared Leto's menacing antagonist who only appears in three scenes, but they make their presence ever lasting. From Robin Wright to Dave Bautista to Ana de Arms, they utilise every second of screen time and create something truly memorable.
A few minor quibbles do need to be brought to light, and it mostly relates to a couple of the supporting characters. Jared Leto's Niander Wallace, as well as his accomplice Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), is after something very important. You get a sense of why they're after it, especially when a decent amount of thought is put into it post-movie, but their overall motives lack necessary clarification. The story isn't about them so this can be forgiven, and I'm sure as I go back and re-visit it I'll uncover more layers, but as of now, they seemed to be making a whole lot of fuss for very little justification. Then that brings me to Mackenzie Davis' Mariette. Again, her performance is brilliant. It's merely the character that's questionable. Deep into the plot, she takes a leap into something further, something I'm obviously not going to discuss here, and she asks a single favour off of one character. This favour puzzled me. It could be another thing I'll come to understand upon further analysis, but it demands to be said.
Still, their sparse screen time does allow for an overcoming of flaws. This is a near three hour-long movie, so not everything needs a backstory. The first act is already overly lengthy. The problem is, I can't think of anything I would cut. Acts two and three fly by, but the first doesn't. Perhaps it's merely reality adjusting with expectations, or perhaps it really is a pacing issue. Once you get into things, and the wheel truly starts to roll, the film takes on another level that's hard to fault. Thanks to Ryan Gosling's impeccable micro-performance, maybe one of the best of his career, this film is elevated beyond belief. His character is comparable to that of Drive, except with even more subtle emotions (something nobody would've thought possible). I was hesitant about his character going in, thinking I'd spend the whole film just waiting for Deckard to show up again, but the moment the credits rolled I knew I needed his pop vinyl.
I've barely touched the surface of Blade Runner 2049. Heck, I haven't even discussed Harrison Ford's role in this film yet (it's juicy as hell, completely unpredictable, subversive of traits and I loved it), but I think I need to stop. A lot of this should be experienced, not read about. It's what Denis Villeneuve wanted and it's what I want too. You can't experience this film any other way. I'm fearful this film may underperform at the box office. If we ever want studio movies to be big, bold and ambitious again, go out of your way to see Blade Runner 2049. Even make it a double feature with mother! We need more daring mainstream projects like these. Go show the studios they work.
4 1/2 Stars
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