Blade Runner 2049

Man or replicant?

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

In 1982, when replicants hadn’t yet become a Hollywood business model, Blade Runner failed to do what Warner Brothers hoped it would: make a pile of money.

It succeeded, however, in acquiring the reputation of a modern science-fiction classic. Director Ridley Scott’s 2019-set story (based on Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) entered our popular culture sideways, influencing two generations of filmmakers with its menacing dystopian perspective.

Now comes the sequel. The studio is banking on the original’s cache, if not its cash, to justify a $150 million production budget. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t. But there’s a real movie to talk about—flawed, yes, flabby, yes, a little wobbly and synthetic on story. And often spellbinding.

Under stone-ground-mustard-colored skies (the air quality’s 30 years worse for wear, according to the narrative timeline), presenting an array of meticulously realized visions of Los Angeles, Blade Runner 2049 is poised to divide audiences just as the original did. Director Denis Villeneuve’s brooding, methodical sequel takes its cue from the tone, as well as the look, of the 1982 film, and while it’s a different movie, it offers a similarly ruminative pace. The sequel is 164 minutes long, roughly 45 minutes more generous (or forbidding) than the first one.

Every effect, each little detail in the Blade Runner sequel adds to a wondrously hideous near future, full of holographic accessories, slave-labor replicants and, as one sinister character (I believe) puts it, the “fabulous new.” Ryan Gosling fits well in this material. That opaque, half-zonked affect he favors as a screen actor is perfect for the role of LAPD “blade runner” (replicant hunter) Officer K, tasked by his superior (Robin Wright) to run down the latest renegade replicants who want more out of life.

The sinister Tyrell Corporation has been taken over by the even more sinister Wallace Corporation, run by a sight-impaired hippie played by Jared Leto. He’s all creepy, measured tones and mythological pretension; maybe he and Michael Fassbender from Alien: Covenant can shack up together sometime. Gosling’s K finds a mysterious set of…spoilers buried near the site of the movie’s first replicant murder. His investigation takes him deep into the annals of the Wallace lair, and inhumanly sleek annals they are.

Vast numbers of replicant memories are stored by Wallace and his minions, the most fearsome of whom, or which, is played with a whiff of pathos and a glint of psycho by Sylvia Hoeks. (Villeneuve’s staging of a key scene between Hoeks and Wright is eerily perfect.) Outside a fancy holographic female companion (Ana de Armas), K has little in his life beyond a nagging sensation that his memories hold the key to something larger.

All this leads to Deckard. Harrison Ford brings weary gravity and surprising subtlety to the old blade runner, now hiding in an undisclosed location, waiting for the younger, more bankable star to show up and hit him with questions promised by the movie’s trailers. The odyssey charted by Blade Runner 2049 allows Villeneuve and his inspired design and effects army to create a world indebted to the 1982 film, but not chained to it.

Chief among equals in that army: cinematographer Roger Deakins, already nominated for 13 Academy Awards, and overdue for a win. He saturates the screen with great, unsettling splashes of color suggesting trouble, or rot, or weirdly glamorous trouble and rot. (That’s noir for you.) There’s a chill in the air in Villeneuve’s film, as there was in Scott’s original, and there should be—all the technological advancements provide dazzling but hollow comfort. When a kiss between K and his “woman” “friend” is interrupted by a voice message, for example, the digital effects actually mean something; the impact is troubling.

Straight off, the script by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green poses the question: Is the Gosling character human or replicant? Deckard has had to put up with that parlor game (the game never ended, really) for 35 years now. Other puzzles enter the story, some more intriguing than others. Perversely, Villeneuve bungles the staging of a couple of key action sequences, one involving Gosling and Ford, the other a waterlogged climax that’s intentionally messy but unintentionally muted.

Like the first one, Blade Runner 2049 doesn’t conform to usual action beats or audience expectations of science-fiction thrillers. It’s a workmanlike screenplay at best. Most of the female characters could be described as mere apps, and there are times when Villeneuve could’ve taken care of some basic storytelling and rhythmic needs while establishing the peculiar, suffocating, brilliantly imagined visual universe onscreen.

But that phrase is worth repeating: “brilliantly imagined visual universe.” A moviegoer can forgive a lot in a movie, when the movie offers so much to see.

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