Movie Review: Blade Runner 2049
By Matthew Huntley
October 19, 2017
Perhaps the best way to recognize just how good “Blade Runner 2049” is would be to acknowledge what it's not. It's not a carbon copy of Ridley Scott's original “Blade Runner” (1982). In fact, it's not even preoccupied with reminding us it's a “Blade Runner” movie, and although it's a sequel, it's not reliant on the original to be understood and effective. It's not heavier on action than it is on substance, but it doesn't cut corners with regards to its production values. It's doesn't rush through its story or feel impatient, yet it's not slow or dull. And despite its star power, it's not merely a showcase for the cast.
The reason I mention what the film is not is because so many Hollywood sequels tend to be inferior renditions of their originals, especially ones made so long after the fact. They're often bigger, louder and more ostentatious, yet less substantive and effectual. Not “Blade Runner 2049.” This is a full-blooded, confident, self-contained experience, with mesmerizing visuals and sounds and a surprising amount of depth and humanity. It's a movie so striking and layered it practically asks us to see it twice, a request to which we'd gladly submit.
As the title indicates, the story takes place in 2049, 30 years after the original, and humans still occupy the same dark, dreary, dystopian world where they've exhausted Earth's resources and rely on bioengineered robots knowns as “replicants,” or “skin jobs,” for their superior strength and agility, albeit deliberately limited intelligence. If you recall from the first film, the Tyrell Corporation first invented replicants, which are virtually human save for their lack of emotions, in order to explore and colonize Off-world planets. Replicants were essentially slaves and it was only after a replicant mutiny took place that they became illegal. It's the job of special police squads, known as “blade runners,” to “retire” replicants.
Now, however, a new, obedient replicant model exists, some of which serve as blade runners themselves. One of these is K (Ryan Gosling), who's been tracking members of the replicant freedom movement, who believe all replicants should be liberated rather than hunted. K's latest assignment leads him to a remote farm outside of Los Angeles, where one older replicant (Dave Bautista) protects the buried remains of a female replicant that actually gave birth several years ago, which was long thought to be impossible, but this “miracle” serves as the freedom movement's strong push to fight for their rights as living beings (“We are our own masters; we are more human than humans”).
Upon learning of this birth phenomenon, K's superior, Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright), orders him to destroy all evidence of it because news of a human-replicant offspring could lead to chaos and unrest. But K remains curious and he takes it upon himself, with the help of his trusted holographic girlfriend, Joi (Ana de Armas), to look into the identity of the replicant mother and human father. Without giving away crucial plot details, K unearths a disturbing history involving veteran blade runner Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) while simultaneously examining his own potential humanity and existence.
On one level, “Blade Runner 2049” is a tried and true science fiction action movie, complete with flying space vehicles, futuristic technology, chase sequences, shoot-outs, etc., all set amidst vast cityscapes with brooding skyscrapers and giant, interactive video monitors, as well as barren, desertic wastelands with sand dunes and heavy winds. These are classic characteristics of the genre, and if you've seen the original “Blade Runner,” or any dystopian science fiction movie, then you know what I mean.
But this is just one of the movie's levels, and as a traditional sci-fi adventure, it's nothing short of exemplary, and one of the reasons must be because director Denis Villeneuve allows us time to simply look at and appreciate this rich, intoxicating universe—for its immensity, its beauty, its decrepitude, its sounds, its serenity. “Blade Runner 2049” continues its predecessor's distinct atmosphere and mood and doesn't allow either of them to fall by the wayside or even become secondary. Villeneuve is keenly aware of just how much the cinema can affect our senses, and this film's sights and sounds infect and hypnotize us. Of course, any movie with a near $200 million price tag ought to look and sound top-notch, but even so, the production design, sound design, cinematography and visual effects teams have really harnessed their resources and we marvel in their craftsmanship.
Still, the film's visual and audio achievements might have only added up to a technical exercise if it weren't also for the emotional story and performances behind them. On this level, the film penetrates our hearts and minds in such a way that we end up examining our own humanity, our own memories, our own sense of reality. It asks us to consider what we're willing to sacrifice for the people we love and the causes we believe in and reaffirms it's both what we do and what remember that make us who we are. These ideas are written into Hampton Fancher and Michael Green's screenplay and realized through the actors, specifically Ryan Gosling, an actor who has the unique ability to be both strong and threatening yet vulnerable and sensitive. Roles like these remind us of his range.
I've a feeling there will be many admirers of “Blade Runner 2049” and for many different reasons. For die-hard fans of Scott's “Blade Runner” (Scott fills in as executive producer this time), they'll appreciate that it remains loyal to that film's vision and message. For me, though, it's the way the film was able to go beyond merely continuing something and instead serve as an unrestrained, expansive experience, one that engages us on multiple levels—viscerally, intellectually, emotionally. It envelops us and causes us to look inside ourselves so that we might remember and reexamine who we are. Not many films have that kind of power.