‘Blade Runner 2049’ Properly Extends A Cinematic World’s Lifespan (Movie Review)

Today’s filmmakers are faced with tricky jobs, as they must create art that is designed to appeal to anyone. Those working on potential blockbusters, in particular, are being asked to make a film that everyone will not only want to see but continue to discuss and eventually see again. That makes the prospect of Blade Runner 2049 becoming a massively anticipated worldwide hit all the more interesting, as it is asking an audience to come and see the sequel to an existential sci-fi neo-noir that flopped in theaters 35 years ago. While it is not up to me to see this new film become the hit Warner Brothers and Sony wants, I can say they’ve allowed director Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Sicario) to make a movie that falls right in line with the original and it’s all the better for it.

I’ve been holding onto a strange level of skepticism with this film since the ball finally started rolling on its production. One the one hand, if you told me Villeneuve was making a new science fiction film starring Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford (among others), with cinematography by Roger Deakins and a script co-written by Blade Runner’s Hampton Fancher, I’d have no reason not to be excited. However, that film being a sequel to Blade Runner made me continually wonder why it was needed. This isn’t about childhoods being ruined, as I appear to be one of the few whose entire childhood is not dependent on whether or not the sequel or remake to a film I loved 20 years ago would be any good. It’s about necessity.

2049 could almost get credit for tackling the idea of excess on a meta-commentary level, as the film exists in a world where audiences are spoiled monthly with huge films that represent the biggest and best studios have to offer when it comes to elaborate special effects. However, it also comes back to asking what is new here that hasn’t been said. The world of Blade Runner does not merely exist to tell popcorn entertainment-level stories, despite having a vast world that could easily entertain more exploration in some form. So what is the drive to bring us back to this futuristic world?

Having already seen a live-action Ghost in the Shell movie earlier this year, which failed to explore anything new when it comes to the roles artificial intelligence plays in society and a thematic sense, I couldn’t help but wonder what an updated Blade Runner would delve into, regardless of how many talented filmmakers were involved. Fortunately, along with a continual prodding when it comes to exploring the roles of artificial humans in a world populated by real human beings, 2049 did find some interesting new hooks. It’s also a fantastic-looking film, but you likely knew that going in.

The story boils down to some very simplistic plot beats, but kudos to the marketing department. There are plenty of reveals and understandings arriving throughout the film, which is important enough to hold back. Some surprises may be easier to see coming than others, but 2049 is a lot like its predecessor as far as being more about its mood than its plot. As it stands (mildest of spoilers coming up), the film tasks Gosling’s Officer K, a Replicant Blade Runner (making him a machine who hunts machines), with a mission. He soon learns a new truth that could upset the balance of the world. He investigates based on orders given to him by his Lieutenant (Robin Wright), which leads him down a rabbit hole that has K encountering former a Blade Runner, Rick Deckard (Ford), at some point during this tale.

2049 expands upon the universe created by the original film, so far as how lifelike artificial humans (more human than human, according to past ads) have affected a dystopian earth. The film still primarily takes place in a constantly rain-soaked Los Angeles, with flying cars, giant neon billboards, and characters that look like fashionable homeless folk making up much of the production design. There’s also this noir-ish sensibility that is wisely played down here, despite working as a detective story overall.

Many smart choices have been made which is what holds this film together when considering the question to make it. Even if the final third of the movie plays up some more familiar beats, it is consistently interesting to watch thanks in no small part to the visuals on display here. While deliberately paced and relatively shy when it comes to detailing full-on answers, no one will confuse this for an action-packed jaunt through sci-fi land. It’s a big-budget arthouse picture that rewards those looking for something with a bit more to chew on.

To assess this film thoroughly, I do find it necessary to have pointed out Gosling’s role as a replicant. It’s an early reveal, keeping the viewer alert to what makes this film different from the original, but useful knowledge, as we get to see the way this character functions. He’s not re-doing Ford’s performance, but Gosling does rely heavily on what a lot of his admirers (and critics) single him out for – ominous gazing. It works for me, as silent looks do plenty that words can’t in many instances, but as a machine with (supposedly) crafted memories and no soul, it stands to reason that K would be curious about a world around him and yet have little to comment on in a given moment. That doesn’t make him a reactionary character, however, as Gosling gets in his one-liners and does play a man of action, but his stoic presence is welcome here.

One of the more curious bits is his home life. He’s a replicant nostalgic for a time he’s never been a part of and only knows because of his programming. K lives with a store-bought hologram, Joi (Ana de Armas), who functions as a wife, occasionally dressed as a 50s homemaker. She’s programmed to have compassion for him, and K is a replicant happy to share this peaceful living situation. If the first film challenged audiences by depicting a man and a replicant falling in love (Ford and Sean Young), 2049 moves into new territory with a concept that is no doubt being strategized by Apple or Amazon in some way as we speak.

Other curiosities emerge as we learn more about the different replicants in existence. Some revelations made me question the position of a religious angle being crafted in the artificial minds of these creations. That’s another area merely hinted at by Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty in the original, which gets a chance to be explored further here. It’s those sort of elements I can ultimately appreciate in a film that travels on a line veering close enough to the original while dabbling with not having a ton to truly say. That said, maybe that is part of the point as well – two films that may explore what it means to be human in a universe where individuals may not even matter at a certain point if everything does fade away like, say, tears in the rain.

In addition to Gosling, the rest of the cast shines as well. Jared Leto’s commitment to genre films may have rubbed me the wrong way when hearing quotes from him about preparation, but I quite enjoyed his work in this movie. He’s Niander Wallace, a brilliant mind who saved the world from starvation thanks to his abilities with technology and now works with an ego suggesting he should be able to create life how he sees fit. Sylvia Hoeks is Wallace’s right hand, Luv, who commands presence with her icy stares and physical ability. Mackenzie Davis, Carla Juri, Lennie James and Dave Bautista fill out the rest of this diverse cast that consists of many women and people of color.

Ford manages to make a lot out of his time in this film. Similar to how time and age added resonance to his performance as Han Solo in The Force Awakens, the older version of Ford’s other memorable sci-fi role continues to fit for reasons that remain faithful to the character. The Deckard in this film is world-weary, to say the least, but that makes plenty of sense, given that he’s essentially living the life of Robert Neville from Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend. His interactions with Gosling are cleverly staged and his impact on the film manages to, ironically or not, bring another level of humanity to it, by the time 2049 reaches its endpoint.

As a visual journey, Blade Runner 2049 is an invigorating production. I may call into question just how important that is, were I to frame it against films that truly stand out in time as new benchmarks. However, on its own, while it may just add onto a property was heavily influential on much of the sci-fi that came after it, there is no reason to downplay the beauty on display. Additionally, this is a well-acted spectacle film, with a heavy emphasis on mood and character. 2049 rejects the notion of being a slick reboot, no matter how cool many of the creations witnessed are. It revels in taking its time and feeling as aloof as necessary to ideally pull viewers in. That’s not a task easily taken by a filmmaker, but Villeneuve’s clear passion for the original shows here and the film works better than expected for it.


2 Responses to “‘Blade Runner 2049’ Properly Extends A Cinematic World’s Lifespan (Movie Review)”

  1. Ian

    But did you like it?

  2. Brian White

    He loved it. Aaron would never give a score of a 4 to something he did not like.