At this point, the years-later sequel/reboot might as well become its own genre. The market has been so completely saturated with them in the last few years, that I could probably fill more pages than anybody would ever care to read with nothing but lists of these attempts to dust off aging franchises, and update them for a modern audience. The most notable of these all seem to involve Harrison Ford for some reason (I suspect a massive international conspiracy). This brings us to Blade Runner 2049. Prior to seeing this film, I was cautiously excited, but all too aware of Hollywood’s proven track record of royally screwing things up, as well as critics’ recent trend of heaping praise onto movies which are hardly deserving. I can now say that if nothing else, director Denis Villeneuve was able to create a genuinely interesting film out of what could easily have been a cash grab. Furthermore, it reinforces his position as one of the most talented and exciting filmmakers currently at work.
The story follows a new Blade Runner, “K,” played by Ryan Gosling, who also just so happens to be an advanced replicant. The world has changed fairly significantly since 2019, most notably in the fact that the Tyrell Corporation has been dissolved, and replicants are now being built by another mega-corporation, run by Jared Leto’s Niander Wallace. Wallace wants to continue to expand humanity’s influence across the galaxy, and plans to achieve this end by using replicants as slave labor. Both actors do a fine job, but Leto’s performance is far more memorable. This may be a byproduct of Gosling’s role as an android, but when you have Rutger Hauer’s insane and unforgettable turn as Roy Batty in the ’82 film as a direct comparison, it is hard not to feel that all of the replicant performances are too subdued for their own good.
Much like the original film, 2049 spends much of its considerable runtime (2h 44m) ruminating on the morality of using replicants as slaves, and asking what makes them any less human than humans. This conflict is, for the most part, handled quite intelligently. There were moments that reminded me of Spike Jonze’s excellent Her in its approach, and that is high praise indeed. The biggest surprise here is that Villeneuve may actually have proven himself able to out-Ridley Scott Ridley Scott. The way in which he touches on artificiality as compared to humanity is particularly effective, and satisfyingly subtle. In my opinion, it actually handles the themes presented in the original film with greater care, and delivers a more impactful story as a result. This stands in stark contrast to Scott’s ham-fisted attempts to touch on many of the same ideas in his Alien prequels. More than anything, 2049 made me yearn to see Prometheus completely remade by Denis Villeneuve, and Alien Covenant entirely erased from history.
To anybody who has seen any of Villeneuve’s other films, it will come as no surprise to hear that Blade Runner 2049 is an absolute visual masterpiece. This is far and away the strongest element of the film (as well as the 1982 original). The coloring in particular is memorable, unique, and brilliantly atmospheric. For as much as I’ve sung the praises of the director, I would be remiss not to mention the incredible work done by cinematographer Roger Deakins. The camera work is excellent, and much of the visual aesthetic manages to both preserve the feel of the original, and expand it.
It is also worth noting that there is an appearance by a CG representation of a character. Usually, that sentence is enough to make me groan and brace myself for another Grand Moff Tarkin or horrifying plastic nightmare Princess Leia, but this one was actually executed well enough not to be distracting. The entire time I was watching Rogue One, I was cringing and wondering why on earth they decided to make Tarkin a significant character with prolonged scenes. Had they just showed him in reflection and kept it brief, the effect would have been fine. Instead, they paraded his silly putty face across two thirds of the film, and it was unbelievably distracting. The team behind 2049 seems to understand this, and kept the use of CG characters to a minimum, and placed them in a dark room.
Furthermore, I was pleasantly surprised by the film’s intelligent use of Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard. Filmmakers who cast Ford as characters from his famous action movies do not seem to understand that the man is 75 years old. That is not an age at which you do action star things; that is an age at which you drink Ensure and complain about how there’s nothing good on TV and that the kids never visit. Watching a 70 year old man play Indiana Jones is not particularly fun. Watching a grandpa reprise a role as a charming, action-hero rogue (that, by the way he disliked playing so much that he wanted him killed off in 1980) is not particularly fun. All of that having been said, 2049 seems to understand Ford’s elevated age, and quite suitably never asks him to do anything too outlandish. He has one action scene that mostly consists of him shooting from a distance and throwing a couple of punches. The rest of the time, he’s talking or drinking (not Ensure sadly, but wouldn’t that have been hysterical?).
Up until now, I have been uncharacteristically positive about this film. Sadly, this does not mean that it is a flawless masterpiece. In fact, there are a couple of fairly significant issues that stop it from sitting at the top of a “best of 2017” list. The first and most difficult to overcome is that 2049 rests nearly all of its emotional weight on the relationship between Deckard and Rachel from the original film. This relationship was poorly developed in 1982, and in all honesty the characters of Deckard and Rachel are never fully fleshed out, so we really don’t know them at all. I can respect the effort to give the characters a more satisfying emotional arc, but when the initiation of the romance was an uncomfortable and extremely rapey sex scene, it is hard to get fully behind that.
One of the most memorable visual touches of the original Blade Runner is the almost overwhelming amount of corporate advertising. The skyline was absolutely plastered with them, and it worked exceptionally well as environmental storytelling and social commentary. I say that as a way of explaining that I knew 2049 was going to heavily feature product placement. Sure, I even knew that it would likely feature Sony in that capacity. My only hope was that it would be tasteful, and not shoehorned into scenes in which it would not help reinforce the aesthetic.
In many instances, this was actually the case. Some even advertised for companies that were giants in the 80’s (such as Atari, who is far from relevant in 2017). Others immediately pulled me out of the story and made me want to shout obscenities at a Sony representative. There was a rather important scene where K was standing near a jukebox, and there is a massive SONY printed on its face. There were a number of other times Sony forced their logo into the frame, but to be honest I already spent far more time on this topic than any human should have to in my review of The Emoji Movie. Suffice it to say that Sony managed to seem obnoxious with its product placement even in a world that is memorable in large part due to obnoxious product placement.
The original Blade Runner is far from a perfect film. It has fairly glaring flaws that would elongate this review by an amount that I would not ask any of you to endure. However, time seems to have smoothed over those rough edges, and the film became Ridley Scott’s masterpiece. It has since become one of the most famous and influential science fiction movies of all time, and is regarded as a cult classic. Blade Runner 2049, similarly, is far from a perfect film. However, I do not have the foresight to be able to predict whether or not it has that perfect mixture of big ideas, strange ideas, and all out weirdness to eventually become a cult classic. For what it’s worth though, I sincerely doubt that we’ll see a finer nostalgia reboot, or one that more effectively shirks the dead weight that the “genre” carries any time soon.