Tuesday, October 10, 2017

"Blade Runner 2049" proves sequels can do it even better

It’s been thirty-five years since the original Blade Runner film was in theaters, and nobody saw it then.  Well, ALMOST nobody saw it, but thank God for VHS tapes and cable TV, for through these media, some folks realized what they’d missed.  Sure, that tacked-on “happy ending” felt out of place, and the sporadic voice-over narration that kept popping up in places was really unnecessary… but oh, THAT WORLD!  The visual style and atmosphere director Ridley Scott created, the Philip Marlowe-type character so cooly portrayed by Harrison Ford, the haunting score by famed composer Vangelis, and the ideas put forth about life and what it means! There’s a reason the market allowed (demanded?) Warner Bros. to keep funding the restoration and re-editing efforts that eventually led to Ridley Scott being granted the chance to craft a definitive edit of the film - the reason being that the seeds of a true science fiction masterpiece were always there, and 2007’s “Final Cut” of the film is exactly that.  

So here we are with Blade Runner 2049, set thirty years after the events of the first film, following a new “Blade Runner” (policemen charged with the task of retiring/executing rogue artificial humans, called “Replicants”), known only as “K,” and portrayed by Ryan Gosling.  He is assigned the task of tracking down one certain Replicant whose existence can, as his superior officer (played by Robin Wright) explains it, can “break the world.”  She doesn’t mean that literally, of course (that would be just plain silly), but apparently society would totally fall apart if this particular Replicant becomes known to the world at large.  In an attempt at “breaking” the world, the blind trillionaire industrialist (Jared Leto) whose company manufactures Replicants is also trying to find this particular rogue Replicant, and sends his Replicant assistant/hit-woman Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) to find it and, more importantly, stop K from finding it.

I won’t divulge much more plot than that, as doing so would (A) take too long, and (B) distract you from what this movie does best, which is the same thing the original film did best - create a world in a stunning, visually-breathtaking fashion.  Director Denis Villeneuve (director of both Sicario and Arrival) helms this film, with Ridley Scott producing, and a more appropriate choice to follow Sir Ridley could not have been made, as he so wonderfully keeps the SciFi-noir feel and vibe of the original film.  

Villeneuve also reteams with his cinematographer from both Sicario and Arrival, Roger Deakins, and this master photographer has topped himself once again. His work here is just as impressive (perhaps even more so) than anything he's done before. The constant gloom and rain, with neon and vehicle lights slashing through; the harsh whites in K's police station; the almost-red glow that permeates The Wallce Corporation's interiors. Combined with incredible set design and visual effects, this movie is a veritable package of Oscar nominations to come.

Ryan Gosling plays K with a weary, put-upon vibe, conveying a run-down-by-the-world personality that calls for our sympathy. The less he externalizes the character's feelings, the more it seems we get a gauge of them. Harrison Ford also returns as the original “Blade Runner,” Rick Deckard, and it is almost painful to see what has become of the character. Ford's naturally quiet acting style is used to great advantage here, as his low-tone voice and intense gaze tell us just how hard his life has been since we last saw him. Jared Leto's character, on the other hand, may not come across as frightening to the degree the original film's Roy Batty did, but Leto uses his own acting style to communicate an insane sense of the world and a warped view of how to use his power and influence to shape it. This change in the type of threat, from physical to philosophical, also distinguishes this movie from lots of sequels.

Some critics point to the film’s two hour and forty-four minute runtime as a fault, but I strongly disagree.  I never found Blade Runner 2049 to be slow.  Many have used the term "slow burn" to describe the pace of this film, and while I agree with that description, I'm reluctant to use it myself because I understand how that term can be interpreted by some to mean "it's long, and while some people like it that way, I probably won't." Having the process of K come across each plot-point, then have him silently react to it and process its meaning, is what kept me mentally leaning forward in my seat. The original film wasn't in a hurry, although to be fair, it didn't have as much ground to cover as this follow-up does. This movie moves along at a pace that enhances our anticipation of the next move in K's journey, and a more rapid delivery of plot-points would lessen their effect.

Blade Runner 2049 is the kind of movie that film students will be writing papers on for decades.  This isn’t your average “it’s so deep, man”-type of film. This is not Fight Club, American Psycho, or Inception, where the depth and complexity fade after a first viewing into simple entertainment. This is more like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Solaris or, yes, Blade Runner.  A film that resists easy understandings.  A film that is open to endless intertextual reading when examined in light of its source material, director, cinematographer, and stars.  A film whose flaws reflect deep flaws in society.  A film that tries to tell us something novel about ourselves. A film that re-invents film form and language to shake you to your very core, if you’ll only let it.

Early box office returns show that this film may suffer the same fate as the original, in the sense that mass audiences are not flocking to see it on its first theatrical run.  Make no mistake, however - Blade Runner 2049 is at least as good as Blade Runner, and only time will tell if it reaches the legendary status of its predecessor.  The most impactful moments in this film are in a different class than anything in Ridley Scott’s original. They distinguish it as its own film, and justify its existence as a sequel in the age of the remake, reboot, and franchise.