"A tremendous sensory experience and a wondrous, intellectually inspiring one if you're willing to commit."
A big concern for sequels that trail their predecessors by several years, even decades, is determining whether or not they are a "sequel" in the appropriate sense. Do they continue the mythology of the works that came before them or do they simply dance around more compelling points and give fans smiles because they're being reacquainted with characters who originally won their heart? This is one of the very issues causing Star Wars fans to argue: did The Force Awakensreally work to set-up a new world or simply dazzle us with familiar beats while its narrative echoedA New Hope?
Fans need not worry about Blade Runner 2049 being a belated piece of fan-service in the crudest way. From the opening moments to the serenity of its snowy conclusion, the film dazzles like a brand new, monumental showcase of the wonders of science-fiction. Comparisons that draw vivid recollections of 2001: A Space Odyssey are not off-base as they are written by people likely trying to adequately summarize the sensory experience they just witnessed. The film is a marvel, a complex, if imperfect one at that, and I'm more than certain it already has a slew of thinkpieces and analyses written in a haste trying to justify the interworkings of its plot. I've never been that type of critic, and only the few-and-far-between works of science-fiction get me to wrack my brain in streamlining justifications in order to give myself closure. I'm prepared, like I almost always am, to give you a review of the experience rather than a review telling you what conclusions you should draw. I feel I'm miserably unfit to take on that responsibility in this case.
Probably for the better too because director Denis Villeneuve has urged critics to be very careful so as not to spoil major characters or reveal too many instances in the plot. In efforts to be purposefully vague, the film brings us back to Los Angeles, this time in 2049, thirty years after the events of Blade Runner. The occupation of a replicant-destroying "blade runner" still exists, but the new sheriff in town is known as "K" (Ryan Gosling). He searches the corporate and barren wastelands of L.A., seeking out replicants, many of whom have gone into hiding, while living a life of comfortable, if perhaps artificial, solitude. Finally, the possibility of a replicant emancipation movement comes into play around the same time K tries to piece together the whereabouts of Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford). A supporting cast of characters comes in the form of Jared Leto, Sylvia Hoeks, Robin Wright, and the lovely Ana de Armas, recognizable from last year's Hands of Stone and War Dogs.
Gosling is an apt lead, playing similar notes of detachment he accentuated so well in the past, with films like Drive and The Place Beyond the Pines. He moves with point-A/point-B conviction, hindered by little and moved ever so slightly by Armas' Joi, who, along with other characters, questions the very nature of humanity and whether or not it's a fluid feat. Some like myself would go as far as to say the acting in the original Blade Runner exemplified a stark contrast of Ford's disconnect and Rutger Hauer's explosiveness. Here, the uneven acting has been replaced by more contemporary brooding, which dares you to break away and fall into a point of a state of total detachment.
There's a strong presence of Kubrickian pacing and style here, a similar kind employed in 2001where the film sometimes moves at a glacial pace and with breakneck intensity at others. Also like Kubrick, Villeneuve and the screenwriting duo of Hampton Flancher and Michael Green don't mind concocting an ambiguous narrative with similar characters and cloudy motivations. For some, this is a criticism; for others it's worthy of a Best Screenplay Oscar.
I'm not sure how I got this deep into talking about Blade Runner 2049 and have yet to mention its main, most laudable achievement - its cinematography. Roger Deakins, the best cinematographer working today, has a field-day in capturing this highly saturated, ambient environment, highlighting deep-reds and cool-blues for the ultimate polarity. On occasion, the film simply captures Gosling amidst a background of a pronounced color, almost obscured by what appears to be a fuzzy haze that bleeds off the walls into the frame. Quite often, the film is visually similar toMad Max: Fury Road, especially when the gold colors take over and make for an amalgamation of warmth and uncertain atmospheres. It's a perfectly legitimate claim to call this Deakins' cinematographical tour-de-force, for not only does he exceedingly impress, but he raises the bar for almost all big-budget science-fiction films going forward. "How are you going to immerse your audience?," will be the questions many cinematographers will ask themselves going forward, and a new generation of film student hopefuls and prospects will cite this as the game-changer that got them off their couches to make art of their own. Deakins' work is not only that good, it's that important.
Almost as important too is the presence of sound, which editor Joe Walker captures in a barrage of different ways depending on what a scene calls for. Computers and vehicles murmur with a kind of dimensional weight, machines beep and squawk with a haunting futurism employed, and moments can grace by either blissfully or bombastically and still not feel as if they're coming from two different films. Blade Runner 2049 is loaded with dichotomies in its visuals and its sound, and the presence of such doesn't deter either or subtract from their respective gravity. At any given moment, the film can haunt or provide peace, with lingering sequences or seconds that inspire transparency into the film's world that will go on to be lost again so the next riddle can be solved.
Blade Runner 2049 is a tremendous sensory experience and a wondrous, intellectually inspiring one if you're willing to commit. I still find it close to impossible to relate to any character, human or replicant, in this franchise, and this is the first film by Villeneuve, in my opinion, to lack the tension and power of his past works. Spanning 164 long minutes, the film doesn't consistently captivate the same way Prisoners or even Arrival did, and has Villeneuve and Deakins pulling back even further to make an immersive aesthetic experience that challenges more than it treats when the narrative comes back into the picture. Maybe that's neither here nor there by the time the credits roll, but the immensity of this project is difficult to protest. It circumvents itself in the final minutes as a science-fiction film with dedication to aesthetics and ambiguities, and one wonders the true strength of the project if the dialog and motives were brought to us in a future that wasn't so dialectically monotone.
Steve's Grade: B