Film Review: "Blade Runner 2049" is more human than its predecessor
Even though Blade Runner 2049 is directed by Denis Villeneuve, the visionary filmmaker responsible for Sicario and Arrival, it's still a hell of an anomaly that this extraordinarily expensive legacy sequel to a sci-fi film starring Harrison Ford remains unblemished by the need to revive it as a viable franchise: Blade Runner 2049 begins, has a middle, and then ends. Pure and simple.
Even more remarkable is that it's equally as unconcerned with moving at any pace but its own as the first Blade Runner was. And also like Blade Runner, I suspect that Blade Runner 2049's interlocking themes will elegantly unfurl over time, perhaps after multiple viewings. I left Blade Runner 2049 feeling the same way I did after watching Blade Runner for the first time: impressed by its idiosyncratic beauty and depth of feeling, but somewhat frustrated by the opaque plot and vagueness that keeps every character at arm's length – and it's drearier than morning fog descending upon a swamp. In short, this is very much a sequel. This is no reboot.
It's set roughly thirty years later. Some things have changed, but not for the better: LA is still a permanently foggy and rainy dystopic hellhole, only the advertisements that adorn the cityscape have gotten way more invasive and unseemly than a giant screen displaying a geisha with a "come hither" smoulder and a Coke can. There are still replicants, bioengineered androids created by nefarious corporations (Tyrell corp in Blade Runner, the Wallace corp here) as a slave labour force, and the special unit cops, otherwise known as 'blade runners' who hunt down and kill the rogue ones. The definition of a 'rogue' replicant is amorphous and ill-defined enough so that the system of slavery can be maintained; it can even stretch to outdated models who weren't created to obey like the newer models are, and so they're hunted. And then they're disposed of and dispatched like yesterday's iPhone.
The line separating replicants and humans is so thin as to be non-existent. But that scarcely matters. As the new replicant creator/evil corporate master Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) says, “Every civilization was built off the back of a disposable workforce”. This putrid, artificially-lit glass and steel sinkhole city is the world they deserve if the likes of him gets to lord over and profit from it. Jared Leto doesn't figure into the film as much as you would think, but he makes an impression that stays with you, which is further enhanced by a primordial and spooky theme by Hans Zimmer & Benjamin Wallfisch that builds on Vangelis' legendary work on Blade Runner. His dead, useless eyes convey no compassion or humour, and the monotone monologuing only adds to his inhumanly chilly presence.
On the other hand there's the return of Harrison Ford as former blade runner Rick Deckard. Ford gives the best performance he has in years. It's a far more lively, human, and sorrowful turn as Deckard than when he was at his acting peak in Blade Runner. We get some hints and bits of information here and there at what he's been up to in the past 30 years, but all his regret and failure has nowhere to hide; it lines his face and glistens his eyes. In a fight scene, he throws wild, imprecise haymakers, a poignant contrast to the other modern fight scenes here which depict tightly choreographed and ruthlessly efficient movements. Ford as a relic of a bygone era has never been more moving than in Blade Runner 2049 (all apologies to Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and The Force Awakens).
In the middle of all that, between the new corporate master and the cranky old timer, enters our main man Officer K (Ryan Gosling) as a replicant blade runner. He hunts down and retires his own kind without complaint in between being viciously shunned by his fellow officers and other human beings. His only companion is a holographic girlfriend – a waifu type – named Joi (Ana de Armas). A sad scene on a rooftop plays out with K attempting to update Joi's programming so that he might get to hold her hand and kiss her on the lips. Much later on, the spectre of this meagre bit of tenderness the world has allowed him will return to haunt and mock him, and it's as gorgeously rendered as it is dismaying. Not since Taxi Driver has God's Lonely Man been so pitiable and thoroughly isolated.
Although K is the detective in Blade Runner 2049, charged with investigating a mystery that might lead to the salvation of all replicants, or perhaps societal collapse, his quest invariably becomes a personal one. It ties into Blade Runner's recurring motifs with such deftness – the unreliable nature of memory in particular – that it expands the emotionality of the series with as much heft as Roger Deakins' luscious, masterful cinematography expands the world beyond the borders of futuristic LA. Incidentally, Gosling is the perfect casting here, easily embodying that masculine cool that Ford personified in the original while also struggling to keep a lid on the volcanic anger and confusion underneath. When he learns a devastating truth, he decides to unleash his turmoil with such exactitude that it's unsettling to behold rather than cathartic.
Blade Runner 2049 refines Blade Runner's themes and widens its scope with such immaculate skill and savvy calculation that, ironically, I don't think it could have nearly the same impact as Blade Runner did – and not just because Blade Runner was first, so to speak. It's because what's kept Blade Runner in the larger popular consciousness for all this time has been its messiness: the three different versions of the film, the dirty, gritty nature of ambiguity and mystery that fuels its uniquely paranoid atmosphere, and even the fact that the quality of the work itself is still a contentious topic, something that's up for debate. Blade Runner 2049 by contrast is a perfect and untroubled thing. But then, that all might change after a few more viewings.