Review: Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

Digging through a bargain bin in high school (a common occurrence for this film fan), I came across a film that immediately felt out of place. I had heard of 1982’s Blade Runner for years, but I had yet to watch the film. Bearing the marks of sitting underneath the weight of other copies, randomly scattered on top of it, I rescued the film, knowing it to be a classic, and took it home. That DVD was the 1992 Director’s Cut, as well as the theatrical release, and it was with that purchase that my respect for the film began.

I use that word carefully, because loving the film implies a warmth and open sense of enjoyment. I respected Blade Runner for its craft, execution, and world-building, but the neo-noir detective story existed in a place that was far from inviting. Watch it…sure, but that’s all I wanted to do. The overcast skies and incessant toxic rain did more than grant a look; it established a dark tone, and when divorced from its classic detective story underpinnings, there wasn’t an upbeat narrative to rally behind and return to often. In time, I, along with the rest of film fans, would come to see the definitive version from director, Ridley Scott, in 2007’s The Final Cut. Alongside the International and Workprint cut, I believe I’ve watched every version of the film released commercially on disc. I’m sure that many thought the world of Replicants was complete ten years ago.

Yet, here we are, 35 years after the original release, with a narrative sequel set 30 years after that film. The different versions, abrupt ending, and ambiguity of Scott’s original film has surely left many to ponder the film in the decades since, myself included, but we never anticipated a continuance of Rick Deckard’s story. One might even say we didn’t need one. So, how does Blade Runner 2049 continue the tale, and is it a worthy follow-up?

Answering the first will drudge up spoilers galore, but answer the second: yes, to the fullest extent. I was as engrossed in the spectacle of this film as I ever was before in the original, if not moreso. This film’s director, Denis Villeneuve, was the perfect choice on paper and in execution to handle the needs of this film. Working with the cinematographer, Roger Deakins, they perfectly capture the bleakness of it all, even as the story takes them beyond the urban sprawl of Los Angeles, yet I couldn’t take my eyes from it all. The entire film feels like an extension of the first, which is exactly what a smart sequel should be. Pops of color and sound are used to incredible effect to create a world that is less prophetic, as the original was, and, instead, more prismatic in its examination of current issues. This does lend a slightly different feel between the two film’s, as BR2049‘s less fantastical than its predecessor, yet it seemed to me to hold more warmth and attachment (funnily enough, a reinforcement of themes within).

We follow here K (Ryan Gosling), an officer with the LAPD; he’s not just any officer…he’s a Blade Runner, tasked with “retiring” Nexus model “Replicants” by his higher ups. Sounds familiar? While the starting premise evokes the first, this film develops a story focus that goes beyond just redoing the previous film. It has a lot to say about many things with many characters, which should all be left for audiences to discover. Some characters will be better received than others, but I will hold firm that the film was perfectly cast, top to bottom. Will Harrison Ford return as Rick Deckard? Of course, he will, but in avoidance of building  any disappointments, just don’t expect him to be the lead. This story belongs to K, and Deckard is a supporting player, something that I feel makes the film all the better.  Gosling is masterfully in saying much with little effort. He proves the perfect lead for this take. This pulling away from Deckard as the lead is something that even has a retroactive effect on the original, and it adds extra dimension to what is now a series and longer form story. Of all of Ford’s revisits to past characters in his career, this feels the most natural, by far; his introduction, particularly, is one of the film’s highlights and an instant favorite sequence for me in all of filmdom.

New characters like Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) and Joi (Ana de Armas) bring more to the table in consideration of Replicants and sentient tech, and I thought each was played masterfully by actresses I’ve never seen before. Joshi (Robin Wright) and Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) each offer worldviews to the story that factor into the ideas at play, and while criticisms have been leveled against both (Leto mostly), I found nothing wrong with the performances given. Wallace is particularly heavy in his use of Biblical symbology, but Leto’s calm demeanor throughout, downplayed what was written on the page, in my opinion.  Seeing Dave Bautista instill his character with such feeling in just a few moments show he is becoming even more well rounded as a performer; he was absolutely the right choice for his role. Lennie James and others appear briefly and leave plot threads dangling, but Blade Runner has never been about being fully conclusive. This will surely frustrate some, but it’s to be expected. The original Blade Runner, in painting a cold world  largely without feeling, sees plot as secondary to world-building and eliciting awe and reflection from its audience. That makes this film a very faithful continuation, in that aspect.

Relevant ideas like the nature of companionship, the pervasive sexualization of media, technological obedience, the tie between senses and humanity, and the apparent hopelessness of our current societal path all accompany further explorations of memory and what it means to be human. The plot does seem more complicated than the prior film with more characters, more subplots, more action, more sexuality, more length to the film…more, more, more. The runtime will be a negative for many, but it wasn’t for me. I relished watching a spectacle film that took its time. Most blockbusters are edited to death, and it was refreshing to see what was obviously a calculated vision come to life. Like the first film, I don’t want to live there, but I will gladly visit through watching again and again.

In regards to content, it is worth mentioning that this film does feel even more “R-rated” than the first. That won’t bother many, but a heavier focus on the seedy aspects of that society will be a turnoff for some. For those who will watch though, there is a lot for Christians to consider and bring to the discussion after watching the film with others. In particular, I felt resonance with Joi and a scene near the end provided much to think about, in relation to our society that has lost itself with its ill-placed priorities in coupling.

I could say MUCH, MUCH MORE, but I will refrain. This a film that should be enjoyed without spoilers; by all means, it should be discussed, but watching it for yourself is absolutely necessary. For fans of the original, this beautiful masterwork extends the legacy, rather than stomping on it. For those with no prior knowledge, this film could be watched to great effect, but there will be moments that hold less resonance because of it. For any fans of films that are thought-provoking and lingering in both shot and effect, it’s a must-see. I sincerely hope it’s a sign of more films to come, both in the series and for films like it in sensibilities.

SCORE: 9.25 (out of 10) 

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