Film Review: Blade Runner 2049
“Her name was Rachael.”
I must admit I was highly skeptical when I saw the first trailer for Blade Runner 2049 after a showing of Wonder Woman near Times Square earlier this year.
I thought this was (and some part of it definitely is) just another attempt at nostalgia marketing from an industry bent on targeting my generation, desperate for the "feels" of a warmer past. Even the "final cut" of Blade Runner that was released on Blu-Ray is starting too look like a relic in the age of video streaming services.
Nevertheless, I was wrong. And I gladly welcomed being so wrong this time.
For those of us who claim to love the movies, there truly isn’t a greater feeling than walking blindly into a movie theater and being rewarded with a wonderful experience. The quality of "the unexpected" in films cannot, in my view at least, be overemphasized.
Revisiting Blade Runner
The first Blade Runner was considered a flop at the time of its release, a film that “underperformed” at the box office. In many ways, it wasn’t what audiences expected, partly because of Ridley Scott’s unconventional (at the time) blend of a slow-paced, detectivesque noir mystery and dystopian science fiction.
Let’s remember that the film was released just two years after The Empire Strikes Back (1980), which expanded on the fast-paced action beats, romance, and occasional buddy comedy presented in the first Star Wars film (1977's A New Hope). Picture, if you will, looking at a poster of The Empire Strikes Back and that of Blade Runner side-by-side. Both have Harrison Ford, a woman and some futuristic setting.
Audiences might have gotten the impression they were going into a similar ride when they purchased their tickets to these two movies. And some might have been reasonably disappointed by what I’ll call a loose cognitive dissonance, and therefore failed to appreciate the film as a standalone artistic achievement.
Empire and Blade Runner could not be further apart in style, tone and thematic content, even though both fit in the realm of science fiction. It’s worth noting that, in spite their differences, both Blade Runner and A New Hope made the cut for the AFI’s top 10 best sci-fi films of all time.
The pacing of Blade Runner 2049 is similar to that of the first, but I promise you, as a fan of both, that you will get your dose of action without any buddy-cop comedy. After all, Blade Runners hunt alone and don’t pal around with wookies.
However, this time, the detective of our story isn't Harrison Ford. We shall be intrigued, pained, and moved by Ryan Gosling's performance.
The original Blade Runner universe was microscopic. Don’t let the wide shots of a bleak and dark Los Angeles fool you. That is unless you saw the "cut" that ends with a bizarre transition which takes us from LA to some outdoor helicopter shots of the opening of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (1980). The fans know what I'm talking about.
In Blade Runner, we never leave Los Angeles, and the "colonies" are but our interpretation of what it would be like to leave this nightmare. Blade Runner 2049 opens up this universe for us, and explores it with careful and magnificent attention to detail. No spoilers here.
The setting is still Los Angeles, still the offices of the LAPD (this time run by Robin Wright), still the laboratory for the making of replicants and still the dark corridors and underground marketplaces of a nightly neon-ridden city.
The Tyrell corporation has passed, but a new replicant-making prodigy has taken over what was left and built on that legacy. The blind genius Niander Wallace, played by Jared Leto, doesn't let us forget a central theme running through both Scott's and Villenueve's films: a longing for the creature to meet its maker. Or perhaps, the other way around?
References to the first will not be missed by fans. Coca-Cola never looked better. Same goes for Sony (produced the film), Peugeot, and...the Soviet Union? A creative re-imagination of it, at least.
Denis Villeneuve follows his sci-fi run to deliver another production that is deserving, in my judgment, for nods at Best Director and Best Film. Dennis Gassner’s captivating production design and Roger Deakin’s exquisite cinematography aren’t shy to borrow elements from the original film, yet building solid new ways to fathom Phillip K. Dick’s universe on the screen. Gassner is no stranger to dystopias: he gave us the world of The Golden Compass in the unfortunately discontinued film trilogy of His Dark Materials. And dare I predict? Deakins will win the Oscar for Best Cinematography.
Toys and Vertigo
"Oh I see, you don't like real girls"
As sci-fi writer William Gibson will tell you, science fiction is really a reflection on the present. It sounds a bit paradoxical at first, but these art forms are about things happening in the present, re-imagined in another time and place. In Blade Runner 2049, one of the most memorable and explored kind of reflection of the present is somewhat akin to Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958) but this time, with Replicants.
Perhaps not since Steven Spielberg's Minority Report (2002), another brilliant adaptation of a text by Phillip. K. Dick, have holograms been explored to be able to almost completely replicate the human experience to uncanny effects. These "toys", a definite staple mark of the genre, do help set the scene, but ultimately their value comes from how we humans interact with them. A seasoned science fiction writer understands that science fiction stories are, above all, about humans.
Who could forget Tom Cruise swiping screens with gloves that enabled him to playback holograms and videos without buttons? Remember that Spielberg's film was released before the iPod touch came out, let alone the iPhone or iPad. In Blade Runner 2049 the most unforgettable toy perhaps is a small handheld device that, by the magic of film, works with rotations and seemingly mechanical precision akin to that of camera lenses in photography to make memories.
A herald of possibility? Blade Runner 2049 certainly is. And might I add, It's been a long time since we've had a film that showed us such a disturbing interaction humans could have with technology.
Questions arise as to the needs humans have and how technology responds to them, raising questions on what is human and what is robotic, and whether both can be merged by some yet unforeseen device. Much like Tom Cruise in Minority Report, Gosling is pushed to the limits of what really is behind his search.
After all, a Blade Runner is a bounty hunter. But ultimately, as we know from the first, on the surface it is merely the search of a target. Deep down we know this is a search for the self.
You can't miss this one in theatres.
Tribuna gives “Blade Runner 2049” five stars out of five.