Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

One of the previews that screened before last night’s Boston premiere of Blade Runner 2049 was for next year’s monsters vs. robots actioner Pacific Rim Uprising, an inevitable if somewhat tardy sequel to Guillermo del Toro’s 2013 original. Based solely on this trailer, it’s evident that Uprising centers on the son of the first film’s protagonist, alludes heavily to that first film, and possibly just revamps the plot with slightly louder explosions. I was reminded, regrettably, of Independence Day: Resurgence, which gave off a similar reek of franchise desperation.

And of course this was the general fear heading into 2049. It’s been 35 years since Blade Runner established a visual and tonal format for scores of futuristic noirs to come (Dark City, Gattaca, Strange DaysAutomata, more), and this is apparently long enough to give up on counterfeiting and make it explicit: time for another Blade Runner. In 2049 we have K (Ryan Gosling), our new replicant-hunting LAPD hero-hunk, leading us through the same streets Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) traversed back in 1982. There is a new mystery at hand, yes, but there is also heavy allusion to the beloved original disseminated through visual cues, recycled dialogue, occasional cameos and, as is par for the course these days, a victory lap for Ford.

Thankfully 2049 is a real movie, not a forced money-grab sequel or a universe-expander, and so for the most part those aforementioned offenses don’t play like offenses. Director Denis Villeneuve (Enemy, Prisoners, Sicario, Arrival) was the earliest sign of this, as his talents and track record never suggested 2049 as something he’d need to take on; he’d only do so to tell a worthwhile story. The second positive out of the gate is Roger Deakins, patron saint of cinematographers, who somehow manages to turn in career-high work here despite the fact that his career is exclusively high. More on his contributions in a second.
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Villeneuve, like original helmer Ridley Scott, knows there are two kinds of movies that almost always fall into the dreaded Pit of Exposition: sci-fi movies and franchise sequels. The former is afraid that you, the audience, won’t understand the rules of this future, and thus opts to overexplain; the latter strives to connect to previous films in the series and/or lay the groundwork for future installments, and thus opts to overexplain. 2049 is both of these, a sci-fi flick and a franchise sequel, and yet the reason it’s so immersive is that it refuses to explain its machinery (pun intended). We understand the function of this protein farm, of this interrogation technique, of this Her-like A.I. system, and of this world on the whole with nary a hand to hold along the way. Even the brief infodump at the beginning feels like it’s there simply to parallel the dump from the original, not to actually catch us up on critical information.
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At one point a character tasked with writing and coding the memories of replicants remarks on what other writers and coders do wrong: they focus entirely on the details. To be sure, both Blade Runner and 2049 are amongst the most detail-heavy films you’re likely to find on the production design front. Maybe this owes itself to that Villeneuve/Scott resistance to exposition, because it gives us more time to spend with characters who work at noodle shops and backalley flea markets. But the feeling, not the details, is what this particular memory-maker preaches. And 2049 follows suit: the details, impressive as they are, always exist in service of the larger experience.
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The weakest points are sort of the same weak points of the original film, with one notable addition. Both Runners are more like “crawlers”, as one critic put it, and the overly-long 2049 is especially slow at the one-hour mark. “Contemplative”, I believe, is the nice way to describe this. A larger issue lies with familiar characters like Jared Leto’s Wallace, who fills the slippers of the original film’s Tyrell seemingly because those slippers are there for the filling. But if there’s one qualm for 2049 that doesn’t apply to Blade Runner, it’s simply that the level of convenience apparent at certain plot points makes for a more strained experience. The plot is more twisty-turny here in 2049, and the characters spurring that plot along sometimes make decisions that seem — get ready to wince here — mechanical.
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Still, brilliantly, the most memorable frames from the sequel are not the ones you might expect. There are some classic and iconic sequences in the first film: the glass-shattering death of the replicant Zhora, the screaming-and-writhing death of the replicant Pris, the quietly devastating death of the replicant Roy Batty. A personal favorite occurs when J.F. Sebastian leads Pris into his toymaker’s home, the pair striding cautiously into a shadowy foyer and toward a gated elevator. The light beams emanating from the elevator move up the massive hall as it rises, and the tilt of the camera in this moment captures something inexplicable. These moments are all beautiful, but they’re all cold and frightening at the same time.
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Roger Deakins flips the script here in 2049: a light snowfall, a yellow flower, a handful of bumblebees. A stunning cut from floating embers of a fire back to a rainy cityscape. These are moments of natural beauty, moments that exist in 2049 and are arguably wiped from the comparatively sterile Blade Runner. The sentiment behind these moments works within the themes of both films because in each case they serve to highlight questions of humanity, which is the real natural beauty at hand in this world of dusty machines. Deakins and Villeneuve use these occurrences of the natural meaningfully, and in doing so they progress the visual mythos of the series in ways that most sequels would never dare.
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So Blade Runner 2049 evades the typical traps set out for a movie of its type, managing to serve as both a standalone story and one that builds on a classic. It’s never as streamlined nor as powerful as the original, never as raw or messy or gripping as Scott’s masterpiece can be in its best moments. But it’s got more style and more brain than almost anything this year, sequel or no, and it successfully brings Blade Runner back to the future.
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