By Kenneth Turan
Few films, if any, have had a trajectory quite like Ridley Scott’s 1982 Blade Runner.
Dismissed by critics, abandoned by audiences, mocked for a last-minute voice-over its credited screenwriters abhorred, its nervy mixture of science fiction and film noir was pronounced dead on arrival.
Except it wasn’t.
Powered by its visually intoxicating look at a dystopian future that seemed all too plausible, Blade Runner rose from the grave to become a tastemaker’s choice. So much so that it inspired a $150-million sequel, Blade Runner 2049, made by top creative people like director Denis Villeneuve and star Ryan Gosling who consider the original one of their hardcore favorites. So much for being DOA.
Given all these ups and downs, what’s remarkable about Blade Runner 2049 is how good it is. You can quibble with aspects of it and people being people (as opposed to replicants) surely will. But the bottom line is indisputable: As shaped by Villeneuve and his masterful creative team, especially production designer Dennis Gassner and cinematographer Roger Deakins, this film puts you firmly, brilliantly, unassailably in another world of its own devising, and that is no small thing.
As co-written by Hampton Fancher (back from the original) and Michael Green, Blade Runner 2049 is set 30 years after the first film’s enigmatic ending. It follows a next generation LAPD blade runner (Gosling) who scours Southern California for rogue replicants (machine-made humans) to destroy and stumbles on a mystery with potentially profound consequences.
Strongly directed by Villeneuve, whose last film was another otherworldly epic, Arrival, Blade Runner 2049 manages for the most part to pull off a very delicate dance.
On the one hand, it couldn’t be more respectful of and indebted to the original. It doesn’t just use that film’s celebrated visual conceptualisation of 2019 Los Angeles as its jumping off point, it brings back star Harrison Ford and has such a multitude of references to its predecessor, including an updated version of the spinner flying car, that it’s dizzying trying to keep track of them all.
Yet Blade Runner 2049 never feels like it isn’t its own film. It smartly expands on the questions of what is human and what is not that were originally contained in Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and extends its geographical reach south to San Diego and east to an eerie Las Vegas choking in red dust.
Also, thanks to top casting director Francine Maisler, familiar faces like Robin Wright, Jared Leto and Dave Bautista smoothly share the screen with less-seen but completely compelling players like Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks and Carla Juri.
All of this is not to say that there aren’t hiccups along the way. Overly worried, perhaps, about the shadow of its predecessor, Blade Runner 2049 feels too careful at times, and because it’s overly long at 2 hours and 43 minutes (including eleven minutes of credits) it takes longer than it should to involve us emotionally, to come into its own.
As with the original, it is this film’s knockout visuals that hold us until the feelings inherent in the story kick in. In this it was a smart idea to set the story three decades down the road, both close enough to and far enough from what came before to allow for startling visual variations. Production designer Gassner and his team take full advantage of that, including the use of practical sets instead of CGI whenever possible.
Suffice it to say everything you remember about the first Blade Runner world has gotten worse — gotten, in Villeneuve’s preferred language, more brutal. The weather is savage, the pollution so thick daylight is almost non-existent, the buildings more fortress-like, the polyglot crowds on the streets more hostile.
Also progressing, paradoxically, is the technology for the huge billboards that dot downtown LA. In one of the film’s more bravura moments, these are now gigantic, 3-D hologram nudes that have the capacity to engage a passersby in conversation. It’s as strange and arresting as it sounds.
Before the action proper begins, text on screen catches us up with what’s been happening since the last film. A global food crisis was resolved by blind and bearded scientist Niander Wallace (Leto), who shared his patents for genetically modified food with a grateful world.
Wallace also takes over the bankrupt Tyrell Corporation, responsible for the original replicants, and creates a new line of androids programmed to be more docile and follow orders. The older, more obstreperous models are hunted by newer models like KD6-3-7. Everyone calls him K.
With his ability to infuse emotion into an artificial being, Gosling was the consensus choice to play K, content to do his violent job and come home. The light of his life is fellow replicant Joi (an evocative De Armas), who, in an increasingly haunting riff on Pinocchio, desperately wants to be a real girl.
Blade Runner 2049 has a complex and twisty plot that kicks in when K makes a disturbing discovery after confronting ornery replicant Sapper Morton (Bautista). Keeping his actions increasingly hidden from his LAPD superior Lt. Joshi (Wright), he decides to investigate.
K’s explorations involve contact with strange worlds, like a Dickensian salvage operation/orphanage, and way unusual people, like Dr Ana Stelline (Juri), tasked with creating memories for replicants.
Also, no surprise here, K makes a point of trying to find Rick Deckard, the original blade runner, effectively played by Ford, now looking craggy enough for a spot on Mt. Rushmore.
More ominously, these investigations bring K to the attention of the powerful Wallace and his trusted right hand, the high-functioning replicant Luv (Hoeks). She looks and dresses like an angel, but nothing in this world is as it seems.
Blade Runner 2049’s plot finally gets a bit too twisty for its own good, but that doesn’t matter as much as you might think. Villeneuve and company have cast a powerful and disturbing visual spell, thrusting us into a world compelling enough to get lost in. “I’ve seen some things you people wouldn’t believe,” Rutger Hauer’s renegade replicant Roy Batty famously says in the first film, and viewers of this one will feel just the same. — Los Angeles Times/TNS
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