BLADE RUNNER 2049 (Movie Review)

bladerunner2049
***1/2 out of ****
Rated R
(for violence, some sexuality, nudity, and some strong language)
Released:  October 6, 2017
Runtime: 163 minutes
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: 
Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Robin Wright, Jared Leto, Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, Mackenzie Davis, Dave Bautista

“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe.” – Roy Batty, replicant

When Blade Runner hit screens in the summer of 1982, its dystopian future was so unlike anything we’d seen before that audiences not only had a hard time believing it but they didn’t actually buy it – literally. A failure at the box office, it was a movie that (to finish Roy Batty’s poetic sentiments) seemed destined to be “lost in time…like tears in rain.” Time to die, indeed.

A decade later, however, following a critical reassessment, popular resurgence, and growing cult status (not to mention its undeniable influence as a template for most sci-fi movies thereafter), this once obscure genre piece became a modern classic. Now it’s finally time to reboot this dark vision of Los Angeles in Blade Runner 2049, and the result – a brainy art house indie on a blockbuster budget – may once again fascinate and frustrate audiences in equal measure.

It would be impossible to reinvent cinema like the original Blade Runner did (and it would be a creative miscalculation to even try, which this doesn’t), but Blade Runner 2049 exceeds mere fan service. Vast in scope, rich in detail, with ambitions both aesthetic and philosophical, director Denis Villeneuve (Arrival) honors and expands upon Ridley Scott’s original in ways that are truly inspired. A viewer need not have seen the groundbreaking predecessor to follow this sequel’s plot, but a familiarity of – and love for – the original will reap big rewards.

Inventively and intricately linked to the events of the first film, Blade Runner 2049 (set thirty years after the original’s alt-universe L.A. of 2019, in its dreary, rain-soaked gloom) will not only satisfy fans but actually provide gasp-inducing revelations and truly satisfying emotional payoffs.

It constructs a compelling arc in particular for Ryan Gosling’s Officer K, this story’s Blade Runner (a.k.a. an LAPD detective who hunts down Replicants, those rogue androids who are deceptively human). He uncovers a shocking possibility connected to Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), a Blade Runner who’s been missing (and wanted) for thirty years, sending K on a mission to track Deckard down (one that, among other things, finally answers the burning question, “Is Deckard really a replicant?”).

Much like Deckard’s romance with the replicant Rachel (whose fate is also made clear), K’s relationship to these non-human sentient beings is conflicted, particularly given how artificial intelligence has evolved over three decades. Where the original Blade Runner blurred the lines between humans and androids, 2049 blurs them even further, confusing and redefining reality itself.

This takes the big questions that the first film was asking, about what it means to be human, and exponentially complicates them, especially when you consider the poetic irony that the more a Replicant becomes conscious of its limitations and aware of its non-humanity, the more human it actually becomes.

Do we have a moral responsibility to human-like creations, ones that don’t have souls but sure act like they do, with sincere emotions that express sadness and grief? Is it possible for humans to be good gods, or are we inherently compromised moral entities who will abuse our creations via our historical impulse toward slavery?

Fundamentally, should our ethics extend to artifice and simulation, particularly when that simulation’s own consciousness is indistinguishable from our own? Do we bear a moral obligation towards A.I.?

How we answer those questions reveals the true nature of our own humanity, and indicts it.

Favoring existential ennui over high-octane thrills, the slow pace of this visionary spectacle will test the patience of some, particularly over a runtime that exceeds two-and-a-half hours. There’s plenty of spectacular eye candy across this bold sci-fi canvas, and it offers its share of intense action set pieces. But, like the original, Blade Runner 2049 is more obsessed with its themes and ideas than the bells and whistles of its mesmerizing backdrop.

Still, unlike the original film’s plot (that some found too dense), the story here follows a clearer path with provocative implications. There’s a mystery to be solved within this detective story framework, and it often keeps us a few steps ahead of the characters (by design, not error) so you won’t be lost, although surprises inevitably remain.

It’s all anchored in Gosling’s K, a cipher for every idea that this bleak parable explores. K’s journey becomes an emotionally wrought search for identity and purpose, and Gosling imbues the film’s cold, mechanized sterility with heart and soul. I was moved by what he must face, accept, and reconcile.

Ford, too, rises to the challenge of a wonderfully written character, one revisited with depth and empathy, burdened by a lifetime of necessary personal sacrifice. Deckard is a tough guy with no regrets, but underneath there’s pain, sorrow, and longing. Ford allows us to see just how fragile he is.

There are intriguing metaphors to contemplate here as well, but unlike the inscrutable mother! this movie doesn’t rise or fall on grasping any of them. Within a story about creations, creators, and institutionalized slavery (of Replicants), Judeo-Christian symbols can be gleaned, from a possible Moses parallel to a potential Christ figure. These don’t play out literally, mind you, but work instead as layers and textures.

There’s also a brief reference to a “Galatians Syndrome” that remains cryptic, but it’s worth considering why the name of that particular New Testament epistle was chosen, especially for a book that defines the fruit of the Spirit (“Against such things there is no law.”), emphasizes grace, and proclaims in chapter 3, verse 28: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free (emphasis mine), nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

For all its magnitude and grandeur – visually, thematically, and otherwise – I’m still hard-pressed to concede that this is better than the original (as most have). That is to say, I can’t. It lacks the original’s daring, psychotic edge, and also removes its vivid noir atmosphere. Even so, it’s difficult to imagine how Blade Runner 2049 could be much better than what Villeneuve has crafted so brilliantly. It simply relies too much on the Blade Runner that started it all to be declared its superior.

Blade Runner 2049 may not supersede its forbear, but it does stand honorably on its shoulders. That doesn’t minimize or undercut what an impressive triumph this cinematic gift is. If anything, it’s in that fidelity to style and substance that Blade Runner 2049 achieves its own greatness.

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