‘Blade Runner 2049’ continues saga’s exploration of humanity

Director Denis Villeneuve takes over from Ridley Scott in sequel to science fiction cult classic

by Sebastian Wurzrainer | 10/10/17 10:30am

In my review of “Arrival,” I wished director Denis Villeneuve luck for his next endeavor, a sequel to my favorite film of all time: Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner.” To be clear from the outset, the original “Blade Runner” is far from perfect. It is a flawed masterpiece, as influential as it is imperfect. And that’s probably why I love it. It is a slow, poetic and evocative film that never asked for or needed a sequel. But here we are 35 years later and “Blade Runner 2049” actually exists. Is it as good as the first film? Of course not, but I didn’t really expect it to be. Is it, at least, a worthy successor? By and large, I think so.

As the title might suggest, “Blade Runner 2049” picks up 30 years after Rick Deckard and his lover Rachael fled a dystopic Los Angeles. The future is looking no less grim in 2049 where Officer K (Ryan Gosling), like Deckard before him, works as a blade runner, or hunter of rogue replicants (androids). K is a replicant himself and, moreover, he knows it. Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), a tycoon with a serious god-complex, has designed the newest models to be the perfectly obedient slaves that the original models never were. While on the job, K uncovers a mystery with the potential to change the world — a mystery that eventually leads him to Deckard.

Part of what made the original so special was that Scott took what could have been a standard science fiction thriller premise and made a thoughtful neo-noir mystery that contemplated existential themes surrounding memory, mortality, the nature of creation and what defines us as human beings. In some respects, “Blade Runner 2049” continues in this spirit, focusing this time around on the implications of replicant birth. If they can bear children, then have they become, in the words of the original, “more human than human?” The film takes full advantage of this ingenious premise, complementing the existential themes in the first story.

However, the film is a decidedly more action-packed affair than its predecessor, and the story is also much grander in scope, clocking in at just under three hours. Admittedly, much of this spectacle is truly impressive: Legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins has received attention in every review I’ve read and for good reason. Every frame of this film is beautiful and invigorating, the sort of thing that will inspire future filmmakers. For all its grandeur, though, the film occasionally forgets the deeply intimate touch that grounded the original. Likewise, once in a while it loses its way in the maze that is the gigantic, complicated plot. As one might expect, the film is filled with spoilers, mysteries and moments that I dare not reveal. Some of it is a little uninteresting. Most of it is captivating. The last half hour, especially, features one hallucinatory set piece after another, forming one of the most breathtaking climaxes I’ve seen in years. The final shot, in particular, redeems any of my grievances, closing on a perfect note, uplifting yet also heartbreaking.

As is always the case with Villeneuve’s films, the casting is perfect. Gosling makes for a compelling hero and Leto, for all of his method acting shenanigans, is quite an intimidating villain. Sylvia Hoeks is wonderfully enigmatic as Luv, Wallace’s determined replicant hitman, and even Dave Bautista brings an unexpected layer of depth to his minor role. But the real surprise for me was Ana de Armas as Joi, K’s holographic girlfriend. The premise behind her existence is a brilliant continuation of the franchise’s built-in themes: If replicants can be considered “human,” can virtual beings? Joi’s story is one of the more moving aspects of the film, a devastating tale about her desperate, sometimes misguided, attempts to feel as human as she knows she is.

Harrison Ford is currently in the midst of successfully reviving old roles, but his performance in this film is something else entirely. For one thing, I appreciated that the filmmakers remembered that Deckard may have been the main character in the original film, but he certainly wasn’t a hero. Even “anti-hero” sounds too generous. He was a lonely, selfish, aloof man who helped enforce a form of slavery simply because maintaining the status quo was the path of least resistance. The whole point of that film is that Deckard slowly regains his lost humanity, which is why I’ve always felt it to be critically important that we never get a definitive answer as to whether or not he is actually a replicant. The point, I’d argue, is that it doesn’t really matter. Suffice it to say, the sequel remains respectful to that mystery, for which I am immensely grateful. And while it doesn’t dismiss Deckard’s more misanthropic character traits, it does demonstrate that he has matured. His pain, his regret and, yes, his humanity, are portrayed with incredible depth by Ford who frankly deserves an Academy Award.

When people first saw “Blade Runner” in 1982, many declared it a hollow film, full of visual splendor but lacking a human soul. In retrospect, those criticisms seem laughable — few films have proved to be as deeply human as “Blade Runner.” But as I walked out of “Blade Runner 2049,” I wondered if I was becoming like those early critics. I also felt that this sequel was a little hollow. But perhaps that was simply inevitable. I have invested in this story so much already that there was no way my feelings about the original wouldn’t dominate the entire experience. “Blade Runner 2049” is a good film, even a great film. But I’m not quite ready to say that it’s a film I love. That said, it is as ambitious as anything I’ve seen so far this decade. From what I understand, Villenueve’s next project will be a film based on Frank Herbert’s “Dune,” a notoriously tricky book to adapt. Once again, I wish him luck. Because “Blade Runner 2049” may be imperfect, but, like its predecessor, it will not be “lost in time, like tears in rain.”