A film review by Craig J. Koban October 13, 2017


2017, R, 163 mins.


Ryan Gosling as Officer K  /  Jared Leto as Neander Wallace  /  Harrison Ford as Rick Deckard  /  Ana de Armas as Joi  /  Dave Bautista as Sapper Morton  /  David Dastmalchian as Coco  /   Jared Leto as Niander Wallace  /  Mackenzie Davis as Mariette  /  Barkhad Abdi as Doc Badger  /  Carla Juri as Dr. Ana Stelline  /  Robin Wright as Lieutenant Joshi  

Directed by Denis Villeneuve  /  Written by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green





Making a sequel is tricky.  

Making a sequel to one of the seminal  science fiction films of the 1980's - and arguably one of the greatest films of all time - is even trickier.  

When Ridley Scott's futuristic sci-fi detective noir BLADE RUNNER was released in 1982 it proved to be a massive box office disappointment and one that polarized many a critic.  Yet, in the subsequent decades following its unsuccessful opening the film has developed a massive cult following and, most crucially, many critics began rethinking their respective stances on Scott's work, re-christening it as one of the most visually opulent, richly atmospheric, and intriguingly contemplative genre films ever conceived.  Scott himself has ever re-visited BLADE RUNNER multiple times to re-tool it (after a very problematic initial shoot and studio interference) to released his "Director's Cut" of the film in 1992, most recently followed by the "Final Cut" in 2007.  Regardless of form or iteration, BLADE RUNNER's overwhelmingly vast influence on the grammar and syntax of cinema over the last 35 years is incalculable. 

A follow-up entry to Scott's iconic vision of an apocalyptic 2019 Los Angeles and the world of police squad units hunting down and killing genetically engineered human beings has been discussed for years, with seemingly no one daring enough to tackle such a Herculean creative task.  This leads, of course, to the somewhat blandly titled BLADE RUNNER 2049, which takes place several decades after the original and aspires - as all great sequels should - to expand upon and enrich its predecessor by being faithful to its essence while simultaneously standing uniquely on its own two feet.  Tackling such a thankless feat is French Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, arguably one of the finest filmmakers working today whose past body of work speaks for itself (PRISONERS, ENEMY, SICARRIO and last year's masterful sci-fi alien themed thriller ARRIVAL).   



Early on in BLADE RUNNER 2049 it becomes abundantly obvious that Villeneuve respects Scott's '82 antecedent like holy gospel while appreciatively not engaging in easy to digest nostalgic fan servicing by simply regurgitating that film's key story and premise wholesale (something that THE FORCE AWAKENS was supremely guilty of doing).  Realizing the massive fandom of the original BLADE RUNNER and its place in the annals of movie history, Villeneuve gallantly attempts a sequel that honors Scott's pioneering work while audaciously crafting a wholly new story set within that world that poses all sorts of tantalizing thematic queries all of its own.  Unlike so many sequels these days (that often seem to be soft reboots of what came before), BLADE RUNNER 2049 has its own style, agenda, and purpose without forgetting what came beforehand.  In many respects, Villeneuve updates and expands upon the core ideas that made the first BLADE RUNNER so entrancing. 

That, and Villeneuve and screenwriters Hampton Fancher and Michael Green (the former also co-wrote the first BLADE RUNNER), are not afraid to thrown in mythology busting twists right from the very get go with a never look back confidence, which will ultimately make relaying the plot here rather difficult without engaging in spoilers.  For the uninitiated, the first BLADE RUNNER concerned Harrison Ford's titular bounty hunter seeking out and eradicating Replicants (the aforementioned genetically engineered humans) in an acid rain drenched and unforgivably bleak Los Angeles of 2019 (the film was also very loosely based on a Phillip K. Dyck's novel).  The sequel flash forwards us deep into the future of L.A. (and many other parts of California) in 2049 and introduces us to a new Blade Runner, Agent K (Ryan Gosling), that is tasked with doing the very same job that Ford's legalized killer did decades before.  During a startling discovery made during an altercation with a runaway Replicant farmer (a quietly commanding Dave Bautista) in a thrillingly tense opening scene, K realizes that everything he and the world around him knew about Replicants is about to fundamentally change if his discovery goes public.  

K's superior officer (Robin Wright) wants it promptly dealt with and swept under the rug, but K's insatiable curiosity begins to override his honor bound duty to his employers.  Also with a vested interest in K's findings is Niander Wallace (a reliably unnerving Jared Leto), a billionaire industrialist that's behind the latest generation of ultra-loyal Replicants that are deemed safe and docile.  Things grow even more complicated when K makes more shocking discoveries during his follow-up investigation, which even leads him to ex-Blade Runner Rick Dekkard (Harrison Ford), who has been on the run since the first film when he went AWOL from the police with his Replicant girlfriend that he was supposed to "retire." 

L.A. of the first BLADE RUNNER was one of the most thrillingly realized visions of a futuristic metropolis ever conceived for the silver screen, and Villeneuve is wise enough of a filmmaker not to try to top Scott's work.  Instead, Villeneuve manages to make his version of the futuristic City of Angels feel both familiar and new, with memorable and recognizable landmarks making appearances while opening up these hellish environments to other surrounding cities (San Diego is one big city sized garbage dump in scenes that are eerily disquieting).  We still get the massive monolithic skyscrapers littering the L.A. skyline, replete with vast advertising (now taking the form of 3D holograms versus the humongous video billboards that populated Scott's film) and hordes of flying cars littering the rain and show covered skies (amusingly and neatly, Villeneuve and production designer Dennis Grassner even manage to keep the retro future ads for companies that the 1982 film thought would be major entities in the future intact, like the now defunct Atari and Pan Am).  BLADE RUNNER 2049 is as visually stunning as the film that preceded it, which is complimented by the watchful and masterful eye of cinematographer Roger Deakins painting the screen with a nightmarishly bleak color palette that reiterates how this world has hit absolute rock bottom.  Very few films I've seen have ever looked as beautiful, yet brutally unforgiving and hostile as this one.   

Like BLADE RUNNER 1, Villeneuve's sequel also bases its forward momentum on the foundations of a fairly solid mystery yarn, replete with detours, revelations, false starts and twists, and a rather compelling journey for K that strikes an unexpectedly potent personal note.  We actually don't see Ford's Dekkard in BLADE RUNNER 2049 until very late in the film, but that never feels like a crushing disappointment because we're supremely invested in K's pursuit of clues, suspects, and even his uncovering of new mysteries wrapped within mysteries.   One of the most intrinsically fascinating character relationship arcs in the film occurs between K and an elaborate A.I. hologram program (played in human form by Ana de Armas) that echoes a similar bond between Dekkard and his non-human love interest from the first film.  K, like Dekkard, is a deeply internalized and lone man that keeps himself at a frustrating arm's distance from having meaningful ties with real people.  His ever growing intimate bond with this computer program - that can take just about any form and even physically interact with him in surprising ways - highlights BLADE RUNNER 2049's thoughtful themes about how technology and our ties with it replaces actual human interaction.  In more damning ways, it also pitifully reveals the lack of meaningful emotional bonds that people have in this oppressively bleak world.   

Villeneuve's focused directorial hand marries together with his film's narrative ambitions rather fluidly, displaying masterful levels of patience in building individual scenes from the ground up and allowing moments of nail biting tension to build organically throughout (K's trek through the red and orange hued dust bowl that is the unpopulated and dirty bombed out Las Vegas late in the film is a textbook exercise in fostering an undulating sensation of unease and dread of what's to come).  This unavoidably brings me to Ford's participation in the third and most vital act of this picture, which affords the actor added layers of world weariness, psychological depth, and even wounded vulnerability that were never even hinted at 35 years ago.  Dekkard is no mere audience placating cameo here, though, seeing as he represents a crucial piece to K's investigative puzzle that pays off in dramatically powerful ways.  And Ford has arguably never been more authentically lived in and beguilingly melancholic in a role before...even one that he's already inhabited in younger form.     

Props obviously need to be given to Gosling himself, who's given the unenviable task of holding up this sequel with unfathomable, decades-long gestating expectations on his shoulders.  His performance is effectively built on stillness and internalized anxiety and rage, and the actor does a marvelous job dealing with an overall tricky character arc that could have been mishandled if not played by as shrewd of a performer.  He's flanked well by Robin Wright as his pragmatically tough as nails boss and Sylvia Hoeks, who plays Niander Wallane's Replicant secretary that does an awful lot more than simply catering to his needs in the office; she brings an animalistic and frightening intensity to her more human than human henchwoman.  And then there's Leto's Wallace himself, a bearded, robbed, and blind antagonist that's calmly creepy in multiple ways that only Leto could adequately muster. 

I deeply wanted to love BLADE RUNNER 2049, and there's unquestionably a lot to ardently admire here: Villeneuve's characteristically composed and efficient direction, Deakin's luscious cinematography, the unendingly sumptuous and foreboding vistas of multiple decaying cities of tomorrow, the thanklessly dialed in performances, and the story's penetrating themes about the correlation between the minds, bodies, and souls of both real and artificial beings.  Yet, this sequel is marred by unwanted deficiencies that hurt it from achieving a level of greatness that it's clearly aiming for.  At 163 minutes, BLADE RUNNER runs 45 minutes longer that its much more well paced original, and it frequently shows.  When one also considers the overall narrative trajectory of the piece it becomes pretty clear that the film rarely ever justifies, nor earns its somewhat self indulgent running time.  You can sense Villeneuve's undying passion for the BLADE RUNNER universe, to be sure, but you can also sense that it got in the way of his film's unchecked and unyielding bloat. 

There are other things that bothered me as well, such as the fact that Leto's corporate villain is underutilized and underdeveloped, at least until very, very late in the plot when his twisted end game is revealed (which involves a fairly massive logic-straining plot hole that left me puzzled).  I also greatly missed the lyrically beautiful synth-heavy chords of Vangelis that punctuated the first BLADE RUNNER and gave it such a unforgettably otherworldly vibe (composer Han Zimmer dutifully pays homage to Vangelis' chords, which should help appease series die hards).  More problematic is how Villeneuve and company answer - or fail to answer -  some of the more, shall we say, nagging and controversial questions left at the ending of BLADE RUNNER that fans, critics, and even the film's director and main star have been tirelessly debating for decades.  Compellingly, BLADE RUNNER 2049 opens up whole new story conundrums and possibilities without directly answering them for viewers, which is noteworthy and welcome to an extent.  It's ambiguous manner that it deals with some of them, though, might frustrate many. 

And maybe, when all is said and done, no science fiction film sequel - or film, period - would be able to re-capture Scott's trail blazing conceptual inventiveness again, which leaves BLADE RUNNER 2049 trying to fill impossibly large shoes, and only allows for its flaws to show through the cracks more readily (there's an infinitely leaner, tighter, and frankly better film here demanding a disciplined edit).   Villeneuve, to his esteemed credit, has lovingly and painstakingly crafted what's probably the best possible BLADE RUNNER sequel we were ever likely to see, one that stirs the imagination as a wondrous feast for the eyes that also promotes thought and discussion  and, most importantly, respects the sci-fi genre as one of ideas first and action and spectacle a very distant second.  

BLADE RUNNER 2049 deserves worthy comparisons to the original film that it reveres without lazily remaking or retooling it for a new generation of filmgoers.  As one character from this cinematic universe would have sad to Villenueve, "You've done a man's job, sir."

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