“Blade Runner 2049” Review: Denis Villeneuve Balances Reverence and Innovation in Worthy Sequel That Adds to Original’s Legacy

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Blade Runner 2049 ReviewAlcon Entertainment

Truly great sequels are few and far between.

There are plenty of perfectly fine sequels, but how many times can you honestly say that a second film not only captures what made a first film work, but also expands upon it, illuminating something new about the original?

 is, in every way, a worthy follow-up to Ridley Scott’s 1982 cult classic, and I say that as someone who saw the original film in the theater on opening day. It is such a worthy sequel that I worry we’re going to see the exact same commercial fate play out again. This is a methodical, meditative piece about legacy and humanity that’s more concerned with ideas than thrills, and it is real science-fiction, the kind that rarely connects with a mass audience.

Is it a spoiler to tell you that something is not in the movie? Because it’s clear that director Denis Villeneuve and his collaborators understand what makes the first film great when you get to the closing credits of this one and realize that they have nimbly managed to avoid addressing the first film’s biggest question in any way. You want to know if Deckard is a replicant? Well, demanding that answer indicates you don’t understand the point, and what this film does is expand on the first film’s ideas without feeling the need to rob the original of any of its power. No easy trick, that.

One of the hardest things about making a sequel to a film as singular as the original Blade Runner is that you can’t just make a fetish piece. You can’t just recreate the world and then make nods to the original. It’s not enough, and it’s what we see them do over and over and over with these kinds of films. Instead, Blade Runner 2049 tells its own story, in its own time, and the last thing it seems interested in doing is simply repeating what’s already been done.

The film opens with a quick update about how the world has changed. Replicants, specifically the Nexus 6 kind we saw in the first film, were impossible to manage, and the next wave was given open-ended life spans, making them far more likely to kill to protect those lives. Eventually, they were outlawed completely and the Tyrell corporation went under. After a sufficient amount of time, Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) bought up the assets of Tyrell and started over, creating compliant replicants that are 100% under the control of humans. One of those replicants, known only as “K” (Ryan Gosling), works as a blade runner, down those renegade Nexus 8 models still out there trying to pass as human. There’s no mystery made of it in this film. By the end of the opening scene, it’s clear what “K” is, and he’s completely aware of it.

There are mysteries, though, all triggered by a strange discovery “K” makes during the otherwise standard retirement of Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista). I love the way they introduce this film’s mystery, and the way they escalate things. It moves at a very deliberate, very controlled pace. There’s never a feeling that the film is in a hurry or that there’s any impatience to get to the big set pieces — another problem with a lot of event films these days. There aren’t really any big set pieces here. It’s not structured that way.

Instead, “K” goes to work trying to sort out this impossibility, this insane idea that he stumbles across, and his boss, Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright), is positively frantic to have him cover up things as fast he can uncover them. Gosling is perfectly cast here, and one of the things I love about his work in general is that he’s acutely aware of the camera. The choices he makes are great visual choices, and he knows that with a filmmaker like Villeneuve, the world you’re in and the actual image are doing just as much of the work as the actor. He hands himself over to filmmakers, and when you’ve got someone working at as high a level as Villeneuve is these days, the results are spectacular.

I hope more filmmakers pay attention to just how good Dave Bautista is during his short time onscreen in the film. Whether here or in the Guardians of the Galaxy films or in Bushwick or even Man With the Iron Fist, Bautista is an uncommonly good performer, capable of going big or underplaying with equal ease. Wright brings a flinty quality to her role, and she’s got an intriguing relationship with “K” that is, thankfully, not about gender politics.

One of the film’s central relationships is between Joi (Ana de Armas) and “K,” and while I won’t detail what that relationship is, I’ll say that I could have watched an entire film just about the two of them. De Armas has been used largely as eye candy in her English-language films so far, but she digs into this role and comes up with something that should establish her as the real deal, beyond any doubt. For long stretches of the film, they’re the only two onscreen, and she’s wonderful. There’s a scene involving the two of them and Mackenzie Davis that is pretty much the best scene I’ve seen in any movie this year, a canny look into a very real near future, a commentary on some of the strange corners into which evolution may carry us. It’s also something I’ve never seen before in any film, and how rare is that?

Blade Runner 2049 ReviewAlcon Entertainment

So let’s talk about Harrison Ford.

It almost feels like this movie accidentally runs into a Blade Runner sequel in the middle of this otherwise deeply interesting film, and in a way, that’s part of what works. Deckard ran at the end of the first film, and instead of just dropping us right back into his story at the start of this one, the film takes the time to make sure we’re fully invested in “K” and his story. The “big” ideas in 2049 aren’t particularly new if you’re a science-fiction fan, but that’s not the point. This film isn’t trying to blow your mind. Instead, it presents its ideas in a way that will pull you in because of the characters and what these ideas mean to them. This is very much a film about how it would be to live in this world, to simply have to grapple with the day-to-day existential reality, whether human or skin .

By the time the film finally gets to Deckard, it doesn’t feel like a gimmick or like a cheap excuse to fold him into the story. It’s perfectly time, and he’s written really well. It gives Ford a chance to play things we don’t often see from him, and it reminds me of the internal fury and pain driving his work in Presumed Innocent or The Mosquito Coast. There are a few moments, tiny reactions, looks he gives to other characters, where it feels like no time has passed and this is Rick Deckard. Not just Harrison Ford, but Rick Deckard specifically. Over the last few years, it’s been amazing watching the way Ford has reversed from his earlier reluctance to deal with his place in film history, to embracing those earlier roles and finding new ways to add to the characterizations. He and Gosling get to play the full arc of a relationship but without the script hammering the point home. They’re terrific together, and there’s so much smart and subtle stuff going on between them that the movie demands an immediate second viewing.

There are definitely spoilers that would change the way you watch the movie, but that’s exactly what will make watching it a second time so interesting. There will be time to discuss all of the implications of the things that happen here. What I find so striking is how completely Villeneuve has claimed the world and made it his own now. This is definitely the same California we saw in the first film, but 30 years down the road, and the technology all feels lived-in and functional, not just pretty for the sake of it.

Oh, did I say pretty? Roger Deakins is, simply put, one of the most gifted cinematographers to ever work, and the images he’s created here are breathtaking. There are complicated visual ideas that he makes effortless, ways he has to shoot entire characters that could be an overwhelming visual challenge in lesser hands, and Deakins makes it all feel like art. It is a full sensory overload, and the theater I saw it in is perhaps the single best sounding Dolby Atmos set-up in . The soundscape of Blade Runner 2049 is lush and hypnotic and immersive, and the score by Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer leans heavily on the type of sounds that propelled the Vangelis score for the original.

Blade Runner 2049 ReviewAlcon Entertainment

Dennis Gassner’s next-level production design manages to create these perfect emotional spaces for this thing to play out, and what I love about the first film is even more true here. This is Earth as the Island Of Misfit Toys, a world where everyone who has any resources of any kind has long since figured out how to move off-planet. The people who are still here are the bottom of the bottom of the bottom, and all anyone’s really doing here is trying to keep it all from boiling over. This is whatever is left after all the good has been scraped off the surface of the world, which only makes it more wrenching to see these machines, imperfect and vilified, so desperate to be real and to be alive, so keenly aware that they have no place in nature’s order.

The world of Blade Runner 2049 is profoundly sad, and while it is ravishing to look at, it’s a hard, unforgiving world. I’m so glad one of the original film’s writers is back, and Michael Green is turning into one of the hardest-working writers for grown-ups in Hollywood right now. Having Hampton Fancher onboard really does feel like it buys them an uncommon degree of direct connection to the first film, and it is a seamless voice between 1982 and today, one he must have helped ensure.

Denis Villeneuve may be one of the most talented and uncompromised voices working in big commercial cinema right now, and whatever pressure or fear he may have felt at the idea of having to try to live up to one of the most influential films in science-fiction history, he more than rose to the occasion. He’s done a man’s , to use a phrase from the first film, and I would wager that even Ridley Scott could not have balanced reverence and innovation with the skill that Villeneuve manages. It’s hard enough to make good entertainment when you set your mind to it; setting out to make great art is a laughable, Quixotic goal. But here’s this big, beautiful, improbable thing, entertaining and adult and undeniably an example of how we can use art and genre to wrestle with the questions that drive each and every one of us. Am I doing what I am supposed to be doing? Am I doing it well? Am I contributing something? And, most importantly, am I loved? Was I wanted?

The very act of pondering these things is human. These drives not only make us who we are, they create common ground for us. While many films have tackled these themes, Blade Runner 2049 is such a good sequel that it makes the case that, between these two films, no other example of the genre has ever made these ideas so vivid, so wrenching, so immediate and raw. I would have never thought it possible, but Blade Runner feels brand new and vital once again, not a hint of empty nostalgia in sight.

TB-TV-Grade-A+

Rated: R
Running time: 164 minutes

 

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