"Blade Runner 2049" (2017) Review
This shouldn't have come close to working in any capacity.
Making a sequel to the original Blade Runner has always been around as one of those classic "Hollywood Bad Ideas" that film geeks would joke about as a worst case scenario. Blade Runner goes beyond being a cult film item, its legacy and path to becoming a critical darling took over a decade out from its original release date to happen. Making a sequel to a film so singularly strange and aesthetically influential shouldn't have worked.
And it has.
Blade Runner 2049 is an altogether different beast from the original, but it still works as an extension of the original story. The film's existence is a metaphorical high-wire act that could have gone wrong on so many different levels and the fact it finds so much success and goes off on its own unique tangents just feels like icing on the cake. This isn't a one-to-one emulation of the original film, it's a new vision of a familiar world, peering into unseen corners of this world.
That last point is really worth reiterating, that this isn't a one-to-one emulation. This doesn't have Ridley Scott's signature hand-held camera work, it doesn't have the copious cigarette smoking, it doesn't have the constant reminders of texture and grime in the original film (that doesn't mean this world is any cleaner and nicer than when we last left it though). This is a Blade Runner film made by Denis Villeneuve, and it feels exactly like that.
I should take this moment to mention that Arrival was one of my favorite films of 2016 and that Prisoners was borderline traumatizing to see for the first time, but in a good way (shamefully, I have not seen Sicario yet). The point is that I love Denis Villeneuve's work and I really love the careful way that he stages his films, and his work with Roger Deakins on Prisoners proved that they were a dynamic duo in terms of a directing/cinematography team.
So it should go without saying that Blade Runner 2049 is aesthetically astounding at every turn. Not just in its art direction, but in the ways that the film uses light and shadow to create high contrast. This has probably been said a couple hundred times before I put this review up, but I'll throw my endorsement in as well: If Roger Deakins does not finally win an Academy Award for Cinematography this year, then the Oscars might be completely forfeit.
The actual story of Blade Runner 2049 is difficult to discuss, mostly due to the fact that the marketing did a stunningly good job of concealing the larger story to the point that even mentioning plot points that happen a mere five minutes into the film's epic two-hour and forty-three minute runtime feels like giving too much away. In light of this, I'm going to tip-toe carefully through this.
The plot concerns Officer "K," (Ryan Gosling) an employee of the LAPD in 2049. In this portion of the future, Replicants, androids that are barely distinguishable from humans, now have commands built into them that force them to obey. The older models of Replicants have no such limits so Officer K, a titular Blade Runner, hunts these older models. Officer K discovers something that has the potential to tear apart the order of the current world, forcing him to solve a mystery from decades ago.
I won't say too much else about the plot here, but what I will say is that the actors here put in some great work. Ryan Gosling is his usual restrained self here, but in context it works extremely well. The supporting cast is pretty great too, but the biggest standouts come in the form of Sylvia Hoeks as a Replicant named Luv, Ana de Armas as Officer K's "girlfriend" named Joi (I'm not going to say why I've put the word 'girlfriend' is in quotes, I'll leave that for you to discover because her part in the film took me completely off guard and as much as I want to write more about her part in this film, I just can't without giving some plot away), Dave Bautista as a Replicant that's in the film for a handful of minutes, and Harrison Ford reprising his part from the original film.
I want to take this moment to say that of all of those performances, Sylvia Hoeks stands out the most for me. I better see her in a lot more films after this because she totally and utterly dominates every scene she's in, and considering that each of those scenes are usually against the film's other standout performers, that says a lot.
Harrison Ford is also worth diving into more. He does not phone in his performance as Deckard in this film. That's not to say that he's been phoning it in for his late career every time, but the affect of "grumpy old Ford" carries a lot more weight here. His grim nature doesn't feel like a put-on but a true result of a harsh existence.
One other aspect I want to highlight are the film's visual effects. There are four sequences in particular that really stand out in the visual effects department, and two of which are unfortunately massive spoilers to discuss in greater detail. One I can mention shows part of the process involved with manufacturing the memories for the Replicants and its stunning to say the least. Again, it's an unseen corner of the original film's world that I've always wanted to see and the film visually delivers on it spectacularly. The other set-piece has been eluded to in trailers and involves a game of cat and mouse through a glitched out night club with only two real occupants and a whole bunch of Elvis holograms. It's an amazing set-piece that I won't say more about here.
All of this praise should be taken with one caveat though. I really love the original Blade Runner, and while I saw it with someone who hadn't seen the original and still liked this, I still think seeing the original is still vital. The story of Blade Runner 2049 is mostly self-contained, but having the context of that original film helps a lot. It will also help you figure out if this film is for you or not.
I mentioned pretty early on in this review that this film is two hours and forty-three minutes long, and it's not moving at a super fast pace either. That's not to say the film is super slow or anything like that, but it's not the action thrill ride that some of the trailers have eluded too. This is a detective story that takes its time to establish and relish in various clues. It helps a lot that the movie is so visually stunning to look at, but that's not going to be enough to take the edge off for some audiences.
I'm really happy with how Blade Runner 2049 turned out. This is a project that feels so improbably successful that I'm not sure I just imagined some its best parts. If you have a deep interest in the sci-fi genre, this is the film you've been waiting for all year.
Oh. One last thing. Jared Leto is fine in this movie. He's not great, he's not distractingly bad either, so I'll take it. I have a feeling his performance might grow on me with repeat viewings, but anyone worried that the Joker was going to strike again can rest easy.