'Blade Runner 2049': Film Review

A stylish but overlong sequel to a sci-fi favorite.
10/6/2017

Harrison Ford is back, alongside Ryan Gosling, Jared Leto and Robin Wright, in Denis Villeneuve's sequel to the Ridley Scott classic.

For committed fans who have patiently waited 35 years for a sequel to Ridley Scott's mesmerizingly lento sci-fi landmark Blade Runner, the good news is that helmer Denis Villeneuve achieves something very close to the same narcotic effect in Blade Runner 2049 with a voluptuous mood bath that's impressively sustained from beginning to end. The problem is that 164 minutes occupy the distance between that beginning and end, yet another example of directorial excess where self-discipline would have been a great benefit (the release version of the original ran 118 minutes).

There are many reasons to see this entrancingly immoderate work, but just as the original was a box-office short-faller in its day, it's doubtful that the mainstream masses will pile in for this follow-up despite the presence of Ryan Gosling, and especially the returning Harrison Ford in one of his most dynamic performances.

The French-Canadian Villeneuve has developed through Prisoners, Sicario (both brilliantly shot by Roger A. Deakins, back for a third turn here) and Arrival to establish himself as one of the more visually expressive directors now working on big Hollywood films; the often portentous nature of his style suggested him as an excellent match for this second cinematic go-round with the late Philip K. Dick's post-apocalyptic noir mystery featuring detective Rick Deckard.

The opening few minutes offer the immediate assurance of being in good hands. California by 2049 has turned far more toxic and congested than it was in 2019 envisioned by the first film in 1982 (in reality things haven't turned out quite as badly as Scott and his production designer Lawrence G. Paull so creatively imagined). Ravishing images reveal a thick, smoky atmosphere through which you can barely see; population density in the vast expanses of Los Angeles 32 years hence makes modern Sao Paulo look like a ghost town; and atmospheric cooling, not warming, has asserted itself, to the point where snowfall in Southern California is not uncommon. Smog and snow — an excellent combination for photogenic filth.

The original script's co-author Hampton Fancher and new co-writer Michael Green (Green Lantern, Logan, Alien: Covenant) go light on exposition, no doubt succumbing to the director's own inclination here to follow Sir Ridley's template in emphasizing visual impression and sensation over literal explanation. All the same, it's worth knowing that LAPD Officer “K” (Gosling, and you can take or leave the implied reference to Kafka) is on the hunt for renegade old-style Nexus 8 replicants, which have been “retired” and replaced by the more docile and controllable Nexus 9 series. At the outset, he tracks down one such holdout, Sapper (Dave Bautista), a reclusive “protein farmer” who's somewhat implausibly bested by his physically less imposing opponent after a brutal fight. 

The preternaturally world-weary K has a Nexus 9 companion/girlfriend/geisha, the aptly named Joi (Ana de Armas), but she brings little joie into K's grim life; he's a man of few words in a world where the richest and most powerful figure is one Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), who made his fortune creating civilization-saving genetically modified food and is now the force behind the Nexus 9. He's also blind, which is a special shame in that he cannot behold his dwelling, one of the most stunning interior spaces ever created for a film or in real life.

Any direct description of motivations or dramatic events in Blade Runner 2049 is bound to excessively clarify things that almost invariably remain cryptic and hazy in the film itself. There are rumors of a pregnant replicant, which K's boss, police lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright), denies ever happened, and we meet Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), an attack dog in the guise of a very tough babe who works for Wallace.

There's welcome time spent on the dark streets of L.A. that both remind of and expand upon similar scenes in the original film. The now-retired Paull's extraordinary work on the original has been expanded upon by the resourceful present production designer Dennis Gassner and his team with what looks like more extensive sets here — plus a much denser skyline and several detailed interiors that reflect both noir and modernist notions pushed to the brink, all captured by Deakins with one brilliant through-a-lens-darkly composition after another.

Still, after about an hour of this, you begin to wonder where it's all going and how long it's going to take to get there; the answer to the first question is somewhere interesting, but it's going to take quite a while. In stories with complicated narratives, epic scope and/or plentiful engaging characters, extended running times are welcome; otherwise, if a filmmaker doesn't keep his or her eyes on the clock, the viewer may well do so instead.

Around the 90-minute mark, with K's arrest, matters become dramatically muddled and confusing, and as one tries to sort things out, another issue presents itself: What Blade Runner 2049 inevitably lacks compared to its progenitor is a sense of the shock of the new, perhaps the principal factor that made the original so important to its fans at the time.

What 2049 eventually offers in its place is the shock of the old, that being the re-emergence of Ford as Deckard. Very dramatically, his voice precedes him. Having disappeared and successfully eluded authorities for decades, this old cop, who supposedly has the solution to creating more replicants that Wallace so desires, makes it instantly clear to the young cop that he's none too pleased to have been found. Grizzled and ferocious, Ford's Deckard practically dispatches K on the spot, but then they decide to have a drink and things begin to get interesting, not the least with the surprise appearance of a thespian who is decidedly not mentioned in the cast list but comes out of left field to jaw-slackening effect.

In a film that has already been studded with several bursts of sudden violence and rough action, Ford's arrival ups the ante, as the great action star, fully looking his age and perhaps more, really delivers here with a ragingly physical performance that bursts the film's exquisite languor. As a contrast to Gosling's deliberately deadened, emotionally zoned-out turn, Ford almost single-handedly amps up a film otherwise intentionally drained of character vitality.

Everyone involved in this imposing enterprise has clearly dug deep to be both true to the original and to come up with sharp ideas to create something more than a retread. Although the action scenes here are often brutal and Hoeks supplies her vicious character with some unexpected emotional shading, no replicant warriors in Blade Runner 2049 can measure up to those played by Rutger Hauer and Daryl Hannah in the first one. Leto achieves the desired weirdness level as the corporate genius behind the upgraded replicants, while Wright is all business as a top cop.

All manner of superlatives can and will be bestowed upon the fabulous design and technical hands who contributed to the film's spectacular look, which is consistent with the original just as it expands upon it. In addition to the extraordinary work of Deakins and Gassner, special citations are warranted for Renee April's keen-eyed costume design, which is persuasively more rooted in the real world than in some sci-fi universe, and John Nelson's gargantuan visual effects. One minor but curious detail is the appearance on the nocturnal cityscape of a giant lighted sign for Pan Am, such as hasn't been seen since the days it appeared atop the famous building on Park Avenue at Grand Central Station in New York City. Is this eccentric nostalgia or the suggestion of a rebirth?

There was controversy and displeasure in fan quarters when news leaked that the original score by Villeneuve's regular composer, the unorthodox and deeply inventive Johan Johannson, was being replaced by music from the more conventional team of Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer. In the event, the pair's work here is in a more impressionistic, experimental, wall-of-sound mode than is customary from the Zimmer factory and, in the event, is extremely effective and mood-enhancing.

Production companies: Alcon Media Group, Columbia Pictures, Bud Yorkin Productions, Torridon Films, 16:14 Entertainment
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, Robin Wright, Mackenzie Davis, Carli Juri, Lennie James, Dave Bautista, Jared Leto
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Screenwriters: Hampton Fancher, Michael Green, story by Hampton Fancher, based on characters from the novel
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
Producers: Andrew A. Kosove, Broderick Johnson, Bud Yorkin, Cynthia Sikes Yorkin
Executive producers: Ridley Scott, Bill Carraro, Tim Gamble, Frank Giustra, Yale Badik, Val Hill
Director of photography: Roger A. Deakins
Production designer: Dennis Gassner
Costume designer: Renee April
Editor: Joe Walker
Music
: Benjamin Wallfisch, Hans Zimmer
Visual effects supervisor: John Nelson
Casting: Francine Maisler

Rated R, 164 minutes

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