Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

10/17/2017  By  Sean Hanson     No comments

If ever Hollywood feels the need to remake 2001: A Space Odyssey — and let’s be honest: that day can’t be too far off — they would do well to hire Denis Villeneuve, who establishes himself as a modern-day Kubrick or Tarkovsky with Blade Runner 2049, a sci-fi epic so slow, hypnotic, and understated, its predecessor feels like a whiz-bang action thriller by comparison.

If Arrival seemed old-fashioned because it was built on ideas and empathy, Blade Runner 2049 is downright quaint in this era of Marvel movies and Transformers sequels.

2049 begins with one of its notably few homages to Blade Runner: the titular future cop K (Ryan Gosling) confronts Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista), who may or may not be a replicant, at his farm on the outskirts of nowhere. An ass or two gets kicked, one thing leads to another, and K catches wind of a replicant Baby Jesus, of sorts: an android born of androids. (Sadly, the spoiler-heavy trailer tells you a lot — but not everything — about where this trail leads.)

The future of wet willies.

If there’s one aspect of Blade Runner that draws me in for near-annual revisits, it’s the ambiguity surrounding Rick Deckard’s nature. While the final cut released in 2007 makes it pretty obvious, the theatrical cut (the version I grew up with) merely hinted that Deckard might be a replicant, which fueled a great many hours of debate. Whether you thought Deckard was a human or an android, the implications ranged from dark to darker.

Blade Runner screenwriter Hampton Fancher came out of his apparently lifelong retirement to write 2049, and instead of rehashing these themes, he uses them as a starting point. Unlike Deckard, K knows he is a replicant and is treated like a second-class citizen by human police officers, and Dr. Eldon Tyrell, the well-meaning but unwittingly cruel Gepetto figure from Blade Runner, has been replaced by Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), an enterprising edgelord who likes to lecture anyone willing to listen about the historical necessity of slavery.

As a political film, then, 2049 replaces a pointed critique of the march of progress with dire warnings of capitalist extremes and crass exploitation. Because Wallace doesn’t get much screen time, a signal that maybe something got cut, and because the film doesn’t give its women much to do, its political undertones are mildly incoherent and incomplete. And if this had come out two years ago, I would have maybe described it as a bit too on the nose, but I guess this is the sci-fi blockbuster we need these days, given the very visible reminders that some Americans still think slavery was a good thing.

Fortunately, despite its lack of ideological subtlety, 2049 excels in its depiction of the future of loneliness. Like the haunted men of Solaris and Stalker, K is adrift, unsure of his significance in a dehumanizing world and attached only to his holographic AI companion Joi (Ana de Armas). Gosling’s stoicism serves him well here, as he moves through crowded cities and barren landscapes, hungry for some grand purpose and repeatedly finding none in his cyclical life of violence and longing.

Two scenes is about all the Jared Leto you get.

With master cinematographer Roger Deakins on board, Villeneuve’s film functions best as a clarification and an expansion of Ridley Scott, Douglas Trumbull and Syd Mead’s vision. When in Los Angeles, Villeneuve and Deakins remain remarkably faithful to Blade Runner — the L.A. of 2049 feels like the L.A. they created, only thirty years later — but the real magic occurs whenever K leaves the city. Filmmakers shouldn’t be this excited to show us desolated deserts, coasts, and snowscapes — as well as an abandoned city that should be familiar to fans of a certain Fallout sequel — but they move their cameras slow, so we can absorb every haunting detail, and their enthusiasm is contagious.

Other critics have described 2049 as chilly, and it is, especially with its glacial pace and Gosling in the lead. Even its emotional resolution, in which a character makes a choice that would make Saint Jude sing with pride, is more intellectually satisfying than traditionally dramatic; but it’s a trade worth making. This is your big, bold sci-fi antidote to a summer of explosions and a decades-long sprint towards an automated future in which humanity is an afterthought.

By making a film about androids, Villeneuve has made a film about where we humans are headed.

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