Review: Blade Runner 2049 Finds Poetry in the Reboot Handbook
Blade Runner 2049, directed by Denis Villeneuve, is a long-delayed follow up to an important but deeply flawed film. The 1982 Ridley Scott film Blade Runner is remembered for its radically original vision of a rain soaked, neon future where the real and artificial had merged. It was a tour-de-force of tone and mood, but the pace was slow, the characters were thinly sketched (excepting Rutger Hauer as the soulful ubermensch Roy Batty), and for a noir the plot was curiously lacking a central mystery. For the most part Blade Runner 2049 corrects these errors.
The pace is still slow, a scene of Ryan Gosling’s robot detective wandering through an abandoned casino especially drags, but on the whole the film feels much more deliberate. Villeneuve is taking his time because he has something to say, and it’s a joy to watch him slowly un-spool his intricate mystery. Best known for the Mexican noir Sicario and the meditative sci-fi film Arrival, Villeneuve was an inspired choice for 2049. His camera work ranges from epic and intense to haunting and quiet, and it feels both in line with his own filmography and with Scott’ original film. I came out of the theater hoping for more smart sci-fi from Villeneuve. I’d especially like to see his take on Dune.
Villeneuve also makes the most of Gosling’s too-beautiful-to-be-real face. Gosling’s lead ends up combining elements of Harrison Ford’s Deckard, his own nearly mute killer from Drive, and Haley Joel Osment as the boy robot in AI. Gosling’s Her-esque romance with a holographic woman is surprisingly tender, and the notoriously passionless romance between Ford and Sean Young that held the original Blade Runner together is redeemed somewhat by its re-contextualization in the new film. Ford himself seems to have shaken off his late career malaise for his return to Deckard. 2049 wisely withholds Ford for most of the running time and uses him in a capacity that feels natural to the story, rather than shoehorned in for nostalgia in the way that his final appearance as Han Solo sometimes was.
In an era when we are accustomed reboots that repackage moments from their inspirations rather than taking risks of their own Blade Runner 2049 plays with the iconography of the original film in clever and subtle ways. The famous Voight-Kampff test has evolved into a new Baseline Test that Gosling is subjected to after every mission. Whereas the Voight-Kampff told man from machine by measuring emotional responses the Baseline Test keeps machines in line by battering them with emotions, using lines from Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Pale Fire to inspire feelings of loneliness and longing and judging the subject’s ability to keep these feelings suppressed. Jared Leto as the villainous Niander Wallace is a pale reflection of the replicant’s creator Eldon Tyrell, and his new models lack the poetry and mystery of Tyrell’s originals. Its in this state of infinite reflection that we meet Gosling, a replicant of a replicant. But over the course of the film something strange happens.
Screenwriter Hampton Fancher described Blade Runner 2049 as the story of a handbook becoming a poem, and in a way that makes it the perfect movie for our post-modern era. We too are surrounded by mundane and dehumanizing forces that would reduce us to our functionalities. You don’t need to literally be a robot to feel like only a human-seeming cog in a massive machine, ground down by daily routines and compromises. But 2049 reassures us that there is still poetry to be found in the margins of such an existence, and that always searching for it, never being sure if we’ve found it, maybe even dying for it, is the most human thing of all.