BLADE RUNNER 2049 REVIEW
Looking at the cinematic works of old and the masterminds of retro filmmaking behind them, Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino, Ridley Scott and Francis Ford Coppola a few names among them, ‘filmophiles’ like me are left to wonder about the lack of similar auteurs of their level in the industry today. That question was answered when I walked out of the premiere of Blade Runner 2049 astonished, my jaw dropping as I began to comprehend that I had just witnessed one of the best pieces of slow and methodical filmmaking of recent memory, in stark contrast to most fast-paced and action-packed movies dominating theatres currently.
Denis Villeneuve has accomplished nothing short of amazing with this film, creating a compelling plot populated by nuanced characters, set against the backdrop of a living, breathing world despite the very fictional setting it takes place in while simultaneously satisfying thousands of fans from the first film, passing the benchmarks of all aforementioned aspects with bright colors.
Unlike a lot of reboots or long-delayed sequels that just remix the themes and characters of the praised original and often hastily put them together into a blender to just give viewers the satisfaction and smiles of nostalgia, director Denis Villeneuve is much more ambitious, using the topics raised by the first Blade Runner to continue the conversation instead of just repeating it to make a surefire hit. To that end, he has made one of the most deeply philosophical and intellectually challenging sci-fi films of not just of our time but of all time, a movie that never holds the viewer’s hand as it spirals you through a gorgeous funhouse of the human soul.
Here’s where things get a little tricky for me. Villeneuve and Warner Brothers have asked critics to be incredibly careful with spoilers. I’ll heed that request, although I suspect some of the best writing about this film will be done when its themes can be discussed beat-by-beat and explicitly. The way the film reveals its secrets, themes, and connections is one of its greatest strengths.
Until then, I’ll give you the bare essentials. The film follows Officer K (Ryan Gosling), a Blade Runner, as he hunts down rogue replicants i.e. bioengineered beings and ‘retires’ them (a nicer way of saying popping the cap). His investigation eventually leads him to something that may break the already-fragile peace between humans and replicants, putting him on a quest to find Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), a former Blade Runner and protagonist of the original film, who’s been missing for 30 years.
The film is undeniably splendid in its visual presentation, the kind of work that could be appreciated without turning up the volume. Not only have cinematographer Roger Deakins and Villeneuve made a film where the most striking imagery often relates to the nature of life itself; when I think of 2049 I think of waves crashing, snow falling, and, of course, rain pelting down an iconic location from the first film that’s almost completely inversed shot-for-shot here in this second chapter, the duo are often playful within this visually magnificent world, capturing sights that work thematically and with meaning; I think of a small K standing against gigantic statues at a point in the story when he’s questioning his place in the world, or an intimate moment with a hologram that comes off a futuristic billboard to remind him of what he’s lost in a fashion that’s ten stories tall while never losing sight of its pure beauty. It is simply one of the most stunning movies of not just this year, but the last several. I can’t wait to see it again, just to bask in its visuals without trying to follow the plot. And the sound design is so remarkable that it’s almost overwhelming; this is a film you don’t passively watch, you experience it. This visual spectacle somehow also manages to remain grounded at the same time which is no doubt a feat on its own.
The film also showcases wonderful talent, particularly with Ryan Gosling, who gives one of the best performances of his career. Gosling is perfect for this part as he’s always had a vulnerability underneath that handsome facade, and he allows fear and confusion to become operating forces on K’s arc without ever overselling the deep emotion of the piece. It’s a fantastic performance, and Villeneuve draws great ones from actresses Sylvia Hoeks and Ana de Armas as well. The film did drag a little for me near the end of the first hour when I wanted it to pick up the pace, but that’s a criticism that could potentially fade on repeat viewing.
It would have been incredibly easy to reboot Blade Runner directly, by continuing Deckard and his lover Rachel’s story from the first movie. And yet while hundreds of writers and filmmakers who followed that film’s 1982 release were inspired by it in their own works or even to continue the story, it’s hard to believe any of them could have found a way to expand its legacy as completely as Villeneuve does here with a movie that doesn’t feel at all repetitive. He’s in no way seeking to improve or replace the original; the films now work together, complementing each other instead of this one mimicking the first. They ask timeless questions and, like all great films, refuse to give you all the answers, allowing viewers to debate and discuss their meaning instead of merely being passive recipients of mindless entertainment. In that sense, Blade Runner 2049 answers one of its own questions about what it means to be human, to have free thought and how vital it is to appreciate art so clearly designed to enrich the soul.
I urge existing fans and newcomers to the Blade Runner universe alike to watch this film as soon as possible as its sheer quality is such that it needs to be supported to keep it from becoming part of a dying genre, because in my books, Denis Villeneuve has secured his place as a true master of modern filmmaking and visionaries like him are a rare breed today.