Movie Review - Blade Runner 2049
I never really thought about it before, but it’s safe to say that I grew up with Blade Runner. While I was too young to see the original 1982 release and never noticed the film’s poster in the background of the junkyard brawn between Clark Kent and evil Superman in 1983’s Superman III, I do recall seeing the original theatrical cut, albeit edited, on TV when I was young…though honestly I can’t remember what age I was when I did see it. This is the most derided version of the film with the widely disdained voice-over that painted the portrait of…as Harrison Ford best says it...”A detective that doesn’t do any actual detecting”. And yet, I still fell in love with the film. The visuals captured the imagination of my young mind even though I had no idea about the deeper meanings to the events I was being shown. It simply worked for me on a surface level. To this day, I even have a soft spot for the narration as it fits in well with the narrated detective/film noir films that ran endlessly in syndication that sometimes I had no choice but to watch when I was little (channel options were limited for a poor boy in the 80s!). As I matured and entered high school, the director’s cut was made available in 1992. I was able to watch that due to my cousin owning a VHS copy. Closer to Ridley Scott’s original vision for the film and without the baby-steps walkthrough that was the voice-over and the “happy ending”, it allowed me to see and contemplate the larger themes in play. In 2007, my cinematic eye and mind fully formed, Ridley Scott released his Final Cut of the film, not straying too far from the previous director’s cut but with some additional inclusions as well as digitally fixing some long-standing errors within the film.
All of that being said, while I adored the film, I felt it to be a complete story with no need for any sort of follow-up, sequel or spin-off…so when news broke of Ridley Scott pursuing a sequel, I can’t say I was too thrilled. Adding to that was the timing…you see, it was after Prometheus when this was announced. It was starting to smell like Ridley was going down the same path blazed by George Lucas and his prequel trilogy: someone revisiting their past accomplishments at a stage in their life where no one had the gall to say ‘no’…to put up the constraints that forced their original work to be so creative in the way that they DID overcome those constraints…resulting in proving the concept that while someone might indeed be a genius, not EVERYTHING that issues forth from them is genius. In 2014, Scott announced that he’d only be producing…not directing. While that gave me a slight sigh of relief, I still remained in the camp that believed that this sequel did not need to exist. At all. In 2015, Denis Villeneuve was announced as the director…which really didn’t do anything for me until I watched The Arrival in late 2016. Utterly impressed with that film, I was comfortable that the movie was in good hands visually…but I still couldn’t get past the fact that this sequel did not need to exist and continued to question whether or not I’d even see the film. Helping to shore up that belief was hearing that Hampton Fancher, the original writer of the original film (who was followed by David Peoples…the writer responsible for the final script and simplifying much of what Fancher put into the film) would be returning to the writing duties for this film as well. My opinion of Fancher wasn’t determined by the original Blade Runner itself, after all, it can be difficult to differentiate one writer’s work from another’s when multiple writers work on a script. No, my opinion was formed while watching an interview with him in the documentary ‘Dangerous Days’ which covers the making of the original film. He struck me as a pretentious “auteur” type…nothing cementing that more as when he was describing a scene he’d written in the script that focused on…of all things…a pot of soup boiling on a stove and how hurt he’d felt when the scene was cut. Remember this, it’ll be important once we get into the review. [Yeah, when exactly will that be happening? – Ed.] By this point, it seemed like the film only had one thing going for it, the director, and two big strikes against it: a once visionary director that has fallen from his lofty peak serving as producer and a pretentious schmuck for a writer. And once again, I seriously considered taking a pass on this film and waiting for the home video release.
So what changed my mind? Having the chance to see the original on the big screen as part of a double feature.
Were my prejudices wrong? Thankfully, they were indeed. Mostly.
Blade Runner 2049, like its predecessor, is a visually stunning film. But that was never in question. However, the film does serve notice to the world…Denis Villeneuve is without a doubt the visual successor to Ridley Scott. There’s a film blog and YouTube channel out there called “Every Frame a Painting”…and this perfectly describes the visuals of Villeneuve’s film. It captures all the feeling of the original and expands on it…taking us into new visual territory moving from the dense, dark and dirty environs of the overcrowded future Los Angeles and taking us into isolated protein farms to the north, the seemingly endless trash and refuse dump to the south and the abandoned remains of a resort city to the east. It is familiar…but more. It is a director using another’s vision and then superimposing his own more expanded vision on top of it. In sequels, to be able to do that is an accomplishment, but to do it to a landmark film made by Ridley Scott in his prime? It is nothing short of a revelation.
Unfortunately, I can’t gush quite that much about the writing. To be fair, the original film is typically remembered most for its visuals…but it was also a solid story with some pretty heady themes and questions, the biggest one of all being ‘Is Deckard a replicant?’. Well, you’ll get no answers to that one here…and to be fair to Mr. Fancher, the story here is also pretty solid aside from what I felt to be a couple of missteps…and we’ll get to those in a bit. To Fancher’s credit, by making Officer K, a replicant Blade Runner, our POV character the themes of the two films remain similar all the while taking those themes and turning them on their ear. We see how a replicant is treated by the humans he or she is surrounded by. We see the impact of being forced to kill your own kind. We see the process of ‘baselining’…a diagnostic to ensure that K doesn’t stray too much from his original programming and avoids developing more advanced, nuanced emotional responses. All of these things serve to richen and deepen the world so, hey, hats off there. Here are my two beefs with the writing. First, remember that soup scene? Yeah, it’s the opening scene in the film. And it feels like a cut scene. I understand what it was trying to do and the need for it to set up the initial premise of the film…but I can’t help but feel like the set up deserved its own new, fresh scene…not a rehash of a 35 year old idea that feels like it was cut for a reason…that it’s too artsy, it’s too pretentious. Short version? Fuck the soup. No one cares about the damn soup. My second nitpick ties into that a bit…but is present throughout the entire story. Let me see if I can explain it in hockey terms, as my favorite team, the Pittsburgh Penguins, is often guilty of this: there are times when rushing into the offensive side of the ice that a team won’t go for a straight on attack on goal…instead opting for a prettier play consisting of numerous passes. A lot of times, these attempts end in failure as it usually ends up being one pass too many and either the goalie sees them trying to be pretty and shuts them down or the puck is picked off by a member of the opposing team. To put this in terms of the story, all the while trying to avoid any spoilers: once the film sets up its initial premise, it almost telegraphs its first turn within the first half hour or so of the film and given that this is an almost 3 hour movie…that felt REALLY early to be spoiling your own plot. As a viewer, I was surprised at how quickly I pushed past that, my head instead reeling with the philosophical implications/impacts of that reveal…until the second twist in the third act that in some ways serves to derail and possibly wipe out those impacts. Bits of them linger…but after the second turn they felt less impactful…less ponderous…as though the opposing team broke up the play due to one pass, or in this case one twist, too many. This doesn’t ruin the film by any means. In fact, I’m feeling like I need to see the film again to make sure I didn’t miss something and I’m feeling that way needlessly…but as of right now, they are a couple of splinters that irritate and help to keep this movie from being nearly perfect.
If there is one thing that I can point to and say without little doubt that it has a largely negative impact on the film as a whole, it HAS to be the score. Hans Zimmer’s musical hackery is at its BRRRAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAMMM-iest yet here…and it’s guaranteed to make you leave the theater with a headache at the end of the film. While there are times he tries to invoke some of Vangelis’ style from the first film, the bulk of the score feels like he’s going out of his way to ignore the musical identity of this world established in the earlier film. I get that the first film had an unconventional, synthesizer-based score…in fact, that’s one of the great things about it…and I can see where one might be delusional enough to think that Zimmer might be a good fit for that, but I think a bit of compare and contrast might best illustrate the larger point I’m going for here. When Zimmer worked on Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, he was charged with creating a new musical identity for Superman that didn’t rely on the classic John Williams theme from the 1978 film. As this would be film in a new continuity, this makes sense…why invoke the old theme when the new film has nothing to do with the old ones? But Blade Runner 2049 is a DIRECT SEQUEL. It’s the same world…just expanded. As such, it stands to reason that the musical identity of the old film needs to be adhered to…not just chucked out the window and replaced with your favorite BRRRAAAAAAAAAAAAAMMM for no other reason than to satisfy your BRRRAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAMMM fetish. Watching the two films back to back REALLY emphasizes this complete break in musical identity and actually serves to heighten the discomfort. As I’m sure you can tell from how I’ve written this, I’ve never been a fan of Mr. Zimmer, but now that he’s taken an atonal shit on a franchise I love, he’s very much musical enemy #1 in my book.
The performances by the actors are pretty on target with a couple of stand-outs. First off, I do have to applaud Ryan Gosling’s turn as Officer K. It’s a solid performance from an actor I’ve found many times to range from overrated to forgettable. There’s been nothing about his career or the films he’s starred in to make me want to see any of his work…but his performance here gave me some insight as to what many other film reviews must have been seeing all this time. When he was first announced to be starring opposite Harrison Ford, to be polite I will say I was less than enthusiastic but, like this film on the whole, he’s gone out of his way to prove me wrong and that is certainly worth a tip of the hat. The other impressive performance is Sylvia Hoeks’ turn as Luv, Niander Wallace’s…for lack of a better term…henchwench. She captures that oftentimes elusive quality of a villain that you love to hate, displaying an eerie mix of dispositions from pleasant detachment to downright sinister. She very easily becomes the focus of most of the scenes she’s in and not a moment of those feels wasted. As already hinted at, Harrison Ford does indeed return as Deckard and the continuation of his character fits pretty well, even though it’s been 35 years since we’ve seen him last. He’s not the only returning face though as we get a peek at Edward James Olmos’ Gaff in a retirement home and we get glimpses of Sean Young’s Rachel as well…with the help of some digital de-aging…a technology that continues to improve. The remainder of the cast proves to be fairly solid. Jared Leto’s turn as the blind Niander Wallace offers an interesting contrast to Eldon Tyrell, the latter a reclusive and eccentric genius that proved to be more aloof than anything while the former proves to be all those things while also being just as sinister as his henchwoman. Ana de Armas plays an interesting holographic, self-aware girlfriend in Joi and I have to admit, if this is the direction Amazon plans on taking Alexa…well, from her performance I have to say I’m totally on board for that! Mackenzie Davis shows us the evolution of the ‘Pris’ model in her performance as Mariette. While her time on screen is short compared to the remainder of the cast, each time she shows up she ends up either shifting the course of the story or providing some welcome depth and emotion that didn’t necessarily have to be there. Robin Wright’s Lt. Joshi proves an interesting counterpoint to M. Emmet Walsh’s Bryant from the first film, as her office is organized and Spartan, unlike her predecessor, yet they prove to be just as ‘racist’ as each other in their disposition toward “skinjobs”. Lastly, there’s Carla Juri as Dr. Ana Stelline, the creator of replicant false memories, who proves to be the equal and opposite of Leto’s Wallace. She’s forced into isolation, and thusly develops a bit of eccentricity, due to her compromised immune system. Her only solace, her memories before her isolation, she shares with her creations with some alteration, giving her character a muted quality that equals Wallace but leans toward kindness in contrast with his darker turn. As such, Juri’s performance is muted, which at first can seem rather plain but the more I’ve thought about it, I have to admit, the more it has grown on me.
In spite of the negatives I’ve highlighted, even through the headache-inducing score, I will say that Blade Runner 2049 lives up to the critical acclaim it is receiving. I still describe it as nearly perfect. Absolutely nothing can take away from the gorgeous visuals and the story, not without a couple of hiccups, ends up being satisfying and mostly well crafted. The score does its level best to ruin the movie, but with the other two aspects being so strong, thankfully it’s a feat that it cannot achieve. Like the original film, this demands to be seen on the big screen…so take advantage of it while you have the chance. Blade Runner 2049 is a stunning follow-up to a groundbreaking film…and therein lies the question mark of the film. While it serves as a declaration that Denis Villeneuve is indeed one of the most visionary directors working in Hollywood right now, will it serve to be as groundbreaking as the original film? That’s something only the future can answer…but given the end product, it is certainly something the film community will be discussing for quite some time.