More often than not, hype tends to leave some disappointment in its wake. Once in a great while, a film comes along that manages to capture public interest on a wide scale and deliver a product that’s worth the sales pitch. Blade Runner 2049 is one of those films.
This film is visually astonishing. A true ocular delight. Even with a star studded cast, it’s easy to see where the majority of the $150-million production budget went. Dennis Gassner’s production design from the top down was truly impressive. Alessandra Querzola’s sets were spectacular and filming on them must have been a great deal of fun, it was nice to see that the ancient Aztec design characteristics carried over from the original. The costume design by Renée April was the perfect blend of modernist retro, with design elements from all over (I certainly found myself wanting one of the coats Ryan Gosling was boasting throughout the majority of the film). Everyone involved in the production of this film from the top down should pat themselves on the back. Director of Photography Roger Deakins did a wonderful job, taking full advantage of what was in front of him. He clearly has a great eye for framing, but it was his utilization of light and color (orange and violet) which really made the shots jump of the screen and feel memorable. It’s unlikely that you’ll see another film as artfully crafted on the visual spectrum anytime soon.
Director Denis Villeneuve had a lot on his plate taking on an iconic, cult classic like Blade Runner. One the one hand, he had to pay homage to the original film and on the other he needed to create something that could stand on it’s own merit. I think Villeneuve knew what he wanted out of this picture but had trouble trimming the fat in the editing room with Joe Walker. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed this film plenty. It’s easily one of the year’s better films, but a nearly 3-hour runtime is always hefty and a solid 30-minutes or so was dedicated to connecting this new entry to the original. That time is for audience members who either never saw the original, or saw it once 35 years ago and aren’t part of the hardcore fanbase, so it’s obvious that Villeneuve was handcuffed to a certain extent.
He did have the benefit of Hampton Fancher returning to write the sequel alongside Michael Green who penned the screenplay for Logan. So, the thematic elements remained intact and each of characters, for the most part, got some more individual attention. Much like its predecessor, 2049 tackles lofty, ambitious questions about artificial intelligence, what it means to be human and the existence of the soul. The bridge between the two films is a seamless transition and if you’re familiar with the original then you’ll have no trouble spotting the connections. However, it feels like many of those elements are inserted more for nostalgic purposes than for narrative ones.
The story for 2049 picks up basically where its predecessor left off, just 30 years down the line…if that makes sense. Replicants still exist and are still being hunted by Blade Runners, but the corporate players have changed and there’s a new mystery to be solved.
As our classic archetypal hero, Gosling was good in this film but not spectacular as the new Blade Runner ‘Z’. He still manages to put his own stamp on the film and the character with strong moments throughout the film. There were a lot of emotional plot elements at play with his character, but much of that was internalized for this role. When the bubble did finally burst, he responded in kind. However, far too often we are left watching him stare off as the camera soaks in his stoic resolve, as if there were some poignant inner monologue the audience isn’t privy to. If you were to add them all together, there’s at least a good 5-minutes that could have been shaved off the final product. Realistically, there aren’t many other actors I could see in the role, but it seems like he was cast mostly for his industry stature and look…which is on display in plenty of closeups throughout the film.
Even with Harrison Ford reprising his role as Rick Deckard and bringing a level of intensity and reverence to the project, other supporting roles took center stage. Unfortunately, Niander Wallace wasn’t one them and Jared Leto was somewhat of a waste in this instance. He wasn’t bad, he just wasn’t in it all that much and the character was lacking depth. When an actor of his caliber signs onto the project, you’d expect more.
Nevertheless, there were plenty of good supporting roles and they were all women. At the forefront of those performances were Ana de Armas and Sylvia Hoeks as to different and opposing kinds of artificial persons. On the one hand, de Armas played a holographic, artificially intelligent girlfriend whose relationship with ‘K’ makes for some truly mind-bending moments. She displays a remarkable amount of grace considering all the different elements she must contend with. Her optimism and emotional intelligence stand out in a bleak world.
Then there’s Luv, played by Hoeks. A ruthless Replicant and 2nd in command to Wallace. Hoeks brings an extraordinary intensity and undeniable charisma to the screen which leaves you wanting much more of her. Both of these women deserve a lot of credit for their portrayals and are likely to have breakout success because of them. On the lower supporting tier we are treated to a very good performance from Robin Wright as Lieutenant Joshi. She serves as the de facto police captain in this detective story, complete with ball busting and the familiar “nail your ass to the wall” sentiment that goes along with the role. Joshi is a woman on edge, constantly on the wall between order and chaos. Wright brought just the right level of gravitas to the role to command respect.
Despite being set well into the future, the original film didn’t hide the fact that it was a detective noir film and the production staff did a good job preserving and updating the aesthetic. For all it’s ambition at the time, it was still difficult to encapsulate the scope of the futuristic landscape that Ridley Scott set forth in 1982. Like many other science fiction offerings from the 80s, when it came to crafting that futuristic feel, special effects weren’t always the best method necessitating a kind of smoke-and-mirrors approach. In that respect, 2049 brought the aesthetics to the foreground and took full advantage of all the splendors of modern filmmaking. It did tend to get a little self obsessive when it came to showcasing all the visual grandeur the film has to offer. With a run time of 2 hours and 43 minutes, there are just too many shots that linger for the sake of the eye.
Apparent in all his work, Villeneuve has an odd way of telling a story but it’s quite refreshing. The events of this new film primarily focus on exploring what took place during the 30-year gap between the end of the first and the beginning of the second. It’s what I’m going to call a “soft mystery”, where there are a bunch of questions rattling around that get answered one by one without any real surprise and ultimately little impact which takes its toll on the pacing of the film. As the plot unfolds, the mystery unravels slowly and maybe only for those familiar with the first film, things line up almost exactly how you’d expect. Unfortunately, for me, there just wasn’t much mystery.
The one production element that was lacking was the music. The trailer gives the sense that this iconic score will be a key element of the film, but by the time it’s on the big screen it’s more of footnote to the visuals…not to mention the sound mixing was overblown in many scenes. Part of the reason could be that Johann Johannsson, who worked with Villeneuve on Arrival (2016) and Sicario (2015), was originally slated to compose the score but was later replaced by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch.
This film is great in many ways without necessarily being a great film, only time will be the judge of that. However, this is one that the fans of the original can enjoy and be proud of while first timers can walk away as new fans, invested in checking out the 1982 original.
Recommendation: This is the best movie in theaters at the moment so you should probably check it out. It does drag it’s feet in the middle and might be too slow for some. The R rating is warranted but this isn’t some kind of ultra violent or sexual film, so it’s relatively palatable for a younger audience.