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An android dream deferred - 'Blade Runner 2049'

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There’s a lot of risk that goes into revisiting an idea long after the fact. Adding to a cinematic universe that has been both unchanged and largely beloved for decades is a demanding prospect. To be able to do justice to the original and satisfy its acolytes while also telling a story that feels both new and necessary, well … that’s a real challenge.

For example: Ridley Scott’s 1982 film “Blade Runner” is one of the most cherished sci-fi films in movie history. If you’re going to make a sequel to THAT film – one that in many ways essentially served as the model for the genre for 30-plus years – you better be damn sure you get it right.

“Blade Runner 2049” gets it right.

Director Denis Villeneuve and screenwriters Hampton Fancher (who wrote the first “Blade Runner”) and Michael Green have created a sprawling, crawling epic, revisiting this Philip K. Dick-inspired universe in such a way as to pay homage to the original while still creating a film that engages on its own merits as well as in the context of memory. It is a visually stunning and beautifully made expansion of a fascinating world.

The year is 2049. The Tyrell Corporation – the company that brought Replicants into the world – has failed thanks to the malfunctions of years past. However, a new company has perfected a more docile Replicant, leading them to be integrated into society (albeit with some prejudice). However, the rogue Replicants of years past are still out there, having fled into hiding. And so the blade runners continue their quest to track down and “retire” these fugitives.

K (Ryan Gosling, “La La Land”) is one of the new breed of Replicants. He works as a blade runner for the Los Angeles Police Department under the supervision of Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright, “Wonder Woman”), seeking and destroying holdover Replicants from the Tyrell days. He’s scorned by most of his colleagues and has no friends. His sole “relationship” is with a holographic companion named Joi (Ana de Armas, “War Dogs”), with whom he maintains a sad simulacrum of marital life.

But when K inadvertently unearths a long-buried secret that might challenge everything previously understood about Replicants, he becomes a target. Specifically, billionaire industrialist and Replicant manufacturer Niander Wallace (Jared Leto, “Suicide Squad”) wants access to what K knows, sending his powerful Replicant Luv (Sylvia Hoeks, “Renegades”) to force K to cooperate.

Along the way, K encounters people – memory-maker Dr. Ana Stelline (Carla Juri, “Brimstone”) and long-absent former blade runner Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”) – who cause him to question his own truth, leaving him grasping desperately for anything that might be real.

“Blade Runner 2049” is one of the most aesthetically engaging sci-fi films we’ve seen in quite some time. Everything from color palettes to shot framing to editing clarity is beautifully executed, resulting in a visual feast of a movie that is almost overwhelming in its sharpness and detail. The use of sweeping wide shots contributes to a sense of scale that is far more expansive than the almost claustrophobic insularity of the first film.

That scale and visual volume might strike some fans of that original movie as jarring. They might well be put off by the aesthetic shift. And understandably so, really – while I was mostly captivated by “2049,” it is quite different from Ridley Scott’s film in many ways. This new film subverts that noir intimacy; there will be lovers of the original who certainly won’t care for that.

An argument could be made that the pacing is too slow; “Blade Runner 2049” clocks in at 163 minutes. I wouldn’t make it – I felt like spending as much time as possible in that place – but one could definitely make it. Much of what might be considered excess springs from Villeneuve’s exploration of the environment created by his effects team. It adds to the visual experience in a mostly interesting way, but it’s not hard to see where things could have been streamlined by 20 minutes without much of a loss.

One thing that can’t be argued is that Denis Villeneuve has officially arrived as a blockbuster filmmaker. His combination of style and substance – along with a clear affection for genre filmmaking – have put him in the conversation regarding the best big-budget directors currently working. Don’t be surprised to see him set off down a Nolan-esque path; he’s got the chops to go full auteur even when working with nine figures.

Gosling is engagingly affectless as K. There’s a stoicism about him, a reserve that allows him a sense of quiet command. He uses that quality to full effect in this role, creating a sad depth that makes the very-occasional outburst all the more impactful when it arrives. Wright brings a no-nonsense gruffness to her LAPD officer. Armas imbues the holographic Joy with a warmth that is ever-so-slightly off; much like with K, you never quite forget that she’s an artificial construct. It feels like Jared Leto basically just plays keyed-up riffs on Jared Leto at this point, but, well … you never quite forget that he’s Jared Leto.

And of course, Harrison Ford revisits Rick Deckard. And he’s fantastic. There’s something striking about how he manages to capture the realities of age in these iconic characters. With Indy and especially Han and now Deckard, he confronts time head on and without fear. He’s not trying to turn back the clock here; his Deckard has been beaten down by loss and loneliness and he wears that truth like a badge of honor.

“Blade Runner 2049” has its issues. And different audiences will take issue with different aspects of the film. But when taken as a whole – as a piece of science fiction filmmaking – it is excellent. Is it an all-timer like its predecessor? Maybe not, but who can say? Besides, there’s no shame in that. It’s still a striking and compelling piece that prove to be (mostly) worth the wait.

[4.5 out of 5]

1 comment

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