Blade Runner 2049; 164 min; Rated R
The filmmakers of “Blade Runner 2049” weighed creating either a remake of the iconic “Blade Runner” (1982) that starred Harrison Ford or crafting a sequel of sorts that uses the scaffolding of the first film. To their credit, they chose the latter and carried the premise of the first (set in L.A., the year 2019) while imagining what a profoundly dystopian world might look like some 30 years later.
Before going any further, I should say that the filmmakers of “2049” have asked critics to refrain from discussing the film in too great a detail, including the many characters. Respecting that request, what can be disclosed is that L.A., in 2019, the year the original “Blade Runner” was set, was a dark, congested, dystopian world. “2049” is just as grim with vast stretches of desiccated landscape, its atmospherics bathed in a vague, stark light, sometimes golden other times a bleak orange, absent any semblance of blue skies. The planet is a ruin, clearly beyond repair.
The original title, “Blade Runner," is taken from the job description of a police officer whose purpose is to track down and “retire” what are referred to as rogue replicants, meaning humanoid robots, so perfectly constructed, with artificial intelligence so advanced as to be indistinguishable from actual humans without examining their sclera with a Yoight-Kampff instrument. In the first film, Ford portrayed such an officer, named Rick Deckhard.
In “2049,” there are still Blade Runners, but their job is to find those few remaining original replicants who are now living as humans and eliminate them. Called simply K (Ryan Gosling), he’s also a replicant, tasked to find those AIs hiding as humans. Like Deckhard, he is told to “retire” them.
Let me first acknowledge that “Blade Runner 2049” is difficult to review for many reasons. While it is gorgeous to look at, given the starkness of K’s world, it is also possessed of a distance, not only between the characters but between the film and the audience. There is, as I reflect on the film, only one moment in the narrative when a semblance of humanity reveals itself fully and that is when K is interacting with his virtual companion, the incorporeal Joi (Ana de Armas), a gorgeous projection programed to reflect and embrace his emotional needs. Their interaction is captivating.
For the remainder of the film, K, while driven, is consistently detached, a role that Gosling plays perfectly (see "Drive" from 2011).
While the first “Blade Runner” has been discussed endlessly, much of the speculation focused on whether Deckhard was also a replicant. A question that remains even now debatable. “2049” will, however, likely generate debates of a different type. The story does pose the embedded questions regarding what it means to be human and can AI beings (so to speak) crossover to that point where they feel, think and display a type of humanity we equate with being, well, human, to include memories and a semblance of a backstory. Can replicants have a soul? And if so, what would that world be like? This is, of course, not an unfamiliar template for sci-fi.
Again, I have to acknowledge that the actual core story struck me as being narrow, lacking substance and was at times confusing, in need of additional exposition.
But still, the strength of “2049” resides with its visuals, with a startlingly imagined dystopian world, the film shot by the talented cinematographer Roger Deakins.
As well, the director, Denis Villeneuve, is a master filmmaker, and, in my opinion, his last two films, “Sicario” (seriously underrated) and “Arrival” were both excellent. How audiences (especially those hard-core fans) react to “Blade Runner 2049” should be interesting.