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Blade Runner 2049

Blade Runner is perhaps the greatest unfinished movie of our time. That might sound like a strange statement to make, considering that it was released and seen and adored by millions of people. But was it ever really finished? Think about it.

The Blade Runner released in 1982 was actually the third version of the film, following the workprint shown to preview audiences in Dallas and Denver, and another workprint shown to preview audiences in San Diego. These were followed by the international release and of course the version for TV broadcast. Then came the Director’s Cut in 1992 (not to be confused with the “10th Anniversary Edition”, actually the repackaged international release) and the “Final Cut” in 2007.

Seven different versions, all with different scenes (and voice-over narrations) added and deleted. Which one is the true definitive cut? That question has been subject to so much blazing debate over so many years and still nobody has a definitive answer. And of course, that isn’t even getting started on the famously ambiguous ending. It’s almost like a geek rite of passage to watch the film, carefully looking for clues, researching how the clues differ from one version to another, trying to answer the question of whether or not Deckard is a Replicant. Hell, debating that subject is half the fun of watching the film.

As such, a sequel seemed like an iffy prospect, even if it hadn’t come out over 30 years after the original. Awesome as it may sound to revisit that world, the beginning of one chapter implies the closing of another. And I don’t think we really needed or wanted any definitive answers to a film so deliberately and beautifully open-ended.

Mercifully, Blade Runner 2049 works perfectly fine as a standalone movie and as a sequel. On the off chance that somebody somehow walked into this without ever having seen the first movie, they’ll be able to appreciate this just fine, but not as much as those who know the first movie top-to-bottom. Even better, while the sequel quite clearly takes place in the same universe and continuity, enough time has passed in-universe that the sequel has the room to tell its own story without any regard to which cut you think is the definitive one. And perhaps most importantly, while Harrison Ford does reprise his iconic role as Rick Deckard, the plot would unfold in exactly the same way whether he’s a human or a Replicant and the question is barely even broached, much less answered.

While Ridley Scott stayed on as an exec producer, he was gracious enough to hand the reins off to someone else. (Fans of the Alien franchise will surely appreciate what a crucial step this was.) Likewise, while original Blade Runner co-writer Hampton Fancher devised the story and had a hand in writing the screenplay, the script was handed off to Michael Green. The latter is something of a wild card, with a hand in projects ranging from Green Lantern to Logan, from “American Gods” to Alien: Covenant. And directing all of this is Denis Villeneuve, turning in his seventh goddamn feature in eight years. Villeneuve seemed unnaturally perfect for the job, given his proclivity for dark and brooding crime drama (PrisonersSicario, etc.) and his recent knack for visually stunning and deeply intellectual sci-fi (Arrival).

(Side note: Did I mention that Villeneuve has directed seven feature films in the past eight years? Because I think that bears repeating. Seven feature films in eight years. Who knew that was even possible?!)

The stakes for this one were incredibly high, and the critical reception was sterling before the film had even been released. Luckily for everyone involved, this did indeed turn out to be a really good movie.

A text crawl at the opening helpfully refreshes us on the events of the previous film while getting us up to speed on what happened in the interrim. Long story short, the death of Eldon Tyrell — compounded by the Replicant ban for fear of synthetic humans going rogue and killing everyone — led to the bankruptcy of the Tyrell Corporation. In turn, this led to a shortage of cheap labor which led to the atrophy of the off-world colonies.

Enter Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), a genius scientist who was able to revitalize agriculture on the off-world colonies. He then purchased what was left of the Tyrell Corporation to revamp the manufacture of Replicants, making them more reliable and obedient. However, we still have older models of Replicants out there who’ve somehow been able to stay off the radar for all these years. Thus we still have the Blade Runners.

Oh, and I should also mention The Blackout. Later in the movie, we learn that some freak incident took down power throughout the city and wiped out virtually every form of electronic data storage. It’s basically a plot device so that certain events in the last movie and in subsequent years could be kept secret until the appropriate time.

Anyway, our protagonist for this movie is “K”, a Blade Runner in the LAPD. In case the name wasn’t enough to tip you off, there’s no mystery this time about whether or not our protagonist is a Replicant — we’re very explicitly told in the first few minutes that he is absolutely a Replicant. And suddenly, casting Ryan Gosling for the role makes a lot more sense. Gosling’s greatest strength and biggest drawback as an actor has always been that “uncanny valley” sort of screen persona, like he’s too boringly perfect to be human. Not only is he a natural choice for the role, but making the character a Replicant helps us suspend disbelief when our hero does something no human should be capable of. And of course it opens up a lot of the philosophical questions we’d expect from the franchise, but for now, let’s get back to the premise.

The catalyst is Sapper Morton, an older Replicant played by Dave Bautista. After Morton is… *ahem* “retired”, K finds a crate full of bones that Morton buried. Analysis of these remains shows that the skeleton belonged to a woman who died in childbirth about thirty years ago. And here’s the kicker: This woman was a Replicant.

To the Wallace Corporation (that’s the new Tyrell Corporation, if you’re keeping track), this discovery means a new and cheaper means of producing Replicants. To the Replicants themselves, this means one more crucial reason why they are humans in all but name and social equality. And to the LAPD, this is an impossibility that has to be covered up before the status quo is destroyed and war breaks out between humans and Replicants.

So everyone is after this Replicant child for their own reasons. Of course, there’s a good chance that you’ve already guessed by now who the parents are, and the movie wastes virtually no time in confirming the obvious guess. There’s also an obvious guess as to who this child is, but the film takes a lot longer in entertaining that possibility and the big reveal comes with a welcome curveball.

Anyway, the main thrust of the plot is K’s search for this child, partly as a pawn in everyone else’s schemes and partly for his own reasons. Things get even further complicated when K’s memories start acting up. You’ll recall that K is a Replicant, so any of his memories before adulthood are merely fictional implants. But because this is the Blade Runner universe, there’s a chance that at least some of his memories may have been adapted from actual memories lived out through someone else.

All of this leads to a fascinating philosophical crisis when some of K’s memories yield vital clues in unexpected ways. Could it be that his memories are real and he actually did some of these things? Who (if anyone) made these memories, who (if anyone) lived them out, who (if anyone) put them in K’s head, and (if so) why? These are all such fascinating questions that I’m kind of sad the movie provided such concrete answers for all of them. Though I guess the plot would kinda fall apart without those answers, so whatever.

Right off the bat, I was fascinated by the look of the movie. It’s Grandmaster Roger Deakins on the camera, so of course every frame is utterly immaculate. But the production design was something else. It’s not an easy thing to describe in words, how the tech of Blade Runner and its sequel progressed in a way that was analogous to the tech of 1982 and 2017. Everything’s sleeker and more streamlined, but it all very clearly takes place in the same world. It’s really quite remarkable.

Kudos are also due to Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer, both of whom created a moody and atmospheric score of electronic music, worthy of standing next to the iconic work by Vangelis in the original film. Nicely done.

Then we have the supporting cast. Ana de Armas is my personal favorite of the bunch, here playing K’s girlfriend. The kicker is that Joi is actually an artificially intelligent hologram, specially designed and advertised to be a perfect female companion. So she’s basically a pleasure-model Replicant, but even less real. We’re never allowed to forget for even an instant that Joi is a mass-produced construct who isn’t even physically there, but de Armas’ performance makes it perfectly clear that Joi’s love for K is somehow no less real. The two of them even have sex through a surrogate (a Replicant prostitute played by Mackenzie Davis, and goddamn is it always such a pleasure to see her onscreen), and the concept is actually done way better here than it was in Her.

Oh, and getting back to the visuals for a moment: The effects in bringing Joi to the screen are positively kickass. It’s astounding how much effort and creativity went into showing de Arma as an immaterial being made of pure light. Similarly, a whole ton of praise is due to the VFX work for Carla Juri’s character, whom we meet while she’s creating memories for Replicants.

Another prominent supporting actress is Sylvia Hoecks in the role of Luv. She’s basically the muscle for Wallace — and a Replicant, of course — out to track down and/or kill people so her boss doesn’t have to. Hoecks is more than sufficiently beautiful, imposing, and creepy-as-fuck to sell the character. Compare that to Leto, who plays our main villain by chewing scenery while also somehow looking stoned out of his mind at the same time. It makes for an interesting contrast between the two characters, I’ll grant them that.

Dave Bautista only appears for a brief period of time, but it’s more than enough to show that he can do way more as an actor than just beat people up. Barkhad Abdi also shows up in a cameo role, and there’s another actor who deserves way more work. Can we please get him a role in an upcoming Star Wars movie or something?

Speaking of which, Harrison Ford. Put simply, he’s Harrison Ford in this picture. He came to this movie to punch faces and give fucks, and he’s all out of fucks to give. He’s a grumpy old man and bless him for it. Likewise, Robin Wright appears in the thankless role of K’s police lieutenant, which means that she really doesn’t have to do much except to show up and be the living legend that she is.

Oh, and Ford isn’t the only actor from the original film to put in an appearance. I won’t go into details, but the sequel is loaded with wonderful callbacks to the first movie, and a couple of favorite characters make delightful cameo appearances. One of them even uses the CGI youthing technology that’s so in vogue right now, and I’ve never seen it done so perfectly before.

So, nitpicks? Well, at two hours and 45 minutes, there’s no denying that this movie is quite long in the tooth. There are a lot of wonderful scenes and introspective moments that develop the characters and build the world of this franchise, but that comes at the expense of the “find the Replicant child” plot grinding to a dead halt for minutes at a time. Additionally, the denouement is admittedly pretty weak, though I actually kinda like how the climactic fight was a cleverly small and intimate affair despite the global stakes.

But for me, the big overarching problem is the lack of subtlety. While the film is certainly a work of intelligent sci-fi, it’s frustrating how it raises so many existential and ethical questions only to wrap them all up in a tidy little bow. A huge part of what made the first movie such an enduring classic was in the subtle way it raised questions so compelling that they kept fans coming back again and again, writing and refining brilliant philosophical theses in search of a decent answer. By contrast, there’s nothing in this sequel on par with the question of Deckard’s natural-born status, and that’s a deep disappointment.

That said, while Blade Runner 2049 may resolve everything a little too neatly, it does absolutely nothing to ruin or change the original film in all its brilliance. And the sequel itself is a great time, with a solid cast delivering compelling characters and jaw-dropping production design shot beautifully. This isn’t the first time we’ve gotten a sequel to a movie that didn’t need a sequel, but we’ve sure seen cases that were a hell of a lot worse than this.

Give it a watch and have fun picking through it for yourself.

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