Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve, 2017)
Director Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, originally released in 1982, was not an initial box-office success, though since then it has earned a well-deserved following for its blend of science fiction, action and metaphysics, as well as for its awe-inspiring production design and in-camera visual effects. Long before the days of computer-generated imagery, Scott and his brilliant team of artists created a near-future dystopian world in which advanced technology co-exists with urban decay, inspiring the wave of 1980s cyberpunk fiction. With haunting music by film composer Vangelis completing the mix, Blade Runner transported us into a gorgeous nightmare where androids and humans battled for supremacy. Along the way, the film asked the big questions about the nature and meaning of life, proving that pop culture can be both terrific entertainment and great art. Through the many versions (various director’s cuts) that Scott has released since then, the aesthetics and narrative of the film have stood the test of time.
Now, 35 years later, we have a sequel, from French Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (Arrival), entitled Blade Runner 2049. Set 30 years after the end of Blade Runner, the movie features an almost entirely new cast of characters, with one very notable exception. If you recall, the first installment – a loose adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – told the story of Los Angeles police officer Deckard (played by Harrison Ford, Star Wars: The Force Awakens), assigned to hunt androids gone rogue and dangerous. Such agents are called “blade runners,” for reasons left to our own imagination (though the term comes from writers Alan E. Nourse and William S. Burroughs). The only way to tell androids – called “replicants” (a departure from Dick) in this cinematic universe – apart from humans is to run a Turing-like test designed to measure empathy. At the end of Blade Runner, Ford’s Deckard, mission complete, is left wondering whether he, himself, after all he has done, is also a replicant.
We start the new story in the company of agent “K” (Ryan Gosling, La La Land), a blade runner who knows exactly what he is: a replicant – working for the L.A.P.D. – hunting other replicants. At the end of every mission, he is subjected to a series of new tests that “reset his baseline,” checking for emotional anomalies. This is how the power structure retains control of its artificial servants. His boss, played by Robin Wright (Netflix’s House of Cards), treats K fairly enough, though is always aware that he is non-human. Though K looks no different to the viewer, he is subjected to all manner of prejudice and spite from his fellow cops and citizens, derisively called “skinjob” or “skinner.” This may explain his preference, when home, for the company of another artificial construct, this one even more virtual than he: a female hologram named Joi (Ana de Armas, Hands of Stone), who is the perfect lover for a being with intimacy issues. Interestingly, for a race – we humans – that judges replicants on their ostensible inability to empathize with other creatures, we demonstrate an alarming lack of empathy for these clearly sentient entities.
Blade Runner 2049 opens with K arriving at the home of a fugitive replicant of an earlier generation – not so obedient – that he has been ordered to bring in or retire. Played by Dave Bautista (Guardians of the Galaxy), this older replicant (and they do appear to age, with time) does not come quietly. After doing what must be done, K then wanders the surrounding grounds, where he finds a box of buried bones, a discovery that upends the carefully delineated lines between humans and machines. For these bones, of a woman who died in childbirth, may not be human, a fact which calls into question everything that holds this hierarchical future together. As K searches for clues, his journey takes him ever closer to the secret of his own origin, and to the answer to the question of whether replicants have souls. Traveling from Los Angeles to an orange-glowing, post-nuclear Las Vegas, what he discovers – or who – finally links this movie directly to the first one. For there lives Deckard, retired on his own terms, waiting for the day when a blade runner will come for him.
Villeneuve and his writers (one of whom is Hampton Fancher, who wrote the original film) come close to high art before descending into action-film clichés. For a while, they make all the right moves, elegantly exploring new territory in the realm of replicant and human coexistence. Perhaps if the film were shorter (with credits, it’s 163 minutes), they might have excised some unnecessary plot threads (mostly involving the inventor who took over the Tyrell Corporation, which made replicants in the first movie) or characters (said inventor, plus many more), or given our heroes (K and then Deckard) a truly worthy antagonist (as was Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty in Blade Runner). The premise – of replicants being more than they seem, worthy of equal value as humans – is compelling, particularly since we can see parallels to the way the hierarchical systems of our own world treat their servant classes. And the cinematography, by Roger Deakins (Skyfall), together with the art direction, led by production designer Dennis Gassner (also Skyfall), is gorgeous (if not quite as palpably visceral as that of its pre-digital predecessor).
The actors are, for the most part, thoughtful and engaging, Gosling, Ford, Wright and de Armas among them. Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club), as Niander Wallace, the new inventor, overacts and under-delivers, though much of that is the script’s fault. Dutch actress Sylvia Hoeks (Tirza), a particularly lethal replicant working for Wallace, is solid, though her character becomes part of the problem in the final third when we transition to action mode. The hulking Dave Bautista, in that opening scene, delivers one of the movie’s most memorable performances, continuing to prove that there is more to him than just brawn. It is safe to say, then, that there is much to recommend here, despite the excessive length and story flaws. An often-moving examination of the simultaneous discord and harmony between love and intellect, Blade Runner 2049 may lack the aesthetic perfection of Blade Runner, but is still an elegant work of cinematic beauty, rough diamond though it may be.