Exceptional 'Blade Runner 2049' Not An Experience To Fear

Directed by: Denis Villeneuve; Runtime: 164 minutes
Grade: A-

Merely the suggestion of producing a sequel to a revered classic can push film lovers over the edge. This can be caused by the fear that said sequel won't feel like a proper part of the world created by the original, or that this new installment might either flesh out certain ambiguities left alone in the first film or rework details in the storytelling to benefit this new follow-up. All those concerns emerged with the mentioning of a sequel to Ridley Scott's seminal science-fiction film, Blade Runner, one whose legacy -- and decades of critical reevaluation -- hinges on both literal ambiguity involving the fate of the main characters and contextual ambiguity in the thought exercise over whether the protagonist, Deckard, was or wasn't an advanced robot called a replicant. Building a continuation of this cinematic take on Philip K. Dick's narrative requires both audacity and precise consideration, yet those are qualities that director Denis Villeneuve consistently displayed in his prior works, to such a degree that studios were comfortable gifting him ample budgets for sci-fi films. The splendor of Blade Runner 2049 is the result.

Much ado has been made about keeping the details of this story under wraps, and it's understandable why that's the case. There are certain elements one can know going into Blade Runner 2049 that won't spoil the experience, though, such as that it does take place in the year 2049, thirty years after Blade Runner, and that catastrophic events have altered the landscape of the already quasi-dystopian land. Amid the fall and rise of further development in the field of artificial intelligence and the creation of more advanced replicants, "blade runners" are still out there designated with the job of hunting down older-model, rebellious replicants. LAPD Officer K (Ryan Gosling) is one of such hunters, but his latest investigation has provided him with enigmatic breadcrumbs leading to a decades-old mystery, adding layers to the expanded assignment presented by his boss, Lieutenant Joshi (a grim and steady Robin Wright). The case takes K across several locations in futuristic Los Angeles, providing insights into both the origin of the replicants involved and into the nature of replicant advancement itself.

The scope and intimacy of Arrival, mixed with the meticulousness and intensity of the director's previous body of work, instilled some much-needed confidence in a Blade Runner sequel orchestrated by Denis Villeneuve. Upon the opening shots of hazy urban clutter feeding into the foggy farmlands of the city's outskirts, amplified by the descent of an updated flying car that lands near a gorgeous dying tree, it become obvious that the faith wasn't misplaced for the tone and visual language of 2049. With the sparse invigorating twangs of electronic music and the cautious grandeur of Roger Deakins' cinematography, Villeneuve begins to create a bleak, yet sustainable dystopian atmosphere that manages to feel both distinctly of the director's design and an extension of the universe established by the original. Evident in the transition from the wall-shattering vigor of the film's initial brawl -- hat's off to Dave Bautista -- to the garish neon-infused bustle of incessant, almost living advertisements literally dancing through the Asian-infused streets of Los Angeles, 2049 shares the same pulse as its precursor.

There's a mystery at the center of Blade Runner 2049, but co-screenwriters Hampton Fancher and Michael Green don't make the mistake of playing it safe by rehashing the original's ideas, even going so far as to subvert expectations of where the plot might be headed based off the film's initial sequences. The emotionally chilly, yet meditative aspects of a replicant hunter prove to be ideal for Ryan Gosling's low-key charisma, filling whatever void would've been left by the absence of a younger Harrison Ford amid the interviews and sleuthing within Villeneuve's immaculately stylized locations. Every scrap of information discovered by Officer K doesn't just get filed away as a lead pointing in the right direction; instead, perhaps even more so than the original, they go toward peeling away the secrets of the way "skin jobs" have integrated into this civilization and absorbed characteristics of their human counterparts. Those hoping for a concrete answer as to whether Deckard's a replicant will, more than likely, find themselves distracted by more gripping puzzles unearthed by this investigation, enriched by smartly implemented references and cameos to Scott's Blade Runner that aren't there purely for show.

As antagonists make their presence known -- Jared Leto's sagacious tech mogul; Sylvia Hoeks' menacing female henchman -- and the tracks of dangerous replicants are followed, Blade Runner 2049 utilizes its blockbuster scope to plunge into the discussion of futuristic androids and their indistinguishable attributes to humans. Risks are taken involving the nature of creation and the gradient of different types of artificial intelligence, amplified by Officer K's intimate relationship with an inhouse holographic partner, a JOI model from the Wallace Corporation wonderfully realized by Ana de Armas, which explores the emotional responses of digital beings and the necessity for physical interaction. Even while it brushes against unpleasant overtones of sexism and artifice, tapping into the exploitations of a male-oriented dystopia, there's meaning behind the challenges and imagery orchestrated by Villeneuve that cunningly weaves together with broader existential thoughts. The value of reality, memory, and agency over one's life steer the film in calculated and consequential directions, without crashing into clichés or relying on easily discernible clarifications.

Villeneuve doesn't rush in getting Blade Runner 2049 to its destinations, either, staying true to its predecessor by operating at a methodical pace and only employing action when it's necessary. The film's mounting energy prevents it from feeling sluggish, due in part to the raw appeal of the landscapes being explored but also because of the precision in moments allotted for the audience to consider the motifs and sensations of what's going on. Moments of violence, intimacy, and comprehension alike blend with the moving parts of this science-fiction universe, becoming hypnotic as they intersect with information learned about Officer K and his experiences, again bolstered by the evolutions of Gosling's performance in the skin of a wavering protagonist. Extending to almost to the three-hour mark, it's a monumental testament to Villeneuve's craftsmanship that nothing seems inessential enough to omit; secondary elements that initially appear to exist for the film's thematic undertones and case-solving will reemerge as crucial roles within its expansive twists and turns, lending purpose to virtually everything.

Against the backdrop of smoggy cityscapes and overbearing orange-hued wastelands, Blade Runner 2049 eventually arrives at an intersection of sorts with the lore of the original film, underscored by the reappearance of Harrison Ford as Deckard. Ford's gravelly, scrappy performance as the aging blade runner -- and the baggage that Deckard brings to the table -- may provide a blast of nostalgia and convince some that appreciation for the original may be required, but the ramifications of his involvement are entirely owned by this film's intentions, producing a somber and complicated chain of events that opens old wounds and imposes new context upon those characters. Armed with experience in the potency of late-story revelations, Villeneuve has a clear vision of the new conceptual places that he's taking this Blade Runner, serving him well as all the pieces fit into a thought-provoking outcome that's confined in physical scale yet considerable in metaphorical volume. Restraint and intellect ends Blade Runner 2049 on a note that does justice to Ridley Scott's classic in ways that won't be lost in time.

Film review also appeared over at DVDTalk.com: [Click Here]


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