Blade Runner 2049 (2017) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): A sequel looking as great as its predecessor

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Since it came out in 1982, Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” has been regarded as one of the great SF films. Although it was not much of a box office success during its initial theatrical release in 1982, the movie subsequently gained its cult status after the Director’s Cut version was released in 1992, and then there came the Final Cut version in 2007, which further solidified its immortal place in the movie history. Although I was not particularly sure about its greatness when I watched it for the first time via a VHS copy of the 1992 version in 1996, I came to admire its visual moments more and more as revisiting it several times, and then the Final Cut version recently confirmed to me again that the movie indeed deserves to be mentioned along with “Metropolis” (1927). Like that monumental silent SF film, it has dazzled and excited us with a grand futuristic city to behold, and it has also influenced many subsequent SF films in terms of style and ideas.

As “Blade Runner” was frequently reexamined and reevaluated during last 35 years, there have been talks about making a sequel, and now here comes “Blade Runner 2049”, which is definitely one of the best visual experiences of this year. Right from its first shot, the movie intrigues and fascinates us with its striking visual elements, and there are also thought-provoking story elements to reflect on later. Although its running time is rather long (163 minutes), I was seldom bored as my gaze was constantly fixed on the screen, and I admired how the movie pays its respect to its predecessor while also looking equally terrific as well.

Like its predecessor, “Blade Runner 2049” works best whenever it looks around its bleak futuristic version of LA. Although the city is shrouded in a dour gray mood with occasional snow (!), it is filled with dazzling sights including gigantic 2D and 3D commercials amidst tall, imposing skyscrapers. While there are flying vehicles in its murky sky, its streets and alleys feel like a sort of multi-cultural bazaar, as many different people and languages are mingled together in this huge metropolitan area.

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There are other spectacular visual moments to watch as its hero goes around here and there in the film. During the opening sequence where his vehicle flies over a vast remote field for ‘synthetic farming’, we cannot help but be impressed by the wide gray landscape unfolded onto the screen, and then it is followed by an increasingly tense moment between its hero and someone he wants to confront. When its hero goes to some abandoned place later in the story, there comes more bleak beauty presented in grand scale, and I observed that with more curiosity and excitement.

Many of you probably notice that I have so far tried not to describe the plot a lot to you. I heard that director Denis Villeneuve asked critics not to reveal the plot too much, and I respect his request although it has been more than a week since the movie was released in US. Yes, as already shown from its trailer, Harrison Ford plays again his character in the 1982 film, but there are many other things you have to discover for yourself, so I will keep trying not to discuss them in the following paragraphs.

I can tell you that its hero, usually called ‘K’ (Ryan Gosling), works as a Blade Runner just like Ford’s character in 1982 film. As explained in the beginning of the film, the human society came to have a serious problem around the 2010s due to androids called ‘Replicants’, who almost look like humans while equipped with superior traits. Blade Runners are special cops assigned to ‘retiring’ runaway Replicants, and K is always ready to do such a risk job like that while leading a mostly solitary life as your average hard-boiled fiction hero in LA. Effortlessly embodying his taciturn character from the very beginning, Gosling conveys well his character’s melancholic aspect to us even when he does not reveal much, and that reminds me again that he has been one of the most versatile performers in our time since his breakout performance in “The Believer” (2001).

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When one supposedly simple case turns out to be a lot more complicated, K is ordered to delve deeper into the case, and he soon finds himself in a situation which may be way over his head. I will not go into details here on what happens next, but I guess it is not much of a spoiler to tell you that there are several interesting key supporting characters besides Ford’s character and they are respectively played by Jared Leto, Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, and Robin Wright. Like Ford and Gosling, these talented performers are believable as characters inhabiting in their futuristic world, and so are the other notable supporting performers in the movie including Wood Harris, Lennie James, Mackenzie Davis, Carla Juri, Dave Bautista, Barkhad Abdi, Hiam Abbass, and Edward James Olmos, who plays again his supporting character in the 1982 film.

Slowly building up its narrative momentum, the movie tackles those compelling ideas and questions on identity and humanity previously presented in the 1982 film, and one of the most fascinating parts in the movie comes from K’s personal relationship with his artificial intelligence companion. In a scene reminiscent of Spike Jonze’s “Her” (2013), they try something different for making their relationship feel more real than before, but they are still well aware of the artificial aspect of their relationship, and we naturally come to muse on the real nature of their relationship. Both of them may really feel that they are in love, but can it be regarded as something as authentic as real human romantic relationship?

As reflecting on this part and other engaging parts in the story, I noticed the weak aspects of the screenplay by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green, which is mostly solid but not entirely flawless. Its narrative pacing is a bit too slow at times, and there are some murky plot elements which are not explained well even around the finale. Whatever is being planned by Leto’s character remains to be as ambiguous as the plan of the Tyrell Corporation in the 1982 film, and, despite one brief sticky scene, I am still wondering about how replicants are made. Are they just genetically engineered flesh and blood? Is there any particular mechanical part in their bodies?

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Anyway, the movie is a sheer cinematic pleasure. The special effects and production design in the film are quite stunning to say the least, and cinematographer Roger Deakins, who previously collaborated with Villenueve in “Prisoners” (2013) and “Sicario” (2015), did a tremendous job of vividly presenting small and big details on the screen. It is unbelievable that this great cinematographer has never won an Oscar despite his 13 nominations, and that glaring error should be rectified this time.

All these superlative technical elements in the film are masterfully handled under the confident direction of Villeneuve, who made several notable films after drawing more of our attention via his Oscar-nominated film “Incendies” (2010). Although I did not like “Enemy” (2013) and “Prisoners” enough for recommendation, I admired their mood and performance to some degrees, and I still remember well the haunting starkness of “Sicario”, which is one of the bleakest films about the War on Drugs around the Mexico-US border. In case of “Arrival”, it is one of the most intelligent SF movies during recent years in my inconsequential opinion, and Villeneuve earned a well-deserved Best Director Oscar nomination for his considerable achievement in that film.

Never letting his movie get lost amidst technical details, Villeneuve maintains well its focus on story and characters. While there are a number of tense action scenes, they serve the story above all, and we become more involved in its hero’s complex drama. Although we are left with more questions than answers in the end, the ending is satisfying on the whole, and I am sure that the movie will ignite lots of discussion and analysis just like the 1982 film did.

While I am not wholly sure about whether it is as great as some people say, “Blade Runner 2049” is a splendid film with lots of goodies to enjoy and appreciate besides being a worthy successor to the 1982 film. I do not know whether it will eventually gain its own place in the movie history just like its predecessor, but I may admire it more as time goes by.

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