Blade Runner 2049 directed by Denis Villeneuve
Despite a very few missteps, Blade Runner 2049 is a true visual wonder and a rich, multi-layered narrative that feels languorous and evocative rather than slow, despite its nearly three-hour length.
The story picks up thirty years after the original (we get a bit of textual exposition to fill in the gap at the very start), with Ryan Gosling as K, a replicant serving the LAPD force who, in the opening scene, is charged with bringing in an allegedly dangerous replicant. Though he succeeds (painfully), the job also leads to a revelation that could topple the society, sending K on another seek-and-destroy mission that eventually leads him to Harrison Ford’s Deckard. Aligned against K is a new corporation, headed by Wallace (Jared Leto), a genius who helped feed the world and has been manufacturing more obedient replicants, though not fast enough for demand as humanity pushes out ever farther into space. Wallace is the aloof philosopher-king pulling strings; the enforcer, the one who does the dirty deeds out in the real world, is Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), his replicant aide de camp, or as he calls her, his best “angel.” On K’s side is his AI love interest Joi (Ana de Armas) who originally is tied (or bolted) to his apartment, but thanks to a new piece of technology he’s able to purchase with his bonus, is now able to travel with him.
Like its predecessor, Blade Runner 2049 will reward multiple viewings, though perhaps for differing reasons. I mentioned the layered nature of the story, and we see this in several ways. It’s no spoiler to mention that K will, in the course of the movie, begin to question where the line is, or if it even exists, between human and replicant, both in his own case and more broadly (one only expects this sort of thing in this kind of tale). As such, and here viewers will hear echoes of Kubrick/Spielberg’s AI, there are several Pinocchio references to listen for throughout, such as reference to being a “real boy.” Meanwhile, though of a different form, Joi also blurs/interrogates the concept of “real” humans, thus paralleling K’s own thematic existential journey. Wonderfully played by Armas, Joi offers up some of the most poignant moments in the film; in fact, Armas offers up more than one portrayal here and considering them side-by-side is both moving and disturbing.
Other layers include several more literary references: Nabokov’s Pale Fire makes a subtle appearance (as well as a less subtle one), an appropriate title for this film, and Gosling’s character is also (I’d assume) a sly reference to Kafka’s well-known Joseph K (K takes on the name “Joe” partway through, which becomes a welcome source of humor in a later scene). Beyond the literary parallels, setting part of the film in Las Vegas is a brilliant choice, since what other place on Earth so perfectly represents the blurring of reality (not to mention it is literally a city of replicas), or has such an association with risk? This isn’t an exhaustive list, but more would get too much into revealing plot details.
The plot is a standard mystery/find a person storyline with some twists and turns thrown in for good measure. This is one area where I think the story works on a basic level but falls slightly short of the original film, in that Blade Runner left its audience with lots of open-ended questions and was conveyed through a general sense of fogginess (literal and metaphorical), while Blade Runner 2049’s puzzle-like construction — its plot skeleton, its pieces and linkages — is both more obvious and more closed down; one doesn’t linger over the plot as much afterward. As I said, it does work (though I think one twist was too clearly telegraphed) on a simple “any-movie” basis; it’s just in comparison that it left me a bit disappointed.
Gosling’s performance was spot on and often incorporated nicely subtle shifts of expression and body language. I’ve already praised Armas’ job, and Hoek is equally good in a completely different kind of role. Harrison Ford is Harrison Ford (to be honest, “co”-star is a bit of an exaggeration considering his time on screen, though it’s always good to see him). My two quibbles with roles have more to do with the characters — mostly their dialogue actually — than the portrayals. Leto plays the creepy vibe visionary as, well, creepy, but the character itself feels slightly cliché and some of his dialogue made me wince now and then. I liked K’s boss at the police department, but some of her dialogue was too expository or short-handed for me.
Visually, the film is simply stunning across the board — engrossing, atmospheric, and evocative in its use of scale, color, human movement, camera zooms and pans, and it presents the viewer with several brilliant visual details that I don’t want to spoil. And despite its length, it also manages to be concise in its visual delivery of information, as when we learn about the water supply via a three-second shower K takes or see what has become of San Diego in a quick blip of a shot. Meanwhile, the score is mostly effective though a bit too intrusive at points.
As with Arrival, Villeneuve’s prior film, and the original Blade Runner movie, Blade Runner 2049 combines a deeply thoughtful and philosophical story with visual flare. I can’t wait to see it again, and I’m seriously hoping Villenueuve continues to work, though not exclusively of course, in the genre. I’d trust him with any of my favorites.