Blade Runner 2049 (2017) Review

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Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

~Review by Grawlix (December 2017)

    Blade Runner 2049 is a movie that asks a lot of its audience. The original Blade Runner was a noir-ish action thriller that wasn’t afraid to pause things occasionally to prove that it had a brain. Blade Runner 2049 isn’t afraid to bring things to a dead stop to show that it has a heart. Anyone who walks in expecting The Matrix redux we be totally confused after 30 minutes and sorely disappointed by the end, if indeed they even survive the nearly three hour run time. For that matter, anyone who walks in expecting a redux of the original Blade Runner would do well to temper their expectations. Despite all of the flashy sci-fi trappings, Blade Runner 2049 is an art film first and foremost. It is utterly unafraid to prolong a moment for as long as it deems necessary, or to envelop somber visuals in near silence. What sound there is turns droney and echoey, occasionally both at the same time, but not once will you hear a pulsing techo-beat behind a strobing action set piece. The action comes in bursts and is strictly a means to an end. Blade Runner 2049 is mainly concerned with atmosphere, oppressive and apathetic, and a world that is flawed, broken, and decaying, yet still somehow continues to function.

    K (Ryan Gosling) is a “Blade Runner”, a detective-cum-bounty hunter charged with “retiring” rogue androids called “Replicants”. K is a Replicant himself, but a newer model, kept in line by his superior programming, and regular psychological evaluations/conditioning. But while Replicants appear to be afforded a certain degree of developmental flexibility, K’s latest case leads to evidence of a step in replicant evolution previously thought to be impossible, and which threatens to effectively remove the already blurry barrier between natural and artificial life. His bosses want it stopped, his creators want it to flourish, and K himself is constantly torn in his motivations as each new step in his investigation offers new revelations that cause him to reevaluate his mission and his nature.

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    It’s that barrier between the natural and artificial that Blade Runner 2049 is most concerned about and the detective style plot is paused frequently to muse upon it. Much time is devoted to K’s relationship with his girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas). Joi is a holographic AI, mass produced and upgradable, but the love she and K share is the closest the film has to an emotional center. It’s a fascinating question that Blade Runner dares to ask, whether real feelings could exist between artificial entities, and it culminates in a mesmerizing sequence in which Joi manages to give those feelings a means of physical expression.

    It’s a weighty juxtaposition that Blade Runner balances masterfully. Most of the human characters – the ones we think are human anyway, in a movie like this we’re never really sure who is what – have quirks and tics that make them seem as odd or unnatural and any machine. One of the most normal is Dr. Ana Stelline (Carle Juri), the foremost imagineer of artificial replicant memory implants. Dr. Stelline is immunocompromised, confined to a holographically enhanced sterile environment, and fated to never experience any of the scenes she conceptualizes so vividly.  But with virtually everyone seemingly living in the uncanny valley to some degree or another, it’s no wonder that humanity would be protective of their few remaining points of distinction.

    As a vision of dystopian ennui, Blade Runner 2049 is in a league of its own, managing to repeatedly conjure images of a bygone paradise, its halcyon days long buried. This is possibly best illustrated in an early tracking shot as K’s spinner (read: flying car) traverses miles of monochromatic urban sprawl, seemingly lifeless but for fleeting reflections of neon color glimpsed between the buildings. If Star Wars offered the “used future”, Blade Runner 2049 may well be the “bored future”. Amazing visual effects are compressed down to so much background noise, effectively becoming part of the ever-present drone, ignored by the characters and eventually, the audience as well. This isn’t a criticism, but rather an impressive achievement by the filmmakers to show that sooner or later the novelty wears off everything. In Blade Runner 2049, it’s the brief bits of natural phenomena that elicit the most wonder; a rain shower, a bit of carved wood, the smell of grown vegetables.

    Watching Blade Runner 2049, I couldn’t help but think that this was the movie that the live action Ghost in the Shell was supposed to be. Such a drastic tonal shift maybe wouldn’t have improved Ghost’s grosses, but at least it would’ve allowed it to hold its head a little higher with critics. In fact, Blade Runner 2049 seems to share a lot in common with the oeuvre of Mamoru Oshii, the man who directed the animated Ghost in the Shell films, as well as The Sky Crawlers, the live action Avalon, and created and wrote Jin-Roh. Much like BR2049, all of these movies start with a loud action sequence before settling down into a more contemplative pace to consider more highbrow subject matter, and none of them are afraid to step back and let their ambience breathe. In short, none of them are really about what the initially seem to be about.

    I also found myself thinking more and more that the novel’s original title, the breezy Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? would’ve been far more appropriate when it came to conveying the subject matter on offer in the film. Considering that “Blade Runner” was cribbed from a totally unrelated source, and applied to the original film solely for its punchy sound and not because it had anything to do with its content – there are neither blades nor runners in either movie – the title feels more like an incongruous liability at this point than anything else.

    Blade Runner 2049 is that rarest of beasts, a sequel to an 80’s sci-fi classic that is every bit worthy of the original. It’s not a reboot, not a soft reboot, but a genuine sequel that extends the themes and concepts of the first film without copying them, and brings back the surviving cast to excellent effect. I can’t really give it an unequivocal recommendation; its length, languid pace, and lack of big explodey action scenes mean it won’t be for everyone. Chances are, you’ll know if it’s for you. If I could make a final comparison to another work, I’d liken BR2049, to Solaris, either the Tarkovsky or the Soderberg version. The Solaris films were other examples of a flashy sci-fi setting being used to tell a close emotional story that didn’t shy away from being introspective and, occasionally, very, very weird. Steven Soderberg famously said of his version of Solaris that if the viewer didn’t like the first 10 minutes, then they might as well leave, and I would say the same applies to Blade Runner 2049.

    With all that said, while it might not be setting the box office on fire now, I suspect that time will be kind to Blade Runner 2049. The original Blade Runner wasn’t a smash hit when it first came out either, but through a loyal cult following, positive word of mouth and, truth be told, the mystique of multiple alternate versions keeping the conversations alive, it was gradually recognized as the classic it is regarded as today. Given a few years, I have no doubt that Blade Runner 2049 will eventually be held, rightly, in similar esteem.

Final Score: A

Moody, meditative, and long, Blade Runner 2049 is not for everybody, but for those with the patience, it’s a modern masterpiece that wows with its ideas as well as its visuals. My current go-to example for demonstrating that “unnecessary” sequels don’t have to suck.