Behold the Glory of ‘Blade Runner 2049’ (FILM REVIEW)

It’s easy to become cynical of the Hollywood Big Studio System and shrug off the big budget releases in favor of works of smaller, independent studios. So many movies released through the majors are artless pap, driven by bottom lines and large returns rather than art. Trends are followed; status quo protected vigorously. But all the criticism you might levy at the way the big studios do business in Hollywood feels moot those few times a year when they get it so astoundingly right. After all, no indie studio, with their cred and hipster sheen, could ever make a movie so stunning, so beautiful, so captivating as Blade Runner 2049.

Not that they’re incapable, but Blade Runner 2049’s staggering $185 million budget is too far out of reach for the smaller studios to contend with. This is a movie that could only have been made by a Major Player. While it’s easy to decry the system that allows studios to spend so much money on so much bullshit year after year, this film’s achievements, monumental as they are, are compelling arguments against the idea that all major films are necessarily ignorable.

There’s nothing ignorable about Blade Runner 2049. This is a film that requires and demands your attention and rewards you richly for your efforts. Not a single moment of its 165-minute runtime feels wasted or superfluous, and every frame leads deeper into a brilliantly conceived world which serves as a foundational framework for philosophical questioning.

That’s no surprise considering the original Blade Runner has long been looked at as a milestone in philosophical filmmaking. Stylistically and thematically, Ridley Scott’s original adaptation of the Philip K. Dick work, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, has set the standard for how cinematic depictions of the future look and feel. Prior to that film, cinematic futures, even bleak ones, were clean and sleek, ruling out the idea the life was livable (not as we know it, at any rate). Blade Runner, by contrast, was grimy and dirty, a direct reflection of urban life in the 1980s, which allowed it direct access to the philosophical questions—what is life? what is humanity?—that it grappled with.

Like most of the science fiction released since then, there’s a direct line of influence connecting Blade Runner 2049 to its forebear. Ever since Scott made dirty the new norm, sci-fi has largely shuttered the notion that the future would glisten (even the latest Star Trek entries have gritted up their futures, in stark departure from Roddenberry’s shiny happy utopia that, for so long, set the standard) opting instead for worlds more like our own. This fantastic-realism, where flying cars exist in concert with urban decay, has become a common feature of modern sci-fi, though never was it done more believably and intriguingly as it was in Blade Runner.

Until now, at least. Going into the making of Blade Runner 2049, the risk was always that the sequel would, somehow, sully and lessen the importance of the original. Scott’s film is a self-contained work, one whose unanswered questions have become part of the fun of watching it. Open those curtains too far and you’d reveal too much that’s best left enshadowed by uncertainty. What makes Blade Runner 2049 work so well, in part, is by respecting the boundaries of the first film enough to let both films breathe independently.

As much as director Denis Villeneuve plays in the same sandbox as Scott, he does so with nothing but reverence for his predecessor’s work. Rather than building his castle on top of what came before it, he builds it just adjacent, allowing the viewer to admire each work independently. Blade Runner 2049 is a sister to, rather than a reprise of, Blade Runner, and the net effect serves to improve the original while letting itself stand just as tall, shine just as brightly.

Not that it wasn’t already apparent, with films like Arrival, Sicario, and Prisoners under his belt, but Villeneuve has resoundingly established himself as one of the best and most intriguing directors working in Hollywood today. Stepping into the world of Blade Runner is no small feat. Dick is a notoriously impossible writer to get right on the big screen. His brand of science fiction verges on esoterica. It’s heady, thematically complex, and too ensconced in philosophy to be accessible by wide audiences. (As great as the original Blade Runner is, Scott was forced to dispense with many of the weirder elements that made the story such an underground hit with the counter culture.) Even so, the original film managed to get as close to Dick’s intent as anything has ever done.

Between Dick and Scott, Villeneuve had some mountains to overcome. With a world like Blade Runner, everyone has expectations about how it should look and feel. Even setting it three decades farther into the future, you have to maintain a certain feel in order to sell the result to audiences. Beyond that, how can he maintain that Blade Runner feel while putting his own stamp on things? Too much reverence, and the work becomes product as opposed to art, and Villeneuve is nothing if not an artist.

Fortunately, his vision has been supported here by other visionaries. A director can imagine whatever they want flicking across the silver screen, but they don’t work in a vacuum. It is, then, impossible to discuss Blade Runner 2049 without discussing the work of cinematographer Roger Deakins. To look at the works for which Deakins has been nominated for an Oscar without ever winning is to be struck dumbfounded. Fargo, The Shawshank Redemption, and No Country for Old Men only scratch the surface of his achievements as a cinematographer. (And even those only include the 13 works that earned him the nomination.)

Deakins almost seems to be daring the Academy to pass him over at next year’s ceremony. As an artist, each of his successive works is better than the last, making each of his successive works stand among the most beautiful looking films ever shot. Blade Runner 2049 blows his back catalogue out of the water. Here, Deakins is working at the height of his powers, utilizing every trick in his book to paint poetry on film. Visually, the film is as captivating as any that has come before it, and then some. The technical wizardry weaves an indelible magic, one that creates a world every bit as distinctive as the world established by its predecessor.

Even still, the world looks like a natural evolution from the 2019 showcased in Blade Runner. It’s like leaving home for years and coming back—it’s different, though recognizably the same place you left. Every frame of Blade Runner 2049 hammers this fact home, and an impressive attention was paid to the little details that really sell the world, including within the script itself.

Co-written by Hampton Fancher (Blade Runner) and Michael Green (Logan), the script to Blade Runner 2049 is a marvel. Like Blade Runner before it, it’s a slow burn noir mystery that leaves as many questions as it answers, ensuring the necessity for rewatches and reevaluations across what will, no doubt, be many years. Narratively, it works as a companion to the original script, playing in the same philosophical toybox and same emotions without unduly crossing streams with its predecessor. When streams do get crossed, it feels natural, unlike so many unnecessary, artless sequels.

Where the script really shines is in giving us details about the ensuing three decades between the movies without holding our hands through it. The oft-mentioned Black Out is a key example of this type of world building. Through little more than off-handed comments peppered throughout the movie, we learn that something devastating happened in the world after the events of the first movie, though we’re never quite given all the answers. This is a movie that understands how much more less actually is, and it plays with that concept delightfully, allowing its narrative to become a puzzle as it moves through its beats. (For those interested, you can find out more about the Black Out through one of the three short films commissioned by Villeneuve that lead up to Blade Runner 2049. I would, however, recommend waiting until after you’ve seen the new film before heading to YouTube.)

And what an engaging puzzle it is! Too often, films confuse puzzling with obtuse, resulting in an incomprehensible mess. Real brilliance is something accomplished, not strived for, and Blade Runner 2049 never tries too hard to be smart. Like its predecessor, the labyrinthine narrative has secrets, but they’re accessible to anyone willing to play along.

With collaborators like Deakins, Fancher, and Green, Villeneuve is easily able to craft his masterpiece. He guides this film like a maestro with his baton, conducting his cinematic symphony through its movements and letting the individual components come together as a beautifully realized whole. Nothing feels out of place or unnecessary, and everything works in service of the story.

I hesitate to mention much regarding the narrative itself, for fear of ruining the surprises built into the movie and its characters. This is a rich film that’s best served with as little foreknowledge as possible. Each new scene provides of smorgasbord of detail and delight, leading the audience down a twisting narrative full of surprise and revelation. Like Blade Runner, this is a film that seeks to change what we think about when we think about science fiction.

Besides, there’ll be plenty of time to discuss the intricacies of the plot later, after we’ve all had time to let Blade Runner 2049 wash over us. I can say that the cast is truly remarkable. Even Harrison Ford, who returns as Deckard from the original movie, gives a standout performance—no small feat for a man with a career full of standout performances. He’s far from the star, however. Ryan Gosling has burst into the world of Blade Runner and made it his own.

As a performer, Gosling has only gotten better over the years; last year alone, he delivered two of his best performances in The Nice Guys and La La Land. Blade Runner 2049 easily tops both of those performances, and shows us just how great Gosling can be given the material. His is a nuanced, intricate portrayal that only adds to the philosophical intrigue of the film. But the same can also be said about all of his co-stars. Robin Wright, as his LAPD boss, is a wonderful addition to the canon, as is Jared Leto as Niander Wallace, the CEO whose new replicants kick-start the new film.

All of this comes together to form a film that is every bit as important, interesting, and groundbreaking as its predecessor. We don’t often get to say this, but Blade Runner 2049 might even be a better film than Blade Runner. If nothing else, it is at least its equal; which is a stunning achievement in itself. No film that has been influenced by Blade Runner has ever been able to match the grimy intensity of that film, and 2049 does that, and then some.

There aren’t words enough to praise Blade Runner 2049 as highly as it deserves to be praised. This is, easily, the best, most captivating film of 2017 (the second year in a row that Villeneuve can make that claim, following Arrival last year) and will no doubt, from the vantage point of the future, be viewed as one of the best movies of the 21st century, on top of being viewed as one of the best science fictions movies of all time. Yes, it’s that good.

It’s so good that you almost forget that this was released as a major studio tentpole. It’s a massive, sprawling film with the heart of an arthouse indie, and each of its 165 minutes is a work of magic. This is what major studio filmmaking should aspire to be. Blade Runner 2049 is a deeply affecting, engaging film that flies in face of common consensus regarding the studio system. If this much effort and love and attention to detail were put into other major studio releases, those cynical criticisms of the Hollywood system, and the films it produces, would certainly be washed away, like tears in the rain.

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