After 35 years Philip K. Dick’s brainstorm returns in a film sequel worthy of the original; Denis Villeneuve does right by the concept, but the show will be tough sledding for ADD-plagued modern viewers. Ryan Gosling follows in Harrison Ford’s replicant footsteps, surrounded by an impressive group of supporting actors. It’s long, it’s moody, it’s not for babies — but it is rewarding.
Blade Runner 2049
Warner Bros. Home Entertainment
2017 / Color / 2:40 widescreen / 164 min. / available through the WBshop / Street Date January 16, 2018 / 35.99
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Robin Wright, Ana de Armas, Carla Juri, Jared Leto, David Dastmalchian, Sylvia Hoeks, Mackenzie Davis, Sean Young, Hiam Abbass, Edward James Olmos, Dave Bautista.
Cinematography: Roger A. Deakins
Film Editor: Joe Walker
Original Music: Benjamin Wallfisch, Hans Zimmer
Written by Michael Green, Hampton Fancher, from his story, based on characters from Philip K. Dick
Produced by Cynthia Sikes Yorkin, Bud Yorkin
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
I wasn’t a big fan of the original Blade Runner but I remember hanging that beautiful one-sheet in my editing room for years. I mostly recall visiting Rocco Gioffre at work, and seeing his matte painting efforts for the title. His company Dream Quest did some effects for the show; I was told that an extreme close-up of an eye was actually the eye of visual effects designer Hoyt Yeatman.
The show became more interesting later when multiple versions were released on disc. A producer I worked for was a special projects executive at Warner Bros., and happens to be the individual that made possible the entire rebirth of the title. First, a 70mm copy screened at a festival proved to be a preview print quite different from the final release. On paper Warners had already destroyed all of the extra film elements for Blade Runner, but when checking out an independent storage facility, my producer ran across an entire shrink-wrapped palette of film for the movie. When ordered to destroy it, the manager of the private vault instead took it off the paid inventory and set it aside, to save for when its owners came to their senses. In this town, Oscars sometimes go to the wrong people.
Last year’s sequel continuation didn’t sound like a good idea until I was told that the director would be Denis Villeneuve, who made last year’s exemplary sci-fi show Arrival. Screenwriter Hampton Fancher shared credit with David Webb Peoples on the original Blade Runner movie. Lavishly produced and hotly anticipated by fans, the new Blade Runner 2049 chalked up as a disappointment at the box office. That shouldn’t be a deal-breaker: I’ve found quite a few favorites among movies that fall into that category.
My review isn’t going to contain marvelous revelations for fans invested in the world of Blade Runner. Ask me a detailed question about BR (or Star Wars or Star Trek) and a little cloud question mark will form over my pointed Savant head. But I’ve rationalized my civilian status with the idea that since the BR cult isn’t as big as some others, many viewers will know even less about it than I do. I’ll also avoid spoilers.
The new film picks up thirty years after the first. Technology has advanced but the world is still an environmental mess. The population of Los Angeles is jammed into an endless mess of crowded housing; the rain never stops. ‘Skin Job’ replicants are everywhere and they no longer seem to have expiration dates (?). Some things haven’t changed. There is a rogue conspiracy afoot called the replicant freedom movement. The overall problem now, as perceived by Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) the new gazillionaire executive at the top of the corporate heap, is that too many replicants are needed than can be manufactured. Blade Runner ‘K’ (Ryan Gosling of La La Land) is himself a replicant, yet hunts down rogues for the LAPD. While on a routine mission, K discovers the skeletal remains of a body that prove to be a female replicant that died giving birth to a child. K’s LAPD boss Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright) wants to suppress the knowledge that it is now possible for replicants to procreate, and assigns K to find the child and destroy it. The replicant freedom movement has been concealing the identity of the child all this time.
When the remains turn out to belong to the vintage Tyrell replicant Rachael, the blind Wallace assigns his special agent Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) to follow K’s tracks — he wants replicants that can procreate, to aid the expansion of his business domain. As he investigates, K discovers evidence that suggests that his own false implanted replicant memories are actually true, which leads him to believe that he is the missing son that the cops want killed and Wallace wants to study. Not realizing that he’s being tracked, K traces the father replicant to a ruined casino in Las Vegas . . . where he discovers none other than Deckard (Harrison Ford), hiding out in solitary luxury with just an artificial dog for company.
The admirable Blade Runner 2049 respects the original and builds on it in interesting ways. Like other replicants K is well aware that he’s artificial. He broods about his lowered status, and is forever examining the artificial insects and animals that he encounters. BR was justly celebrated for its viable future environment created with pre-CGI technology, and 2049 makes excellent, tasteful use of the new tools to envision miraculous inventions of the future. The flying spinner vehicles come in various models and are as nimble as fighter jets. K’s older spinner comes with a flying drone he can use to provide security or aid in searches. In Wallace’s conference room K is examined by scores of floating monitors, that serve as Wallace’s eyes.
Joi’s an extremely social media.
The most interesting future ‘advance’ is a personalized holographic companion called Joi (Ana de Armas). K is first seen with the basic purchased Joi, who is activated by a rig on his ceiling, and seems to have strict limits of movement. Joi is more or less a sexy house pet that exists only for K. It learns his personality; if he only wanted polite conversation, his particular Joi would adapt her behavior to suit. K purchases a fire stick- like device that allows Joi to follow him anywhere. Although the ads for Joi promise sexual delights, she’s just a semi-transparent visual projection. At one point K succeeds in having sex with Joi by hiring the prostitute Mariette (Mackenzie Davis), who cooperates in allowing Joi to ‘synchronize’ with her. Is Mariette a human or a replicant? I don’t think that K could figure that out himself, without a Voight-Kampff field tester.
This notion of future sex is so well done that it doesn’t even invite snickers; it’s a wild future in which thinking robots have to go to extremes to enjoy a sex life. Of course, because everything relates to our present human condition, we’re invited to contemplate how much of our own life is a synthetic consumer sensation in search of meaningful experience. Back in college I remember having one of those all-night discussions (won’t say who with) where the question was, “When we have sex, is it just an illusion that something real is being shared? Is it possibly just mutually consensual masturbation with a convenient ‘other’?” K’s love life isn’t that different from what a disillusioned existentialist might experience, someone who must analyze everything.
It’s nice that Harrison was willing to return, although his aged Deckard in 2049 is not a particularly proactive character. He at first seems a burnout case; at one point he’s kidnapped for transport off-world, where Wallace can dismantle him outside the legal limits. The suggestion that the Wallace Corporation’s power has no restraint out in the Wild West of outer space may remind viewers of Guantanamo; for this Sci-fi follower it also called to mind the free-for-all corporate space warfare in Alexander Kluge’s Der große Verhau.
Edward James Olmos’ detective Gaff puts in a cameo appearance, as does Sean Young. She returns as Rachael, although her image seems completely reconstructed. To me the face seems a little fat and ‘dead,’ much the way the ersatz Peter Cushing didn’t seem ‘right’ in that Star Wars entry a couple of years ago. This Indiewire article discusses the way Wallace’s recreated Rachael was digitally replicated.
The new characters are well orchestrated even if most of them seem demoralized by life’s problems. Most are only on screen for a scene or two, but make strong impressions. Replicant freedom movement officer Freysa (Hiyam Abbass) is given an empty eye socket as featureless as that of a plastic doll. We can see that Wallace (Jared Leto) is blind, but I didn’t immediately realize that the ‘flying leeches’ that flit around him are drones that enable him to see. We wonder why he can’t be fitted with ordinary synthetic replicant eyes? Perhaps real humans wish to be proud of having an ‘all organic’ label.
Wallace’s ‘enforcer’ agent Luv is a kick-boxing killer who executes victims without batting an eye. Hoeks makes the sexy-but-deadly cliché work better than it ought to. As the sex companion Joi, Cuban-born Ana de Armas is made up as a futuristic blow-up doll programmed for wish-fulfillment duty. The irony is that, just as with the replicants, her AI personality isn’t all that distinguishable from that of an organic human.
Blade Runner 2049 is intelligent, visually compelling and thought provoking. The smart screenplay isn’t overloaded with exposition. Because it can show this future society in full detail, we learn most of what we need to know by watching. The story is a classic detective mission with the expected elements. K interviews suspects and returns to crime scenes for new information, and becomes personally involved in the mystery. K even walks around with a bandage on his nose, like his predecessor Jake Gittes. The little wooden horse toy (real wood and therefore nearly priceless in this future dystopia) makes a nice half-connection with the origami unicorn of the first movie, and leads K to suspect that he may be searching for himself. The resolution of that particular story thread will be satisfying to Sci-fi fans tired of conventional space opera clichés. The corruption of screen Sci-fi adventures, according to matte painter Mark Sullivan, occurred when every film seemed to use the plot device of a young male hero discovering that he’s not an ignorant schlub, but a master of the universe with a grand destiny — a Luke Skywalker, a Paul Atreides.
The movie is indeed slow, with too many scenes in which K walks slowly through gigantic buildings, or under towering obscene statuary. Drenching half the movie in thick future-smog has a soporific effect as well. The Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer music reinforces this solemnity, and it doesn’t help that Ryan Gosling’s K maintains such a poker face most of the time. We instead find ourselves becoming attached to Joi, who has a childlike (or doglike) innocence. There’s also the radiant Dr. Stelline (Carla Juri) who is easily the most inspired and motivated ‘person’ we see. Yet some genetic ailment forces her to live in a holographic isolation chamber, where she manufactures false memories for replicants.
The movie has plenty of eye candy, more than enough action, and arguably about four times too much ‘atmosphere.’ I’m known to luxuriate in movies that induce downbeat moods, yet even I wished this one could move a bit faster. K is an interesting character but not one I was personally inclined to relate to. Maybe younger viewers trying find their place in our present crazy digital existence would identify with K completely. Maybe not enough — even with its big fight and disaster set-pieces (ray gun battles, a convincing extended crash and near drowning in an L.A. flood control canal) 2049 didn’t thrill the ADD masses unprepared to work a little to engage in its storyline.
My personal verdict is a solid A- minus. The show is sufficiently dense that I feel more viewings will reveal more ideas; I might even find more of an appreciation of Gosling’s performance. As for the lento pacing, I know I wouldn’t be happier if an Indiana Jones cadence was enforced. And I didn’t feel insulted, as happens with the average ‘intellectual’ sci-fi picture that posits some annoying complicated future world or lame array of intersecting realities. “Is it real, really real, or really really real?”
Warner Bros. Home Entertainment’s Blu-ray of Blade Runner 2049 comes in two other packages as well, a 4K Ultra HD (UHD) + Blu-ray + Digital Combo, and a Blu-ray 3D + Blu-ray + Digital pack. This Blu + DVD + Digital download looks great. I didn’t see the special IMAX theatrical presentation, nor did I see it in 3-D; correspondent Ed Sullivan forwarded this link to Cinematographer Roger A. Deakins’ website, where he offers his personal take about the format choice, 2D or 3D?
The flat Blu-ray looks sensational. One really needs the making-of extras to determine what in a new CGI epic is real and what is not; effects have advanced so far beyond my old-school knowledge that I no longer feel confident in my guesses. Director Villeneuve seems to have immersed himself in the Ridley Scott obsession with futuristic visuals. I think I prefer the no-limits art direction of this sequel. In the original BR I was seldom convinced by the various artificial creatures. I hated the scene in Sebastian’s home, where the inventor had cobbled together various ‘living’ toys.
I really got into the music tracks, with the caveat that the length of the movie did weigh on them: too much of the same mood.
Warners lays on some fun extras that go way beyond promo fluff. The extras will answer many questions about the show, or the 2-film franchise. Besides the expected making-of items — the casting of this film is particularly well done — we get introductory and explanatory featurettes, including a whole gallery called Blade Runner 101. Not all of these featurettes are carried over to the DVD.
The best extras are three expensive-looking animated and live-action prologues, produced to hype the picture on YouTube just before the release last October. The prologues are each set in an interim year between the two features — 2022, 2036, 2048. They explain the origin of Niander Wallace, who indeed is not covered all that thoroughly in the feature itself. We learn that Wallace has solved the food shortage with protein farms that grow zillions of grubs for human consumption. We also discover that affluent humans in 2049 are now living off-world, and the have-nots are somewhat ghettoized back home on Earth. Some of the original Philip K. Dick novels about off-world colonies take place on a developed Mars, and at least one on an earlier ‘pioneering’ Mars where demoralized off-worlders live in miserable hovels.
I doubt that very many Sci-Fi addicts agree with me, but I’m still convinced that film examinations of ‘synthetic humans’ haven’t advanced conceptually much farther than the precocious, nearly no-budget 1962 show Creation of the Humanoids. My better nature tells me not to defend this crude and clumsy talk-a-thon, but should you want to read my full argument the review is still up and available. Blade Runner 2049 is more like Creation than was the first BR — the 1962 movie about ‘perfect’ mechanical robots also saved for its major twist the notion of robots so human that they could procreate.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Blade Runner 2049
Movie: Excellent – Minus
Sound: Excellent English, French, Spanish
Supplements: Featurettes: Designing The World of Blade Runner 2049; To Be Human: Casting Blade Runner 2049. Prologues: 2022: Black Out (Anime); 2036: Nexus Dawn; 2048: Nowhere to Run. Blade Runner 101: Blade Runners, The Replicant Evolution, The Rise of Wallace Corp, Welcome to 2049, Joi, Within the Skies: Spinners, Pilotfish and Barracudas.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English, French, Spanish (feature only)
Packaging: Two discs plus digital code in keep case in card sleeve.
Reviewed: January 15, 2018
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson