By Elias Savada.
When I last visited Denis Villeneuve it was when I reviewed one of the best films of last year. Arrival was that perfect storm of a film from a masterful storyteller and technician…but I’ve since changed my mind about it. It is actually the best film of 2016, one that still demands repeat viewings to peel away its complex layers and savor it sensual painterly atmosphere. The French-Canadian director has now tackled the long-awaited follow-up one of sci-fi’s most admired movies, a project that has defied creation for a really long time. Making up for those lost years, Blade Runner 2049 arrives at our doorsteps clocking in at 2 hours and 44 minutes. I dare say that very few of its moments are wasted, and, yes, it has been worth the wait.
This visually stunning sequel to 1982’s trailblazing sci-fi epic Blade Runner is as dystopian as the original, yet now there are additional dimensions of intricately woven soul-searching by some characters, and, for others, a violent, fascist need to subdue the human will by all means possible. There are some very nasty goings-on about the fascinating relationships between humans, replicants, and other newer forms of companionship.
Part of the setup of both films is that older replicants created by then all-powerful Tyrell Corporation need to be “retired,” but in the story’s new chapter, 21 years after a then-bankrupt Tyrell was acquired by the ever-more-all-powerful Wallace Corporation (and six years after world finance and trade markets crashed), there’s a new tyrant on the block and he’s the weirdly wired Niander Wallace (Jared Leto, playing ruthless with a soft-spoken, Zen resolve). Moving the action ahead 30 years to 2049 California, the elaborate, meticulously crafted landscape is either a sun baked dust bowl, a fog-enshrouded wasteland, or a rain-drenched, neon-noirish metropolis. Sound familiar?
With Ridley Scott back on board (as both sounding board and an executive producer), as is screenwriter Hampton Fancher, who co-wrote the original with David Peoples and now shares the credit with Michael Green (the fine Wolverine finale Logan, the lame sequel-prequel Alien: Covenant), the film is an audio-visual explosion. Villeneuve has reteamed with some stellar crew members, particularly Roger Deakins (Sicario, Prisoners, two of the films for which the cinematographer has received Oscar nominations). If the voters of the Academy don’t finally vote him the golden statuette for this film, there is something very wrong with the system. Other previous collaborators are editor Joe Walker and costume designer Renée April, both of whom worked on Sicario and Arrival. And production designer Dennis Gassner (Spectre, Into the Woods, Skyfall) is very capable of creating the world that this film demands. Everything is immense, and its design is even more brutal than the earlier oeuvre. Alternating between the starkly constructed offices for the upper 1% and the organic decay suffered by the rest of society, there are outcasts around every corner, living on and off the grid in various flavors of squalor. I loved a crazy scene with a ruin of erotic statues with bees buzzing nearby. For the viewer, this whole impressive smorgasbord is made all that more impressive when you catch it on a real big screen in Dolby Atmos, which will greatly rearrange some of your innards with thunderous rapture.
You already know Harrison Ford returns as Deckard, but this film belongs to Ryan Gosling, who is in nearly every scene, as the determined Officer K of the LAPD. While Timex Watches aren’t one of the product tie-in companies that push their wares in garish, holographic advertisements during the film’s Los Angeles scenes (filmed on sound stages in Hungary), this cop does take a licking and keeps on ticking. The Deckard character, while an important part of the film’s plot, doesn’t appear, by my estimate, until somewhere around the start of the second hour. There are some other familiar faces, but they’ll be part of the detective work that connects the two films. I can tell you that some of the characters are human, and some are not. After all, the Philip K. Dick source novel wasn’t called Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? because it was a gentle tale about sleep apnea. Most of the supporting cast are amusing for their look and demeanor, with standout performances by Dave Bautista, Robin Wright (as K’s boss), Ana de Armas (as K’s mesmerizing companion Joi), and Sylvia Hoeks and Carla Juri (as several of the film’s many striking characters).
The publicity folks don’t want any reviews to spoil the film for you, at least for the critics that attended press screenings here in DC, and I agree with some of their reasoning not to mention this or that. Some of their soft demands are hidden in this review. Others were outlandish, but I can tell you that Jaws is a shark and there are dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. Please don’t ask me who Keyser Söze is.
All kidding aside, Blade Runner 2049 will make the dreams of genre fans come true. All others should just pinch themselves for a reality check, then sit back and enjoy the ride.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He served as an executive producer on the 2015 horror film German Angst, Penny Lane’s award-winning documentary Nuts!, and the forthcoming supernatural thriller Ayla. He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2017 by Centipede Press).