Film Review: Blade Runner 2049

Replicant hunter uncovers a conspiracy that could change the world in an ambitious, uncompromising sci-fi adventure.
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Hugely influential at the time, 1982's Blade Runner was also a creative and box-office disappointment, going through no fewer than seven separate versions while gradually building a cult following. Denis Villeneuve's Blade Runner 2049 reimagines the original on a grandiose scale, sacrificing suspense for visual splendor.

The new film follows the original's template closely. After unexplained catastrophes, the future is dominated by corporations, including software giant Wallace, run by Niander Wallace (Jared Leto). Manmade replicants provide slave labor, not always smoothly. An earlier generation rebelled, hunted down by blade runners like K (Ryan Gosling), a replicant who undergoes a form of brainwashing after each successful kill.

While "retiring" a replicant called Sapper Morton (an excellent Dave Bautista), K helps uncover a buried skeleton that raises the unthinkable—a replicant who could become pregnant and give birth. K's boss Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright) orders him to find and eliminate the replicant child.

Wallace and his top replicant Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) are also after the child, Wallace's company unable to manufacture enough replicants to meet demands. Clues lead from a morgue to a memory maker (Carla Juri) to an earlier blade runner, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford).

In the first Blade Runner, director Ridley Scott envisioned a dark, harsh future of perpetual rain, a world where cultures smashed together, where the poor scrambled in slums while the elite ruled above in gilded towers. Loud, dangerous, yet filled with energy, Scott's vision echoed down through a generation of copycats. Elements of the story have become so central to the genre that there's not much surprise left in them. Even Pixar has plumbed these concepts, with its replicants in Toy Story arguing identity and consciousness, and a planet consumed by waste in WALL-E.

Villeneuve's decision was to go bigger, weirder, blue and yellow filters coloring scenes, an industrial-noise score (by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch) blaring on the soundtrack. The focus shifts to the crumbling artifacts of a past civilization, revealed in panoramic aerial shots or in long tracks through hallways and corridors.

Despite its gigantic sets, this world feels more constrained, oddly underpopulated, its empty streets set off by horizons smeared with smog and ash. Mountains of debris, abandoned factories, hollowed-out public meeting halls—the visuals from director of photography Roger A. Deakins are both dazzling and oppressive.

The screenplay (by Hampton Fancher, who worked on the original, and Logan's Michael Green) spends less time assembling a plot than offering vignettes of the future. Squalid homes, bad food, simulated fantasies, endless drudgery—it's a wonder anyone wants to live, let alone fight for identity. Race and class are trigger points, K flinching from eye contact with humans, and yet a traitor to his own kind.

The problem is, it's not much fun to watch. The black humor and B-movie kick of the original are largely absent, at least until Harrison Ford shows up. Sharing whisky with a mangy dog, he brings a lifetime of experience to his character, and briefly turns Blade Runner 2049 into a completely different movie.

Gosling plays K close to the vest, his face a blank even when having a sort-of threesome. What K learns should change him, but Gosling keeps the character inscrutable. Wright and Hoeks make strong impressions, while Leto swans around like a villain from The Matrix.

Blade Runner 2049 fills in gaps from the original and dovetails nicely with Scott's Alien: Covenant, another treatise on what it means to be human. But in both movies the questions about class, caste and identity that take over the narrative feel too arbitrary, almost irrelevant. What's left is imagery, ambience, technical expertise, a nagging sense of loss.

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