REVIEW: 'Blade Runner 2049' is a top-notch sequel

 Ryan Gosling stars in  Blade Runner 2049 , directed by Denis Villeneuve.

Ryan Gosling stars in Blade Runner 2049, directed by Denis Villeneuve.

With Denis Villeneuve at the helm, Ryan Gosling in the lead role and Roger Deakins potentially setting a new bar for cinematography, on paper it looked like Blade Runner 2049 could work. Sequels have a spotty record, however, and it may be a far less painful experience to remain skeptical. But, within the first few minutes of 2049, you just knew everything was in good hands.

The problem with sequels these days is that they’re just bigger and louder, which occasionally works, but rarely do they improve the franchise. The groundwork could be laid for a movie universe or another sequel, but rarely does it really propel a universe or its characters or the film’s themes to another level. There are revelations, but few transformations. Characters we know from the first film are rarely challenged to be something different in the sequel rather than simply improving. 

And rather than trying to make Ridley Scott’s universe feel any bigger, Villeneuve has chosen to tell a small but significant chapter. The call-backs are there right from the beginning: the sharp white-and-red text on a black background, a close-up of an eye and a long tracking shot of a barren landscape. Villeneuve’s not venturing off-world nor interested in what’s going on beyond the issue at hand: Officer K (Ryan Gosling), a replicant blade runner, has uncovered a secret that would produce the next paradigm shift in the Blade Runner universe, and in order to answer some questions he needs to track down Deckard (Harrison Ford), who reprises his role from the original film.

 Harrison Ford returns as Rick Deckard.

Harrison Ford returns as Rick Deckard.

The premise is that simple, but there’s layers of characters that need to be peeled back and explored, and the questions it asks need time to be presented and debated thoroughly in its 163-minute runtime. Because Deakins’ cinematography is Oscar-winning levels of amazing, and the story quite compelling, the film could probably hit 180 minutes and nobody would (or should) complain.  

There are a few plot twists in the film, but some of them happen in such quick succession that you feel blindsided, especially since the film has already conditioned you to feel and think slowly. Gosling’s performance is very good, possessing the same “I don’t really want to do it but I’ll do it anyway because it’s my job” attitude as Deckard, which Ford generously applies to all of the characters he plays. But the one who really steals the show is Ana de Armas, who plays K’s virtual, holographic girlfriend, Joi.

Like Rachael in the first film, Joi plays an enormously influential role in the story, and also literally represents the question central to the Blade Runner universe: what does it mean to be human? She’s aptly named “Joi” because of the role she plays, but De Armas also plays the character with such sensitivity and feeling that it helps the audience connect with K, allowing them to feel what he feels. It’s typical for sci-fi films dealing with A.I. to make the audience sympathize with androids and robots, but Villeneuve, Gosling and De Armas do a wonderful job of making it easy. It’s interesting that 2049 re-introduces a similar cast of characters, yet also manages to make them feel different.

 Ana de Armas as Joi, Officer K's computer-generated girlfriend.

Ana de Armas as Joi, Officer K's computer-generated girlfriend.

Dave Bautista plays Sapper Morton, who serves as the film’s first introduction to rebel replicants, much like Leon in the original, but a more sensitive performance allows Sapper to feel more tragic. In place of Edward James Olmos’ Gaff, Robin Wright’s Lt. Joshi acts as the guide for K, acting as both the push and pull forces that compel him to act. Rutger Hauer is replaced by Sylvia Hoeks’ Luv as the replicant final boss, and Jared Leto’s Niander Wallace takes Joe Turkel’s place as the replicant creator and the embodiment of all things nefarious and corporate – which are one and the same in the world of Blade Runner.

If there’s a part of 2049 that falls short of the original, is that Hauer’s Roy Batty is still a far more compelling and charismatic villain, and that Wallace is a cheap copy of Tyrell. They’re both unflinchingly ends-oriented and feel strongly they’re making society a better place with the introduction of a new Nexus model. There’s little that differentiates them, and because Wallace doesn’t go through a character arc, he ends up being a typical sequel villain whose character should be more feared simply because he’s bigger and badder.

I’m glad that 2049 is such a worthy sequel to the original. I think fans of the original will love this one.

Blade Runner 2049 gets four stars out of four. Continue reading for more spoiler-y discussion!

 
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HEAVY SPOILERS FOLLOW. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

What I really loved most about 2049 was that it really continued the storylines from the first film. There are a lot of call-backs to the first film and many themes continue to be explored, but there’s a few things that I think are worth pointing out.

Is Deckard a replicant?

One of Villeneuve’s strong suits as a director is that he doesn’t stray. He’s really good at juggling multiple storylines and multiple twists, but never straying far from the main character or the plot. You can see this in Sicario, in which almost everything is seen through Emily Blunt’s eyes, even though we learn quite a bit about Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro on the side. Prisoners is another one, in which Hugh Jackman plays a central character but we learn things about him mainly through Jake Gyllenhaal’s eyes.

The trick with 2049 is that its plot is complicated and layered enough to keep you interested, so whether Deckard is a replicant or not is never confirmed in this film even though it references many questions asked by the original. Ultimately, though, it doesn’t matter. There are higher stakes in K’s discoveries, so spending time to answer a pop culture trivia question isn’t a very good use of time. Believing Deckard is human throughout the course of 2049 doesn’t change the bigger mystery: WE HAVE A PREGNANT REPLICANT! Besides, Roger Deakins’ cinematography needs servicing.

But, if we want to really answer it, it’s not really doable, either, because we’re never given an answer. In fact, we’re not given anything. By 2049, replicants had no end date, a feature that had only come with the newer models. So, we know Rachael was a replicant and died from childbirth, but was Deckard’s DNA of the human or replicant variety? I’m strongly in the camp that Deckard is a replicant because I only consider The Final Cut to be Scott’s true vision. It’s confirmed in Black Out 2022 that Tyrell had already begun making replicants with no end dates.

 Sylvia Hoeks as Luv, the right-hand Replicant of Wallace.

Sylvia Hoeks as Luv, the right-hand Replicant of Wallace.

But, that also doesn’t give any further evidence against people who believe Deckard is human. So, who cares if dad’s DNA was developed through puberty or simply because the replicants have been designed so well they can replicate the human reproduction experience? It doesn’t matter. K needs to find out his origins and cover up a potentially explosive paradigm shift to preserve the status quo, and Deckard needs to find his daughter.

This part is very much like the very underrated Children of Men, which I think is one of Alfonso Cauron’s best works. The story is similar: reproduction, once thought impossible, is now possible, and it’s gonna change everything but it’s complicated by politics and power struggles. Villeneuve manages to ask that question but in a beautifully post-apocalyptic sci-fi world where humans and robots exist.

There’s a scene at the end where K brings Deckard to Stelline, and as he lays down on the steps and looks at the sky, you get a real sense of relief. Is he dying? Probably, at least until he gets some medical attention, but he’s also relieved, coming to the realization that he’s just another replicant blade runner. He has answered his own questions, so the A.I. in him won’t glitch anymore. But here’s the real silver lining for replicants: K may not be the chosen one, but it’s possible for replicants to reproduce.  

 Officer K is revealed to be a replicant from the start.

Officer K is revealed to be a replicant from the start.

So, what to make of K?

It’s made obvious from the beginning that K is a replicant, and I think it’s an indisputable fact. But it’s also very interesting that K fails his second baseline test. If K is a replicant, shouldn’t they be produced to pass the test at all times? It seems like a massive oversight to create Nexus 8s – which are supposed to be even more emotion-proof– to be even allowed to NOT pass the baseline test. So, the question is asked again: can replicants learn how to feel, to have or even develop a soul? More broadly, how good is A.I. at learning? Remember that in the original film, it’s believed that Deckard has never taken the Voigt-Kampff test.

K vs. Joe

After finding the toy horse and coming to the realization that he may not be a replicant – thereby having a soul, a concept Joshi brings up with K – Joi suggests that K is special and offers to name him “Joe”.

This is a really pivotal moment in K’s transformation into Joe, who exists for a time between meeting Dr. Stelline and finding out Deckard’s baby was a girl – ie. when K starts to believe that, not only is he not a replicant, he’s Deckard’s baby – which totally makes his whole world come crashing down on him again.

It’s interesting that simply a name, and one as arbitrary and common as “Joe”, manages to nudge K’s belief that he was born through childbirth – discovery that counters whatever knowledge K has been implanted with – making his previous knowledge contradictory and doubtful. It makes his subsequent freak-out in front of Stelline all the more understandable and emotional.

Niander Wallace

Aside from a near mirror image of the characters from the original film, it’s interesting that Wallace is blind – as in, a literal interpretation of the blind leading the blind. Remember that in the original Tyrell dies after Roy eye gouges him to death, angered that Tyrell doesn’t seem to see what Roy sees even though Tyrell is supposed to be, y’know, know everything. Wallace and Tyrell have the same weakness – hubris – and it’s heavily implied that even though Wallace has managed to create a “superior” replicant, his lack of sight, both figuratively and literally, will lead to a replicant uprising not unlike 2022, and that, like Tyrell, his corporation is doomed to fail.

 Robin Wright as K's boss, Lt. Joshi.

Robin Wright as K's boss, Lt. Joshi.

The music

One of the most lasting impressions of the original film was the soundtrack, which was considered ground-breaking back then. Not many films were willing to use synth, even though it’s pretty commonplace now in pop music, and credit to Villeneuve for sampling Vangelis’ excellent score but not overdoing it. There’s heavy industrial tones in this one rather than the ethereal chimes, which certainly gives it a heaviness that’s akin to the weight of K’s discovery. It’s quite wonderful, and I’m glad that Villeneuve and Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch paid so much care to the score.

The call-backs

There’s a lot of visual and aural call-backs to the first film, and it couldn’t be more apparent in the opening scenes. Like the original, we open with white-and-red text on a black background, and the first shot we see is a vast, expansive world that really sets the tone visually. In the original, there’s giant towers hidden on a black background that’s occasionally lit by big orange flares, while in the sequel we see an endless sea of white fields.

There’s also the overused closeup of the eye, and the first few scenes of the film where K removes Sapper Morton’s eye for a retinal scan. Unlike the original with the owl and Rachael, there’s no red/orange tint to the eyes of replicants. (Some claim that in certain scenes you can tell Deckard is a replicant in the original.) In 2049, replicants are identified by their right eye, which explains Freysa’s one-eyed condition – and that was something I found out after watching the film, which again shows how deep and rich the Blade Runner universe can be.

One of the more interesting characters in the original was also Gaff, who’s teeny-tiny origami became influential in guiding the viewer where the director wants them to go. His final origami of a unicorn, left outside Deckard’s doorstep in the final moments of the original film, is essentially the strongest evidence that Deckard is a replicant. His other origami – a chicken and a stick figure with an erection – are also devices that inform the audience. The chicken shows up when Deckard reluctantly accepts his orders to bring in Roy Batty, implying that he’s afraid to do the task, and the stick figure emerges when Deckard finds a picture of a naked replicant, which foreshadows his hunt for Zhora and his love for Rachael.

In 2049, Gaff returns but he’s now bald and weary and in a retirement home. When K begins to question him, Gaff makes an origami sheep. This is both a reference to the source material – Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep – and a call-back to Gaff teasing Deckard, except this time he’s teasing K for following the rules and norms of Wallace’s society, implying that like everyone else K is just a pawn in a world that allows them to exist because they’re allowed to, and that he’s just one in a herd of sheep that Gaff considers to be the planet’s inhabitants.