Denis' Dark World

Blade Runner 2049
(USA, 164 min.)
Dir. Denis Villeneuve, Writ. Hampton Francher, Michael Green
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Ana de Armas, Robin Wright, Sylvia Hoeks, Jared Leto, Mackenzie Davis
Ana de Armas and Ryan Gosling star in Blade Runner 2049
Here’s the thing with updates: they can be a redundant waste of time, but, when they work, they can improve things by ironing out bugs and improving early drafts into a finely tuned revisions. Windows 10, for example, might be the best contemporary example of an utterly pointless remake. It adds nothing to the original except more kinks, headaches, and bad karma. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Blade Runner 2049, Denis Villeneuve’s outstanding revision of Ridley Scott’s 1982 cult hit that improves upon the original film. The measured Blade Runner 2049 might seem as slow as Windows 10, but in this case the massive update is worth the patience. This return to the world of the runners is deep and thoughtful sci-fi thanks to Villeneuve’s uncompromising vision.

The stakes keep getting higher for Villeneuve as his stature grows in Hollywood. He just keeps getting better with each challenge. What a thrill it is to see the Canadian filmmaker up his game once again. If Arrival showed that Villeneuve could deliver profound science fiction with a medium-sized budget that required ingenuity and restraint, Blade Runner 2049 proves that the director hasn’t forgotten his roots while climbing to the highest rung of the ladder. 2049 is an anomaly among spectacular tent pole productions. It’s a grand and extravagant blockbuster offering a smorgasbord of all the latest innovative special effects, but it’s also smart, thoughtful, demanding, and challenging. It’s antithetical to what Hollywood formula tends to be nowadays, but it’s everything a fan of both arthouse cinema and escapist popcorn fare could crave.

One doesn’t need to have seen the original Blade Runner, but it helps for 2049. Ryan Gosling steps into Harrison Ford’s shoes playing “K,” a bio-engineered officer of the LAPD who is wired to obey. Ford makes a late-to-the-game appearance reprising his role as Deckard, but Gosling makes the film his own with a performance of brooding and imposing stoicism that recalls his ultra-cool work in Drive. This update to the Blade Runner world pits K on an ambiguous quest when bones and a serial code lead him on a search for a child and its father.

His journey to barren domains and dire, parched landscapes afford eerie illustrations of a world with all the juice sucked out of it. On the outside, it’s ominously dark and dreary. There’s little natural life left and the realization of this synthetic world looks uncannily like an IKEA showroom of the near future. K’s holographic girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas) is the latest incarnation of Samantha, although the newfangled immersive technology of the future allows for adventurous threesomes, which, admittedly, afford 2049 some of its most impressive visual effects. The imperfections and sterility of K’s surroundings aren’t far from what the world could look like in its interiors thanks to the speculative style of production designer Dennis Gassner (Into the Woods) that makes this vision of the future so bleak and chilly through a sense of possibility.

The visual design of 2049 is simply awesome as Villeneuve reteams with Prisoners and Sicario DP Roger Deakins. A dark palette of earth tones mixes with shocks of fluorescent light as Deakins represents visually the complexities and contradictions of the world in which K pursues his quest. The director and the DP are more adventurous since the scope and grandeur of 2049 demands haywire visual pizzazz to make this dark world so consuming. Deakins uses every inch of the wide plane of the frame to keep the viewer active and engaged, and the patience with which Villeneuve draws out many a scene requires the viewer to take in the deep visual feast of the film to note every detail and hint of danger that lingers around the frame. (Note: this review considers the 2D release of the film.)

Danger there is as a fellow replicant (Sylvia Hoeks) pursues K like a heat-seeking missile. This butt-kicking assassin leads a strong contingent of female supporting players, including Robin Wright, who’s having a great year as the wise sage of Warner Bros. movies after Wonder Woman, while The F Word’s Mackenzie Davis makes an impression as a young woman who lets K experience a woman body and soul by offering herself as a surrogate to his desires. The weak link to the film, unfortunately, is Jared Leto in a bizarre performance as Wallace, the blind replicant tycoon who dresses and waxes prophetic as if he were Pai Mai. It’s only in the scenes with Leto that Blade Runner’s protracted pace works against it.

Ford, however, gives one of his best performances ever and makes Deckard’s return worth the wait. Like his revival of Han Solo, Ford shows that a great character never truly leaves the star who first brought him to life. When K finally meets Deckard, Blade Runner provides a great showdown in a ghost town of holographic celebrities like Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley and some of the funkiest Johnny Walker bottles the world will ever see.

Once K reaches this point in his quest, however, he finds himself in terrain for which his circuits aren’t properly configured. The search shakes K’s perception of himself as a perfectly wired specimen and makes him consider what it means to be human. Objects from his past uncover clues buried beneath cryptic codes and remnants of fried archives. As the pieces fall into place, one can’t help but grin ear-to-ear as Blade Runner 2049 evolves into something like cyber-geek tragedy and the heart of the mystery becomes a “1+1=1” riddle in the vein of Villeneuve’s Incendies.

Is there an answer to 2049? Not an easy one and Villeneuve’s film challenges audiences to find glimmers of humanity in Hollywood’s bleak dystopia.