'Blade Runner 2049' takes the art of the replicant to soaring new heights
Blade Runner is so perfectly complete unto itself that it's easy to forget that Ridley Scott's 1982 masterpiece ends on a cliffhanger. It's taken 35 years, but Scott's finally dropped the other shoe, to powerful effect. Blade Runner 2049 will go down as one of the great sequels, but not because it satisfyingly resolves the question of what happened to Rick Deckard — although it does. What makes Denis Villeneuve's new film so resonant is that the filmmakers embrace the poignant irony of updating a film that's fundamentally about the tragedy of the obsolete model.
After a Monday press screening, a studio rep stood up and politely asked the gathered reviewers to refrain from giving away any of a list of critical plot points. She then proceeded to run down a do-not-reveal list of almost every key plot development, literally from the first scene onward. Far be it from me to deprive filmgoers of the right to make these discoveries for themselves, so you'll find no spoilers here. That said, maybe the highest compliment I can pay to Blade Runner 2049 is that the soul of the film is spoiler-proof. Like the original, the new movie lives in the melancholy moment.
You can hear that in the score, composed by Benjamin Wallfisch (It) and Hans Zimmer, who demonstrated with Interstellar that he can bring soaring lyricism to heavy-gauge SF — even when the movie itself is a clunker, which fortunately isn't the case here. Having already said my fond farewell to Vangelis's iconic synth score for the original film, I was delighted to discover that its spirit remains very much intact. Moody synths are again the dominant texture, though needless to say they're now accentuated with Zimmer's trademark blaaaams.
The crack script is by Hampton Fancher — the 79-year-old guru who wrote the original film — and Michael Green (Alien: Covenant, Logan, American Gods). The gloriously weird noir vision that Fancher and Scott wrought from Philip K. Dick's original novella (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which continues to be a rich font of ideas for the new film) remains intact, and Villeneuve is even more patient than Scott when it comes to lyrical reveries.
Blade Runner 2049 takes its time, soaking in its neo-noir atmosphere like Decard soaks in his bottles of Johnnie Walker. Villeneuve is best-known for Arrival, but that movie was all setup and no payoff. Here, the setup is already taken care of, so the entire movie feels like one big payoff — but with a disciplined lack of self-congratulation. Not a shot is wasted, and cinematographer Roger Deakins knows this is not the time for subtlety: as in the original, colors come blazing forth from the murk, just as real emotions present themselves to the hard-boiled characters' surprise.
The film's not as stirring as The Force Awakens or as bracing as Twin Peaks: The Return, but it works for many of the same reasons that both of those do. It's unique in the growing number of weary-return Harrison Ford movies, because Deckard — a contemporary of Solo and Jones — was Ford's most vulnerable fantasy hero. He was already a fallen man in 1982, and he certainly hasn't perked up since then. (Fancher and Green also give Ford his most perfect onscreen quip of the 21st century.)
There is action, yes, much of it involving newer and friskier models of the flying cars that so ominously descended on the perpetually rain-soaked Los Angeles of the original film. There are also a lot of fist fights — maybe too many, but Villeneuve at least knows how to stage them with variety and visual impact. He also knows when not to fix something that ain't broke, which is why Harrison Ford's punches still sound like the foley crew were, as Roger Ebert liked to put it, "beating the hell out of a Naugahyde sofa with ping-pong paddles."
As we know from the original film, Blade Runner replicants aren't like the androids in Star Trek (full of electronic circuits) or in Alien (spurting white lubricant). They live and die very much like human beings, which means that Blade Runner 2049 doesn't have any of those Ex Machina scenes where humanoid robots strip down by removing their own skin. Villeneuve nonetheless makes gorgeously effective use of cutting-edge visual effects technology to evoke other forms of replication, the fluency coming not in the doppelgängers' perfection, but in their imperfection.
One reason George Lucas's Star Wars prequels feel so off-key is that turn-of-the-century CGI wasn't up to rendering the "used universe" feeling that revolutionized fantasy filmmaking in 1977. Now, the effects are there, but Villeneuve demonstrates a Peter-Jackson-esque skill at knowing when to use them and when to pull back. Ryan Gosling's dingy kitchen circa 2049 feels as real as Harrison Ford's circa 2019, because it is.
Blade Runner 2049 is that rarest of large-scale films: a truly epic experience, and one that obviously demands to be seen on the big screen. As a feast for the senses and a thrill for the imagination, it's up there with Lawrence of Arabia, with Titanic, and, yes, with Blade Runner itself.