Sunday, October 15, 2017

"Blade Runner 2049": review


Québecois director Denis Villeneuve has earned my trust. I've seen and reviewed his films "Sicario" and "Arrival," and while I didn't find either of those films to be perfect, I found Villeneuve himself to be a competent director who is rapidly earning a name for himself as the Sam Mendes of science fiction. That's good news for those who like brooding, thoughtful, slowly paced productions; it's not so good news for people expecting the sequel to 1982's "Blade Runner" to receive the JJ Abrams treatment. (I'm already on record as saying that Sam Mendes has been the kiss of death for the James Bond franchise, but that's because I don't think Bond movies should be sleepy, moody soap operas.) Villeneuve is a good match for what the story of "Blade Runner 2049" is: an exploration of what it means to be human.

It's no spoiler to note at the outset that star Ryan Gosling plays K, a blade runner working for the LAPD who is also a new, more pliant generation of replicant (relax: K's replicant status is established within the first few minutes). K's job is to "retire" (i.e., kill) older-generation replicants—"androids" that can pass for human. K stumbles upon a truth that, if allowed to reach the public, might lead to a replicant revolution, and he pursues the mystery behind this truth. This is what drives the film.

The plot takes the form of a literal journey for K, leading him through a variety of atmospheric settings ranging from the familiar urban blight of L.A.—not much changed from the first film—to a vast junkyard in San Diego, and eventually to the ruins of Las Vegas. While seemingly simple and linear, the plot has a few built-in twists, one of which is a massive head-fake that I found reminiscent of the twist at the end of "The Dark Knight Rises."

"2049" evokes other movies and TV shows as well, especially "Battlestar Galactica," which trod very similar philosophical turf (cf. Athena and Hera from that show). In both "2049" and "Battlestar," it could well be that the term "android" is a misnomer, as the replicants (or Cylons) in question are similar to humans at the molecular level, not mere constructs of metal and plastic and silicone. One of the major tropes in the new film is intelligent simulacra, running the gamut from artificial animals (you'll recall these appeared in the first film) to an artificial girlfriend, the latter of which leads us to one of the most uncomfortably weird prelude-to-sex scenes I've ever seen in a movie (shades of Spike Jonze's "Her").

Harrison Ford's Rick Deckard, when we finally meet him, is a bit of a paradox: his presence is absolutely crucial to the plot, but he comes off as largely feckless. That said, Ford plays the role with a grizzled soulfulness that adds layers to the performance he gave in the first movie. "2049" also features a cameo by Edward James Olmos as Gaff, who's still making his origami animals, and another cameo by an uncanny simulacrum of 80s-era Sean Young (Young was involved mainly as a consultant; otherwise, her on-screen presence was evoked the same way the late Peter Cushing's was in "Rogue One," i.e., via digital motion capture).

We get a solid performance from Robin Wright as Lt. Joshi; the previews make her seem like one of the bad guys, but the truth is more complicated. Dave Bautista—as "protein farmer" Sapper Morton, a former military medic—once again proves he's got actual acting chops and isn't just a mass of muscle who grunts for the camera. Ana de Armas, as K's holographic girlfriend Joi, is both winsome and emotionally sophisticated. Joi asks us to ponder the question of just how human an AI can become. Sylvia Hoeks is all beauty and deadly menace as Luv, the right-hand aide/assassin working for Wallace, played by Jared Leto. This was, I think, the first time I had ever watched Leto at length, and I came away thinking of him as a fine, nuanced actor. His Wallace heads up the Wallace Corporation, which bought out the Tyrell Corporation (from the first film) and took over the engineering of replicants.

The musical score for "2049" comes to us by way of Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch; the soundtrack is mainly a homage to the music of Vangelis from the 1982 movie, which means that Zimmer was kept from foisting some of his more annoying musical tendencies on the audience. (I thought Vangelis's score was quite good, except for those moments when he went over the top with the damn saxophone during the awkwardly rapey "romance" scene between Deckard and Rachael.) I was actually surprised to learn that Villeneuve's normal collaborator, nutty composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, wasn't involved with "2049." The scuttlebutt is that Jóhannsson had originally been signed on, but he was dropped in favor of Zimmer, et al., and was forbidden to comment on the matter. In any event, the score does a good job of evoking the mood of the first film, and the final scenes of the movie give us a direct tribute to Vangelis's work. While I don't think this soundtrack is as memorable as the one from thirty-five years ago (has it really been that long?), it's serviceable.

Now we come to the matter of cinematographer Roger Deakins. If you've read the online chatter and watched some videos associated with "2049," you'll have seen or heard Deakins's name come up in discussion. The man is considered a god in Hollywood, and I'd have to agree that his evocative visuals are more than half of what makes the movie. "2049" definitely deserves to be seen on a big screen, so do catch it in theaters if you can. Deakins has, unsurprisingly, worked with the above-mentioned Sam Mendes; he has also collaborated with the Coen Brothers on their films. He brings a rich color palette to "2049" that instantly calls forth the appropriate mood.

Overall, I recommend "Blade Runner 2049" if you're into movies that thoughtfully chew over big issues like the meaning of being human, even if "Battlestar Galactica" got there first and explored almost exactly the same question, in almost exactly the same way, just a few years ago. Watch the movie for the strong direction and performances, for Roger Deakins's visual stylings, and for a story that seems to be headed in one direction but suddenly swerves left and heads in another. Does the film settle the question of whether Rick Deckard is himself a replicant? I suppose you'll just have to watch the film and draw your own conclusions.

1 comment:

Charles said...

We saw this last weekend as well and enjoyed it. I'm basically in agreement with you on all points.