BLADE RUNNER 2049 Review – ****

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Orange and teal. Human and replicant. Real and unreal.

Coming out of Blade Runner 2049 a second time, I felt assured in saying what I had initially hesitated to claim: that this is a great film, a true epic, a sequel which can hold its own against a formidable forebear, and which stands on its own as a most impressive piece of entertainment, and one of the year’s best films.

As promised, I will echo my response to Mad Max: Fury Road and interweave my present thoughts on the film with my initial impressions. But I think there was a greater leap in my estimation of the film in question with Fury Road than with 2049; there, I hadn’t fully grasped that I was indeed dealing with a masterpiece, while here, I suspected – I wanted badly to believe – that I was, and the second viewing confirmed that.

As before, I will do my best to avoid spoilers, but if you wish to go into the film knowing as little as possible, and I strongly recommend you do, now is the time to leave.

Going in, I knew I’d need to see this twice. It was the same way with the original—there, I needed a second viewing to overcome the weight of its reputation, and here I need a second viewing to overcome the weight of the original.

To 2049’s credit, you can watch it without having watched the original; it gives you what you need to keep up, and is not so heavily indebted to the original as to feel like it simply cannibalizes the greatness of another film. It is, on the whole, its own beast.

And having seen it twice, I must admit it really does benefit from the second viewing. Not everyone is as bad at grappling with their own expectations and preconceptions as I am, but a second viewing really allowed me to appreciate just how elegantly crafted this film is from top to bottom, especially in terms of the writing and the acting, which are both first-rate.

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It is a very long film—45 minutes longer than its predecessor—and yet I never felt impatient with it; I rarely outguessed the turns of the narrative and was enthralled all the way through. Tightening might’ve helped, but not to any great degree. It feels like an epic, and in the best way; scenes are allowed to be, to play out at length, to exist for their own sake rather than simply to advance the plot. It asks your patience, but for my money, does not abuse it.

I’m going to qualify this point by saying that almost nothing in the film doesn’t advance the plot or develop the universe of the film to some degree. It is deliberately paced, but everything in it is there for a reason. And on second viewing, I was even less not-impatient with it; knowing how scenes would play out allowed to appreciate them for how beautifully Villeneuve staged them. One scene in particular (it involves an old furnace, for those who’ve seen it) did seem to me to drag its feet just a tad the first time around, because it was leading to an obvious outcome. But on the second viewing, I appreciated the overwhelming sense of dread that scene imparts, precisely because we and the characters involved know what’s going to happen. The anticipation, not the revelation, is what you savor.

Individual scenes are truly masterful. There is a sex scene, or rather the prelude to one, which is as tender and poignant as it is profoundly unsettling, blurring the lines of reality, taking the simple concept of human connection and reflecting it in a fun-house mirror. There’s the lengthy casino sequence, which is so offbeat, so full of dry humor—as a whole, it’s a surprisingly funny movie—such an idiosyncratic combination of technical virtuosity and restrained quirk, as to be utterly delightful. There’s a killing which brilliantly uses a momentary shift in perspective, possibly to enhance the themes of alienation and disconnection…or possibly, simply, to be stylish. It works either way.

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Believe it or not, this was a practical effect; the bridge set was built, the soundstage was filled with mist, and the hologram was projected onto that mist.

I may have overstated the film’s use of humor; I think I was more relieved that it wasn’t oppressively dour. But it really isn’t; it may depict a bleak world, it may be full of violence, death, doubt, and alienation, but it’s no grim slog. The sexual prelude remains a really fascinating scene, and an unalloyed triumph for the visual-effects team (and the actresses involved), and the casino sequence, while maybe not as quirky as I initially suspected, is a fine set-piece and features some of the film’s most astonishing visuals. And that killing is just the crux of an excellent little scene which I would have gladly watched play out at greater length, simply because it features some of the best acting in the film (and, even on second viewing, one of its sickest jokes).

And there’s the final scene, a quiet, incredibly beautiful moment which may depict death, or perhaps a transformative moment of life. It doesn’t really matter which. It’s a magnificent bit of cinema either way, in the way it blends the music, the snow, and the emotions of the moment.

There’s another beat to the ending which I didn’t mention, one of reunion, which is in its own way just as beautiful; it actually brought a tear to my eye on the second viewing, and it’s very rare that any film makes me cry even once.

Obviously, it’s a visual treat throughout, between Dennis Gassner’s production design and Roger Deakins’ cinematography. It may fall a hair short of the crystalline sex-perfection of the original—but when you’re the successor to a film with perhaps the greatest production design in all of cinema, it’s hard to grumble too much if you’re, say, a 9.5 rather than a 10. The whole aesthetic of the film might be just a little too drably monochromatic at times—but maybe that’s as it should be, since the world of 2049 is a grimmer, lonelier one than that of the original. It feels almost like the epilogue to life on Earth.

That last line was clearly a case of me not wanting to kill my darlings; yes, 2049 depicts a less populated and perceptibly grimmer world than its predecessor, but “the epilogue to life on Earth”? Sorry, self, but this isn’t exactly Threads.

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Anyhow, the rest of the paragraph still holds true. It is extremely well shot, as you would expect from Deakins; although my own favorite images are found in the film’s Las Vegas sequences, with all those overpowering yellows and burnt oranges, there’s plenty to fill the eye throughout. I will say it’s not the absolute finest work I’ve seen from Deakins (it’s really hard to top what he did with Skyfall), and it’s not the slam-dunk best cinematography of the year (Dunkirk looks really, really fucking good), but I’m carping. Suffice to say, it’s a handsome film.

And Gassner’s production design really is superb, even if it is a shade less rich than what came before. The dingy police offices and apartments, the great dusty casino, the eerie vast archives of the Wallace Corporation (the successor to the Tyrell Corporation)…there’s a lot to fill the eye here. A little too drably monochromatic? Maybe. Maybe not. Given the overall tone of the film, it’s fitting.

If, after praising so much of the film, I do not anoint it the best film of the year, it may be because the whole is slightly less than the sum of its incredible parts. It is very much a Denis Villeneuve film, being as fiercely controlled and analytical as you would expect. And at least on the first viewing, that may work against it. But that’s the difference between being very fucking good and great, not the difference between being worthwhile and not.

Well, I still don’t have it has the best film of the year, but as of this writing, it’s a very comfortable #2 behind Dunkirk, and I’d be genuinely shocked if it didn’t make my year-end top 10. I’m not totally sure where I was coming from with “less than the sum of its…parts” comment, and I can’t say I found it too controlled or “analytical”; indeed, I’m a little baffled by such criticisms as “this epic mega-sequel never shows any signs of life (natural or engineered)“, which simply do not reflect the film I saw the second time around. Restrained, yes. Unsettling, absolutely. But lifeless? No.

And I can safely say it’s great.

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Could they have built this set to look less eerie? Maybe, but I’m glad they didn’t.

Certainly there is no individual element of the film I can take more than the mildest issue with; there’s one scene towards the end which is a moderate piece of sequel-baiting, and there are a lot of narrative threads introduced in the third act which are left dangling at the end. Even allowing for the fact that a(nother) sequel was presumably intended from the get-go, this is one part of the film where less may have been more. But maybe not.

Going back to it, I didn’t mind that one scene at all. And yes, there’s a fair amount which isn’t resolved by the final curtain, but second time around, I realized how self-contained 2049 really is. It probably won’t get a sequel at this point, given its financial under-performance, but that’s fine. The story it tells is effectively resolved with the film’s conclusion, and while there’s a lot of ambiguity and uncertainty in those final moments, such is also the case with the original film…especially in the Final Cut, which unceremoniously cuts to black as Deckard and Rachael make their getaway. That the ending of 2049 also includes notes of serenity and even a certain optimism make all the more satisfactory.

As for the acting, I think I will have more to say about it the next time around. I can take no great issue with any of it, and much of it I can praise; for now, I’ll give special mention to Robin Wright as Lt. Joshi, who takes a stock role and gives it a soul—as much of a soul as anyone in the film has, though you could argue that point and receive little argument either from myself or, I would imagine, from the filmmakers. I’ll add that I would have liked to have seen more of certain other characters, especially Luv, but I will reserve further comment for the time being.

It’s hard to dig too much into the acting without giving away aspects of the story, but I’ll start by saying 2049 has a frankly first-rate ensemble. Ryan Gosling has taken some heat for his tendency to fall back on his brooding deadpan, but here, it perfectly suits the repressed, controlled nature of his character. And as events develop, as his personal reality is turned upside down, the flashes of emotion that seep through are very well-judged. Harrison Ford’s turn as Deckard here isn’t terribly close to his benumbed performance in the original, but in the context of the film, it works; it’s one of his strongest latter-day performances, allowing for considerable pathos and gruff humor, and the film’s final shot is one of the best pieces of acting he’s done in years.

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I was going to have to use this somewhere.

Wright is indeed very strong as Joshi, combining a certain tenderness in her regard for Gosling with a steadfast, faintly tragic determination to, as one character puts it, “hold back the tide with a broom.” As Gosling’s holographic lover, Ana de Armas plays a figure of pure fantasy, an embodiment of everything one wants to see and hear, and brings a kind of dimension to a character whose very dimensions are an illusion. And as Luv, Sylvia Hoeks may not impress me as much as she has others, but she has some great moments, especially her confrontation with Wright – one of my favorite scenes in the film.

I had concerns about the casting of Jared Leto, given his erratic track record and rumored off-camera behavior, but here, as an industrialist with messianic delusions, he makes quite an impression in just two scenes, ranting about being able “to storm Eden and take it back.” As not just a creep, but a creep on a literally interplanetary scale, he is quite convincing.

The fine performances continue on down the chain: Carla Juri (who impressed me so in Wetlands), Dave Bautista, Hiam Abbass, Mackenzie Davis, Lennie James, Barkhad Abdi (his character is awesome, and if they ever make another one of these, they’d better bring him back), Tómas Lemarquis, and David Dastmalchian all do very well in roles of varying length and importance. Hell, even Sallie Harmsen, who has one scene, no name, and no dialogue, makes an impression. And yes, Edward James Olmos makes a return appearance as the cryptic Gaff, and it’s good to see him.

As of now, I’m right on the fence between allowing this into the **** club and keeping it just on the side of ***½. (I am far too concerned with quantifying my feelings on films, I realize.) And if I hesitate at all to admit it into the company of true greatness, it’s because, stepping away from the film, I question whether or not it was necessary to make it—or more, whether the finished film is itself essential, or a combination of brilliant constituents that falls just the tiniest bit short of being itself brilliant.

It’s a **** film without question. The question of whether or not it was essential to make is a bit silly, in retrospect; no, the world would not have been markedly different had it not been made, and it simply can’t be the game-changer the original film was, but what of that? It’s an excellent film in its own right, and it can hold its own against what came before.

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I’d like to take a moment to talk about the writing and editing, both of which I overlooked in my initial post. The writing is really first-rate, and might be the one area of the film which improves upon the original. As I noted above, it’s an extremely well-constructed film, in retrospect wasting none of its considerable running time in building its world and advancing its story. The dialogue is suitably stylized, but virtually never stilted. In what’s been a weak year for adapted screenplays so far, it rises quite easily to the top, and major kudos to original writer Hampton Fancher and his collaborator Michael Green for pulling it off so well.

I’d also like to acknowledge Joe Walker’s excellent editing, which moves the plot along smoothly and keeps the film from ever becoming boring, even at 163 minutes, and the film’s soundtrack, which combines the score by Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer (an excellent, eerie score which draws upon Vangelis’ original themes and reflects the darker, grimmer atmosphere of 2049) and some superb sound design, which creates an indelible aura of dread and confusion.

I must confess, however, that such is hardly the worst dilemma to have.

Not anymore.

Score: 88/100

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