Film Review: Blade Runner 2049 (Warner Bros. / Sony)

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It’s been two weeks since Blade Runner 2049 debuted to rave reviews (for those that care it currently stands at 88% on Rotten Tomatoes and has an ’81’ on Metacritic), but not quite so great box office. I hate having to mention the fucking box office, quite frankly. The only reason I do is to point out what an absolute travesty it is that this film didn’t perform at the level it was expected to.

When the first one was released in 1982, folks flocked to the theater on day one with high hopes of seeing Harrison Ford in his newest swashbuckling role (after Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark, Ford was a huge star). By day two, word of mouth had begun and the returns went down from there. The first day for the sequel, released 35 years later, was also huge. But then, just like the original, things began going downhill by Saturday and trade papers were already saying it was “crashing.”  And that was pretty much it…the film, though it was declared brilliant and though it was headlined by Ryan Gosling and Ford, was considered “over” by the industry.

Which is a damn shame, if you ask me. If there’s one film to be seen on the big screen, the biggest and baddest screen actually, it’s this one. I’ve seen it twice now in IMAX (the second time there was a projection issue, so I’m going to go back to see it again in IMAX at another theater, as well as make a trip to another theater to see it in Dolby Atmos, which should pretty much end my viewings while it’s in a theater – 4 seems like a good number).

The first IMAX experience was a knockout. The film was specially formatted for IMAX and watching it, you definitely feel immersed in this world. The sound and sound design however, was where things really went soaring. I noticed it even more the second time in IMAX – the best example was the scene where Blade Runner detective K (Gosling) and Joi (Ana de Armas), K’s virtual girlfriend, are in the rain. To the back right you hear the pinging of rain drops hitting metal…if there’s one thing I’ll remember forever, it’s that moment. I’ll probably think about it every time it rains, quite frankly. Another great sound design part is that first, overwhelming “baseline test” that K goes through. I felt disoriented by the force of the music and the harshness of the moment. It’s spectacular.

So…before I get too deep into this, let’s just give the big ole SPOILER ALERT warning for folks who haven’t seen it, yet. Because I don’t want to ruin anyone’s experience. This review is more for folks who have seen it at this point.

I don’t think a sequel has ever given me as much trepidation as this one has in the lead up to its release. I admire everyone who works on the film and had a great feeling as soon as I started seeing images getting released, then the first teaser, then the trailers leading up to it. These all made me feel as if director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, Prisoners, Arrival) had gotten the look of the film correct. But I was still expressing fear in texts to a very close friend for whom Blade Runner was as big of an influence on as it was on me. Turns out, my fears were misplaced.

From the opening music (my God, Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch sure had a lot to live up to with Vangelis‘ score for the first) to those “God” shots of the surface, you are in this other world instantly. I was worried when it was revealed recently that longtime composing collaborator of Villeneuve’s, Johann Johannsson was let go from the project in July. Vangelis‘ original score is my favorite score of all time and the full release of it stands as one of my favorite albums as well. And, while the score isn’t quite as listenable outside of the film as its predecessor, it is damn good. Understated and a bit avant garde, surprisingly. The use of what sounds like a motorcyle revving on “Flight to LAPD” is quite sublime in particular. There are plenty of little nods to Vangelis‘ original score as well.

The mood is pitch perfect from frame one and it doesn’t ever falter. Credit for a lot of this goes to the great cinematographer Roger Deakins (1984, The Man Who Wasn’t There, Skyfall). Deakins has shot many, many great films before, but this is the one that everyone is hoping will nab him his first Oscar. If he doesn’t get nominated and win, there is no justice.

Writers Michael Green (Logan, the upcoming Murder on the Orient Express) and Hampton Fancher (Blade Runner) have crafted a script that manages to say a lot with just a little. There’s space, there’s breathing room and when things need to punctuated they are done so carefully, unlike the thudding narration that marred the first film upon its initial release. The script never once falters – even the “messiah” child part that I had a slight issue with on the first viewing, felt in place on the second viewing. If even one more scene with the group that saves K had been added, it would throw the film off balance. But as it stands, the story and dialogue are all finely tuned.

The acting is all top notch, too. Gosling isn’t showy (except in that one moment and it’s truly something to behold), his performance doesn’t have any odd tics – he’s able to give us the steadiness of a replicant that was made to serve and obey (in this case, his superior played by Robin Wright – adding another steely role after Wonder Woman – it’s nice to see an actress get the chance to blossom post-40, an age where few get such opportunities) but his eyes are sad and haunted, which adds another dimension to K.  Jared Leto is creepy as Niander Wallace, the industrialist who took over Tyrell Corporation. Wallace is in search of replicants’ procreation in order to take his ambitions beyond the known worlds. Ford’s arrival comes at the perfect time – the film’s opening coldness doesn’t ever feel prolonged, but when Ford arrives it feels due. He injects a warmth and vitality into his role of Deckard, who has been living in an abandoned Las Vegas hotel for years with a dog that may or may not be artificial (“ask him” Ford replies when Gosling asks if the dog is real). The real revelation turns out to be Sylvia Hoeks as Luv, Wallace’s right-hand. Dutch Hoeks is every bit as terrifying as Rutger Hauer‘s Roy Batty in the original, but with a cruelty that goes beyond that of the deceased Nexus 6.

But, and I don’t believe that it’s overstating things, this film works because of Villeneuve’s vision. I haven’t seen a cleaner, clearer film in some time. There’s nothing about Blade Runner 2049 that isn’t short of a master work. Everything that he has done leading up to now has made him laser focused on this film, his biggest in scale yet. And he’s only moving to bigger things. After a much needed rest (five films in six years), he’ll tackle an adaption of Frank Herbert‘s Dune (of which there is already David Lynch version from 1984, as well as a mini-series from 2000), which, considering how perfect Blade Runner 2049 turned out, is something to be very excited for (but don’t expect it anytime soon). Villeneuve has entered auteur territory here.

Whether or not this film makes the money that was spent putting it together is officially pointless. Every dollar is there up on the screen. Blade Runner 2049 will live forever and be revisited again and again. The first film was written off by the public, too and look how it grew in stature over the years. In time, it’s not doubtful that Villeneuve’s grand, sweeping epic will be given new life by generations searching for clues as to where we could be headed. Time will only tell.

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