Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Review: "Blade Runner 2049" is a Good Thinking Man's Sci-Fi Epic

Scene from Blade Runner 2049
The impact of 1982's Blade Runner is hard to ignore on modern sci-fi. Despite being a box office disappointment at the time, the film set a precedent for how cinema created neo-noir and explored the idea of artificial intelligence. In an era dominated by reboot culture, it only makes sense that they would try to remake the film. Even with current high concept auteur Denis Villeneuve it seems like a thankless job, and one that has an incredible legacy to live up to Blade Runner 2049 is a film that succeeds not by rehashing what we know, but expanding upon the ideology of this universe, set 30 years after the Ridley Scott film. The film may lack an immediacy that the original has, but its status as an intellectual sci-fi epic is an incredible feat unto itself. Even if the film isn't the greatest sci-fi film of the year, it's still evidence of what cinema could achieve if it's bold enough to go there.

The film opens with blade runner K (Ryan Gosling) taking down an aging replicant (Dave Bautista), who is bitter and unwilling to die. It's a brief scene in a three hour movie, and it sets up the logic clearly. This isn't a film about story so much as it is about the ideas presented in 1982. What is life? Can artificial life produce superior life? Villeneuve in many ways updates Scott's philosophy better than the master has with his other major sci-fi franchise (this summer's Alien: Covenant). The idea isn't to present the topics in lecture form, instead allowing scenes to portray the nuance in haunted details as the Earth has crumbled and Los Angeles, CA of 2049 is a wasteland, home to only replicants trying to find a purpose when there isn't any. In some ways, this is the next evolution to films like A.I. or Ex Machina. This is even post-human, as few on screen characters are human. Yet Villeneuve's best achievement is making it feel real.

This isn't a franchise based on action sequences. While there's moments with chases, yelling, or shootouts; the film centers around the quiet in-between, where K is forced to grapple with his odd existence. What is his life if he kills fellow replicants for the L.A.P.D.? There's a lot to unpack in simple things, such as a repeated interrogation scene that involves lines from Vladimir Nabokov's "Pale Fire." Villeneuve's craft allows everything to be cold and calculated without being boring. Instead, it's an exploration of geography that will disappoint those expecting more of the same. This is not 1982's (or in the film, 2019) Blade Runner. There's no Daryl Hannah or Rutger Hauer. Instead, there is a lot of emptiness and silence that goes beyond the famous "Tears in the rain" scene. The sound design, along with Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch's excellent score, is just as suffocating as it paints a worn down world that's not nearly as vibrant as it once was, even with cool updates such as dancing holograms that parlay through the street with abandon.

The film's only major issue is that it is a Blade Runner movie. Despite the original being a masterpiece, it is also a sci-fi film more in the sense of Metropolis than Star Wars. It's about concepts more than action beats. The characters may have a colorful playground, but the brilliance comes in how the visuals convey a loneliness and decay in these characters' lives. It's meditative and the extended running time allows for each exterior shot to soak in, capturing an awe familiar to Roger Deakins fans. With that said, audiences expecting a casual journey into the future will be disappointed when the film is driven by dozens of provocative images meant to create 10 minutes of further discussion. Villeneuve got lucky with Arrival, as it managed to be both cryptic and telling. Here, his trust in the audience is so immense that this is destined for art house praise, taking on a reputation similar to the original. The shame will be is that Villeneuve's craft is clearly seen in every detail on screen. Every moment is worth seeing on the big screen with the sound design blaring into your ears. Even then, the commitment for three hours of meditative and deranged sci-fi art may be too much for some.

Gosling leads the cast with a solid performance. Here he is the ineffectual detective who sees a world evolving past his capabilities. He seeks to understand life in grand metaphors that are cryptic, buried into pop culture references and images that provoke more than inform. His cold and calculated performance helps the film overall here, especially as he stares in observation at a variety of things. He is a known replicant, but the emotions forming within his created DNA are intriguing. The film may rehash certain elements to make K more interesting, but the film does a good job of making him feel right for this world. It is disappearing before his eyes, and it's a tragic detail captured in the people he is seen with. Any sequel to this film is possibly going to be a depressing and moody mumblecore film with a $200 million budget, and that will probably go over even less well. Still, Gosling's charismatic quietness does the trick here, and that's enough to sell the film.

Blade Runner 2049 is a film meant to first and foremost be experienced. It pushes the boundaries once again of sci-fi with philosophical subtext that is in line with most great Philip K. Dick adaptations. What is the value of life? Over the course of three hours, Villeneuve explains his idea of what that is. But don't expect it to make sense. Much like the original, ambiguity is a tool used throughout the film to provoke personal interpretations. Odds are that this film won't make sense until the literal, real life 2049. Who knows what the world will look like then. For now, Villeneuve has created a world that is great to visit, even if it's among his less accessible movies from recent years. It's an especially bold statement, given that it's his most expensive and high profile gig yet, too.

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