Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

2017 #132
Denis Villeneuve | 163 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | USA, UK & Canada / English | 15 / R

Blade Runner 2049

Last weekend, a film about an android negotiating an existential crisis when he learns he may actually be human, told over almost three hours with a slow pace in an arthouse style, topped the US box office. Put like that, Blade Runner 2049’s debut sounds like a stonking financial success. Alternatively, it’s a widely-advertised critically-acclaimed $150-million-plus effects-heavy sci-fi spectacle with a pair of movie-star leads, in which context its $33 million opening weekend only looks remarkable for how poor it is. For those of us who did bother to see it (and us Brits turned out — it did good numbers on this side of the pond), such concerns are almost immaterial. In creating a belated sequel to an innovative, influential, and beloved classic movie, 2049 has (to borrow a phrase from another unexpected big-screen sci-fi sequel) done the impossible — because it’s really bloody good — and that makes it mighty.

Set 30 years after the original movie, 2049 introduces us to new characters and a new mystery: when blade runner K (Ryan Gosling) makes a shocking discovery at the home of a Replicant he’s just retired, it starts him on a mission to find something previously thought impossible that could have world-changing implications; something with connections to the events of 30 years earlier. While unfurling this mystery/thriller plot, 2049 is also about K’s personal development/crisis as a character. Although they kept it out of the marketing, it’s only a mild spoiler to say he’s a Replicant (as if the single-letter name didn’t hint at that already, it’s also mentioned casually within the first couple of scenes), and the case he works causes him to question his place in the world.

Buried secrets

This is a movie with a lot to think about. It doesn’t do the thinking for you either, instead leaving space for the viewer to interpret not only what themes they should be thinking about but also what they should be thinking about those themes. This seems to have been a little too much for some viewers — I’ve seen anecdotal reports of people falling asleep or walking out. That’s not necessarily just because they were asked to do some work, of course: it could also be the pace and length. It’s definitely a long film — a shade under 2 hours 45, though obviously there’s a fair chunk of credits — and, watching it with a grotty cold, as I was, it certainly felt long. But I would also put that entirely down to the cold. It’s not a mile-a-minute thrill ride of a movie, but I think it’s the length it needs to be. It leaves room for ideas to sink in.

Not only that, it allows you time to luxuriate in the visuals. This is possibly one of the finest-looking films ever shot. Cinematographer Roger Deakins is long overdue an Oscar, we all know this, but if he doesn’t finally earn it for 2049 then there is no justice. If you’ve seen the trailer then you know the kind of thing to expect. When people say “you could hang any frame of this movie on your wall” it’s usually a ludicrous overreaction, but here it’s as true as it ever could be. (Also, having complained in several reviews recently that I think my cinema of choice is showing films too dark (a not unheard of problem — they run the bulbs too dim to save costs), 2049 looked absolutely fantastic. Maybe it’s just that other filmmakers aren’t as good as Deakins.)

Hot robot-on-robot action

It’s not just the film’s technical merits that recommend it either, as there’s an array of superb performances here. Gosling has a difficult job as K: he starts out almost as a blank, an emotionally reserved Replicant but also a character that we need to identify with, and later struggling with his innate programming as he’s presented with challenging ideas. It might be easy to do this in a very outward manner, all handwringing and moistened eyes and so forth, but Gosling keeps it low-key — in keeping with the overall style of the film, of course. I guess some will find him cold, but I still thought he was a relatable, likeable character.

Elsewhere, Harrison Ford is definitely a supporting character, despite his prominent billing. That’s okay, though. He gets some great, meaty material — surely the best stuff he’s had to work with in a long time, and he delivers on it too. Deckard isn’t as obvious a personality as Han Solo or Indiana Jones, but it doesn’t really matter how much Ford does or doesn’t feel like his role of 35 years ago: Deckard has a place and a function and a story in this new narrative, and that he sells. As a fan, it’s impossible not to think of the long-standing debate from the first movie: is Deckard a Replicant? 2049 manages to smartly dodge this question that you’d’ve thought it has to answer. If you’re watching out for how it handles it, it’s an impressive bit of work. And the debate does still rage: as shown in a recent joint interview, Ridley Scott still thinks Deckard definitely has to be, but Denis Villeneuve disagrees. You can make up your own mind (if you think it even matters).

Blade Runner 79, more like

Among the rest of the supporting cast, the stand out for me was Ana de Armas as Joi, K’s hologram girlfriend. You may’ve seen some reviews that say 2049 has a “a woman problem”, and maybe it does, but I still thought Joi was an interesting, nuanced character. Her role is very much in how she affects K, that’s true, but that the film tackles a love story between a robot and an AI is fascinating in and of itself. Maybe theme trumps character. Maybe they contribute to each other.

Really, it’s no surprise that 2049 has struggled at the box office. Despite trailers that emphasised the action, reviews were keen to point out it isn’t an action movie. Although they’ve mostly been glowing, maybe people looked beyond the star ratings to the content, which highlighted the truth: it’s a slow, considered movie; one that makes you think, rather than simply entertains. It’s not for everyone. All of that said, it’s kind of surprised me how few people it’s for: I’ve not even seen reviews pop up from many of the blogs I follow that routinely review new releases. (If you’ve posted one and think I’ve missed it, feel free to mention it in the comments.) One I did see is by long-time Blade Runner fan the ghost of 82, which is more spoilersome than this piece and so digs deeper into some of the film’s questions.

Shoot to retire

Now that it’s ensconced as a classic, it’s perhaps easy to forget that the original Blade Runner wasn’t massively popular with critics and didn’t do well at the box office back in 1982. It started out with a cult fanbase, which grew into the more widespread esteem it enjoys today. 2049 isn’t doomed to the same fate, but perhaps it’s destined for a similar one. Mainstream audiences might be ignoring it right now, but this is a movie that many people are going to be thinking about, talking about, rewatching, thinking and talking about some more, and being influenced by, for years — decades — to come.

5 out of 5

Blade Runner 2049 is in cinemas now. Go see it.

My review of the film’s 3D version can now be read here.

It placed 1st on my list of The 17 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2017, which can be read in full here.

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8 thoughts on “Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

  1. Good write, agree completely. Someone I know said that if you liked the first you would probably like this one, and that sounds as good to me as any gauge, also the fact they probably took the narrative in the only direction they could without straight retelling the original. A note about Ryan Gosling – completely sold on him, loved the steady cracking of his emotions at certain points in the movie, beautifully acted. Perhaps I’m being unfair in suggesting Harrison Ford played an older Harrison Ford, much like in the Star Wars reboot, but he’s still Harrison Ford and that’s completely fine with me.

    Sadly the same can’t be said for the behaviour in the cinema we saw it in – we happened to go into the screening for total tools, clearly people who have no patience to sit through a long, thoughtful movie and soon enough the talking, laughing, phone usage started. A shame.

    Liked by 2 people

    • It is kind of hard to see past Harrison Ford when watching Harrison Ford, I agree. In a way that’s even more true here than with Han Solo or Indy, because he can’t just turn on the easy charm — it’s a more exposed acting performance.

      I don’t know how we’ve got to a point where that kind of behaviour is considered acceptable. I’ve never had it that bad, fortunately, but I have seen people casually checking Facebook during a “boring bit”, or looking up an actor’s CV mid-film — it’s so pervasive now that some ‘normal’ folk clearly feel okay doing that, never mind all the proper morons.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great considered review, and pretty much spoiler-free, something I gave up on as it’s hard describing the qualities of this film without spoilers, so yeah, well done.

    Saw it a second time yesterday and it actually seemed better than before- and the pace seemed less of a problem too, which does bode well for repeat viewing. It’s a lovely film though and it’s difficult to believe it really exists. The box office returns really annoyed me over the weekend (how can anyone not love this film?) but I’m starting to calm down and wax philosophical. I did read a funny form post along the lines of “fuck it, it’s Blade Runner, no-ones supposed to watch it until at home in ten or twenty years, surely the studios know that”.

    So anyway I’m calming down and just enjoying this films existence. May even take in a third showing before it gets pulled from cinemas. Yesterday there was only ten other people in there and one of them walked out after the Vegas sequence. Don’t know whether to laugh or cry. We’re living in PKD’s world now, for sure.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks. I suppose this ended up being quite a technical review rather than properly discussing the questions, themes, etc, which is probably the only way to cover it without spoilers.

      I can’t believe the studio really expected it to do big numbers, especially after they actually saw it. That said, the trailer was always cut to look like it had a decent portion of action, and they’ve been putting Ford and Gosling about to promote it, so maybe they were after a big opening weekend at least. But I wouldn’t be surprised if they saw it as a prestige project to bring cultural cache rather than big bucks. It was mainly funded by Sony, I believe, who’ve made next to no money distributing the last few Bond films on exactly that thinking.

      Like

  3. Good review! The visuals are remarkable from start to finish. I would have been quite happy to see another 3 hours of such varied and spectacular environments, and it was easy when the movie sucked me into its story like this one did. It’s definitely a worthy sequel to a classic film.

    Liked by 1 person

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