The Highlander would like to thank ASPB for their free screening of “Blade Runner 2049.”
“Don’t touch it. Just leave it alone,” are the words that escape my mouth at the thought of a revitalization of a classic film. If films had sentience, I reckon they would echo this request for a shred of respect in this creatively bankrupt industry — “if” being the operative word, since some films, “Blade Runner” included, truly do have a pulse; granted that film’s heart is cold and mechanical, an object of mystery, but carries a life-supporting pulse nonetheless. Thankfully, Denis Villeneuve and company give the film the respect it deserves, in the form of a sequel that reinvigorates the cyberpunk franchise’s lore.
“Blade Runner 2049,” naturally, takes place in the year 2049, 30 years following the events of “Blade Runner.” Hampton Fancher and Michael Green co-wrote the screenplay, a synthesis of ideas primeval and a posteriori. The dystopia of Los Angeles circa 2019, while but a few nightmares away from the canonical LA of 2017, remains true to its grunginess in 2049. Extending in this principle is the whole of California, now reduced to industrialized spaces void of hope, of color, of humanity where they all should be. San Diego is a municipal dumping ground host to child labor and the trees that permeated the farmlands are repurposed as desaturated protein laboratories. A slumbering K (Ryan Gosling) goes through the rounds of the titular task of retiring (read: executing) aged synthetic humans dubbed replicants, only now he’s awoken when discovering that this target holds a secret that could fundamentally alter humankind’s conceptualization of life. It’s a dirty, difficult task, but it beats the high concept contrivance of saving the world.
A natural progression of the ideas set forth in 1982 takes “Blade Runner 2049” in the best direction possible. Fancher and Green’s screenplay reflects on the philosophical musings over artificial existence and postmodernist anxieties and, despite a gap in emotional resonance, succeeds as a philosophical corollary. In the interest of ambiguity, suffice it to summate that the film once again asks what it is to be human, positing that to be born is to have a soul; from there, it pivots from that conjecture to a vaster assemblage of questions, each organically evolved from its ‘80s progenitor’s uniquely bleak future. Where it falters in the emotional resonance that warmed the cold blood of “Blade Runner,” it compensates by proxy through a synthesis of visuals and substance.
Hyperbole aside, “Blade Runner 2049” is one of the most beautiful films ever to be shot. There’s not a single contrarian argument that holds its weight against Roger Deakin’s eye for cinematic greatness. Colors alternatively mute and erupt, furnishing each frame of cyberpunk streets, industrial labyrinths and deserted cities with immense beauty. Environments go beyond the mean streets of LA, with special attention to the orange residue of nuclear fallout that underscores a crossroads of generations and the stillness in the snowfall outside a replicant memory den. Deakins’ work as cinematographer has never fallen short of fantastic, but the achievements made with “Blade Runner 2049” constitute some of the greatest visuals the field has seen, eroding the boundaries between dreamscape and reality.
Prematurely, some dreams died upon the announcement that Icelandic composer Johan Johansson would not be a part of the film. In his stead are Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch. While neither of the two capture the same magical, surreal quality of “Blade Runner’”s sonic masterpiece, they approximate what Johansson’s approximation of that Vangelis score would have been. A slight over reliance is placed on the “Inception” horn sound that’s become far too great an ubiquity in modern sound design; notwithstanding this, Zimmer and Wallfisch strike a balance between tense, dread-building horns and fleeting synthetic earworms evocative of the reverie Vangelis created in 1982. A second viewing enlightens how essential the musical backdrop is for the film’s emotional scenes of hope and sorrow.
Yet in the absence of sound, sound designer Theo Green finds the elegance in stillness. The refreshing decision to cut back on sound is commendable, pairing well with the film’s restrained pacing. Still, the decision — likely per studio requests — to take sound bites to inform viewers feels disingenuous, not representative of Villeneuve’s vision. “Blade Runner 2049,” like the film that preceded it, is not an audience pleaser: It’s long, it’s slow, it’s “more boringer” than the action film some misconstrued it to be, and the confidence Villeneuve instills in this unwavering pursuit is what makes it incredible (not pandering to mainstream audience sensibilities).
Thankfully, no degree of pandering or fan service was reserved in the scenes that call back to “Blade Runner.” It’s no spoiler that characters of old return in some form — and when they do, it’s another display of naturalistic progression from both Fancher and Green as well as the actor(s) in question. As ingrained to Scott’s original film as it is, “Blade Runner 2049” excels at distinguishing itself as a separate entity entirely, an equal in almost every regard and a victor in others.
Verdict: It’s par for the course for a film so rich in its themes to have its ideas diluted by a soulless sequel, so for “Blade Runner 2049” to continue the 35-year old story with one that extrapolates upon its source material and enriches it is a marvel. It’s Roger Deakin’s best shot film since (hey!) “Sicario,” and another towering achievement for director extraordinaire Denis Villeneuve.