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 Replicating a Science Fiction Classic

Ryan Gosling
Ryan Gosling
Warner Brothers
 166 Minutes
Rated: R
Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford 
Blade Runner 2049

Many people have forgotten that Ridley Scott’s visionary science fiction classic, Blade Runner, was a flop at the box office and only garnered a modest reception from critics. Filmgoers expected to see Harrison Ford playing another Han Solo or Indiana Jones and never embraced Scott’s vision or the profound moral questions the movie raised. It was only after Blade Runner appeared on video in various versions that fans and critics finally embraced it wholeheartedly. (It helped that Scott was finally able to release his original version of the film on video and remove studio-generated edits that hurt the theatrical version of the movie.)


Now, even in an era in which sequels to well-known films are sometimes decades in coming, like Mad Max: Fury Road, the wait for a Blade Runner sequel has stretched to 35 years. It might be too much to hope that the sequel was worth the wait, but, as with Mad Max, new director Denis Villeneuve for the most part got Blade Runner 2049 right, and, in some cases spectacularly so.


The original Blade Runner revolved around Rick Deckard (Ford), a Los Angeles cop (nicknamed a “blade runner”) in the year 2019 who was tasked with the job of tracking down and “retiring”; i.e., eliminating, renegade androids, called replicants, who were at large. Deckard’s job was made tougher because improvements in the replicants’ programming had enabled them to experience a greater range of emotions and become more like humans. Some replicants, like Rachael (Sean Young), with whom Deckard fell in love, thought they were human. Never solved was the question that tantalized viewers for years, namely, whether Deckard himself was human or a replicant.


Those same questions of what it means to be human are present to an even greater degree in Blade Runner 2049. It has been 30 years since the events in the original movie, and much of the earth was ravaged by a war between humans and replicants. Deckard and Rachael vanished. The Tyrell Corporation, which created the replicants, went out of business, and its assets were bought by a new company, the Wallace Corporation. The company’s CEO, Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), found a way to reprogram replicants to make them more pliable and docile. However, older generation replicants still existed and were hunted down by blade runners, many of whom were themselves the newer generation of replicants.


One of these newer replicants is K (Ryan Gosling), who tracks down one of the older replicants, Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista), and retires him. Before he leaves the desolate farm where Sapper lived, K makes an astonishing discovery, the bones of a female replicant buried near Sapper’s home who apparently gave birth to a child nearly 30 years earlier. K begins tracking down the replicant child (who would, of course, now be an adult), a trail that eventually leads to Deckard, who is living in seclusion in what’s left of Las Vegas.


Not surprisingly, news of the possible replicant child creates quite a stir among K’s superiors. His supervisor, Joshi (Robin Wright), wants K to retire the replicant once it is found, while Niander Wallace sees replicant reproduction as the answer to his biggest problem. Demand for the new generation of replicants is high, but Wallace’s capacity to manufacture them is limited. He believes that, if he could find a way to breed replicants, the resulting supply of natural replicants would be worth a fortune for his company.


Of course, Wallace’s plan, described by Jared Leto in the cool, rational manner in which cinematic mad scientists often describe their plans, smacks heavily (and intentionally) of the worst aspects of Nazi Germany and the Antebellum slave-owning South. But it’s just one of the many ways in which Blade Runner 2049 looks at the question of what it means to be human. The line between human and replicant, already blurred in the original film, grows even fainter here, as some replicants like Sapper act quite human indeed.


Blade Runner 2049 was written by Hampton Fancher (who co-wrote the original film, his only significant writing credit) and Michael Green, who worked on Logan and Alien: Covenant. I would be highly surprised if they don’t garner an Oscar nomination here. Perhaps because of Fancher’s familiarity with the original work (he collaborated with Phillip K. Dick in the creation of the earlier film), the movie’s themes seem to flow fairly seamlessly from the original.


One advantage the makers of Blade Runner 2049 had in creating their vision of the future is the benefit of seeing how technology has evolved since the earlier film. Perhaps the most interesting “character” in Blade Runner 2049 is Joi (Ana de Armas), another creation of the Wallace Corporation. Joi is a hologram, programmed to be an aide and companion for K. At first she seems like merely a more technologically advanced version of Alexa/Siri, but she also begins exhibiting a range of emotions that push the bounds on what we consider artificial intelligence, and she develops a genuine bond with K.


While the plot of Blade Runner 2049 raises fascinating philosophical questions, the look of the movie is also stunning. Instead of Ridley Scott’s 1982 vision of a rain soaked, neon lit, noirish Los Angeles, Villeneuve’s Los Angeles and his entire Earth is a bleak, nearly barren landscape, ravaged by war, with dust and snow present in nearly every scene. The giant animated billboards of Scott’s film have been replaced by building-sized holographic images of Joi. To add to the somber mood, Hans Zimmer provides a harsh, oppressive soundtrack.


But Villeneuve’s rather bleak look at the future comes at a price, the pacing of the movie. Blade Runner 2049 is nearly three hours long, much of it repetitive landscape shots. Audiences can quickly pick up on the oppressive climate conditions (one of the film’s main themes is that everyone who could afford to leave the Earth has already done so), and the movie could easily have been shortened by half an hour with no loss in its effectiveness. Instead, the pace slows too much, especially in the middle stages of the movie, a shortcoming that’s only remedied in a powerful last 20 minutes, featuring a surprise revelation regarding the replicant child and a knockdown, vicious fight to the finish between K and a Terminator-like female killer replicant ironically named Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), who is doing Wallace’s bidding.


Blade Runner 2049 is a bit too bleak, slow, and repetitive to be the same level of masterpiece as was its predecessor. But it also accomplishes something rare in a film sequel, exploring the themes and issues from the original movie in more depth, aided by the advantage of knowing what’s occurred in the real world in the interim. And, just as the original proved surprisingly emotional by its end, Gosling and Ford give this movie a welcome dose of emotion and vulnerability. In addition, although I won’t spoil the ending, Blade Runner 2049 has an ending that provides a sense of closure the original lacked. In an era of increasingly dumb futuristic “spectaculars,” this movie creates perhaps the most intellectually compelling and fascinating future of all.

In this scene, Ryan Gosling searches for a long-missing replicant.

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Blade Runner 2049 (2017) on IMDb