The future is smoke and loud horns
By Michael Burton, Editor-in-Chief
Blade Runner 2049 is a science-fiction noir film directed by Denis Villeneuve, who also directed 2016’s science fiction film Arrival, and the action/suspense drug war film, Sicario. It is the sequel to the original Blade Runner starring Harrison Ford, over thirty years after the original film’s release in 1982.
I will be blunt: this is a film you need to commit to. With a running time of two hours and forty-four minutes, this film should be approached the same way one would approach watching one of the Lord of the Rings films or their extended cuts – it is a seamless experience when viewed all together, but say goodbye to most of your afternoon or evening. Similarly, watching only parts of this film would deprive you of a good amount of the plot as well as the atmosphere the director took the time to build up … and build up … and build up.
This is not a fast movie. It is not an action movie either, although there are action scenes which are brilliantly choreographed and exciting to watch. These scenes are few and far between, however; the focus of the film lies on the character development of the protagonist, K (Ryan Gosling), and the world the film builds through a mixture of dialogue and cinematography.
I will not spoil the bulk of the plot, but here is the premise: K, a replicant working with the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), is a blade runner – someone who tracks down androids called “replicants” who have broken free and gone rogue and kills them, referred to as “retiring” them. A new case reveals that at least one replicant from twenty years ago may have given birth to a child, and K is sent out to find this child and retire them before word gets out. This sends K on an increasingly complex case where he begins to question his own identity and life choices, as well as what it means to be a replicant or human.
The original Blade Runner has been considered a major example of cyberpunk since its release, featuring all of the hallmarks of the genre: cramped and polluted urban environments, disgustingly powerful mega-corporations the law has no hold over, and advanced technology that never quite seems to trickle down to the prostitute-infested street level. Blade Runner 2049 follows the original’s footsteps in this regard, throwing in some devastated rural landscapes, massive sea walls to fight against rising ocean levels, and a post-apocalyptic garbage heap San Diego for good measure.
This is a bleak film. Many shots are extremely dark but feature bright neon signs that only serve, both inside the film and outside, to distract from the depressing environment. The soundtrack is comprised primarily of extremely loud horns reminiscent of Inception’s infamous tracks, many of which show up to suddenly announce yet another series of establishment shots of futuristic Los Angeles. The darkness of the visuals, combined with the contrast of the bright neon lights, incredibly loud soundtrack, and 164-minute running time meant that I did stagger out of the film with a headache. At least it was a happy headache.
I am not sure whether it is a compliment to say Ryan Gosling makes an incredibly convincing robot, but he does. His emotions slowly develop throughout the film, but he consistently remains subdued, regardless of the circumstance. On one occasion he does burst out with a scream, but the scream is both convincing and unnerving to witness, and he never reaches that height of emotion again.
The rest of the cast is superb as well. Jared Leto (you know … the Joker from Suicide Squad) is cast as the blind and egomaniacal CEO Niander Wallace, whose performance is so detached and insane that it made me forgive him for his past crimes as a clown gangster. Ana Da Armas plays K’s holographic girlfriend (…yes) called Joi, and supplies some much-needed levity within the film. Sylvia Hoeks rounds off the main characters as the increasingly unstable replicant known as Luv, whose own character development and performance offers a fascinating parallel to K throughout the film. And yes, Harrison Ford does show up as the prequel’s protagonist, Deckard. To say more would be to say too much. He only has at most about half an hour’s screen time.
The world-building is the main draw to the film. Blade Runner’s America is stark, disgusting, and yet utterly captivating. Within the first ten minutes we move from a filthy “protein” farm where mealworms are being cultivated for human consumption, to a high-tech police department in a futuristic but highly-polluted L.A. People constantly refer to off-world colonies where things are much better, but the general understanding is that people are stuck down on Earth, in the filth, where only the rich can escape the death throes of the planet. One can only hope that this film is not entirely prophetic.
If there is one critique I have of Blade Runner 2049, it lies in its running time. I suspect about fifteen-twenty minutes could have been cut if the number of establishing shots had been reduced, simply because the film has an odd obsession with introducing each setting with about 4-6 establishing shots before moving on to the scene itself. While this gives the audience an excellent feel for when and where the scene takes place, it drags the movie’s pacing into the gutter.
I would highly recommend this film to any fans of science-fiction, speculative fiction, or those who enjoy moralizing over hypothetical questions about artificial intelligence. If you enjoyed the original Blade Runner, you will enjoy this film. I would not, however, recommend this film to anyone who is not a staunch fan of science-fiction or below the age of 16, simply because they will likely get incredibly bored. I was personally riveted by the entire experience, but even I had to admit that by the final ten minutes, I was more than ready for the film to end.
Blade Runner 2049 was a commercial disappointment but a critical success so, if you have not seen this film already but are interested, please rectify that as soon as possible.