Blade Runner 2049: A Sequel Nobody Asked For

Blade Runner 2049 is a sequel that nobody wanted or asked for. The 1982 original was a landmark film that inspired the look and feel of virtually every sci-fi film since. It told a self-contained story, was completely satisfying, and had no need for a continuation. It was also an abysmal failure at the box office, and these are precisely the reasons why there was never a follow-up film. Well, this is a new era in Hollywood where every ancient property, no matter how obscure or irrelevant, gets resurrected for a reboot or sequel. If there is even a remote chance for name recognition, the hacks in charge green-light it for production.

The new film has strengths, but also glaring weaknesses. It is by no means a bad film, but perhaps ill-advised. As a direct sequel, director Denis Villeneuve, captured the look and feel of the universe exactly. It feels just like the original film. The neon nightmare, the crumbling infrastructure juxtaposed with state-of-the-art technology, and the oppressive loneliness are all brought from the original without missing a beat. Without a doubt, it feels like a Blade Runner film. And that is perhaps the sequel’s greatest strength, that the universe is still tangible and plausible, and, most importantly, consistent. The transition between films, despite a 35 year gap in time, is seamless.

Villeneuve is an excellent director. He seems to have come out of nowhere, rising to prominence with the 2013 film Prisoners. Since then, he has been a consistent filmmaker with his well-received follow-ups like Sicario and Arrival. He is a methodical director, able to pace his films well while providing the right amount of atmosphere and world-building. He understands how to balance the various tasks necessary to make an engaging film, such as action and character development. He does a phenomenal job in this film.

The real star of the movie, however, is cinematographer Roger Deakins. He has long been known as a master of his craft in Hollywood. His films are nearly always gorgeous to behold. And if not gorgeous, at least unique. He knows how to contrast light and shadow, and his color palette is usually pulsing with life. It’s hard to describe exactly how he does it, but you know when you are a watching a film Deakins worked on. Just look at his oeuvre, with films like True Grit (2010) and Skyfall, to see what I mean. In this film, he expands upon the endless metropolis to wastelands beyond the city. The stark white farm and the orange dust bowl of Las Vegas stand out as the most prominent examples. When star Ryan Gosling walks through the desert, his silhouette flanked by ruined sculptures amid an orange maelstrom, you can sense the dread and isolation in a single shot. That is the power of cinematography.

Moving beyond the look and feel of the universe, the most important aspect of the film is the story. This is the major area where Blade Runner 2049 fumbles. The original film told a small story. Deckard was tasked to hunt replicants, and regardless of who was the victor, the world would be unaffected. Deckard lived a dreary life in a crappy apartment, and retired replicants like it was a fact of life. There wasn’t much for him ponder. He didn’t question where implanted memories came from. He didn’t wonder if the Tyrell corporation was unethical. People often do not question their lives and world, they just accept them. Blade Runner 2049 misses the point of this entirely.

Instead of the story taking place in the universe, the universe becomes the story. This was a huge mistake. Many parts of the original film were left unexplained. This gave it an air of mystery. However, the sequel can’t help itself. It feels the need to over-explain everything. We see how evil Jared Leto’s character is as he murders a replicant, and talks about his desire to make a generation of replicant slaves. We see in excruciating detail how false memories are created, where they are created, and who creates them. Frustratingly, as many sequels do, the story ups the ante. It reveals an underground movement: replicants who are planning a grand revolution to overthrow the establishment and declare their freedom. The low-stakes nature is gone, and now the thrust of the film (finding Deckard’s daughter) holds the fate of the world in the balance. If Gosling cannot save Deckard, and keep his daughter a secret, then Leto will succeed in creating his generation of slaves. Worst of all, the rebellion’s storyline and Leto’s storyline are left unfinished. This is, of course, so they can make a third Blade Runner film. Why can’t they just leave these things alone? After so many saving-the-world stories, they get old after a while.

There are cheesy moments, too. For no reason whatsoever, a bunch of garbage people shoot down Gosling’s hovercar. There’s a small battle, but what was the point? Also, Leto’s right hand woman, Luv, is over-the-top bad. She chews scenery like Al Pacino at his worst. She is playing the villain in a Michael Bay summer shit-spectacular, not what should be a nuanced portrayal in a cerebral film with artistic aspirations. I’m not sure if it was the actress herself, or the script, but in either case, Luv nearly ruined the movie. While the original film left questions as to who the villain really was (Deckard or Roy Batty), the sequel paints things in black and white. You know exactly who is good and who is bad, there is no gray area. The simplification is underwhelming. Probably the cheesiest moment of all is when Gosling has sex with his pet hologram. The idea of it was fine, I suppose, but the scene was so goddamn serious it became laughable, and it went on and on and on. A quick fade out would have been more effective than watching it dragged out interminably.

As far as acting goes, the movie was rock solid, probably better than the original. Gosling is perfect as the silent, forlorn blade runner, Joe. He blurs the line between android and human effectively, and he is easy to relate to. Co-star Harrison Ford also turned in a good performance. He’s a grizzled old man, for sure, but he emotes far more here than the first time around. Following his character’s journey from film to film, he is no longer detached. He has gotten in touch with his emotions again, and is now regretful and angry and distrustful. And he brings a lot of power with him in the short amount of screen time he partakes in. It was nice to see his journey continued in a natural fashion. Leto was fine, I guess, but I couldn’t not think of him as the Joker.

The sound design was a mixed bag. Scenes in the city, with the growling engines of hovercars was enveloping and shockingly realistic. Musical cues from Vangelis’ original film score pop up here and there, making a nice touchstone for the franchise. However, the volume was oppressive. The sound effects overwhelm and shake, and seem too intense. When the volume is so loud the audience questions if there is something wrong with the movie theater (which is what happened when I saw it), then you have a problem. You don’t want anything to distract the audience. The soundtrack itself was abysmal. It is a perfect example of how movie scores have gone to complete shit over the years. There is hardly any music. It is a cacophony of static bass, electronic wails, and pulsing beats. There certainly is no melody anywhere. The first movie was synthesizer heavy, but still featured real instruments like horns and pianos. Vangelis’ soundtrack was ethereal. It featured recurring themes and emotions. It conveyed the loneliness of the characters with musical pieces that were haunting and awe-inspiring all at once. The new film’s soundtrack is an utter waste.

Hollywood’s trend of wanting to reboot every tired franchise is getting really old at this point. This film avoided the pitfalls others have stumbled into. It is certainly the best of all the unneeded remakes, sequels, reboots, soft reboots, and requels that we have had shit into theaters lately. It managed to avoid these mistakes by telling a new story in the same universe, which deftly brought in old elements only when necessary. Thanks to a decent script and consistent tone, Villeneuve and crew brought forth a sequel that pays respect to the original, and is ultimately worth watching. But I can’t help wonder if he would have been even more successfully making an original universe, one that wasn’t constrained by what came before.

I walked out of Blade Runner 2049 satisfied. I enjoyed the film. It had good acting, an engaging story (mostly), fantastic cinematography, and felt every bit a part of the universe as the first film. Fans of the book and 1982 film will be more than happy. Unfortunately, there wasn’t that much story to tell, and the 2 hour and 40 minute runtime is too long. It could easily have been 2 hours flat and told the same story just as effectively. It’s a mixed film, for sure, but certainly one that succeeds more than it fails. A lot of my complaints may come across as nitpicks, and, yeah, a lot of them are, but someone needs to say that this is not a perfect film. It’s a good sequel, sure, but one that didn’t need to be made. The original film told an encapsulated tale, one that captivated filmmakers and fans for decades, and the sequel, while good, is superfluous.

Verdict: Good

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October 2017


BrikHaus - Find me on Bloggers.com

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