INTERIOR – CAR – NIGHT – 1982: Somewhere in French-speaking Canada, a 9-year-old boy (hint, yours truly: this reviewer) and his father pull in to a dimly lit, backwoods drive-in. The elder, who has previously refused to let his son read a weathered nightstand copy of Philip K. Dick’s source novel (“because it’s too violent, David”) hooks a speaker onto the red VW Bug’s half-rolled down driver’s side window and settles in for 164 minutes of the film his offspring will keep embarrassingly front of mind for the next 35 years. On the journey home, and riding a recounted tide of rusty nails shoved through hands, eyeballs crushed by thumbs and women executed on the street for no reason apparent to the passerby – permission to read “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” is begrudgingly given. The movie I saw at the drive-in, on which the book was based, was Blade Runner, and the journey which began those many years ago seemed to come full circle at a state-of-the-art theater near Fenway Park in October 2017 where I settled in for the sequel, Blade Runner 2049.
To write an objective review about the unlikely and ridiculously far removed sequel to your favorite movie of all time, 3.5 decades later, is a fool’s errand on the brightest of dystopic Los Angeles days. While I’m quite sure he eventually got paid, Director Denis Villeneuve’s obvious labor of love has made it almost too easy for me to extoll the virtues (and maybe a disappointment or two) of Blade Runner 2049. Short version: This is a fantastic film, for which you do not need a deep knowledge of director Ridley Scott’s original to enjoy.
But if you do need a little knowledge of the Blade Runner universe, allow me to provide. In the 1982 version, Harrison Ford plays a futuristic (the year in which the movie is set is 2019) Los Angeles cop tasked with capturing escaped “replicants.” Replicants are androids created to serve mankind, but some don’t like it and want out. Ford’s character, ‘Deckard,’ is the man charged with tracking down this valuable, fugitive property. The 2017 sequel (set in 2049) sees Ryan Gosling playing LAPD Officer ‘K’, who is tasked with a little turnabout: Deckard has been missing for some time, and ‘K’ must track him down to uncover secrets vital to the survival of society.
2049 blows the ‘Blade Runner’ world straight out – in all directions. Other than the legendary original opening sequence, with L.A.’s towers of fire spouting off whilst accompanied by Vangelis’ intoxicating first notes, and apart from an establishing shot of a Spinner (futuristic vehicles) landing or two, there’s precious little shown that isn’t closed-set-sound-stage claustrophobic. The sequel shows us oceans, and deserts, and snow – effectively bringing forward the larger world we’d all imagined as kids (or maybe that was just me). Regardless, it is simply gorgeous.
2049 also takes CGI to new levels, particularly apparent towards the end where insufferable long-time fans will see something that may simultaneously induce laughter, and sobbing. Bring towelettes – you’ve been warned. It’s that heavy.
We also see that the technology in Blade Runner’s universe has evolved since the first film, not surprisingly, as 35 years have passed. Where Deckard once used commands like “stop”, “enhance” and “track right” to investigate Leon’s photographs (Leon was one of the original fugitive replicants) – we now see the main replicant baddy, “Luv”, using those same commands to direct artillery fire. Garbage trucks hover efficiently while sorting filth, smartphones now have a convenient Voight-Kampff app, the Runners get a crazy test called “Baseline” after every shift, Spinners can now dogfight… I should stop there.
A reviewer, whose name I struggle to recall, once referred to the soundtrack of 2008’s There Will be Blood as an “additional character in the film.” Throughout that monumental movie, the music never, ever, ends until the last second of the final credits. It was tailored to the story like nothing we’d ever seen before.
2049’s score is almost as equally engulfing and tailored. Hans Zimmer picked up the heavy task of scoring the film, in Vangelis’ brilliant Grecian shadow, after Johann Johannsson left the project. This left many clammy-handed BR devotees up in arms, but the result was worth the nerdy turmoil. Most noteworthy are the deep (very deep) notes used in transitional shots while Spinners are flying past. This happens a few times, and after the first instance I was immediately hoping there’d be another location change so I could feel that rush one more time.
The better news is, Vangelis’ original score is strategically woven in at key moments, and the final scene sees Zimmer’s work completely stripped away in favor of those hot, hot bars from 1982 many of us know so well. Like the hovering Spinner barking orders at Officer K, that unmistakable noise an old Tyrell Corp terminal makes while booting up, voiceovers recounting the mystery’s clues during flight time, heavy leather overcoats and whiskey – 2049’s soundscape glances over its shoulder several times to acknowledge its older sibling. There are more examples. Many more. But, you know… spoilers.
Also noticeable is a nod to Treasure Island, but far more fascinating are two (that I counted) subtle references to the story of Pinocchio. At one intimate point, Joi (K’s holographic companion) informs him that, “A real boy needs a real name”. No accidental dialogue there, and I guess that makes Jared Leto’s Niander Wallace, who is a replicant manufacturer…Gepetto? Pinocchio allegories have been thrown around in BR forum threads for years, and now there’s a direct reference.
At the risk of otherwise coming off as a garden-variety fan boy, It must be said – I did take issue in one respect. While Sylvia Hoek’s “Luv” (a sort of replicant thug sent to do Niander Wallace’s dirty work) is more menacing than I ever thought the actor was capable of – in the narrative she’s just an agent. A stooge driven only by Niander Wallace’s orders. She knows what she is, and couldn’t care less.
You’ll find yourself longing for the tortured warrior-poet, Roy Batty, regardless of whether or not you wanted him or Deckard to prevail on that rainy rooftop in 1982. If this movie needed anything, and that is an admitted stretch because it’s simply a sci-fi milestone, it would be “better-developed and scarier villains”.
I have just one more gripe, related to casting. Now, the lineup is almost impeccable: Olmos, Bautista, Wright, Baby Goose, Abdi, Hoeks, Leto, etc. My dismay is due to the underuse of Mackenzie Davis. When charging through the crowd in that first trailer – she was terrifying. I’d hoped she’d turn out to be at least the equivalent of “Pris” from the original. Similar style, similar hair, similar foreboding sense of “would she date me?” Ultimately, she is tragically absent for the rest of the movie, bar one fleeting scene.
It’s great fun to imagine that, while my 9-year old adolescent pea-brain was being rocked for all time by Ridley Scott in a shoddy Quebec drive-in, a 15-yr old Villeneuve (born in Quebec) may have been right close by. It’s a sizeable province, but let me have my moment. Maybe he was just one town over, equally as impressed, but with a destiny tied directly to Blade Runner’s unique and astounding universe.
The Godfather did it, as did Jaws and Aliens. Specifically, those franchises saw an eventual sequel which surpassed, or at least lived up to, the original. Blade Runner 2049 will likely be remembered as a sci-fi classic, and I could not be more relieved. In closing: Denis, nous sommes fiers de vous.
Director: Denis Villeneueve
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, Robin Wright, Mackenzie Davis, Jared Leto
Running Time: 164 minutes