Opening weekend review–Blade Runner 2049 an earnest, ambitious follow-up to the original

Review by C.J. Bunce

Credit for the success of Blade Runner 2049 as a worthy sequel to 1982’s Blade Runner is a shared prize for director Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Sicario), the writers, including screenwriter Michael Green (Logan, Alien: Covenant), source material creator Philip K. Dick, and original Blade Runner screenwriter Hampton Fancher (The Mighty Quinn), plus at least two dozen other unnamed creators whose early science fiction works were mined for the story.  Predictable, derivative, slow-paced, and overly long, Blade Runner 2049 still lands as a solid sequel and will no doubt please fans loyal to the 1982 film.  The beauty of the sequel is the earnest, ambitious effort of Villeneuve under the eye of executive producer and original Blade Runner director Ridley Scott to give the story a reserved touch.  The sequel has the now classic dystopian look of the Mad Max or Terminator: Salvation variety, stretching the original Syd Mead futurism and punk noir vibe into a different but logical new direction–think Blade Runner with the lights turned on.

From the first scene Villeneuve & Co. dig in to not just sci-fi tropes but cyborg heavy themes that sci-fi fans know very well from similar explorations in countless books, television series, and films since the early 1980s, when the idea of adapting something like Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? into a big budget film was something less familiar to film audiences.  The filmmakers touch on many classics–Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, Pinocchio, Shakespearean tragedy–to countless episodes of the Star Trek franchise (lead character and Replicant K/Joe played by Ryan Gosling revisits several direct themes the android Data explored in Star Trek: The Next Generation).  More than ten minutes is spent revisiting the latest technology called an “emanator” that Star Trek Voyager fans will be familiar with as the Emergency Medical Hologram’s “holo-emitter,” a device allowing holograms to move around the world.  What in the early 1980s may have wowed audiences is here not so eye-popping because of the legacy Trek tech called the holodeck.  But none of these flashbacks to sci-fi’s past really takes anything away from the elements re-used in Blade Runner 2049 because they are all stitched together into a clean story.  To some it will be a Where’s Waldo? of sci-fi storytelling and to others the simple nostalgia of exploring Isaac Asimov’s themes of the Robot and the Self will be worth a revisit.

Many questions are asked in the lengthy 2 hour-and 43 minute-long film, and some, but not all, will be answered, disappointing a few loyal fans of the original.  Deaths of characters and actors since the original limit the return of certain characters from the original, but where they happen it’s done right.  One scene, however, is a complete misfire–a character walked onto the screen to the gasp of this reviewer’s theater audience, only to find it wasn’t really who was expected based on the build up of the scene.  But the biggest misfire is Villeneuve’s use of sound and score.  Villeneuve turned to Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer for the musical score, unfortunately creating a dreadful use of sound in the film, compared to the original film’s excellent score by Vangelis.  Where the use of Vangelis’s synthesized cautious, futuristic melodies took a backseat to story and dialogue in the original, here Wallfisch and Zimmer lean on dissonant John Cage-esque chords and blare noises like someone sitting on a piano or a kid plugging his guitar into an amp for the first time, over and over, at full volume–the aural equivalent of J.J. Abrams’ lens flares.  The poor sound takes away from a visual work that could have benefitted from a closer look at the use of sound in the original.  I.e. take at least one earplug along, especially in an IMAX or other digital theater.

Blade Runner is known for Syd Mead’s unique vision of the future, emulated in so many ways even in films released this year like Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets and Alien: Covenant.  Blade Runner 2049 won’t leave many new impressions–cinematography by Roger Deakins (Skyfall, The Big Lebowski) falls short of the visual spectacle of the original and the other big sci-fi IMAX release this year, the aforementioned Valerian, a far more visually stunning and eye-popping cinematic marvel.  That won’t matter to most, as Villeneuve includes a few nighttime city fly-by throwbacks to satisfy fans hoping for glimpses of the Los Angeles of the original, providing enough to connect the dots visually between past and present.

As for characters, Harrison Ford will surprise audiences in an engaging continuation of his character Deckard (he brings along a cool dog this time)–better than his performances in the latest Star Wars and Indiana Jones sequels, and Gosling is believable as an updated model Replicant taking us along on his search for answers.  Although no one will compare to Sean Young as femme fatale Rachel in the original, a slate of international newcomers fill in quite well: Cuban actress Ana de Armas (a nice addition as Joi, a sweet Leeloo Dallas-esque love interest), Dutch actress Sylvia Hoeks (as Luv, the next great Replicant of the Kristanna Loken school of future badassery), Canadian actress Mackenzie Davis (in a Darryl Hannah-type role) and Swiss actress Carla Juri (a very Philip K. Dick-inspired memory technician).  As for the genre favorites, Robin Wright has a one-note police lieutenant role, but Dave Bautista (Guardians of the Galaxy, SPECTRE) is a good match for the late Brion James’s character of the original.  Keep an eye out for Ant-Man’s David Dastmalchian, along with some other welcome surprises along the way.  Jared Leto’s scenes as the latest Dr. Frankenstein, the creepy for creepy sake Niander Wallace, add very little to the story and easily could have been trimmed from the film.

The closest comparison to the handling of the Blade Runner sequel is 2010’s Tron: Legacy, the sequel to Tron, another 1982 classic sci-fi film that netted an update this decade.  Concepts, characters, and scenes from Tron: Legacy are mirrored in Blade Runner 2049, even down to a strange fondness for 18th century furniture.  By film’s end you may find yourself wishing Tron’s Jeff Bridges had been cast in the Niander Wallace role.  Both sequels are equally loyal to their source material, and both use modern film technology to update their stories for modern audiences.

A solid salute to the 1982 original and a fun walk through sci-fi tropes, but overly long with a jarring soundtrack and some other misfires, Blade Runner 2049 is now in theaters–the latest celebration of the 35th anniversary of the films of 1982.




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