Blade Runner 2049 is a Beautiful, Resonant, but Wholly Canadian Take on the American Original

The atmospherics of the beginning of Blade Runner 2049 are so true to Ridley Scott’s original film, that those of us who are old enough to have seen Scott’s masterpiece on the big screen for the first time could feel the small hairs on the back of our necks rise unbidden. The opening was merely one of several instances of homage being paid by director Denis Villeneuve to the older 1982 film–anchor points to which his interesting take on American folly fill out the body of main story. Blade Runner 2049 is a fan film, albeit one produced for $150 million, where one can indulge with abandon in the unspoken plot elements, both real and imagined, that wandered just below the surface of Scott’s older movie.

Scott did not have total creative control over Blade Runner, so the studio execs insisted on a voice over and judicious edits that left some of Scott’s more esoteric imagery on the cutting room floor. Both male lead Harrison Ford and Scott hated the voice over (although perhaps Ford’s rage was more due to being called back to a film he thoroughly loathed making). But Warner Brothers was afraid that audiences would be baffled by movie as it was originally edited, and in turns out they were right. Blade Runner was a box office flop, panned by both viewers and critics

But something funny happened after Blade Runner faded from theaters. Science fiction fans and movie lovers wanted to see it again. And again, and again. Over the span of thirty years the movie was released on video in one form or another several times. Even Scott got to release his “director’s cut”–the way the he originally envisioned the film. The studios made so much money in the re-releases that it was no surprise when the long awaited sequel was finally green-lighted.

The bad news is that Blade Runner 2049 is going to follow in the footsteps of Blade Runner in terms of the U.S. box office, although the international box office may still pay off the production costs. The good news is that Blade Runner 2049 is a beautifully made movie, wholly resonant with the original, and with a well crafted score that echoes the older Vangelis tracks. The acting is terrific–Ford just gets better with age–and the casting of lead Ryan Gosling is spot on. The special effects and set design are first class.

Blade Runner 2049 is also a brazen critique of American excesses and prejudices. This is somewhat of a bias of the Canadian Villeneuve, whose last three U.S.-produced movies (Prisoners, Sicario, Arrival) examine American foibles in various ways. Blade Runner 2049 examines global warming, terrorism, class discrimination, gross consumerism, waste, police brutality, evil corporate executives, and environmental destruction. The critique is not satire, as deftly done in 2012’s Dredd (directed by Englishman Pete Travis), but is rather preachy and stereotypical.

The movie also has an odd European tang to the storytelling. I think Villeneuve intended to echo the polyglot atmosphere of the original film’s alternative universe, but instead it comes off as peculiar, particularly in regard to the set design and the choice of some supporting actors.

The film’s plot does somewhat redeem itself in the examination of what it means to be human. Gosling’s Officer K is a state-sponsored replicant (something suspected of the older retired blade runner Deckard, but never said) whose job it is to hunt down and kill older rogue Nexus 8 models that do not have the short life spans of the Nexus 6 replicants battled by Deckard in Blade Runner. Despised by his fellow human LAPD officers, the general populace, and other replicants, Officer K is forced to seek human companionship from, of all things, an AI (reminiscent of 2013’s Her) he has purchased. His emotional attachment to his AI (Joi, terrifically acted by Ana de Armas), although the source of his eventual undoing (through no fault of the AI), is a touching reminder that everyone wants to be loved.

Blade Runner 2049‘s replicants are fomenting rebellion, seething under the murderous yoke of their human creators. This makes it all the more interesting when those same replicants (other than K) show their utter contempt for AI’s like Joi. That mass- produced Joi only seeks to be human as much as Officer K or his rogue replicant targets makes the animus that much more appalling.

Unfortunately, for all its impressive film-making trade-craft and resonance with the Blade Runner, the movie seems somewhat out of phase with the film noir approach of the original. It is more grimy, sexualized, and impersonal, without the classically driven Casablanca-style touches of Scott’s production. Loose ends abound in the plot in spite of a beefy two hour and forty-five minute run time. Blade Runner 2049’s homages actually interfere somewhat with the storytelling, sacrificing originality for Ridley Scott’s approval. Don’t get me wrong–it is a fun movie–but it was somewhat of a let down. Maybe it is a little unfair to judge Blade Runner 2049 against the standard set by the iconic Blade Runner, but how should Villeneuve be judged otherwise? Still, Warner Brothers should take heart. They’ll make up the slack box office in the video releases…just like last time.

12/18/2018 Update: The film grossed $260 million worldwide against a budget of $150 million, causing Warner Bros and Sony Pictures to lose about $80 million. The lengthy run time of the movie was sited as the primary problem, as theaters could not schedule enough showings in a day to make the film practical financially. Initial US media sales grossed $26 million.

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