At its core, Blade Runner has always been about loneliness. Ridley Scott’s 1982 neon-soaked cyber-noir subtly explored the inherent alienation that comes from simply being a human (or replicant), by having us question everything we thought we knew about ourselves. Can we truly ever trust another person? What if he/she isn’t even a person? Can we even trust ourselves or our own deeply held memories?
Thirty-five years later, Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Sicario) has been tasked with posing these same questions to a new audience. In Blade Runner 2049, Officer K (Ryan Gosling) is a replicant—a synthetic human with superior strength—tasked with hunting down and killing older models of replicants that the government has deemed dangerous. This is one of Gosling’s better performances, as it seems to play into his stoic, unflappable persona that we see in films like Drive and The Place Beyond the Pines. He gives a similar performance here, but it works because he’s playing a synthetic human.
As we’ve seen in countless other film noirs and detective movies, K soon uncovers a secret that could thrust the entire world into chaos. And if that sounds vaguely generic, it is. As with the original Blade Runner, the strengths of Blade Runner 2049 lie in its meanderings. Villeneuve’s film becomes awe-inspiring when it leaves behind the plot to explore life in Los Angeles in 2049. The time we spend alone with K is particularly valuable because it gives us a glimpse into the technology that makes living in 2049 more bearable, and somehow more painful. When K returns to his small apartment, we see him preparing dinner for himself, pouring some unsavory black sludge into a bowl. He then greets a his girlfriend, who we soon realize is an artificially intelligent hologram. As she asks him how his day was, he pours a drink, and sits down for supper. He then presses a few buttons that make a hologram of a steak dinner appear over this mysterious black substance. Instead of sitting by himself in his apartment eating some suspicious looking sludge, modern life offers K the chance to sit alongside his artificially intelligent girlfriend and eat a delicious looking steak dinner. These futuristic attempts to solve age-old problems seem disturbing because they remind us that modernity cannot offer us effective solutions to these innate human concerns; it can only distract from them.
Unsurprisingly, this new incarnation of Blade Runner also explores the crutch of memory. In the 1982 original, one of the characters recites the phrase: “I think, therefore I am.” Since replicants are synthetic, they are given false memories to create the illusion that they have lived a full life. When and if they find out that these memories have been implanted, trauma ensues because their sense of self crumbles—everything they thought they knew had been fabricated. We can sympathize with the plight of these replicants, because we too live an unknowing existence, and 2049 compellingly investigates this dilemma further than the original film did.
Much of this review centers on the philosophy and world of Blade Runner 2049 because that’s where it’s greatness lies. Villeneuve’s film is very much like the original, in that it is decidedly not an action movie. There are, of course, action set pieces, but the film is more Shakespearean in construction, painting in broad, languorous strokes. And, of course, this review would be incomplete without the mention of Roger Deakins, one of the best cinematographers of our time. Deakins’ camera captures the grotesque beauty of the future in his crisp images, helping to establish the operatic tone that Villeneuve was so clearly aiming for.
Admittedly, the film gets bogged down in its plot in the middle section, and at 167 minutes it overstays its welcome as the narrative stumbles into some unnecessary subplots. But, then again, the original Blade Runner also makes some of these same mistakes. At a time when everybody seems to be complaining about the ‘state of cinema,’ Villeneuve has made an $155 million blockbuster that elegantly asks meaningful questions about human existence and nature. It’d be unfortunate to harp on these missteps when this film, like the original, is otherwise so audacious and challenging.
Featured Image by Warner Bros.