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FILM REVIEW: BLADE RUNNER 2049 Visualizes Nostalgia and Anxiety

FILM REVIEW: BLADE RUNNER 2049 Visualizes Nostalgia and Anxiety

Could it be that we have turned the corner from the anxiety about technology that defined the 1980s, to completely longing for that time gone by? Could it be that in worrying so much about the future and what bleakness it may bring, as seen through the Terminators, the Total Recalls, the Blade Runners of the world, we forgot to live the present, giving way to a gaggle of reboots and revisits from the Reagan era?

The long-awaited arrival of Blade Runner: 2049 suggests that this may be so. And though the movie mostly delivers on the promise of its predecessors, of exploring the quintessential, existential question of what defines reality, one may end up longing for the age of anxiety and wishing away the longing after all is said and done.

Blade Runner: 2049 is a perfectly executed picture by a visual master at the top of his game. With movies like Prisoners, Arrival, and Sicario, director Denis Villeneuve proved he is able to handle complex and dense material and distill it into digestible and entrancing morsels that transfix audiences old and young. With the sequel to the now-cult-like movie from 1982, however, he has planted a flag that shows he can handle big blockbusters and make them seem like casual fare, just as much as he can handle the more cerebral.

In 2049, we pick up almost exactly where we left off in 2019–but thirty years later. There are some stray Replicants on the loose, and Blade Runners (LAPD cops) are out to “retire” them. The baton has been passed on this time to Ryan Gosling as K, who with his brooding pretty boy visage and disaffected disinterest plays the part of the lovable heartthrob well. K, like most of Villeneuve’s heroes, is in search for personal meaning while going through the motions of the thankless tasks that have been thrust upon them. Gosling sort of was born to take this part and so, after taking out a particularly fearsome, inhuman goon, his character K is sent on a mission by his no-nonsense boss, Madame (Robin Wright) to track the rest of the gangster’s squads.

We pick up, also, some of the original’s most salient technical attributes, updated and modernized not only for 2017 technology but also for the eye of a filmmaker that manages to say so much even when he is saying little, in sharp contrasts to Ridley Scott’s overbearing style. And Villeneuve pays more than enough homage to, and respects enough the attributes of the original to please devoted fans. There is the grimly art-directed architecture, the constant precipitation to sully the mood, the opaque lightning, the larger-than-life billboards, and the outsized Japanese influence in America (a distinctive marking of 1980s social anxieties). To that visually rich collage Villeneuve adds his own probing eye, including fractal geometry landscape (we open with a farm that appears, well, replicated), swirling and soaring structures (a seawall protecting Los Angeles from the vicissitudes of the Pacific Ocean), and off-palette colors that flood the screen and bring the minuscule characters into relief. You cannot stop staring because it is like watching magic occur on screen, and Villeneuve’s dexterity has never been better, certainly not now that he has the aid of brilliant cinematographer Roger Deakins and Dennis Dessner’s art direction.

The script also pays homage to the original film, but it is in its adaptations into modernity that the movie has its principal stumble. Blade Runner, the 1982 film, was characterized by a sort of rambling, moody plot, one that advanced from scene to scene simply on its own will or on the power of the Deckard voiceover (Harrison Ford’s original Blade Runner). It had that noir feeling that felt so convincing then and has so inspired now, while also clearly deriving from movies as old as Casablanca or Chinatown. That sort of incoherence is in part what made it age so well, the stones left unturned, the space for theories and crazy fan ramblings.

Blade Runner 2049 tries this, but one can see through the hologram. The plot does advance from rock to rock with the assured confidence of someone who does not care they are jumping through large holes. But this is clearly a much-more important studio product, it has a life of its own, and the entire story ends up feeling carefully and meticulously engineered. You know not to trust Villeneuve’s truth—certainly not in a movie that begs you to question what is real and what is not—but even the genuine existence of a mystery does not save it from feeling Big Hollywood prepackaged.

Blade Runner 2049 does everything else right. Jared Leto as Wallace, the evil corporatist of this chapter, chills as a sensei master of murderous sorts. His principal henchwoman Luv is terrifying and convincing by Dutch actress Sylvia Hoeks, and K’s make-belief girlfriend, a holographic projection that really projects himself, played by Ana de Armas, gives a respectable emotional anchor to the story along the lines of the Deckard/Rachel relationship. The situation completely inverts the relationship between human and android, a predictable but fitting development that gives you a more reliable target to root for. Harrison Ford, when he finally appears, really does make it long for better times.

Blade Runner 2049 will challenge you to ask the question of what is real and what is not, at the very least with respect to the wonders it achieves with its visual effects. It will ask you, what with its gassy projections of Elvis and Marilyn in a decapitated Sin City, whether things perhaps were not better then. It is a fitting coda to a movie about anxiety about the future to, in its sequel, show nostalgia for the past when that future does arrive. And the juxtaposition between reality and fiction, the prodding of the notion that even our own memories, our own existences, may be nothing but figments or fictions, works almost all the time. That is even though you know that the reality you are experiencing has been carefully constructed for you, perhaps by engineers in a cutting room.

Grade: B+

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About The Author

J. Don Birnam

J. Don Birnam, a voting member of the New York Film Critics Online, has been a movie lover since he saw the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film in theaters at a tender age, and has been a devoted student of American film history every since. His favorite films range from Back to the Future to West Side Story, depending on the time of day, and has a mildly unhealthy obsessions with the Academy Awards. Any similarity with the slightly unstable writer in the seminal 1944 film ‘The Lost Weekend’ is pure coincidence

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