Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Review: "Blade Runner 2049" surprises, expands and continues the engaging story of the original

Blade Runner 2049 Review

Sequels, like every other type of movie out there, can all be broken down into what is good and what is not good. In my opinion, the worst sequels are those that simply tread water, essentially remaking the first film because it was so popular. A huge number of sequels fall into this category, and you get films like “The Hangover: Par II” or “Weekend at Bernie’s 2.” Sometimes, a filmmaker gets lucky and makes an entertaining familiar sequel, and you get something like “Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom” or “Ocean’s Twelve” or “Desperado.” The best sequels expand the story, characters and themes of the previous film. They put our characters into new situations, they illuminate something different in the story arc and basically are anything but cookie-cutter. There are countless sequels that could fill a list titled “Worst Sequels” or even “Good Sequels.” But the list for “Great Sequels” is very small. It’s rare to get a “Empire Strikes Back” or “Godfather Part 2” or “The Dark Knight.” So, when they arrive, it feels like an out-of-body, enriching experience.

I think for me, you can add “Blade Runner 2049” to the list of “Great Sequels.” This is a movie that will only reward fans who have loved “Blade Runner” since 1982. This is a movie that will only add to that wonderful film’s already grand legacy. Much like the original “Blade Runner,” this new film is a visually arresting, it features fantastic performances by several familiar faces we all love, and there is a rhythmic blend of story and action. We normally don’t get blockbuster sequels like this, and in that regard, “Blade Runner 2049” almost feels like a miracle.

It’s always a bonus when you can sit down to a sequel, without any prior knowledge of the first film. Just to be on the safe side, I watched the first film last week before seeing “2049” this week and when I realized I didn’t have to, it was an almost with a sigh of relief. I don’t think you need to be a fan of the first film to enjoy this. The film opens with title cards explaining what the replicants are, getting new audience members up to speed with ease. It also sets up the story for this new adventure. We learn that the Nexus 6 replicants from the first film became so out of control in the future that they were outlawed, and the company went bankrupt. Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) bought up all the Nexus shares and began his construction on a new line of replicants, types that are programmed to obey orders. Wallace is using this new line of replicants to search and destroy the old ones, and the force of new replicants going after the older models are of course, called Blade Runners.

Ryan Gosling plays Officer K, a new model Blade Runner and we watch him hunt down one of the older models in opening sequence. There is no hesitation in K’s action throughout the entire film. At first, you may think that this is just going to be a new version of the first film. Another type of sequel we get is one where it’s the same movie as last time, only bigger! And I kind of groaned at the idea of the movie just being a newer, brighter replicant going after old replicants. But that’s not what director Denis Villeneuve was interested in though. K stumbles upon the mystery of the movie almost by accident. If you are planning to see the movie, I don’t want to spoil it, because it’s all kinds of awesome and not at all what you are going to guess it is. It’s not something we usually find in these movies, and I loved how the film was structured overall.

“Blade Runner 2049” skips the conventions of the sequel, and mostly the conventions of all blockbusters. Lots of sequels give un-needed callbacks to the previous movie, just in case we as the audience forgot what happened. Most sequels will stop cold to remind us that we are watching a sequel, and it gets mind-numbing after a while. “Blade Runner 2049” has some minor callbacks to the first film, but not to remind us of what came before, but to tell a new piece of the overall story. The callbacks help elevate and reinvigorate the story being told here. Yes, Harrison Ford’s Deckard does return, but not into the last third of the movie (or so). This I mainly Officer K’s mystery, the story revolves around him. The movie takes its time to carefully and constructively set up the film’s story. It’s never in a hurry to get things going, something I feel most action blockbusters are guilty of.

 Think you’ll find out if Deckard is a replicant here? Sorry, keep on trucking. Deckard’s birth and heritage barely come into focus here. Director Denis Villeneuve has a firm grasp on what made “Blade Runner” work all those years ago, and I absolutely love that he chose to expand on the first film without robbing the first film of its power. So many times, before, sequels are so quick to answer all the burning questions of the first film. I love there are is still some mystery even after the credits start rolling.

Performances are strong across the board. Ryan Gosling continues to create an ambitious and unique resume of characters. If you stack all his movies together in one pile, you’d never see a hint of his previous performances in anything else he does. Gosling seems determined to push himself with each new film, and that completely shows here. Harrison Ford shines in the few glimpses of time onscreen he has. The marketing may be selling you on the idea that this is a Ford-Gosling movie, but it’s mainly a Gosling movie. Ford is used sparingly, but effectively. Jared Leto gives a haunting vibe as Wallace, and its uniquely weird in a way that only Leto can pull off. Robin Wright plays Gosling’s superior here, and she gives another powerful performance to add to her already impressive list of performances. Ana de Armas plays Joi a hologram girlfriend of sorts to K. It’s an interesting concept to introduce in science fiction and Armas really runs with it. She becomes more than a hologram relationship, and I was engaged in this subplot from beginning to end. Armas has some unexpected range, and I hope her career only expands from this point forward. Sylvia Hoeks play a subordinate to Wallace, and she is equally haunting here. Plus, the brief moments made by Dave Bautista, Lennie James and even Barkhad Abdi only make this experience better.

I always loved the visions of the future in the first film, but it was always clear that there was a “old school” feel to the effects of that future. Here, every single moment of every single set piece is visually arresting. I could easily watch a documentary just on the world that this story inhabits. Villeneuve really lets loose on the visual world at play here, and the way he uses light and camera angels only makes the experience even more engrossing.

What could have easily been a typical exercise in genre nostalgia became something more. That’s the hope all us movie lovers have deep down inside us. It’s nasty business when a classic film we all love gets the sequel treatment, especially when there is over a three-decade difference between the two films. “Blade Runner 2049” had nearly everything working against it, yet it not only works as a sequel, not only does it remind us why the first film was so great, but it expands on everything we loved about the first film. I was drunk in love with every square inch of this movie, and I cannot, cannot wait to watch it again.


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