Reeling it in: ‘Blade Runner 2049’ thrilling, haunting

This image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows a scene from “Blade Runner 2049.” (Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)

“Blade Runner 2049”

 

Warner Bros.

2 hours, 44 minutes

I keep hearing different critics and pundits say that if you’ve been waiting for a “Blade Runner” sequel then you’re going to be very happy this week with Denis Villaneuve’s epic sci-fi mystery.

That’s the thing, though. I don’t know that anyone was waiting for this. The original “Blade Runner” came out 35 years ago and despite a lot of fan love over the intervening decades, is not a movie that cries out for more. The film ends a little ambiguously, I guess, so a sequel was definitely possible, but certainly not necessary.

As far as box office, the original film was kind of a flop upon release, and has only gained its current reputation in the years since as new generations have discovered it and director Ridley Scott has offered fans up to eight different edits of the movie.

Many people consider “Blade Runner” to be the greatest science fiction film ever made and even then, there’s never been outcry for a sequel. Think of it like “Casablanca.” At the end of that film, there is story left to tell. What will become of Rick and Ilsa? How will the war turn out? Should there be a sequel? No.

That’s my opinion of a “Blade Runner” sequel. Or, rather it was. Villaneuve has created something towering, in my opinion. Whether I wanted it or not, “Blade Runner 2049” is an amazing achievement — beautiful, thrilling, and haunting.

The story takes place 40 years after the original, and follows the track of progress started in that film. “Blade Runner” takes place in 2019, but the world it exists in is vastly different than our own. The cities have grown exponentially and people speak a polyglot language mixing Eastern and Western cultures almost at random. Flying cars and off-world colonies suggest a level of technological advancement that we can only dream of.

Nightmare might be a more appropriate description, however. This is also a world where Replicants exist. Replicants are essentially robots, though only recognizable as such at the cellular level. They are bred as slave labor for use in harsh environments. After a few particularly bloody rebellions, Replicants are outlawed on Earth, and special officers, nicknamed Blade Runners, are tasked with “retiring” them.

In the new film, Replicant technology is once again allowed on Earth, but the old company, Tyrell, is no more. Instead, Replicants are supplied by reclusive genius Niander Wallace who has much larger plans than the simple creation of service robots. Blade Runners are still necessary, tasked with rounding up any of the old model Replicants still in hiding.

Ryan Gosling plays “K” — a newer model Replicant and Blade Runner — a man without a country. Facing disturbing discrimination from humans still suspicious about emergent technology and the horrors of the past, he can similarly find no solace from his fellow “skin jobs,” as they are called. His only real companionship comes from Joi, a digital representation of a companion. Think Siri, but with a holographic component and real emotions.

The movie does a great job of mirroring the societal disconnect between humans who see themselves as natural and the artificiality of the Replicants in K and Joi’s relationship, where one is obviously more “real” than the other. The interaction between the two is beautiful and heartbreaking all at the same time.

Early in the film, K is assigned to retire a newly discovered Replicant and in doing so makes a momentous discovery which will drive not only his actions, but also those of his agency and of the Wallace Company, each in a race to lay claim to what will become the new reality. K is put on a quest, and in his search he turns up our old hero, Deckard, now living like a hermit in the ruins of Vegas, hiding from the world.

Everyone in this film does a stellar job, from small roles like Dave Bautista as the doomed Sapper Morton and Robin Wright as K’s boss, to Gosling and Harrison Ford, fully present for one of the few times in the last decade.

Ford brings his A game the same way he did with “The Force Awakens,” suggesting that when he really feels strongly about the product, he’ll actually show up. Deckard is tragic figure and Ford reminds us what separated him from the other action stars of the 80s. His vulnerability makes him approachable and real somehow, making whatever danger he’s facing seem actually dangerous in a way Stallone and Bruce Willis never could.

Ryan Gosling is excellent here. In many ways, he seems like a blank slate, but he’s far from dull. He can do more with small gestures and his eyes than most actors, and the quiet he cultivates is effectively shattered in those few moments where he loses control. This is a powerful performance from a guy who can get shoehorned as a prettyboy.

I really, really enjoyed “Blade Runner 2049.” I was hopeful, partially due to my love for Denis Villaneuve (“Arrival” was one of the best movies I’ve seen this decade) and partly due to my optimistic nature. But this movie exceeded my expectations on every level. It’s smart, and acknowledges the intelligence of its audience. It’s thrilling and heartfelt. At times the violence is pretty rough, so be forewarned. The movie looks incredible, the work of cinematographer Roger Deakins bringing so much to this world.

The main criticism I’ve heard is that the film is slow. I wouldn’t say that. I’d say it’s paced appropriately but rewards patience. Besides, there is so much to see, to take in. “Blade Runner 2049” is not always fun, but extremely satisfying nonetheless. I can’t say I was waiting for it, or even wanted it, but am I glad it’s here.

Grade: A

“Blade Runner 2049” is rated R for nudity, sexual situations, language, and violence.

Chris Jenness is an art teacher, freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.

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