CINEMA: Rise Of The Machines

Blade Runner Fan

BLADE RUNNER 2049 (Dir. by Denis Villeneuve, 163 minutes, U.S., 2017)

Buskirk AvatarBY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC Right off the bat, let’s say I’m relieved this didn’t turn out to be the wrong-headed, half-assed mess that was so easy to imagine. There’s a lot to digest but Blade Runner 2049 feels like a real film, not some sputtering, franchise-launching, million cook stew. Thirty-five years is an awful long time to wait before returning to a story, but director Denis Villeneuve has crafted a sequel that organically conjures the universe created by Ridley Scott although its ultimate destination takes us a little too deep into “the feelies.”

Ryan Goslin is the lead here as “K,” blade runner in the future’s future, still out there shooting down the androids who have broken loose to attempt a life of freedom. While out there wasting a beefy robot (David Batista aka Drax from Guardians of the Galaxy) K discovers a clue that points to an evolution in the android species bringing them ever closer to humanity.

Ridley Scott’s 1982 original, based on Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? emphasized the noirish detective story at its heart but freshened the old genre up with a truly spectacular cityscape rich in clashes between hi-tech and lo-tech. Beneath the razzle-dazzle was a reflection of Dick’s pet themes: the nature of consciousness, the enigma of identity and the world beyond our imagined reality. It was the rare thoughtful blockbuster that lived up to its grand ambitions (although considered a bomb in its original theatrical run) and one that has benefited by escaping the sequel and reboot factory that Hollywood has now become.

It is the visuals more than the story that has been influential from the original, 2049 dares and succeeds in expanding and reimagining the design of Scott’s masterpiece. Tans and greys dominate with a sense of post-apocalyptic dustbowl extending into every horizon. Other times the film has K navigating the same rainy L.A. streetlife as the original, with its Asian flourishes and moving billboards. But from beginning to end, the spaces, gadgets and the scientific processes gone awry, all have a witty style and design that elevates the film above the standard sci-fi extravaganza.

K’s stunted existence, emotionlessly cutting down the desperate androids and reverting at home to the most-realistic of intimate fantasies, captures the cold remove of the original but perhaps luxuriating too long in its muted emotionalism and icy langor. The original pondered these musings on human and non-human life but still remained true to the pulp fiction thrills at its root. 2049 tries a little too hard to ensure we get all its soulless ramifications, along with whatever metaphoric take one wants to conjure about the encroaching robots of our modern world.

Despite his prominence in the trailers, we don’t meet Harrison Ford’s Dekard until pretty late in the film’s somewhat hefty running time. His hologram-infested Vegas lodgings are a visual highlight but Dekard becomes a pawn for what feels like a cliché sentimental misstep that ultimately blunts the film’s impact. Another stray idea floating around the film, the story of an android revolution, starts to bring up uncomfortable memories of The Matrix sequels, surely the last place 2049 wants to land.

It’s pretty much a sadly white future, something sci-fi has worked a bit in recent years to escape, although Somali actor Barkhad Abdi from Captain Phillips injects some quick life into his brief scene as hacker Doc Badger. And like the original, women are often empty male fantasies but at least Robin Wright is cast as K’s sympathetic boss and Dutch actress Sylvia Hoeks steals every scene she’s in as the high-kicking android enforcer on K’s trail. Jared Leto plays a blind mystic industrial zillionaire in a part designed for Bowie but adds nothing much new to his resume of eccentric weirdo roles.

To tell the truth, when I saw the original Blade Runner opening night I was a bit underwhelmed: okay I thought, but pretty underwritten, and certainly not as good as Scott’s previous film, Alien. If I find the writing faltering here as well, somehow I feel like my complaints about sappy parent/kid reunions and tired Christian savior themes aren’t going to stem audiences from enjoying Blade Runner 2049’s slightly-bloated, slightly hokey visual feast.