Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Zaki's Review: Blade Runner 2049

"I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain."
Those words are uttered by Roy Batty, the rogue robot played by Rutger Hauer in Ridley Scott's 1982 sci-fi detective yarn Blade Runner (the line was improvised by Hauer, or so the story goes). In many ways they sum up for me the existential angst that brackets the entire film and gives it much of its enduring appeal. Why do we exist? What will be left of us once we're gone? Whether robot questioning man or man questioning himself, it's the essential, unanswerable permanence of such ponderings that have allowed the movie to transcend its era and be regarded as one of the greatest science-fiction movies ever made.

But while Scott's neo-noir opus is indeed widely considered a classic today, it sure didn't start out that way. Based on a Philip K. Dick trippy 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the project spent more than a decade languishing in the dreaded development pipeline, endured a famously troubled production beset with all kinds of problems with home studio Warner Bros., and limped out of theaters barely recouping its not-inconsiderable $28 million budget. All told, Scott was unhappy with the film, star Harrison Ford was unhappy with the film, and perhaps most importantly, audiences were unhappy with the film.

In hindsight, it's not all that surprising that folks were put off by Scott's dark take on Dick's dark story. Sure, it had a vision of the future unlike any realized onscreen before, and you'd think plopping Ford into a sci-fi/fantasy milieu was a license to print money. But Blade Runner was a far cry from the Indiana Jones and Star Wars adventures it arrived nestled in between, and Ford in full "Raymond Chandler" mode -- private eye monologue included (albeit only at the studio's insistence) -- meditating on the nature of life in Los Angeles in the year 2019 while hunting down artificial people, wasn't quite the thing 1982 audiences were clamoring for.

In fact, Ford's character of Rick Deckard, the "Blade Runner" of the title whose job is to track down escaped Replicants -- a workforce of synthetic lifeforms who can blend in with regular people -- was the polar opposite of Ford's established screen persona, and the story -- culminating in Deckard's battle with Hauer on a rain-soaked rooftop -- doesn't end with pyrotechnics or some kind of a special effects light show. Instead, the script by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples is quiet and contemplative precisely when audiences were accustomed to loud and explosive. Thus was Blade Runner perceived as a rare misfire for its superstar lead.

But then a funny thing happened: The real world eventually caught up to Ridley Scott's fantasy one. Blade Runner first became a cult favorite -- an underrated gem that was undeservedly ignored. Then Warner Bros. released a tweaked "Director's Cut" in 1992 based on Scott's notes (which removes Ford's voiceover, for one thing) that elevated its reputation from "interesting idea ruined by studio interference" into "genuine, honest-to-goodness masterpiece." That reclamation ultimately reached its zenith with the 2007 "Final Cut," which adds some bits and removes others, and represents the director's last statement on his 1982 film.

And it really did feel final. There's nothing about the ending -- any ending -- of Blade Runner that made sequels or add-ons feel necessary or even desired. Much like 2001: A Space Odyssey, another timeless, transcendent sci-fi picture that took a little while to find its place in cinema history, Blade Runner is the kind of slow burn experience that flies in the face of the instant gratification theatrical model. Rather, it rewards multiple viewings and time for contemplation. The script takes pains to present a series of interlocking questions to the audience without resolving any of them, making the movie a Rorschach test of sorts for whoever happens to be watching.

The interesting thing about the original Blade Runner is how much of its continued appeal stems from its narrative ambiguities. Nonetheless, here we are 35 years after the initial release, 10 years after "The Final Cut," and a belated follow-up has arrived in the form of Blade Runner 2049. Scott is back (as a producer), Ford is back (as a secondary lead), but the new captains of this ship are director Denis Villeneuve and leading man Ryan Gosling. With its three-decades-later setting, the new film advances the ball admirably while doing its best to leave the delicious ambiguities of its predecessor -- so intrinsic to its appeal -- largely untouched, like museum exhibits behind glass.

With Fancher again providing the script, this time alongside Michael Green, this new entry follows Ryan Gosling's K, our new Blade Runner, still tasked with hunting down rogue Replicants in a world where the artificial people have become a regular -- if not necessarily accepted -- part of everyday life. Meanwhile, all vegetation is extinct and the nightmarish urban sprawl of the earlier installment has only been exacerbated. A random discovery during one of these assignments leads to K discovering a decades-old death, which in turn puts him on a quest for his own identity that leads to him tracking down the long-missing Deckard.

When I first heard several years back that a Blade Runner sequel was in the offing, my initial reaction was to dismiss the mercenary nature of the thing: Sure, let's take a known brand and cash in on people's fondness/familiarity for it by cranking something out with the same name. Even Scott's presence on the bill (and eventually Ford's signing on to reprise his original role) did little to quell that skepticism. It was only when Dennis Villeneuve signed on -- having previously made a strong impression on me with 2014's Prisoners, 2015's Sicario, and 2016's Arrival -- that my interest was piqued. That early faith in the director was rewarded in spades with what he's achieved here.

Like its predecessor, Blade Runner 2049 luxuriates in creating fantastic, panoramic vistas of impeccable cinematic beauty (thanks in no small measure to cinematographer Roger Deakins), and if it feels a little bit familiar, that's less a fault of the movie itself than the fact that the original has cast such a long shadow stylistically (just look at the misbegotten live action Ghost in the Shell remake from earlier this year for the latest of innumerable Blade Runner riffs). Even so, Villeneuve has made something that feels perfectly of a piece with Scott's, a bookend that builds out the world while progressing the story from where Scott left things lo those three-and-a-half decades ago.

While Ford has found a profitable new revenue stream for himself lately by reviving his decades-old alter egos (fingers crossed for Regarding Henry 2: Irregardless), Rick Deckard represents somewhat of a different situation for the action icon than his return to the Star Wars franchise two years ago or his impending Indiana Jones encore two years hence. After all, the continued appeal of the first Blade Runner has less to do specifically with Ford's presence in the lead than with everything surrounding him. The production design. The world. Deckard is almost incidental to all of that, existing in many ways as a surrogate for the audience while himself remaining largely a cipher.

I don't say that as a ding on the first one, by the way. All of that serves the story, but it does have the affect of making the character's belated reprisal in Blade Runner 2049 feel not quite as momentous as, say, the moment when Han Solo stepped onto the deck of the Millennium Falcon and declared that he was "home." That said, despite the fact that Deckard doesn't enter the story until more than an hour in, the arc that Fancher & Green have constructed allows for some of the strongest work Ford has done in a great long while, even as it leans heavily for emotional weight on character development that happened in-between movies -- and we thus never actually witnessed.

Nevertheless, the relationship forged between old Blade Runner and new is a treat to watch develop. And even before that, Gosling ably holds the screen as a character who is vastly different from his predecessor but prompts just as many moments of existential contemplation. Less effective is Jared Leto as industrialist Niander Wallace, whose company has taken over the manufacture of Replicants from the now-defunct Tyrrell Corporation. At this point, it feels like Leto's characters are just a series of actorly tics and mannerisms, without much of anything underneath. There's a lot of monologuing about the nature of creation and such, but none of it really lands because there's not much to the character beyond that.

Like the eternal query posed by the Replicants at the center of this property, I went into this film -- which is less sequel and more bookend or epilogue -- wondering why it needed to exist. And in truth, it didn't. The original still feels whole unto itself, and there's nothing in the follow-up -- for all its rich ideas and visuals -- that makes that any less the case. That's not to diminish in any way, however, the remarkable feat that Villeneuve and his team have accomplished. Instead of trying to solve what was never meant to be solved, Blade Runner 2049 instead lays out entirely new waves of questions that will be chewed on and puzzled over in the years and decades to come, assuring that it doesn't just fade away like tears in the rain. A-

For more Blade Runner 2049 talk, plus lots of other movie news, be sure to check out the latest episode of the MovieFilm Podcast at this link or via the embed below:

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