Friday, December 29, 2017

Blade Runner 2049 (2017) Is More Than Just a Replica

Photo Credit: Blade Runner 2049 / Warner Bros. Pictures
For thirty-five years Blade Runner fans have waited for the next chapter of director Ridley Scott's cult classic. His grim noir world focused on a future 2019 where LAPD officer Deckard (Harrison Ford) retires replicant slaves (androids) who have gone rogue against their human masters and ends up falling in love with one of his targets (Sean Young). After audiences were left wondering the whereabouts of humanity and its android population, its sequel Blade Runner 2049 succeeds at being more than a replica.

Set in 2049, the world has continued to fall into economic and enviromental despair as a genius with a godlike complex Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) has reinvented replicants with a shorter lifespan and wired to obey their masters. Agent K (Ryan Gosling), one of the newest models, is tasked to "retire" older rogue versions like Deckard. When one target sets K off on a quest against Wallace's corporation, he's bound to discover a dangerous truth about himself and his own kind.

While the original film and all of its uncut versions toyed with the notion of whether or not Deckard and Rachael were replicants or not, and a deeper philosophical meaning of what it means to be either, 2049 carries a much-heavier weight about love, humanity, and the soul. Establishing a steady history in film with intrigue and science-fiction, director Denis Villenue's vision dips the story back into its futuristic roots and manages to pull off an impressive, complimentary follow-up. (This review contains spoilers - read at your own risk!)

Androids look and feel like people; their flesh looks just like ours, their bodies move fluidly, and they possess the ability to get injured and bleed. Emotionally and mentally, they hold onto memories, ones that give them sorrow, fear, and hope. They're made and not born, given serial numbers instead of names, but still exist just like people living up to the slur "skinjobs". From the simple human-looks of the cast, it's easy to feel empathy for them and see where their character's are heading. But by the end of the film, you're left quietly speculating which ones are androids, what makes them human, and what does their experiences still ultimately add up to.
You've been getting along fine without one. . . a soul.
Agent K is searching for identity. He looks and feels human, but he's not treated like one. He has a job and prejudices that he's forced to hide under, carrying out orders from his master aka boss, and goes home to a digitalized girlfriend (beautifully played by Ana De Mars) to play house. His tiring, blimp of an existence comes to a head against the human experience when he starts questioning what it means be treated equally, to love and to live other than a servant. Always brimming between two dualities, K struggles to follow orders versus wanting freedom, accept his given identity versus detaching himself from the hope that he's something special. Doing more than just brooding or the contemplative hero, Gosling gives a sharp performance as his character questions his sense of self. He offers a somber sense of confusion desperation about the truth of who he is and what it might mean for the world around him, making him just the right actor to take the reigns over from Harrison Ford.

While a lot of reboots and remakes try too hard to force the reigns over from the original story, Blade Runner 2049 makes an easier transition. Though the theories live on whether Deckard was an android or not, Agent K certified replicant is a lot like Deckard. We're almost given a younger version of character framed in a different way: maybe there's something more than just being a slave to the masses.

Ford returns as Deckard, on the run and in hiding from his previous failed mission. He might be on a quest to revitalize all of his classic roles, and he's on a pretty great role so far. Similar to stepping back into the Millenium Falcon as Han Solo for Star Wars, there's no denying Ford has the same charisma and fortitude he's always had. His energy and ability to slip back into characters who have matured shows just what a gamechanging legendary actor he is and the timeless performances he gave at thirty years old, and even now at in his seventies. 

One of the movie's biggest themes of the film, if not its main one, is the class system between humans, and androids, and this angle goes a little further with how women are used. While some critics reduced 2049's use of female characters to mere sexual objects or the whole movie as purely misogynistic, their roles for me wasn't as easily simplified.

First, for all his wealth, ego, and "innovation", Wallace can't replicate the natural act of giving birth; his creations merely drop from a plastic sack that mimics the womb, but his entire reproductive process is not to create life, merely fulfill a supply to demand. Even mother nature sits scorched, desolate, and overpopulated but also teeming with possibilities. To emphasize that with people, nudity of women's bodies is used heavily, particularly in cold, harsh visuals as if to create emphasize how sterile the world has become. While the leads are on a quest about their sense of self, it's the evidence of Rachael and Deckard having a baby that pushes the underground resistance to come forward for equality. And, then to underline the differences between humans and androids, K's holographic girlfriend wants to be more special than she is and trying to help him seek autonomy. She might be artificial in her design, commercialized to fulfill her client's whims, but she looks, feels, and seems like a real person. Does that make her or her relationship to K any less artificial?

Everything that serves as the backbone to the movie from love, sex, birth, to even the revolution depends on the supporting actresses who's characters are gentle, passionate, loving to also fierce, cold-blooded and ruthless. The biggest highlight is Joi (wonderfully played by Ana De Mars), who's buoyant, idealistic hopes and dreams offers the only connection to K's sense of purpose. Others shape the world too: Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright) keeps her finger in the damn between peace and war, ultimately pushing K forward in his mission to wipe out a impossible miracle. Luv (brutally played by Sylvia Hoeks), basically runs Wallace's corporation, a ruthless henchwoman racing to discover K's secret mission for their own use. Even the rebellion is helmed by women - Freysa (Hiam Abbass), the leader of the replicant freedom movement, and one of her cohorts (Mackenzie Davis) who uses sex to move their mission forward (the future could've been female if there was another sequel in the works).

2049's  futuristic world is frighteningly reflective of life in 2017, from its eery use of technology and AIs to environmental destruction. There's a not-so-subtle marriage between the three of them since the role of authenticity and artificiality runs to strongly throughout the story. The script isn't perfect in approaching the mother or whore complex, or challenging a different approach to a future where maybe women aren't sex workers or babymakers. But it'd be dismissive to say that women and our current roles in the world, how governments try to regulate our bodies and reproductive rights, didn't have an impact on the story either, but not to be blatantly objectifying or sexist.

What makes 2049 a genuine escape is the production design by Dennis Gassner. It's easy to say that the cinematography or the setting design is gorgeous, but nothing ultimately compares to seeing it for the first time in theaters - one that made me actually appreciate those who saw the original Blade Runner (which I'm not a big fan of) and must have felt that first sense of awe in seeing something completely new, hypnotizing, and kind of terrifying.

This world is is bleak, grim, but by all means, dizzying and hypnotizing. Every frame from the desert caked in blazing orange dust to skyscrapers packed like coffin cubicles and a tomblike Los Angeles pulsates with beautiful cinematography by Roger Deakins  (no doubt a big credit goes to Hans Zimmer's synthetic soundtrack for this vibe too). Where one might think the studios used green screen or special-effects, it's truly stunning how much of the film is practical and ultimately lends to how tangible the atmosphere is.
“We constructed the bridge on the set, filled the stage with rain and fog, and we projected the actress on that gigantic screen. So the impact of the light is all real — it’s not something created by a computer.” - Denis Villenue
A lot of critics consistently described 2049 as long, which might've put off a lot of people's interest in seeing the movie. The running time, sitting pretty at two hours and forty five minutes, wasn't bothersome. For me, there's a difference between long and tortuously boring, or long and interesting. The story kept me fascinated enough that it felt like time flew by; and it gave me a new appreciation for why the 1982 version is so revered. Most of the scenes linger, hovering in-between moments with close-ups or tracking characters, displaying the horizon and offering the scope of this world visually.  If they were shortened or rushed, it might not have the same hypnotizing affect. The camera just observes what's going on in no real rush to get to another point across making me feel like I wanted to live in this world forever.

Unlike a lot of sequels and reboots that are rushed for a cash-grab, Blade Runner 2049 is much more of a love-letter to the original. It's limited to a specific audience by only catering to fans of the original, and manages to reaffirm in new ways the hype that's lost on the 1982 version. Time can only tell, if in thirty years, this will be as controversially loved and appreciated in cult groups as much as its predecessor.

2049 doesn't necessarily scream science fiction, dystopia, or futuristic, which is refreshing in this day and age where most big films like superhero flicks and blockbusters are shouting from the rooftops what they're selling but not always capable of delivering. A big credit for this goes to Villevenue who combines a lot of successful elements from his previous work - apocalyptic nature of Arrival, unnerving drama of Sicario, and mindbending intrigue of Enemy - to create a quiet, impressive sequel with a great cast and an alarming experience of escaping a not-so-distant reality. 

Rating: ★★★
Have you seen Blade Runner 2049? What did you think?

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