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Blu-ray Review: Blade Runner 2049

January 16, 2018

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

A long awaited follow up to Ridley Scott’s 1982 classic Blade Runner, Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 takes place thirty years after the events of the original film.  Replicants are still being treated like second class citizens, and now the blade runner jobs go to other replicants, who are seen as the lowest of the low even amongst their own kind.

Officer K (Ryan Gosling) is a blade runner working for the LAPD who is tasked with “retiring” outdated replicants, and is sent to take out a poor farmer (Dave Bautista).  When K discovers a box of bones on his property, he starts to uncover a long buried mystery that causes him to question the nature of his own existence, and eventually leads him to former blade runner Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), who is now living in exile.

Like the original, Blade Runner 2049 melds science fiction visuals and ideas with the tone and feel of a neonoir mystery, centred around a character who is as much inwardly searching for some sort of deeper meaning as he is following the clues that are in front of him.  Officer K is a brooding loner, which is something that Ryan Gosling plays very well, and his only source of companionship is a holographic girlfriend of sorts named Joi (Ana de Armas), who provides the human connection and sense of closeness that he craves.

Joi is the most real thing in his world despite the fact that she is merely a facsimile of a real woman – the product of complex coding and digital programming – and this offers interesting implications about the loneliness of this world.  Like all replicants, Joi was created by the company of Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), a shadowy figure who rose to power by developing a cheap source of protein following a global food crisis, and gained a monopoly on artificial intelligence.  Wallace serves as a villainous figure in the film, with an icy replicant named Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) acting as his violent enforcer.

Where as the original film presented a dystopic vision of 2019, the setting of Blade Runner 2049 feels even more post-apocalyptic.  Like in the first one, the impoverished cities are littered with virtual ads selling products – which now appear as interactive pop ups being projected into the smog – and the streets are still populated by rundown food stands, with much of the action happening in sleazy red light districts.  But now the majority of the remaining human population has long since abandoned the planet to live “off world,” and much of the earth has been left in ruins from both natural disasters and warfare, with Las Vegas reduced to a bombed out ghost town.

The Las Vegas setting brings us to the best sequence in the film, which comes about two thirds of the way through when Harrison Ford finally shows up, and takes place in a broken down old casino.  This leads to a haunting set piece in an empty showroom, complete with a malfunctioning holographic Elvis in the background, that offers a stunning mix of lighting and carefully choreographed camerawork.  As a visual experience, Blade Runner 2049 is consistently engaging, with a neon-tinged look to it that serves to both compliment and pay homage to the inimitable style of the original film.

The production designers utilized real sets and practical effects whenever possible to give this world a tactical feel, building upon the retrofuturistic look of the original film.  The cinematography by modern master Roger Deakins is top notch, helping immerse us in the film with scene after scene of striking images.  This is some of the cinematographer’s best work.  Where the 1982 film was constantly dark and rainy, this sequel evokes cold and snow, with hollowed out landscapes that recall the dead of winter.

With Ridley Scott serving as executive producer, Denis Villeneuve has crafted a film that functions as much like a companion piece to the original as it does a conventional sequel.  The story explores big ideas about what it means to be human, where we should draw the line between real and artificial life, and how memories and emotions shape our experiences, while keeping the original’s central mystery of whether or not Deckard is a replicant fully intact.  It often feels more like a moody tone poem exploring fundamental questions of existence than it does a typical action thriller, and these themes are even more eerily relevant now, with new technology bringing us to a terrifying turning point when the threat of robots becoming almost indiscernible from humans is closer than it ever was before.

But for all that there is to admire about Blade Runner 2049, there is also a distance to the film that admittedly left me a little cold upon first viewing.  The close to three hour running time is somewhat bloated and can feel self-indulgent, and the film also lacks some of the immediate emotional impact of the original – there is no direct equivalent of the sobering “tears in the rain” speech here, which added a moving coda to the first film.  It’s technically good, but can feel frigid.  I think some of this emotional distance is an intentional choice, but it kept me from embracing the film as fully as some others have.

Like how the original was met with indifference and confusion upon its release, and only came to be viewed as a classic in subsequent years, Blade Runner 2049 somewhat understandably also failed to connect at the box office, despite receiving some stellar reviews.  There is still a lot to admire about the film, at least on a technical level, and it plays out in a unique dreamscape that offers a feast for the eyes and raises a lot of interesting questions.  This is a film that I’m especially curious to see how it holds up on subsequent viewings and in the coming years, but in the moment this is an often artistically daring big studio film that is worth investing the time in watching for yourself.

The Blu-ray also includes the featurettes Designing the World of Blade Runner 2049 and To Be Human: Casting Blade Runner 2049, as well as the three prologues Blade Runner 2022, Blade Runner 2036 and Blade Runner 2048 which were each brought to life by a different director and fill in some gaps between the two films, and a selection of six brief featurettes compiled under the heading of Blade Runner 101.

Blade Runner 2049 is a Warner Bros. Home Enrertainment release.  It’s 164 minutes and rated 14A.

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