To expect much credibility in recommending Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 without really caring for Ridley Scott’s 1982 film strikes me as an exceedingly futile task but here we go: I admired and even liked Villeneuve’s new film. But I preface this review with the knowledge that Scott’s film isn’t especially important to me. My admiration for Blade Runner 2049 comes from a place that values Villeneuve’s formalism, Roger Deakins’ gorgeous cinematography, Dennis Gasser’s remarkable production design, and even Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer’s unrelenting yet immersive score. The finer details of its narrative, the specifics outlined at the start of the film through text, and the sort of things that fellow critics remarked with giddy recognition when the film screened, were of little consequence to me. What did strike me were the film’s competing ideologies, where the existential queries presented in Scott’s original film aren’t so much answered as they are recalibrated.
We’re introduced to KD6-3.7 (Ryan Gosling) an LAPD android Blade Runner tasked with hunting and “retiring” older models. The actor’s unflinching gaze and monotonous tenor serves as an ideal fit for the role, in what concludes something of a trilogy of stoic protagonists that began with Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive and Only God Forgives. A mission that opens the film offers a charged moment that illuminates the narrative trajectory of the picture, as writers Hampton Fancher and Michael Green explore and continue the former film’s ever-persistent pursuit for authenticity. What follows is an unexpected procedural of sorts, with Villeneuve operating in the dour vein that made Prisoners so discomforting, while blending the toxic abstractness that made Enemy so compelling.
With only a passing knowledge of Phillip K. Dick’s writing, it was actually David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest that informed much of my experience with Blade Runner 2049. Beyond the coincidence that the film’s ominous corporate entity is named Wallace - run by milky-eyed scientist cum corporate megalomaniac Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) - both DFW’s monumental novel and Fancher and Green’s screenplay remark on a future that sees humanity motivated by inauthentic or artificial expressions of pleasure. Fancher and Green spend an inordinate amount of time contained in K’s dismal apartment, where a Wallace-designed A.I. hologram named Joi (a remarkable Ana de Armas) functions as K’s singular companion. The film’s most compelling sequences involve K and Joi as they contend with the tactile obstacles their relationship presents, culminating in a moment that sings more beautifully than anything in Spike Jonze’s like-minded Her.
The moments between K and Joi tend to cut into the film’s procedural elements, though they ultimately inform a rich commentary on the faithfulness of memory, the differential between experience and “experience”, and the fuzzy distinctions between being “born” and “made”. Critics will be sure to cite the story of Pinocchio as a reference point to which K strives to escape his servitude and achieve some measure of agency, but that strikes me as an exceedingly simplistic and useless way of thinking about 2049. Instead, consider the film’s dynamic memory sequence where Dr. Ana Stelline (Carla Juri) is questioned by K on the distinctions between real and implant memories. What emerges from this interrogation is a compelling rejoinder on the subjectivity of memory, on our tendency to rely on memory as Gospel, and our persistent failures to understand their impact. The entire complexion of the film changes dramatically after this scene and provides the film with a depth and dimension that opens up the film to a swath of reevaluations.
There is, of course, an entirely different dimension of appreciation for the film that has to do with your appreciation for Scott’s original. The first sight of Harrison Ford or the litany of cameo appearances will satisfy those who value images of recognition. Which, in its own way, reinforces the film’s commentary on memory as a device to dull our concerns. It’s perhaps why I was a little less enthused by the gears of the film’s narrative, particularly in how it reaches its final act. But those concerns were muted by the existential ideas at the heart of Blade Runner 2049; this is a big-budget studio-driven sequel that commendably aspires to ask big questions about living, life, and experience, and sets out not to answer them but probe them in an intelligent, formally vigorous way. By that virtue alone, Blade Runner 2049 is vital.