The original Ridley Scott Blade Runner is one of my favorite movies I’ve ever seen, despite its many flaws. The story it tries to tell is compelling, and the way Mr. Scott tries to tell it is even more compelling. I also absolutely love Philip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.” The book that originated this story tells a story that is, while very different, is even more compelling. But once again, I love the way the story is told. It asks compelling questions, makes you think about them, and then refuses to answer them in a satisfactory manner.
Denis Villeneuve’s latest creation is one of staggering risk. This movie seeks to take a beloved cult classic that is based on a beloved piece of literature, create a sequel that was never intended, and also somehow both push the envelope and give reverence to such a beloved movie.
And by the gods, he did it. I’m telling you, this movie is ambitious as fuck and it deserves far more box office than it’s getting.
Emphasizing with Robots
Ambition starts with its lead character, an android “Replicant” known as “K”. We know very little about what replicants are supposed to act like, since there’s so much variety within the original Blade Runner, and because there’s so much time that passes between movies. With successive generations, is it possible that replicants became more human-like? Sure.
Well, except that even in the original Blade Runner, we could tell, right? There was something that was sort of…well…off about Replicants. Some kind of innate sociopathy, as evidenced by the need for the psychological testing in the previous film. But it was subtle.
This is all to say that both Denis gave the writers and Ryan Gosling one of the greatest challenges in film. Portray an android that has to seem cold and slow to emote, and like a sociopath, and yet make us like emphasize with him. The original Philip K. Dick book does a great job of finding the fine line, but it also doesn’t have to act or direct a real person. The original movie does a so-so job of finding a balance. This movie perfects it.
And yet, I’ve seen plenty of stories that try to make us emphasize with a robot. Typically, the strategy involves personification. Make the robot ACT like a human, typical by emoting in some weird, and yet discernable way. The only time Ryan Gosling truly emotes in this movie (and it’s on purpose, nothing against his performance) is in the 2nd act, where it’s actually shocking and disturbing, and in the 3rd act, where it makes you want to cry (but I won’t tell you why).
So without emoting, how does this character succeed? Well, we spend a lot of time with him. Not just a lot of individual scenes, but long lingering moments in his personal life. We see his struggles, his life, his every day, and how he copes. As much as Blade Runner is a tale of Deckard, this is the tale of “K”. And let its story is so much more fulfilling than the original.
There’s even an incredible, and yet not stereotypically artificial romance between “K” and Ana de Armas’ “Joi”. It’s clear that it’s a relationship between a robot and a hologram, but Denis and his writers actually addresses the relationship with legitimacy and honesty. He addresses their real challenges and the fact that their love motivates incredible gestures to surpass those challenges. It’s one of the most refreshing relationships I’ve seen on screen, and yet it’s between two artificial beings.
And yet, this is exactly what Philip K. Dick wanted right? To challenge our expectations. To ask us if there is a difference between someone who is “born” and someone who is “created.” And even beyond Blade Runner, this movie captures that question.
I saw this movie with a bunch of family members, most of which aren’t as into movies as I am. The most prevalent piece of criticism that I heard was that it was slow or that they were tempted to fall asleep at times. To this second point, my family noted that it’s not that it was boring, it just wasn’t as action packed as most of the movies coming out today.
This movie feels very different from any other movie I’ve seen lately, especially any blockbuster movie that’s come out lately. Most movies today have insane pacing. These movie makers spend billions of dollars on creating incredible imaginative worlds and scenes and yet we spend no more than few fractions of a second on each scene. If we’re lucky, a character like Ego from GotG 2 will go “look at all this beauty” and we’ll spend a few seconds staring at amazing CGI. Blade Runner 2049, on the other hand, breathes.
I know, that’s an odd term for most people, but it’s the only way I can think of to describe the scene progression in this movie. While some scenes happen quickly, most shots linger on the characters, the background. Each pan of the camera is slow, purposeful, methodical. We don’t shoot across scenes as quickly, because we’re meant to take in every element of every scene and let the bass heavy electronics guide our emotions. Every scene takes a breath before moving to the next. If you let the camera guide your gaze, you’ll notice that every scene is truly beautiful and perfectly shot.
I wanted to bring this up first because this movie is not for everyone. This is an old school approach to filmmaking that feels closer to Stanley Kubrick on acid, but it also elevates what Ridley Scott did in the original. It’s the logical progression from Mr. Scott’s long lingering shots of Harrison Ford driving grumpy. In other words, make sure to get a good night’s rest or ingest plenty of caffeine before going to see this movie, because while this movie isn’t trying to put to sleep, it’s also not trying to keep you up.
And yet, I just can’t get enough of how beautifully directed this movie is. Each “breathy” scene is not only filled with incredible and purposeful imagery that lends itself to repeated viewings, but is also filled with Hans Zimmer’s most imaginative and strange soundtrack yet. It’s not a soundtrack that inspires, scares, or embraces, but a soundtrack that exposes the true sounds and emotions of a dystopian world full of machine, dirt, darkened steel, blistering neon, and wasted dreams.
At time the soundtrack is haunting, at others it is disturbing, and at others it simply berates you with harsh mechanical noise. In other words, it doesn’t shy from making you feel the harsh experience of this world and of K’s life. And yet, when the scene is soft, warm, and embracing, the music exemplifies it with space. It provides a background melody for rest of the senses.
The essence of great storytelling is in its characters. Blade Runner 2049 does not disappoint. Despite being yet another sequel to a cult classic, there is not a single character in this movie that is a copy/paste of one of the previous characters.
At first glance, you might think that Jared Leto’s “Wallace” is a new version of Tyrell. But that would be wildly incorrect. Sure, he took over in the respect that he now controls the manufacture of replicants, and sure, he has a god complex, but he is a terrifying and twisted evolution of the original character.
This is Jared Leto’s most masterful performance yet. In every scene, he executes some of the most compelling and enigmatic dialogues, almost monologues actually, in a manner befitting of a Shakespearean performance. His character’s blindness, never explicitly stated but always implied, is explained only through Leto’s non-verbal queues and mysterious actions. The way he speaks and moves is simultaneously hypnotic as well as compelling as well as frightening.
Unfortunately, Wallace is also not nearly as important to the overall story as Tyrell is. We see him only a few times, and while the performance and dialogue is incredible, it inevitably seems to lead nowhere. It is through his dialogue that we get hints and pieces of the greater world, of what his true motivations are (which are still unknown to me), and yet he does not, in any way, act upon the events in this movie. Wallace’s scenes feel necessary to a larger unknown goal, or perhaps is necessary simply to creep us out, but he is also dangerously close to irrelevance.
And of course there are many other characters in this movie. Sylvia Hoeks brilliantly performs as the movie’s chief antagonist. Robin Wright deserves acolades for her role as K’s only dose of comforting humanity. And of course, there’s Harrison Ford, who’s returning performance as Deckard pushes his story forward in a way that I didn’t expect. His presence makes sense, and although he only shows up much later in the movie, we feel the impact that Deckard had throughout the movie.
But there are a ton of minor characters. Harrison Ford might even be included in them. But I want to chat about this girl for a moment. Like many of the characters in this movie, at first glance they appear to be throwaway caracatures. Heck, she even looks similar to a prostitute in the original movie.
But there’s so much more to her than I thought. In every scene, Mackensie Davis is allows to act the shit out of each scene. I truly got a sense of her character, her jaded disposition combined with a hopeful sense of warmth. She has so many small throwaway lines that lead to greater and greater depth. I feel like many stories could be told over a few beers.
And there are so many characters like this. Each one brilliantly crafted and acted. It’s as if the writers build a 140 page backstory for every single one. I have so many questions, and yet they will never be answered. That’s the essence of great storytelling.
This is all to say that this movie is simply incredible. You will not find a movie going experience like this from any other movie that is out today, or that is coming soon. And this is coming from a guy who is a diehard Star Wars fan. This movie elevates past any sense of fandom and becomes something altogether different.
An experience rather than a story. A story that asks rather than telling.
And for that last reason, I say this is the most Philip K. Dick movie that I have ever seen.