I know what’s real.
I was worried about this movie. Part of it is that I hold the original Blade Runner (though I suppose actually the original is that dreadful one with the voice-over and the happy ending, so it’s actually the Director’s Cut) up as a near-perfect movie. It’s just astonishingly great. So I couldn’t really see how this movie could hope to even stand up as a worthy sequel. And I didn’t want to see Denis Villeneuve, a brilliant director, wreck on a horrible franchise movie. Well, I needn’t have worried. Blade Runner 2049 isn’t, upon immediate viewing, the absolute masterwork that the first film is, but it is a more than worthy sequel, a great, gorgeous movie in its own right and ultimately, it goes right up there on the shelf next to the original without any embarrassment.
The technical virtuosity is breathtaking. The imagery is both seamlessly of a piece with the first movie and yet also a clever and beautiful expansion of those visuals. Hans Zimmer is having a kind of a renaissance this year. He already turned in his best score in years (maybe a decade) with Dunkirk, but he’s already topped that one with this one, a score that is both beautifully intimate and grimly epic. It’s striking and brilliant.
The performances are also really brilliant. Ryan Gosling is as good as you’d expect, but the supporting cast really shines. Sylvia Hoeks gives a star-making performance as the vicious replicant Luv, as good a villain as I’ve seen in the theater this year. Ana de Armas is a revelation as Gosling’s virtual girlfriend; she takes an initially one-note role and as the film deepens her character over the film, she just hits everything perfectly, embodying the slowly awakening consciousness of Joi beautifully. Harrison Ford is fantastic; his franchise based renaissance has reached exhilarating levels – it’s almost enough to make me hopeful about another Indiana Jones movie. His scene with Jared Leto is some of the best acting he’s done in . . . God, more than a decade probably. Jared Leto, an actor I almost always dislike, is really perfect as well. Robin Wright deserves a ton of praise for her turn as the hard-bitten Lt. Joshi. And a brief note that Dave Bautista gives his most subtle performance yet in a quiet & emotional cameo. We already knew he has charisma and comic timing; now we know he can really communicate emotion powerfully as well. And a word for Carla Juri; again, it’s a tiny role, but she manages to really land emotionally in just a couple of scenes.
But it’s more than just the beautiful execution; this movie really is about something. It’s a compelling exploration, as the first film was, of the difference between the real and the fake and how the distance between those two things grows and shrinks in ways that are sometimes imperceptible and sometimes painfully obvious. The movie once again wants you to wonder if these “artificial” creations have souls or consciousness or emotions; and, once again, it wants you to wonder if they might not have more of those things than their “real” counterparts. The film makes you fear for artificial life only for you realize that all it’s done is take on the vulnerability of its real counterpoint. The film is really compelling in its exploration of these ideas and issues. The moment when K confronts a version of Joi that he hasn’t encountered before is powerful and terrifying; more than any other moment in the film, it hits straight to the heart of the human condition: maybe the most human thing “artificial” life does in this movie is change. But for all the doubts and the ways in which artificial becomes real and real becomes artificial in our perceptions, there are still moments of startling clarity. When Ford drops the best line in the movie and then calmly follows it up with, “I know what’s real,” you know that he does; but when K says the same thing earlier in the film, he’s both right and also wrong – the thing he’s talking about is real, but it’s the meaning of that reality that K fundamentally misunderstands.
Anyway, I’ve gone on at length and yet I still feel that I’ve left a lot unsaid. This film isn’t perfect, at least not on first viewing; a lengthy sequence involving holographic musical acts is both poorly conceived and executed. But I expect it to grow in my estimation on revisits and it’s already clearly a genuinely great film. When I watch the first Blade Runner, I will sometimes pretend this movie doesn’t exist; the ending to Blade Runner is so perfect that it deserves to stand as the ending to the story of Deckard & Rachel. But you know what? Sometimes when I watch the first Blade Runner . . . I will watch it with the understanding that this movie exists. I will let this movie continue the story of the first Blade Runner. I can’t think of higher praise than that. 4 stars.
tl;dr – beautiful visuals, astounding direction, fantastic performances, a thought-provoking & challenging script; not quite up to the original, but it’s a great film by any measure. 4 stars.