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Film Review: Blade Runner 2049
Image Credit: Blade Runner (C) 2017

Film Review: Blade Runner 2049

17 October 2017 Daniel Pateman

Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 is a perfectly realised vision, an intricate entertainment that maintains a deft balance between spellbinding spectacle and rich narrative subtlety.

An illustrative if reductive analogy would be to say that Blade Runner 2049 is to Ridley Scott’s original what The Dark Knight was to Batman Returns. While both Blade Runner and Batman were dark and brooding, set in universes shrouded in almost-permanent night, dystopian with a capital D and full of fantastical production design, 2049 is a science fiction film that looks spectacular but feels closer to a recognisable reality.

Blade Runner 2049 is a beguiling mystery, arresting our attention from the very start whilst keeping us continually on a knife-edge of revelation, and though packed with blockbuster visuals it doesn’t leave the mind to idle. Unlike the Christopher Nolan film Inception’s sterile visual pallet and innocuous dramatic pretentions, 2049 is a big-budget movie whose themes are rewardingly numerous and complex. Too complex one might argue, for the main movie necessitates three short intermediary films to act as expositional bridges between the events of the sequel and the first film.

A brief summation of Villeneuve’s film sees replicant Blade Runner ‘K’ (Ryan Gosling) sent to an off-world farm by the LAPD to ‘retire’ a rogue replicant; a Nexus 8 model who, unlike those in the original film, have an extended life-span. It is here he discovers a case containing the remains of a replicant who appears to have died during childbirth. Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright), fearing that knowledge of replicant reproduction will incite social turmoil, instructs him to destroy the remains and to track down and terminate the child. His investigation brings him into contact with Nexus-9 manufacturer Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), replicant memory designer Dr Ana Stelline, and Blade Runner Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), whom he finds residing in the radioactive ruins of Las Vegas.

The film mostly insinuates questions and obliquely toys with answers. The most revealing line of dialogue comes when Lieutenant Joshi portentously warns ‘K’: “The world is built on a wall that separates kind. Tell either side there's no wall... You bought a war.” While there are undoubted political overtones, it signposts one of the key concerns of the film – the need to police often permeable categories, of ‘human’ and ‘inhuman’ for example, to maintain civil order. The technological blackout of 2022 that we’re told destroyed all records of registered replicants means they’re now increasingly difficult to tell apart from humans. Luv, one of Wallace’s replicant subordinates, may sometimes appear part-Terminator - mercilessly taking lives to achieve her ends - but she sheds tears when he callously slaughters one of her own kind. Lieutenant Joshi on the other hand, ostensibly human, shows inhuman stoicism when confronted with her own mortality.

K is central to the film’s robot/human conundrum; questioning the authenticity of his memories, displaying anger and loyalty, and experiencing sensation. A definitive answer about who is or isn’t a replicant is not forthcoming, and if the film’s original creator and star disagree about whether Deckard is one too, how are we expected to reach any definitive conclusions? Luckily we don’t have to, the film only asking that we consider our own assumptions of humanness, and ponder whether our seemingly innate traits are even exclusive to us as a species.

Technology pervades every frame of the movie, employed in endlessly thrilling and inventive ways. While science fiction has sometimes presented a fanciful conception of scientific advancement, the Los Angeles of Blade Runner 2049 is strewn with a technology not light-years ahead of our own. Towering billboards personalise themselves to passers-by like the sexy incarnation of your Nectar card data. In one scene, Luv dispassionately fires missile after missile from her remote-activated glasses as someone paints her nails, the image an amusing critique of modern warfare.

In a post-human relationship to surpass Joaquin Phoenix’s passion for disembodied software in Spike Jonze's 2013 film Her, replicant K utilises a hologram companion called Joi (Ana de Armas) whose function appears to be to assuage loneliness. Even a replicant needs someone to love it seems, and technology fulfils this need. Joi’s own journey towards unstable personhood includes increasing sensation, and moments of physicality; even so, she and K are only able to consummate their spiritual union through the body of sex-worker Mariette, in a visually lavish scene of physical and digital communion.

Raising questions about the nature of identity, the limits of personal autonomy, and the blurred line between the artificial and the real, Blade Runner 2049 is stuffed with ideas. This feast of themes compliments the film’s sumptuous visual abundance, while Villeneuve brings a light touch to the material, making it more accessible than the dour, rain-soaked original. Even at almost three hours, there isn’t sufficient room to digest the cornucopia of philosophical speculation on offer. Fortunately however, the film is intellectually rewarding and visually spectacular enough to warrant multiple sittings.
 

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