Inhuman, by Bob Connally

8 Oct

Ridley Scott’s 1982 classic Blade Runner has become one of the most debated films ever made. Film buffs debate which cut of the film is best and they debate whether or not Deckard (Harrison Ford) is a human or a replicant. Where viewers come down on the Deckard question can depend in large part on which version of the movie they prefer. Even the director and star have disagreed about it for decades with Scott insisting, “He is definitely a replicant,” while Ford played the role believing his character to be human. 35 years later and 10 years after the release of Blade Runner: The Final Cut, Ford is back as Deckard while the question still looms.

Set 30 years after the original film, Blade Runner 2049 shows that things have only gotten worse for the world (or at least Los Angeles) since 2019. While this is a film that raises far more questions than it answers, it tells us in its opening moments that K (Ryan Gosling), a LAPD “blade runner,” is in fact a replicant. In a time when replicants are easier to spot than they used to be, K is greeted with open hostility both at the precinct and at his apartment building.

One of the elements that makes Blade Runner 2049 so fascinating is how, despite the mystery surrounding so much of its story and its world, it is unambiguously giving us a protagonist who is not human. Screenwriters Hampton Fancher and Michael Green and director Denis Villeneuve (Arrival) choose to show us many private moments with a character we know isn’t “real.” As a result, audience members can question themselves about why they may or may not care about K the way they would any other “real” fictional character. It is comforting to know that even now, a big budget Hollywood sequel can get audiences to ask this kind of philosophical question, as we wonder who is worthy of our sympathy and why. Beyond that, it gets us thinking about how we would view and treat replicants were they to become a reality. It’s a smart decision on the part of the filmmakers to make K’s identity as a replicant clear because it speaks to the heart of what Blade Runner 2049 is exploring thematically.

The other reason it’s smart is that it sets this sequel off immediately in its own direction. While this is a film that could only take place in the world established by the original Blade Runner, it has a unique feel of its own. Yes, it is another detective story set largely in a rainy Los Angeles, but the future noir look of the first movie has given way to a universe that is brighter and more metallic. While society has continued to break down, structures have become more polished. The bright, shiny interiors of the LAPD station K works in suggest the sense of order the department is trying to project even as the city deteriorates around them.

Saying much more about the story would be to give away major plot points that the film’s advertising campaign wisely went to great lengths to keep under wraps. Suffice it to say that Jared Leto’s Niander Wallace has picked up where the now defunct Tyrell Corporation left off in the manufacturing of replicants and that K eventually needs help from “the old blade runner” himself to solve his case, while maybe answering some other major questions along the way.

Blade Runner 2049 is a film that demands and – I have no doubt – will reward repeat viewings. I suspect it is the sort of movie where its original reviews will be fascinating to revisit years from now as well. Like the original, this should inspire lengthy examinations decades down the line, written by people who will have seen the film numerous times over several years, knowing every frame inside and out. These writers will also have the benefit of not needing to worry about spoilers. I would like to be one of them.

This is no ordinary movie, either to experience or digest. You really do owe it to yourself to see it in the theater to fully appreciate the most beautifully shot film made in a long time. Not surprisingly Roger Deakins (The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford, Fargo, Skyfall) is the director of photography and he may have outdone himself here. The film’s production designer Dennis Gassner has worked alongside Deakins many times (Skyfall and several Coen Brothers’ films) and together they’ve created a deeply immersive, visually jaw-dropping world for Villeneuve to tell a remarkable story in. The only film in 2017 to rival it as a cinematic experience is Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk.

Not to be overlooked is the strong emotional component of Blade Runner 2049, handled terrifically by Villeneuve and his cast. In the original movie it was surprisingly the villain, replicant Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) who really gave the film its heart (which is especially apparent in The Final Cut). One could argue that his “tears in the rain” monologue just before his death is the single biggest reason why we remember Blade Runner for more than its visuals 35 years later. In 2049, Deckard’s storyline packs more emotional punch than his did in the first movie. In a smaller role than we’re used to seeing him in, Harrison Ford delivers one of the finest performances of his career here. Whether Deckard is a human or a replicant, he has experienced real loss and pain. Gosling as K meanwhile projects a deep sense of sadness. He seems to know that not being human means there are things that he will never be able to experience, lamenting the fact that he knows his childhood memories are fictional implants.

I am not going to boldly proclaim one way or the other that this is or is not a stronger film than the first Blade Runner. Right now I couldn’t say. Only time and repeat viewings will tell. But that’s not really what matters. Denis Villeneuve has made a sequel to a classic movie that is excellent in its own right and that thankfully does not lean on audience nostalgia. Blade Runner 2049 is far better than we ever could have reasonably hoped for and for now at least, that should be enough.

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