I am so Soviet happy.
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Written by Hampton Francher and Michael Green
With Ryan Gosling (K), Ana de Armas (Joi), Harrison Ford (Deckard), Mackenzie Davis (Mariette), Robin Wright (Lt. Joshi), Sylvia Hoeks (Luv), and Jared Leto (Niander Wallace)
They really don't want you to spoil Blade Runner 2049, and, in principle, I'm okay with that. Still, I can't speak to the wisdom of a marketing strategy that implicitly promises that there's a whole heap of secrets to spoil in Blade Runner 2049. Fair's fair, I suppose: it is plottier than its long-ago predecessor—naturally enough, since Blade Runner can be boiled down to the description, "in the future, a sci-fi slavecatcher has a change of heart," and that's barely a sentence. But for all of 2049's self-impressed mystery mechanics it has, at most, two major twists, and by the time the first one makes its basic shape known, the deeply unsatisfactory, almost-hacky nature of it leads you to pretty much immediately guess what the second, more-satisfactory twist is going to be. "Deckard is a Replicant?!", it ain't.
It's a halfway-decent plot anyway, albeit marred by a couple of inexplicable actions that, in a tighter screenplay, would've doubtless been avoided, inasmuch as the explicable action in both cases would've (literally) stopped this story dead. Still, for what it's worth, one of the several areas in which 2049 distinguishes itself is in the way that this script, by returning Blade Runner scribe Hampton Francher and newcomer Michael Green—both working from an idea bounced around for ages by Blade Runner director and 2049 producer Ridley Scott—does manage to give at least one shit about the actual detective story that motivates the more interesting aspects of their movie.
So, then: 30 years after Roy Batty concluded his death ride for life, with tears in rain and doves in hand, the world has come to rely more and more upon the servitude of those genetically-engineered slaves known as Replicants, if not without the occasional hiccup—for, in our long meantime, the Tyrell Corporation has been sued into nonexistence thanks to the incessant rebellion of their products, and Replicants have been outlawed entirely once, only to be legalized again, and ultimately we find the even-bigger Wallace Corporation in command of Tyrell's abandoned cloning vats. As we soon see, Wallace's new, improved breed of Replicant is designed to be far more pliant and amiable than what came before. Case in point: "K," a Blade Runner of the new style, created to hunt down and "retire" those rogue Replicants of previous generations, a few of which are still at large, and all of which are still considered too dangerous to live. The duties of a Blade Runner do not appear to concern K, however, nor does his own synthetic construction: he possesses memories, that give him the illusion of a past and of personhood; though he knows these to be falsified implants. He gets by, one guesses, more-or-less like anyone else in this hostile world, with a tiny apartment, a holographic girlfriend, Joi, and one day after another.
We meet K en route to one of his targets, catching up with him in midair as he arrives upon one of the vast synthetic farmlands outside L.A. His mission begins, and ends, much as one imagines most do. And yet, in the midst of cleaning up the mess, K discovers a stray thread that threatens to unravel the system that binds the world, alongside K's own hermetically-sealed moral universe: the gravesite of a Replicant—who died, impossibly, giving birth to her child. Making matters worse, the child itself evidently survived the process. K is tasked to find it, and kill it. And so, through the labyrinths of a shattered bureaucracy, through the archives of the Wallace Corporation, and even through the blind-alley recesses of his own fake "memories," and from the neon-and-garbage underworld of L.A. all the way to the irradiated sandstrewn husk of Vegas, K follows his quarry's traces. But it is in these final ruins that he finds a guide, of sorts, in the form of the long-lost blade runner of old, Rick Deckard. And it's here that it becomes very obvious (though K surely had an inkling before) that he's not the only one with an interest in the case.
I guess it's not really that complicated, after all. Maybe it only seems that way in the telling, thanks to the sheer, breathtaking scope of the thing: even more than its vaunted predecessor, Blade Runner 2049 is about its world before it even considers being about anything else, and a huge part of the reason that 2049 winds up clocking in at an eyebrow-raising 163 full minutes is that it is so smashed-full with hundreds of cool ideas, big and small alike, while simultaneously being insanely committed to delivering them within much the same kind of hypnotic stillness that Scott brought to bear, 35 years ago, upon his masterpiece. If you must be that guy, then yes, very well: few if any of Blade Runner 2049's cool ideas are genuinely novel, at least in their substance. Like a magpie, 2049 steals shamelessly, from a half-dozen or more other transportive cinematic futures, its victims ranging from 2001 to Minority Report (hey, another Dick), to A.I., and especially Her, to the extent that you could make the argument—and only half in jest!—that 2049 is as much a dark remake of that movie as it is a sequel to Blade Runner. But then, is taking everything that isn't nailed down not in the best tradition of that same vaunted predecessor? Because if you can point out to me the parts that were genuinely novel, even back in 1982, then I have a nice, shiny quarter here, for your troubles.
It is a monumental achievement as a sequel, then, so worthy that you could even like it more, if only it weren't effectively forbidden by the Movie Gods to do so. For the record, I actually don't. For all that I probably like most of this movie more than I like most of the original, 2049 never quite gets ahold of the same all-time greatness of Blade Runner's legendary finale.
But then again, who does? At least it's still fucking stupid in the most Blade Runnery way it could be: it's a movie whose whole plot revolves around the idea that genetic engineers who've built a whole race of superstrong, superfast, supersmart (?) synthetic beings apparently can't suss out how to make just one with a working womb. (Whereas the plot begins with the bones of a Replicant who did have a working womb, and was apparently built specifically for the task—but it begins with her bones because she died long ago, when her offspring got stuck between her hips. Well, at least this bleakly hilarious design oversight rises to level of "oh, it's thematic." Ridley Scott's God Metaphors are, as always, intensely prone to error, and I doubt he'd ever have it any other way.) On a lighter note—well, it made me laugh, anyway—2049 is also a movie where, at one point, our good detective is told to hand in his badge and his gun, but is still allowed to keep his heavily-armed flying car/military aircraft. Oh well: this kind of nonsense is also in the tradition of its predecessor. For better and for worse.
Thus, once again, it's the mutually-reinforcing arrangement of all its many ideas upon the screen that does the real trick. This time it does it with 155 million dollars' worth of High Hollywood money (that looks, honestly, more like 250, all of which might have been misspent, based on this weekend's business, and boy, does that make me sad). But the herculean effort of it all is what makes this fantasia feel like such a complete and coherent place, such a plausible riot of splendor and misery. And it is an avowed fantasia. One of my favorite details is the way 2049 dedicates itself to being the extrapolation of a future imagined in the 1980s, yet still manages to give full voice to contemporary fears: just like Blade Runner's Los Angeles reflected the terror of the Asian tiger economies rising and rising until eventually they'd swallow America up whole, so too is the L.A. of 2049 overrun with the freshly-resurgent bogeyman of our 21st century, the Russians—only in this alternate future, with its alternate past, these "Russians" are cast as bona fide Soviets. (And this is particularly cheeky and wonderful, once you recall that the original never actually mentioned the USSR in the first place!)
Meanwhile, I'm slightly at odds with the folks who've found 2049 especially regressive, thanks to its tendency toward a certain lack of demographic color, though that's in part because those same folks appear not to realize that the cyclopean geisha and predominance of Asian extras were not, in 1982, supposed to make L.A. seem less dystopian. Maybe going the opposite way wasn't just as intentional here, and that would be a pity. For my part, I'm seeing intention, anyway: a choice made, in 2017, that makes 2049 look more like hell to us—for, as it turns out, a world where humanity is made in factories to spec is a world full of white men, of varying degrees of power, alongside white women who are only on rare occasions even technically people.
So, if anything, 2049 builds its world even better than Blade Runner did. Its visualization, at least, is incrementally more austere; even its Expressionism is more expressionistic. This is a Blade Runner that makes me want to actually see the off-world colonies, even though I know that would at least slightly ruin it; it's simply that good. This is a Blade Runner that, in its seeming lack of discipline, spends an inordinate amount of runtime on a relationship between a genetically-engineered assassin and a noncorporeal fembot, and turns that relationship into not just something bittersweet, but into images that have never been seen before, and most likely will never be seen again—something breathtaking and truly, completely brand-new. (Hence the big thing, the only thing, that 2049 is really missing is a confirmation of its premise, specifically the industrial reproducibility of its Replicant heroes: how they ever avoided the presumably-overwhelming temptation to put a second Goslingoid in here is quite beyond me. Well, it is one hint that they might have been thinking "second sequel," no matter how admirably self-contained 2049 winds up being.)
Anyway: there is, at the time of this writing, no credible contender for 2018's production design Oscar except for Dennis Gassner—although God alone knows how many talented artists actually worked together to make 2049 so endlessly thrilling just to gawk at, and endlessly rewarding to deeply scan. I'll be flabbergasted if the VFX award doesn't get tossed its way, by default. (As for the Oscar for Best Original Score, however, I imagine it shall not: I enormously like 2049's score, and I'm really coming to love Hans Zimmer again—he was "helped out" this time by one of his own Replicants, a certain Benjamin Wallfisch—but its heaviest lifting is done by resort to aping Vangelis. Nevertheless, in the absence of any evidence to change my mind, I remain pleased that Scott showed Johann Johannsson the door.)
Once again, design and screenplay work together to weave the world, although it can't be denied that this Blade Runner was written for an audience noticeably less eager to do the work themselves: there are some awkward little conversations in here that say far more than they need to, often nakedly revealing themselves as a host of little conceptual modules the writers wanted to deploy, in order to demonstrate how impressed they were by the sprawl of their own speculation. Still, it's hard to blame them—not when they had something this packed with so many fascinating notions. For instance, sure, they radically overexplain the great blackout that rolled through California in 2022; but that's merely the cost of fully getting across one of the neater ideas underlying both 2049's backstory and its retro-futurist design, namely the near-obliteration of society thanks to an incredibly dangerous reliance upon fragile digital media.
But speaking of digital media, ought I not mention our great cinematographer, Roger Deakins? I actually doubt it: surely every frame speaks for itself. If anything needs be said, then, let's just say that it imprints a computerized coldness upon this world. It looks significantly different than Blade Runner, anyway, and Deakins, maybe counterintuitively, makes it prettier, which turns out to make it even less human. And the whole film, of course, is transparently designed as an opportunity for Deakins to just show right the fuck off—the bitter grayness of a climate-changed L.A. winter, the tinted silent film of Vegas, an eruption of stageshow lights out of darkness, a nighttime battle on the shore, and, above everything, the queasy liquid yellows that characterize the interiors of Wallace's compound, as uncanny and alien and self-consciously elaborate as anything in any cinemtaographer's body of work. (Amusingly, Wallace is blind, so I don't even know who his amazing interior design is supposed to be for.) But every preposterous challenge Deakins sets for himself still contributes to the all-important mood of the piece, as surely as anything else here at all.
And that mood we must attribute, in the end, to director Denis Villeneuve himself, who has, at long last, found a project worthy of his talents. One more thing I'll always personally treasure about 2049 is how it's proven my instincts correct: true, I have barely liked a single movie that the prolific Villeneuve has ever made in the English language and at least one of them is offensively awful (whereas his previous best was Arrival, which abandons everything interesting about its hard SF linguistics in order to be terrible instead)—yet I always knew there was a masterpiece in him, if only he found the right movie to make. 2049 is the right movie, playing to all his strengths (and the strengths of his editor, Joe Walker) as a maker of long, slow, dour films. 2049 is, of course, intensely dour; but what else could it be? It's a movie about the lost consciousness of a class, about living in a world that steadfastly refuses to be changed; where virtually everyone is a Replicant, and even the Replicants have their own slaves to make them feel better; where everyone lives in fear and does their best, all the time, to exist until they die.
While it is, of course, hard to imagine a much more on-the-nose lead for such a tale than Ryan Gosling himself.
So I should spare at least a word for the performers, lest you get the impression that they were meat puppets for CGI artists and crazed directors of photography. You do get that impression sometimes while watching the film; but, you know, that's appropriate. So: Gosling has rarely been better, flipping Deckard's soul-searching completely on its head, and there are scarcely better moments of acting here than the ones where Gosling makes it plain on his face how enraging it feels for K to have to question his reality, when he was already content with being authentically fake; Harrison Ford does an eminently reasonable extrapolation of Deckard, even if it turns out that old Deckard is more-or-less "Han Solo, but sad"; finally, Jared Leto is certainly doing something with Niander Wallace, almost literally the master of this universe, and I can't imagine it'll be to everyone's taste, but I personally adored Leto's just-how-far-can-I-go camp exploration of the blind would-be God, reading every single one of his lines like he was chewing on rocks.
Ah, I see your face! But I've only left the women out because they're the best this movie's got: Sylvia Hoeks plays Wallace's chief Replicant, Luv, as an unabashed Terminator, but also one at least as twisted up with daddy issues as Roy Batty ever was, only with them turned the other way. And, last, but furthest from least, is Ana de Armas, who almost certainly had the hardest time of it as Joi—just to begin with, I wonder how often she was composited in later, though you'd never be able to tell. In any event, Armas has by far the most difficult task: presenting a robot who must have something like a fullly human level of consciousness, and making us suspect that she genuinely feels the love she offers to K—while, at the exact same time, never, ever permitting us to forget that she's 100% mechanical, and that every last aspect of her personality is driven by a core program that doesn't think the tension between free will and determinism even makes for an interesting topic of debate.
With that in mind, it is a Goddamn shame how her character ends up. But I think I mentioned it was dour.
Dour, indeed! Yet there are, thankfully, glimpses of happiness in 2049, and (surprisingly) there are moments of laugh-out-loud humor. There are even more moments of visceral excitement—hell, it begins with excitement (along with a reminder that Dave Bautista is shaping up to be a real actor), quite generously letting us get our bearings with a grimly enjoyable action scene, and showing, rather than telling, the very first thing we need to know about K. (For a slowly-paced movie that is, I repeat, 163 minutes long, it somehow doesn't feel anywhere close to that.) Meanwhile, there are, inevitably, gestures in the direction of change here—of reform, of revolution, of the millennium itself.
And, in the end, they're distractions; maybe not meaningless ones, though they don't amount to anything of special significance. At best, they are stories for another time—and other people's stories, at that. And this may be the thing I have decided to love about 2049 the most: the way it begins as an epic, and then narrows down and down to an intimate, almost invisibly small story that happens to take place within the vastness of this world, where all that matters is doing just one thing, to save just one person, because that is all that can be done. It is, like its predecessor, shockingly, almost assaultively pessimistic—it is, I'd say, even more pessimistic, for it is 30 years on now, and really things have only gotten worse—but even as salvation remains as distant as ever, and hope by itself remains worthless in the moment, the world to come is not without its humanity. Blade Runner 2049 is, if nothing else, the perfect movie for the regrettable future we're already in.