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VOL. 41 | NO. 41 | Friday, October 13, 2017

‘Blade Runner 2049’ tops all expectations

Updated 10:14AM
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I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. The Death Star bursting into a bloom of fire against an expanse of glimmering stars. The Ark of the Covenant opened and God’s wrath unleashed on Nazi scum. A DeLorean ripping through the fabric of time to take a young man home.

All those moments were lost in time, like tears in rain, as I watched “Blade Runner 2049,” a cinematic wonderwork that not only builds on the original film but alters your perception of the 35-year-old science fiction masterpiece.

As I sat in a theater, watching the improbable sequel to a film I once loved more than any other, I initially struggled with what I was seeing.

I missed the dark, rainy neo-noir aesthetic of the original film, carefully hewn by director Ridley Scott. And the world seemed visually drab compared to the intricate, neon-rich exteriors fashioned by special effects guru Douglas Trumbull in the early ‘80s.

“Blade Runner” was revolutionary in its time – a brilliant original vision that changed the look of science fiction cinema for decades. Where were the images that would imprint themselves on my memory, like the shot in the original film of the Spinner lowering itself into the police headquarters building, its red and blue lights casting bright halos in the smog, or the shot of the blimp drifting through downtown L.A. advertising a better life in the off-world colonies?

But “2049” slowly peeled away the layers of my resistance, and in time I realized director Denis Villeneuve fashioned a world that’s both faithful to the one in the original film and a natural expansion of it.

Spinners still slice through the haze of Los Angeles and larger than life advertisements dominate the city’s skyline. Even when the film ventures beyond L.A., there’s no glimpse of the sun that sits above the perpetual cloud cover. From bleak, grey cityscapes to rust-colored industrial wreckage, the dystopic, eco-collapsed world of “Blade Runner” is as oppressive as ever.

What’s more, instead of mimicking the look of “Blade Runner,” Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins painted “2049” with their own visual sensibilities. Their work shines in the interiors, where expressionist shadows and angular lines are broken by reflections of water. Like “Blade Runner,” the sequel not only looks fabulous but evokes awe.

As beautiful as “2049” is, the ways in which it’s most clearly cut from the DNA of its predecessor are in the slow, meditative burn of its narrative and the exploration of big, existential questions.

Much like I initially struggled with the look of “2049,” it took me a while to release my expectations and let the sequel tell its story. I missed Rutger Hauer’s villainous replicant, Roy Batty, who gave “Blade Runner” a fierce antagonist but also allowed the film to delve into the theme of empathy. Worse, having been conditioned by the hyperactive nature of genre films over the last several years, the movie’s pace felt languid.

But “2049” rewards patience. Once the filmmakers started to tie together the threads they’d unraveled, I doubt I blinked until the end.

Four stars out of four

In that respect, “2049” is not a modern film. It gradually develops its characters and pieces together its story. It invites viewers to sink into their chairs and let it work its slow but effective magic.

Set 30 years after the original film, the sequel follows replicant K (Ryan Gosling), who’s been tasked with hunting down and eliminating rogue older model replicants. After finding and killing a replicant who was unwilling to go quietly, he finds something that leads him down a path of mystery and discovery.

To reveal more about the story would spoil it for people who have seen “Blade Runner.” So, I will simply say co-writer Hampton Fancher, who penned an early draft of the script for the original film, and Michael Green crafted a story that builds on “Blade Runner” in surprising but respectful ways.

More than that, they took some of the film’s most memorable moments and drew something unexpected out of them to support their narrative. I was stunned by a detail a character in “2049” pulls out of the scene in the original film in which Harrison Ford’s character, Rick Deckard, meets the replicant Rachel.

Remarkably, that nugget casts a new light on the 1982 picture without changing its context or outcome. This is what a sequel should be. If I never see another piece of revisionist filmmaking again (I’m looking at you, “Terminator,” and you, “Star Trek”) it will be too soon.

I’d love to see more thoughtful, intelligent science fiction, though. Both “Blade Runner” films explore what it means to be alive, how our memories inform our past and impact our future, and the nature of being human. Without this focus on theme, “Blade Runner 2049” would have been a rote police procedural; as it stands, it’s a work of grand cinematic art.

It is not, however, a Marvel action film. Viewers hoping to see “Die Hard” in the future or well-staged martial arts are going to be disappointed. Even the climax of “2049” is more concerned with keeping the action grounded than wowing people with stunts.

But “2049” offers many pleasures beyond what I have mentioned – including first-rate performances by the entire cast. Gosling is perfect as K. His trademarked deadpan stare approach to acting is ideal for the part of a replicant, but more than that, he has the charisma needed to pull viewers through the two-hour, 43-minute film.

Also, Ford is as good as ever (which is to say he’s terrific) and Sylvia Hoeks imbues replicant enforcer Luv with such villainous intensity, she made me miss Hauer a little less.

The sound effects are noteworthy, as well, and are among the reasons people should see “2049” on the largest screen available with the best sound system. I loved the deep, guttural horns that heralded each return to L.A.

I do wish the music had been better. Vangelis’ masterful score for “Blade Runner” immersed viewers in a moody audio bath that added character to the film, but the score by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch for “2049” seems to just mark time.

“Blade Runner 2049” exceeds every other expectation, though. Although it won’t have the impact of the original film, it scales the same heights and, in some ways, transcends them.

It is also an expression of faith that today’s viewers are patient, perceptive and engaged enough to embrace its unhurried pace and reflect on its themes. Finally, it both honors the original film and is brave enough to move in new directions.

There was a time when I was skeptical such a movie could be made. But I’ve truly seen something you people wouldn’t believe.