Monday, 19 February 2018

Film Review: Blade Runner 2049 revisited [Second Review]

My original Blade Runner 2049 review can be found here.

When I first watched Dennis Villeneuve's sequel to the 1982 cult classic, I found it overlong, aimless and dull. I wasn't a fan of Ridley Scott's original, which perhaps tempered my ultimate disappointment in Villeneuve's 2049 - something I didn't want to feel, as Villeneuve is one of my favourite directors working today. Yet, even with the lack of connection I felt towards 2049, I've found myself thinking about it a lot lately. Hearing the soundtrack and catching the odd clip here and there, I realised I wanted to give the film a second shot - a rare feeling for me, since I often say you should always trust how you felt about a film in the immediate moments after it ends for the first time. So, I did what I scarcely ever do: I went back to a film I didn't like, and I gave it a second shot.

To put it simply, I found a lot more to like this time around, most importantly the characters, the performances and the film's story. I was never invested in 2049's plot when I first watched the film, perhaps put off by its considered pace and refusal to move swiftly between plot points - every time the film makes a new discovery, it presses the pause button for twenty minutes or so. In this second viewing, however, I found myself appreciating the pauses as much as I was the plot itself. K (played with subtle complexity and steely emotional depth by Ryan Gosling) is both a replicant and a blade runner, it's the definition of an identity crisis - and the film binds its story to his soul. In a pivotal moment for both the character and the film, K is told he doesn't have a soul but that he works fine without one - 2049 itself wants to go one step further. It wants a soul.

It mostly finds this heart and soul throughout the middle act, as K navigates his investigation in finding the child born to a replicant, a child that should never exist. His journey, both physical and emotional, leads him to the conclusion that he himself is the child he's looking for - his identity crisis finally has some progress. The film's slow pace does perhaps rob 2049 of many truly standout moments, everything is too subdued and melancholy for that, but Villeneuve still manages to land on some interesting stuff. K's trip to a memory designer is maybe the film's greatest sequence, the split second K comes to learn that the memories he always thought manufactured are actually real carrying 2049's biggest emotional punch. Villeneuve presents an already thematically complex film and refuses to stop adding new layers - it should all eventually crumble under the pressure, but it never does.

It does, however, show signs of uneasiness. While the film's first sequence in the ruins of Las Vegas - illuminated hauntingly in the already iconic orange glow - is perhaps a masterpiece of visual and audial design, 2049 loses steam when Harrison Ford's Deckard enters the picture, as well performed as the character is. There are some terrific moments to be found between him and K - particularly a brawl in an old casino, spluttering out holograms as if the city itself is choking on its last breath - but when the film separates them Villeneuve loses some of the dark magic his film has been oozing thus far. Intricate plotting gives way to coincidence, enigmatic dialogue becomes heavy handed and the partial return of a much loved character from Scott's original never quite makes the jump from fan service to emotional depth. Villeneuve manages to pull his film back together come the actual finale, and he closes on a sequence so beautiful I think I'll be feeling it for days, but it's hard to ignore 2049's wobble as it shifts gears from act two into act three.

Binding all of this together, though, is Roger Deakins' cinematography. In what already feels like a justifiable claim to be the best looking film ever put on screen, 2049 uses its framing and its colour for more than just retina satisfaction, it uses it to form its own unique identity. Villeneuve takes on similar themes of identity and dystopia that are essentially borrowed from Scott's original, and so Deakins' quite literally jaw dropping aesthetic design helps to push 2049 into its own world, its own unique, recognisable persona. Deakins uses colour in beautifully imaginative ways - some of his frames appear to have three separate colour schemes going on at once, each somehow enhancing one another - and by the time the film culminates with a fist fight in a vehicle sinking into rough waters it becomes apparent that Deakins knows how to shoot action, too. Every frame is comprised of a visual complexity unlike anything cinema has ever really experienced before, and yet 2049 still never looks orchestrated or manufactured. It all looks ruinous, and it all looks stunning.

I still don't quite think Villeneuve's film is a masterpiece, but I feel confident in saying that I appreciate it a lot more now. While this may feel like jumping onto a bandwagon of a pretty universally loved film, 2049 does have all the hallmarks of a film I'd normally enjoy: I'm a big fan of both Villeneuve and Gosling, I have a preference for films that prioritise thematic depth and visual design over plot, and futuristic sci-fi's are something of a favourite of mine. Perhaps I was deterred by my ambivalence towards the original Blade Runner and so I held 2049 at a distance, or perhaps it just is the sort of film that takes a couple of viewings to sincerely appreciate. I know for a fact that I'll be diving back into 2049 again soon, but this time without the desire of changing my mind. Next time, I just want to learn more about the enormous world and complicated people that Villeneuve has presented here. Who knows, maybe someday I'll be back here again, arguing 2049's status as a masterpiece. Isn't change bliss?

In A Sentence

Aided beautifully by a second viewing, Denis Villeneuve's Blade Runner 2049 is a visually stunning, emotionally complex sequel that furthers the themes of its predecessor but forms an identity of its own.

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