SPOILER ALERT: While I will try to steer clear of any major plot spoilers in this review, I do always recommend seeing movies for the first time with a blank slate. I'd encourage you to go see this film while it is still in theaters, then come back and read this review to join in the discussion. I will note that you may want to jump to the bottom of this post for a discussion on this film's mature content before seeing the film.
Roger Deakins better win himself an Oscar for this movie.
The legendary cinematographer puts in some of his best work here. That statement alone would vault it into the upper reaches of beautifully-shot films. Deakins has long been one of the great cinematographers, and he has been nominated for an astounding 13 Academy Awards. However, a win has - to this point - eluded him. I sincerely hope that streak ends at this year's Oscars, because Blade Runner 2049 is one of the most visually-striking movies I've ever seen.
It certainly helps that I saw this movie in the theater. I highly encourage any movie fan to see this film while it is on the big screen, because it is an incredible experience. Aesthetically, Deakins and director Denis Villenueve are able to create a bleak but simultaneously dazzling feeling. Add to that the booming score from Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Walfisch that expertly connotes the haunting, esoteric mood that the movie needs. I saw this film alone at an afternoon showing with only a few other people in the theater. I stayed for the entire credits just to hear the music and let the entirety of what I had just seen wash over me.
You'll notice that this is about the farthest I've gotten into one of my reviews without discussing the writing, acting or the plot of the film. That is purposeful. Not to say that those elements are poorly done or lacking in this film, but the visual and auditory experiences are the main highlights. A perfect example of that is the image used as the header above. At this stage, K (Ryan Gosling) is entering the ruins of Las Vegas. The previous scene cuts to this haunting shot with another boom from the movie's score. It is a breathtaking sequence, there's no other way to put it.
But, at some point, we need to get to what the movie is actually about.
As you may know, this movie is a sequel to Ridley Scott's 1982 sci-fi cult classic Blade Runner. This new film continues the previous film's storyline, but it does so in a way that will not confuse viewers who have never seen the earlier film. Let me be clear, I think it's probably a good idea to see the original before seeing this film. I watched the "Final Cut" version of the original before seeing Blade Runner 2049. However, if it's a choice between missing out on seeing this movie in the theater or waiting so you can watch the original first, please just go see this film. Opening title cards help fill in any blanks you may have so that you don't get lost from the start. And, again, you will want to experience Blade Runner 2049 on the big screen.
Just as with the original, we are dealing with humans and replicants - machines who have been made to look almost identical to humans. K is our main character and, unlike the ongoing argument about the original, we are quickly removed of any doubt about the identity of his character. He is a replicant, and he is also a blade runner. He is tasked with hunting down a group of replicants with military backgrounds that could prove to be a danger to this futuristic society. Along the way, he unearths something he did not expect. This revelation will carry the storyline forward throughout the rest of the film, but I will not divulge any more of its contents here other than to say that, like the original, memories play a key role.
Harrison Ford reprises his famous role as blade runner Rick Deckard, though I found myself wondering when he would show up. He finally does, and I think his performance will satisfy fans of the original. Other main roles are played by Jared Leto, Robin Wright, Dave Bautista, Ana de Armas, Mackenzie Davis and Carla Juri. Edward James Olmos also reprises his role from the original film as does Sean Young - though her cameo is of a slightly different fashion. But it is Sylvia Hoeks as the replicant, Luv, who I think deserves the most acting praise.
She plays the assistant to the corporate magnate character in this film, Wallace (Leto). On the surface, that relationship seems similar to the original film's characters of Rachael and Tyrell. But Luv is far colder than Rachael. Hoeks plays this role with chilling power. I think her acting is the best in the film. That is in no way meant to knock any of the other actors. For instance, Gosling handles his role well. But Hoeks really sinks her teeth into this character and, in a movie that I will mainly remember for the visuals and the music, it is her acting that stands out most in my mind.
Just like the original, this movie focuses on what it means to be human and how we are separated from machines. I found it to be fascinating in that regard. Again, I don't want to divulge too much of the plot, but if you are someone who enjoys movies that make you think, you'll love this movie. If that doesn't sound quite like your cup of tea, I still think you will enjoy this film for the striking visuals. There is also just enough action to keep the narrative moving for viewers who usually prefer a little faster pace.
As a moviegoer and especially as a reviewer, I tend to notice aspects of a film that I enjoy far more readily than the aspects I don't like. It's easy for me to see things that I want to lavish with praises. But I think it is important to then go back and think about any aspects of the movie that I either didn't agree with or would have liked to be done differently. That is one reason that I took up writing these reviews - they really do help me work through my conceptions about a film. I did have some notable reservations with this film that, for me, hold it back from being truly great.
I remember thinking part way through the film that this felt like a truly great achievement. That was probably a little over an hour into the film. As the movie continues, however, I think Villenueve goes for too much weight. Shots are held for lengths that are much longer than your average modern movie. The pace really slows down. I get what he is going for, and I do think his directing adds to the cerebral nature of the film. That's good. But I think some of the scenes could use just a little bit more editing. As it stands, it is just too weighty. There's not enough driving the last 80 minutes of the film's 2 hour 45 minute runtime forward. For more insight on this, I'd direct you to Adnan Virk's Cinephile podcast and Boston Globe writer Ty Burr's review of the film.
The length of the film didn't bother me too much, though, because Deakins had me enthralled the whole way with his cinematography. But I think a few edits to bring down the runtime would make this a truly great film.
One edit that I would suggest is to remove some of the film's depictions of nudity. Honestly, I'd prefer if the film didn't have any nudity, but I understand that Villenueve may say that it was a necessary part of the narrative he was building. This film deals a lot in what it means to be human - much like the original. But there are also many themes that center on birth and procreation. I guess I can see how the physical form of humanity would be a key aspect of that storyline.
But as it stands, some of the scenes I found to just have unnecessary amounts of nudity. One scene in particular simply felt creepy and voyeuristic. The camera slowly pans upward as we see a "newborn" female replicant. I think the themes could be handled in a different way. There is another scene where we see massive nude statues in the ruins of Las Vegas. I wouldn't complain as much about their inclusion if the camera didn't glide over them with so much attention. If they were in the background, that would be one thing. But the camera movement really jarred me out of what was otherwise a visually gripping scene.
I want to believe that Villenueve was trying to form a discussion about objectification - that we are human when we see others for more than just their physical form. I want to believe he was trying to show that this futuristic society has lost some of what it means to be human because of their blatant objectification of the female form (almost all of the nudity in this film is female). I do think that is what Villenueve is trying to do, especially considering how the storyline between K and his assistant, Joi (Armas), plays out. However, I think the way the content is handled treads in dangerous territory. Again, the camera movement in some scenes can almost be interpreted as a form of objectification itself. I think the negativity of objectification in our society is a vitally important discussion to have, but I'm not sure that incorporating so much nudity is the best way in which to frame it.
There are a few other instances of nudity, but I think you get my point. I've written before about my thoughts as a Christian on objectionable content in movies. Again, I will often give directors the benefit of the doubt if they feel that small amounts of nudity are necessary to their storyline. I'll do the same with Villenueve here. I would rather have seen the nudity either totally removed or greatly reduced, however I will watch this movie again. Next time, though, I'll be doing my own form of editing through averting my eyes or using the fast-forward button.
Overall, I still find this to be a fantastic achievement in film for the beautiful visuals that Deakins and Villenueve are able to create. Many of the shots literally took my breath away - specifically the shot I discussed earlier, as well as the many beautiful shots that incorporate water and snow. It's amazing that, in such a bleak world, Deakins is still able to express the beauty of nature. The music, too, is something that will continue to cause me to marvel. I now listen to the music on Spotify, and even when I'm in a cubicle instead of a movie theater, the score sounds fantastic.
But I must pause in giving Blade Runner 2049 unbridled praise due to its length and its use of nudity. I felt that both detracted from what was otherwise an astounding film achievement. Even so, seeing this movie once only makes me want to see it again and consider it more.
I can think of few things better to say about a film.
Note on content: As I discuss in my review, this movie does contain multiple instances of nudity. It is not for young viewers. After you've seen it once, some of the scenes would be easy to skip, but other instances are more difficult to self-edit. Like I said, I can see how some of it might add to the film's narrative, but I found the use of nudity to be far too prevalent and unnecessary. There is also a great deal of violence in the film along with some profanity. I would say this film's mature content is similar to that of the original, but with more nudity. Having said that, the content is not to the point where I would feel like I could not watch this movie again. I am recommending this film for its striking visuals and cerebral discussion about humanity, but I do want to be clear about the mature content it contains so that anyone who might be offended by it can be aware before they set foot in the theater. For a more in-depth discussion about my thoughts on mature content as a Christian, check out this post.