2049, Will Be Watched in 2049

Film Review |By Christian Tesfaye - Exclusive to Fortune

Once in a while the exhibitors at Edna Mall, either by default or design, offer their audiences, not a movie where characters punch and kick each other, but one where the pain, joy or mediocrity of life are examined. Blade Runner 2049 is a good example. A sequel to the Harrison Ford starring cult favourite of the early 1980s, it is ideal to those unhurried to ask who am I, or where am I going? Christian Tesfaye must be one of those people, as he awards 8 out of 10 stars.

The original Blade Runner, released in 1982, was thoughtful.

It was a movie that asked the big questions, like what is life, where can the line between artificial intelligence and human intelligence be drawn and what does it take for one to be human?

Do other things like basic human emotions figure, or is that the same as intelligence? And if so, does it mean computers are already alive?

Blade Runner, by the last reel, raises far more questions than it ever answers, much like a bonafide piece of art. Maybe it was because of this that the film was not so popular when it first came out. But slowly, it would build its fan base, and by the time the 1990s had alighted, it had become a science-fiction landmark and a cult favourite.

These qualities have figured into the decision to give it a sequel. Generally, I do not encourage franchises as they are lazy craftsmanship. It is usually someone rehashing the same characters we have encountered before. New is hard and painful, and perhaps because of it, great to look at.

Blade Runner 2049 (which from here on I will refer to as 2049) is an exception when it comes to sequels. It has the brilliant Denis Villeneuve for a director and stars the likes of Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Jared Leto, Ana de Armas and Robin Right. More admirably, it is a movie that sets out to pay its respects to the previous one.

To better understand 2049, it is crucial to have some bits and pieces about the original movie, which was directed by Ridley Scott, starred Ford and was adapted from Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Ford played Rick Deckard, a police officer who tracks down and kills (or ‘retires’) synthetic humans, a.k.a replicants. He is also sometimes called a blade runner. After four replicants that escaped from an off-world base arrive on Earth, Deckard is tasked with tracking them down.

Throughout the movie, though, he finds that the replicants are on Earth for nothing more than to answer the most profound of existential questions.

Who are they? How long will they live? Why have they been created?

The film ends with Deckard, having accomplished his assignment but running away with a replicant that he falls in love with.

All of that happened in 2019, or the movies projection of that time. Three decades down the line, replicants are not only allowed to exist on Earth but also retire other older model replicants. K (Gosling) works for the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) in this regard. He is efficient and one-dimensional, but a new assignment rocks his world.

Buried in the yard of a replicant he has just retired, K finds the remains of a woman who died while in childbirth. Forensics ascertain that the child did survive but that the mother is actually a replicant. In the universe of Blade Runner, this could create a political and social disorder. Subsequently, K is ordered by his boss (Wright) to find the child and kill it.

The plot unfolds slowly over the movie’s 160-minute time span. Sitting in the theatre at Matti Multiplex I sensed impatience amongst the audience.

For all its glitter, 2049 is merely the usual popcorn movie. It may depict a futuristic city,  but only to compliment the plot and give a nuanced, oppressive ambience to the film.

The bleak mood of 2049 is entirely in keeping with Villeneuve’s style. The French-Canadian filmmaker has a very dark sensibility, sometimes bordering on sense of humour. The first of his films I watched was Incendies, released in 2010. A French-Arabic language film about a daughter’s search for her father, it is a movie more concerned with the collateral damages of war, like trauma. The ending is petrifying, and not for the faint-hearted. To this day, Incendies remains my favourite Villeneuve movie.

Three years later, Villeneuve directed Prisoners, starring Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal in a striking thriller. For all the blood and broken bones, Prisoners had a lighter ending. Two years later was Sicario, a darker (if that is possible) take on the Mexican Drug War. As good a movie as Sicario was, it was outshined by Villeneuve’s next film, Arrival. A masterful sci-fi, highly immersive and wonderfully loopy, Arrival was one of 2016’s best movies.

Incredibly enough, such ingenious movies came in a span of a mere six years. With the addition of 2049, that impressive record has not been tarnished.

And 2049 gets some help. It does not hurt at all for a gifted director such as Villeneuve to work with actors that are equally dedicated to their craft. Gosling is as subdued and reticent as ever; it is surprising he has not been cast as a robot before. Ford is back in his niche, successfully navigating a character he played 35 years earlier. Leto, as the main villain, is far better than I expected and Armas, who plays a digital manifestation of an artificial intelligence, deserves all the accolade she is getting. As for Wright, well, nothing less could be expected of her.

The movie is not perfect though. With Villeneuve’s films, there is always a plot twist, and I was expecting one in 2049. As much as I admire the storylines, the plot twists are becoming an annoying feature. Once the underlining mystery has been solved, and we find out who is what and how, the film ends, at least from the perspective of being interesting, even if a villain remains to be physically put down.

Still, 2049 is a good movie, especially considering the shoes it is meant to walk in. To follow a highly revered film with at least an effort to add to the original’s theme and style (vis-a-vis score and cinematography) deserves some deference. If the sequels to the likes of The Last Crusade or Terminator 2 are anything to go by, 2049 could have been far, far worse.

Published on Oct 15,2017 [ Vol 18 ,No 912]



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