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MOVIE REVIEW: Denis Villeneuve’s secretive ‘Blade Runner 2049’ is dark, artistic and engrossing, but sssshhh


By Mark Meszoros, mmeszoros@news-herald.com, @MarkMeszoros on Twitter

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Could the sequel to a 1982 science-fiction film be one of the best films of the year and even take home the statuette for the Academy Award for best picture?

Yes and ... maybe?

Far surpassing its dated and slow predecessor, “Blade Runner 2049” is a borderline masterpiece. We say borderline because it starts to drag just a bit in the second half of its two-and-a-half-hour-plus running time and, on one viewing, leaves you wanting just a bit more plot resolution. Make no mistake, though — this is an impressive and immersive work

While it may be a bit surprising that director Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner,” which boasts a nice performance by star Harrison Ford, tackles potential dilemmas connected with artificial intelligence and certainly has its champions, led to this film, it shouldn’t be considering that at the helm this time is Denis Villeneuve. Since becoming well-known for his stirring 2013 drama “Prisoners,” the French-Canadian director has impressed greatly with “Sicario” (2015) and last year’s “Arrival.”

In fact, the latter — a moody-and-meditative slice of science-fiction that arrived in theaters less than 12 months ago — feels like a warm-up act for Villeneuve. “Blade Runner 2049” has a similarly appealingly murky vibe, but it is a bit more complex than “Arrival.”

If it feels like we’ve gone a long way here without getting into the plot of “Blade Runner 2049,” that’s at least partially by design. Villeneuve and the primary studio behind the film, Warner Bros. Pictures, are asking for “Star Wars”-like secrecy from those who’ve seen the movie. We are asked to reveal little bit about the plot, the nature of various characters and how they may relate to the original film. In fact, if we are asked about one specific actress and her character, it is requested we respond, “We meet many striking characters over the course of the film, and she is one of them … I wouldn’t want to single anyone out, you’ll have to see the film for yourself to truly appreciate where everybody fits in.”

Um, yeah, we’re not doing that. But, while none of the plot elements are all that mind-blowing, we will honor the request.

We can talk (we think) about what’s already out there, as well as some story background provided in press notes.

“Blade Runner” was set in 2019 Los Angeles, and concerns “replicants” — human-like robots built to be slave-like laborers — and “blade runners” — police assigned to “retire” the almost-impossible-to-identify androids if and when they become a problem over the four years they were designed to operate. The story concludes (spoiler alert) with a blade runner, Rick Deckard (Ford), escaping LA with a prototype replicant, Rachael (Sean Young).

In the three decades that followed, we are told, an updated line of replicants was released to the market for use “Off-world,” with the artificial beings being given open-ended life spans but also ocular implants for easy identification. In 2022, an electromagnetic pulse, aka an EMP, was detonated somewhere on the West Coast, which shut down cities and corrupted much of the data in the country, affecting worldwide markets and leading to a famine. The replicants were blamed and outlawed, and those that could go into hiding did so.

Soon after, an idealistic scientist, Niander Wallace (played in the new film by Jared Leto), helped end the global famine with his advancements in genetically modified food. He acquired what was left of the Tyrell Corporation, which made the old replicants, created an updated line of them and saw the prohibition against the replicants lifted in 2036.

In 2040, the LA Police Department re-established its Blade Runner unit.

Early in the slow-burning and sometimes very violent and graphic movie, set in 2049 LA, you’ll meet star Ryan Gosling’s blade runner, Officer K. And, as previews for the film make very clear, he eventually will come into contact with Ford’s aged Deckard.

We’ll play along and not divulge why K is seeking Deckard or really anything else about the story, which features characters portrayed by Ana de Armas (“War Dogs”), Sylvia Hoeks (“Renegades”), Robin Wright (“Wonder Woman,” “House of Cards”), Mackenzie Davis (“The Martian,” “Halt and Catch Fire”), Carla Juri (“Brimstone”), Lennie James (“The Walking Dead”) and Dave Bautista (the “Guardians of the Galaxy” movies).

The ever-reliable Gosling (“La La Land,” “Blue Valentine”) is, as you’d expect, quite good here. As the anchor of the film, K requires a steady and steely resolve, and Gosling has no challenges there. There are some nice subtleties to be found in his performance.

It would be nice if we’d gotten a bit more of Ford, but in his handful of scenes he slips into the now-30-years-older Deckard with relative ease. Ford, who not long ago reprised another certain sci-fi icon from his past, shows that he can still be versatile, not that this crusty Deckard seems all that different from Han Solo in his golden years.

You’re also left wanting more of Leto, who’s blind Niander is fascinating in just a handful of scenes. It’s some of the best work of the actor who recently was decent last year as the Joker in “Suicide Squad” but who won an Academy Award for his rail-thin, HIV-positive trans character in 2013’s “Dallas Buyers Club.”

“Blade Runner 2049” succeeds in feeling like an extension of its predecessor, no doubt in part thanks to the inclusion of “Blade Runner” co-writer Hampton Fancher as a co-scribe, along with Michael Green (“Logan”). Fancher, by the way, was involved in the creation of three short films that serve as prequels to “Blade Runner 2049,” which cover some of the aforementioned background.

The story does an admirable job in trying to push forward the ethical issues raised and explored in “Blade Runner.” The problem is that nearly every film about artificial intelligence mines familiar ideas about how humanity should treat its creations if and when they achieve sentience. Again, though, this movie tries to get at something new, even if it feels far-fetched.

With aid from the score by Hans Zimmer (“Gladiator,” “Dunkirk”), at times haunting and at others bombastic for effect, and the artful cinematography of the brilliant Roger Deakins (“Skyfall,” “No Country for Old Men”), Villeneuve puts his full skill set on display in “Blade Runner 2049.” A big fan of the original — and is said to have received the blessing of Scott, who is counted among the film’s producers — the director is meticulous and purposeful in executing his vision. Fortunately, that vision is at least as similar aesthetically to “Arrival” as it is to “Blade Runner,” the new film retaining the flying cars of the original and even giving a female replicant a hairstyle reminiscent of those from the fictional Los Angeles of 30 years earlier.

“Blade Runner” is likely to be too slow for some viewers — possibly after its engrossing first half — but if you give yourself over fully to Villeneuve and company, you will be rewarded.

We’d tell you more, but we’re not looking to get “retired” anytime soon.

‘Blade Runner 2049’

In theaters: Oct. 6.

Rated: R for violence, some sexuality, nudity and language.

Runtime: 2 hours, 43 minutes.

Stars (of four): 3.5.