Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

Rating: ****
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Music: Hans Zimmer
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, Robin Wright, Mackenzie Davis, Jared Leto, Dave Bautista, cameo by Edward James Olmos

What does it mean to have a soul?

"Blade Runner 2049" is a visually astonishing and utterly joyless dystopian essay on the human condition that left me profoundly sad and depressed. After the Tyrell Corporation collapsed, it was taken over by Wallace Industries, which introduced a new line of replicants and AIs to serve humanity as slave labor. One of the new models is a blade runner known as KD6-3.7, or "K" for short (Ryan Gosling). He's been tasked with retiring older Tyrell-era replicants, and uncovers a mystery that may have something to do with his past and his very existence. With time running out and amidst growing civil unrest between humans and replicants, K seeks out Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) looking for answers.

The film does an excellent job of adopting the visual language from the original film, although it feels a lot less dreary and claustrophobic. The cinematography and visual effects are breathtaking, and it's a beautiful film to watch. Ryan Gosling does an excellent job as K, a world-weary and soulless civil servant who has been beaten down by society and emotionally abused by his superiors and co-workers. His blank expression and vacant stare reflect hopelessness and existential despair, and the only spark of happiness and purpose in his meaningless existence is his virtual companion, played to perfection by the heartachingly beautiful Ana de Armas. She's impossibly perfect, caring, and supportive, but her lack of a physical body means there can never be a real connection between her and K, which creates a doubled-edged sword of anguish. Sylvia Hoeks makes an excellent villain, although she's just a puppet of Jared Leto's creepy and megalomaniacal Wallace. It's nice to see Harrison Ford back in action, and he's surprisingly buff for a 75-year old man. The one area where the film falls short is the uninspired soundtrack, which is dominated by Hans Zimmer's signature brass farts. Ever since Zimmer started collaborating with Christopher Nolan, he's become less of a composer and more of a noisemaker. The result emphasizes tension and dread, unlike the dreamlike melancholy of Vangelis's original score. Interestingly, the ending credits music is extremely reminiscent of "Dear Esther."

Much like the original, "Blade Runner 2049" tackles some heavy social and philosophical topics, and requires multiple viewings to peel back its various layers and soak it all in. The themes of classism, racism, slavery, misogyny, social decay, environmental destruction, unsustainable ecology, and emotional disconnection are strong and shockingly relevant within our current geopolitical climate. Like all good science fiction, this is a cautionary tale about the fall of humanity. As a result, the pacing is deliberately slow and contemplative, which a lot of people have complained about. While the film is indeed long, the only part that stalled and failed to keep my interest was the encounter in the theater. That seemed like an unnecessary scene and a creative misfire to me.

The film curiously doesn't address the issue of Deckard being a replicant, which was the most maddening aspect of the original film. That by itself raises some questions about the story and leaves you without satisfactory answers. In fact, replicant physiology in general is confusing and inconsistent, which is a major source of the film's logic flaws. The final plot twist at the end also betrays everything you thought you knew, which effectively mirror's K's own revelations, but also raises some irreconcilable questions.

The nature of Joi (Ana de Armas) is both fascinating and puzzling. Is she a fully autonomous and unique AI, or are her actions and responses being manipulated by outside forces? That potentially sets up another layer of emotional betrayal. Her physicality is also unclear. At times, she seems to have a physical form and can interact with her environment, but only when the film's perspective is from her point of view. Is this how Joi perceives herself, or did the visual effects team just not want to make her holographic all the time? Or does she generate some sort of force field that imitates a physical presence? Is she essentially a replicant without a body, or just a complex behavioral algorithm? Is she an entity of pure consciousness and self will? And if so, what rights does she have as a sentient entity? Or is she, in fact, a slave to replicants, much like replicants are slaves to humans? Since so much time is spent on her relationship with K, these questions become increasingly important and very frustrating.

Overall, "Blade Runner 2049" is a fantastic and excellently crafted science fiction film, but don't expect it to make you feel good. It's a beautiful film about the ugliness of humanity and it emotionally resonated with me very strongly. You can interpret it on many different levels, but for me it boiled down to two major takeaways: 1) humanity's defining trait is its capacity for cruelty, and 2) everyone desires to be special, but very few of us are.