By far the best thing in theatres, best seen in IMAX where available, is Quebec director Denis Villeneuve’s enthralling sci-fi epic Blade Runner 2049 (http://bladerunnermovie.com/) which opened wide on the Friday before the Canadian Thanksgiving long weekend. On a personal note, that date was the 110th anniversary of my dad’s birth in Iowa. Giving age its due, let me also pay tribute to the late great actor Harry Dean Stanton who died a month ago at 91. His final role was among his best — as “Lucky” in John Carroll Lynch’s terrific South By Southwest festival selection (http://www.luckythefilm.com/) about a no-nonsense nonagenarian taking life’s journey on his own terms. Lucky includes an appearance by maverick veteran director David Lynch, the return of whose idiosyncratic “Twin Peaks” series to TV screens after a 27-year absence previewed at SXSW.
The art of making a successful sequel is a challenge, especially when the original has achieved an iconic status that many will doubt can be replicated. That last word is particularly applicable to Sir Ridley Scott’s futuristic Blade Runner, released in 1982, about a hunter of bioengineered humanoid robots called “replicants.” Although the original theatrical version was not greeted with much critical or commercial success, later versions, leading to a definitive 2007 final 2007 cut, grew in reputation to be regarded as a cult masterpiece. Villeneuve, who proved his mastery of the science-fiction genre with last year’s Arrival, proves to be up to the task of bringing the story forward three decades from the 2019 setting of the first film that drew on Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? In addition, Scott was brought in as an executive producer and original screenwriter Hampton Fancher worked on the script.
Blade Runner 2049 opens with a brief explanation setting up the narrative that takes place in a noirish dystopian California pelted by rains and snows (climate change meets nuclear winter?). The first replicants were manufactured by Tyrell Corporation to serve in off-world colonies. Some went rogue becoming fugitives to be “retired” (i.e. eliminated) by police agents known as blade runners. Then Tyrell went bankrupt. Data records were lost in a great blackout. A mysterious new master, Niander Wallace, has taken over, producing a new model of replicant and determined to possess knowledge that will assure his supremacy.
Enter the replicant blade runner “K” (brilliantly played by Canadian Ryan Gosling), a member of the Los Angeles Police Department. Known only by his serial number, KD3:6-7, he’s regularly tested to ensure “baseline” reliability. Stoic and unshaven, K lives in a spartan apartment amid the sea-walled city’s dark Orwellian towers, garishly lit advertisements and amusements (the very antithesis of the sunny-romantic La La Land of Gosling’s 2016 song-and-dance role). Offering comfort and support, to be summoned at his control, is a holographic “girlfriend,” Joi (Ana de Armas).
The connection to Blade Runner 1982 is soon established. In that movie the protagonist member of the LAPD was Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) who defected and has been missing for three decades. More than his existence poses a threat to the new order. K is assigned by his steely boss Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright) the job of finding and retiring that risk. First he takes his futuristic flying vehicle into the surrounding desolate landscape, locating an older replicant, Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista), farming “protein” (grubs). One down, but not before Morton speaks of a “miracle,” and K finds an ossuary and a cryptic inscription hidden beneath a dead tree stump.
Back at headquarters the examination of the bones reveals it to be those of a pregnant female replicant. Could there be a child? If replicants could procreate, might these android slaves be able rise up against their human creators and controllers? That dangerous possibility must be eliminated. When K muses why, “to be born is to have a soul, I guess,” Lt. Joshi retorts, “you don’t need one,” as she sends him on a search and destroy mission.
This is where matters become increasingly complicated for K. He visits a girl in a bubble, a memory-maker who has him recall a childhood memory involving a little wood-carved horse bearing an inscription. Is it just implanted in his software? If real, is it his? Joi tells him she always knew he was “special” and gives him the name “Joe.” At the same time, Wallace (a creepy dead-eyed Jared Leto) has picked up the scent. He must possess the secret, sending his right-hand woman, Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), as a lethal weapon to find it.
K is both pursuer and pursued as he makes his way through a lurid radioactive apocalyptic environment. When he tracks down the aging Deckard, a grizzled hermit and his dog, holed up in an abandoned casino, it will be a fateful encounter for both that, occurring at the 100-minute mark of an almost three-hour movie, builds to an astonishing sequence of showdowns and revelations.
I’ll say no more — and there’s much more — except prepare to hold on to your seats!
Blade Runner 2049 displays a level and scale of virtuoso craftsmanship from director Villeneuve and from ace cinematographer Roger Deakins that should surely win the latter an Oscar (after 13 nominations, including last year for Villeneuve’s Sicario). Much of the film was shot at Origo and Korda studios near Budapest, along with aerial footage from Mexico City, Spain, Iceland and Nevada. The production design and visual effects are truly exceptional (the work of a huge team as the end credits acknowledge). Every element comes together to serve the story, which Villeneuve allows space to unfold and invests with a rare emotional intelligence that affects how we see the characters whether android or human.
There’s nothing robotic or formulaic about this Blade Runner. You might say it’s science fiction with a soul, which the 75-year-old Ford, reprising his role as Deckard, urges watching only on the big screen: “When you’re all sitting in the dark with all of this stimulation — visual, aural, intellectual, emotional — it’s like you’re attending to your common humanity. It’s like going to church: you don’t want to be the only one around when they ask you to stand and start singing. You want to know there are other believers out there.”
Is there anything else worth noting? Beyond the usual action thrillers — a lame Kingsman sequel, a lamer and ludicrous American Assassin, the respectably spry Tom Cruise vehicle American Made — recent weeks have seen a fair number of middling selections from the Toronto film festival arrive at the multiplex: Stronger about the recovery of a double amputee from the Boston marathon bombing; the 19th-century British imperial period drama Victoria & Abdul; Battle of the Sexes about the 1973 tennis showdown between Billie Jean King and male chauvinist Bobby Riggs. There’s also the first English-language production from Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad, The Mountain Between Us, a plane crash survival ordeal turned love story — starring Kate Winslet, Idris Elba and a canine — that I unfortunately found wholly unconvincing even if the wintry mountain vistas (B.C. imitating Colorado) are impressive.
Better, if on the satirical slight side, is Mike White’s Brad’s Status, a Toronto Platform selection, in which Ben Stiller plays an annoying middle-aged father who, while accompanying his accomplished college-bound teenage son, indulges in self-pity over a perceived relative lack of material success until the young folks set him straight.
Best of all is Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, an eye-opening story of growing up poor in America and life on the margins. It’s a reminder that fantasy worlds can be great to escape to for a few hours, but you can’t live there.