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MOVIE REVIEW: Sequel to 'Blade Runner' a valiant effort that can’t hope to match revolutionary force of original

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It's not all that unusual for a director to include a passage to be read to the critics before a press screening. Generally, this will be something about strictly observing the embargo date before we are allowed to comment on the film. But for Denis Villeneuve's much-anticipated sequel to the Ridley Scott sci-fi classic, not only did we get read the riot act before the film screened -- no social media comments, no phones, etc. -- but we were also instructed to wait in our seats after the credits, so the beleaguered publicist could read yet another memo from the director. This one was more along the lines of all the things Villeneuve wished us not to talk about in our reviews, including plot and character details, location details, and who is or is not a living human being, as opposed to a replicant. As one critic put it, "They just want us to say 'It's a good movie' and be done with it."

It should come as no surprise that Villeneuve, a talented visual stylist whose previous efforts include Arrival, Enemy, and Incendies has revealed himself to be this level of control freak: Many of the best directors in history were precisely, obsessively controlling in a similar manner (Hitchcock went so far before the release of Psycho as to have assistants buy up all the existing copies of the novel it was based on in order to keep them away from the general public). What is surprising is that the assumption was made that moviegoers, especially fans of the original, wouldn't already have parsed each digital grain of sand from the trailers and promotional materials to have gleaned much of the information Villeneuve was so desperate to suppress.

Blade Runner 2049

86 Director: Denis Villeneuve

Cast: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Robin Wright, Jared Leto, Ana de Armas, Dave Bautista, Sylvia Hoeks, Carla Juri, Mackenzie Davis, Hiam Abbass, Barkhad Abdi

Rating: R, for violence, some sexuality, nudity and language

Running time: 2 hours, 43 minutes

Much ink, digital and otherwise, has been spilled in service to the 1982 original, a film so strikingly, brilliantly revolutionary, it has more or less defined much of the look and feel of sci-fi ever since. It's impossible to replicate such an effect, especially after 35 years of films which have done almost nothing but ape the original. Part of what made Scott's film so powerful was precisely that it was something audiences hadn't seen before, and yet it seemed to come so organically -- the hellish, eternally raining, far too crowded mishmash of future Los Angeles felt less like a fantastical flight of fancy, and more like some sort of document sent back from the dystopian future we were all doomed to experience -- it felt almost pre-ordained.

From the start, Villeneuve, working with the legendary Roger Deakins, certainly on the short list of greatest cinematographers of all time, seems all too self-aware of the pitfalls of attempting to further capture the Blade Runner world. A self-consciousness permeates the proceedings, despite the film's quite formidable visual strengths. After all, part of the first film's appeal is the various can't-be-replicated quirks -- Rutger Hauer's inspired line readings, Harrison Ford's peculiar smile right before getting pounded in the face, "Good morning, JF!", "All the TIME, pal," and so forth -- that helped make it feel so fully formed (a trick Scott also employed to great effect in his other masterwork, Alien).

Here, with every luminescent shot of a character perfectly composed against a forlorn arid backdrop, or the swirling, golden ripple of light cascading from underneath a man-made pool, you can feel the ache of the filmmakers attempting to reconnect the film to its forebear in ways that, despite themselves, feel far too safe and expected. Even the synth-laden soundtrack -- which in places made the speakers in our theater shudder and quake with thundering low bass -- is meant to be evocative of the original Vangelis score without directly plundering it.

To adhere to Villeneuve's request, I will say little about the gyrations of the story, as such. We'll keep it to the bare basics: K (Ryan Gosling), a blade runner working for the Los Angeles Police Department, gets embroiled in a case where he's trying to track down yet another old-school Nexus 8, and solve a rising mystery at the same time. The case attracts other attention, not only from his captain (Robin Wright), who sees the possibility of enormous societal danger if it goes unsolved, but also from Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), the glass-eyed visionary of the new replicant program after the massive failure of the earlier Tyrell models, who sends one of his more formidable assassins (Sylvia Hoeks) to intervene. K, whose only companion is a holographic romantic interest (Ana de Armas), has to solve the case on his own, and figure out his own past in the process, a path that eventually puts him in contact with Decker (Ford), who has been in hiding for more than three decades.

Even given that sketchy background, you get a pretty strong sense of how this whole thing is meant to work. Screenwriters Hampton Fancher -- who, along with David Webb Peoples, wrote the original -- and newbie Michael Green try to capture some of the obtuseness of the original -- replacing the eerie, super-specific interview questions from the first film with a series of rapid-fire back-and-forths to determine a replicant's "baseline" -- and wield that onto a story that feels a great deal more conventional: K goes from location to location, gleaning only the very information he needs each time in order to head off toward the next clue. In this manner, no moment of story is wasted, exactly, but there's precious little else here to further suggest the world the characters inhabit is anything more than an exciting backdrop to a series of events that feel pretty warmed over.

While there are several surprises along the way, Villeneuve's post-screening paranoia about anything being revealed feels not so much as if he wants to preserve the shock and awe for incoming audiences, but more as if he knows there are only limited possibilities here and wants filmgoers to feel as if they got their money's worth. It's certainly not from lack of effort on his part, or the commitment he asks of his audience (running time, an expansive 2 hours and 43 minutes), but the whole enterprise feels more than a bit trumped up, yet another dip into a past era's nostalgic high notes -- including the revamping of Star Wars, Star Trek, Alien, Raiders of the Lost Ark and the like -- studios squandering the good will of past successes by using massive brand awareness to prop up into a sprawling franchise what was very much intended to be a free-standing one-off (Scott's endless re-cuttings and tweaks to the original notwithstanding).

It's beautiful to look at, certainly -- maybe this is the film that finally earns the much nominated Deakins his richly deserved Academy Award -- and seems to have been made by the filmmakers with the best of intentions, but like one of the film's own replicants, it remains only a facsimile, stamped with the impatience of a studio determined to bleed its existing properties absolutely dry.

MovieStyle on 10/06/2017

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