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Don Shanahan of Every Movie Has a Lesson writes film reviews with life lessons in mind from the serious to the farcical.

BLADE RUNNER 2049

4 STARS

To get people talking about a film, or better yet keep them talking about it, storytellers and filmmakers can choose one of two extremes to ensure conversation. The film can have everything to say, or it can have nothing to say. Anything in between can almost be ho-hum with clarity. Either route creates captivating and immeasurable levels of ambiguity that are irresistible for near-infinite discourse. The vagueness, obscurity, and uncertainty found in place of the devil normally found in the details was one of the driving forces that made 1982’s Blade Runner, and its seven different versions, an initially maligned vision that grew to become a revered science fiction classic. The power of ambiguity strikes again with its long-distance sequel.

Directed by Denis Villeneuve, Blade Runner 2049 molds an alternate future returning to dystopian southern California thirty years after the original film. Ecological disasters from decades earlier led to a massive electrical blackout and data loss that nearly collapsed society. Rising from the ashes of famine, the Wallace Corporation, overseen by Jared Leto’s philosophical Niander Wallace, manufactured a new line of replicants, human-form androids, as a disposable workforce to cultivate the agricultural industry’s efforts to feed a needy earthbound civilization while the wealthy live off world.

Much like 2019, replicants have been known to break ranks, develop a mind of their own, and endanger lives while fleeing to hide among the human populace. To apprehend or “retire” those dangerous artificial outliers, the LAPD enlists specially trained cops known as “blade runners,” like those played by Ryan Gosling and Robin Wright and formerly embodied by Harrison Ford’s returning Rick Deckard. With increasing high intrigue, Gosling’s trenchcoated flatfoot comes upon a case with technological advancement and evolutionary ramifications that can shatter truths and challenge humanity’s continuance.

From there, the intentional and advantageous ambiguity takes over and that’s where the pendulum begins to swing. Audiences must (and should) enter guessing who’s who and what’s what for the rest of the ensemble and proceedings. Such is part of the experience. Like a true sequel, the stakes and ramifications are powerfully increased from what returning original screenwriter Hampton Fancher adapted from author Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? in 1982 to this new epic composed with co-screenwriter Michael Green (Logan and Alien: Covenant). 163 minutes is quite the hunk of meat to chew on, maybe even too much, but then it wouldn’t be a challenge fitting of the cult legend.

The excesses that are entirely justified for Blade Runner 2049’s are its imposing production values. The high regard starts with the flawless lens of cinematographer and camera operator Roger Deakins. His angles, framing, and sense of depth soak up every fleck of stainless steel grime breeding under the rain, neon, and holograms. His combined use of raw and artificial light sources blend revolving uses of shadow to create an almost cyclically orbital neo-noir feel. The cinematography highlights the staggering detail of this turbid setting created through Oscar winner Dennis Gassner’s towering production design and massive set decorations from Alessandra Querzola. Seamlessly gorgeous special effects provide yet one more dynamic visual layer for the stimulating screen presentation.

Aurally, the seat-rattling sound mix meshes harmoniously with the eye-popping visuals to continue the film’s ominous tone. See this film on the biggest, brightest, and loudest screen you can, targeting Dolby ATMOS or full-blown IMAX. Unfortunately, it must be said that, compared to the transcendent and searing work by Vangelis on Blade Runner, the musical score for the sequel is immemorable and nearly forgettable altogether. Composers Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch move the needles loud to match the sound mix, but one has to wonder what improved menace departed Villeneuve regular collaborator Johann Johannsson (Sicario, Arrival) could have orchestrated with the same material.

What began with Ridley Scott long ago has been vivified with new sharpness by director Denis Villeneuve. Since breaking into the domestic mainstream with 2013’s Prisoners, the French-Canadian filmmaker has quickly surpassed his contemporaries to become the modern artistic authority on cinematic intensity. Even with little background dollops of chipper Sinatra and Elvis songs playing in certain scenes of 2049, nothing is ever flimsy, unlatched, or contrived for that matter, thanks to Villeneuve.

The coldness of Blade Runner 2049 downshifts Villeneuve’s bold power slightly. As a barometer, no acting performance screams Oscar contender or career cornerstone. Along the same lines, this film may not have the volcanic fury of Sicario or the emotional punch of Arrival, but it resonates nonetheless on its own frequency. Credit that ripe ambiguity. When it’s silent, Blade Runner 2049 can infer volumes of connotations. When it speaks in its guarded circles of exposition, it conversely shields and misdirects its real secrets. Together, the tomes of possible interpretations could run an ink company dry.

LESSON #1: DYING FOR A CAUSE — Plural interpretations equal more questions than answers. So too will this review’s life lessons. Any answers would only scratch the surface of conjecture and qualify as spoilers. What cause or causes are you willing to die for? How and when did you set those parameters for your resolve? Can that resolve be tested or changed?

LESSON #2: MIRACLES CHANGE THINGS — Do you believe in miracles? How do you define them? What kind of witnessed miracle would it take for you to change a core belief? The impetus for this narrative’s intrigue can provoke and answer those questions.

LESSON #3: “TO BE BORN IS TO HAVE A SOUL” — What makes us human? When do we start being human? How do you define humanity or the human condition? What comprises a soul? Can souls exist in non-human places? If so, how?

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