Blade Runner 2049 ★★★★★

2017 movie viewings, #142. So congratulate me -- after a two month wait, then another two weeks where my password wasn't working and my help tickets were being ignored, my MoviePass account is finally up and running, which means you're going to start seeing a lot more reviews of contemporary movies from me in the coming months. For those who don't know, MoviePass is an American tech company that fulfills its promise of being "Netflix for theatrical releases" in an unusually clever way -- members are actually issued real debit cards from a real bank, then whenever you "check in" to a movie through their mobile app, the system deposits just the price of a ticket to your account, and authorizes only the theater in question to be able to withdraw it. In effect, it allows MoviePass to work at almost any theater, without the company having to create a partnership with them beforehand -- as far as the theater is concerned, you're just another normal customer who bought another normal full-priced ticket -- with MoviePass deliberately operating at a loss for the next five years (memberships are only $10 a month, which lets you see one movie every 24 hours, which in Chicago pays for itself literally with the very first film), while they gather the information and customer base they need to become the data-selling company they eventually hope to be.

Anyway, I decided for my inaugural experience with MoviePass to go see Denis Villeneuve's Blade Runner 2049, which I doubt I would've seen otherwise; as I mentioned in my review of his last movie, the "E.T. for pretentious hipsters" film Arrival, I've so far been profoundly disappointed by all the movies I've seen by this French-Canadian far-left social-realist director, which when combined with BR:2049's lackluster reviews and disappointing first-weekend box office led me to believe that I was in for another underwhelming experience. So I was more surprised than anyone, then, when this movie actually turned out to be freaking incredible, far surpassing every hope I had had about a sequel for one of my most beloved movies from my teenage years, especially in our current age where "Millennial sequel to a beloved '80s movie" most often equals "dumbed-down frenetic ADD bullshit."

An entire 50 percent of this success can be credited to the screenplay, wisely done by the writer of the original 1982 Blade Runner, 79-year-old Hollywood veteran Hampton Fancher, after a whole series of failed development deals that likely would've resulted in the exact kind of dumbed-down crap most of us were expecting. (At one point the sequel was going to be based on a fan-fiction novel of all things, adapted to the screen by the dude who wrote the dreadful Riverworld mini-series for the Sci-Fi Channel; then Ridley Scott was going to do a sequel about the off-world colonies called Metropolis with the guy who directed Arthur 2: On The Rocks (!!!); then Scott and his brother Tony shifted gears and decided to do a prequel set in 2019, that was originally going to be released as a series of ten-minute "webisodes" and eventually collected up and shown on television.)

With Fancher being the creative force behind both scripts, though, he was able in grand sci-fi style to expand both the history and the world-building of the original, in this unique but organic way that feels natural and not forced; in BR:2049 we get a greater look at the cyberpunk-noir Los Angeles that was so striking in the original (including the sneakily brilliant decision to continue its now-dated early-'80s cultural references, to envision what's now an alternative history where the Soviet Union still exists and Pan-Am is still in business); gives us expanded looks at the surrounding California countryside, including turning San Diego into basically a city-sized garbage dump, where neo-Dickensian child gangs operate under the radar of the law; and most impressively, creates an entire new chapter in the Blade Runner universe's history, taking us to a radiation-filled, now abandoned Las Vegas, a gauzy fever dream of 300-foot-high erotic statues now perpetually cloaked in a cloud of yellow-tinged dust.

But to give credit where it's due, the other 50 percent of this movie's success is due directly to Villeneuve as a director, who finally gives up his pussy-footing about genre (which regular readers will remember has been my biggest complaint about his previous films, that they always feel like Villeneuve is winking at us while saying, "I made a 'science-fiction' film but it's not really science-fiction, right folks?"), to instead really double-down on the fantastical visions and the constantly bleak viewpoints we've come to expect from the Blade Runner universe, using a bombastic "Tangerine Dream meets Radiohead" soundtrack almost as its own separate character, while still sectioning off entire scenes to near silence to provide a dynamic tension that works wonders. Of course, it's these things that exactly makes it not surprising to me that the movie underplayed with general audiences on its first weekend; this is no Star Trek: The Bro Edition, Beastie Boys blasting from the speakers as our crew shoots blasters in the air while screaming, "COWABUNGA, DUUUUDE!!!!!!," but rather a thoughtful and challenging big-budget art film, fully in the tradition of the '80s and '90s cyberpunk masters like William Gibson and Neal Stephenson that it obviously gets so much of its inspiration from, an often chilling meditation on the limits of humanity, environmental collapse, and whether a uniquely human trait like empathy can even be applied in a world of sentient yet artificially created creatures, as best explored here not through the replicants themselves but rather the infinitely thought-provoking "holographic companions" of 2049 collectively known as Joi.

A huge and welcome surprise, BR:2049 turned out to be way more engrossing and intellectually stimulating than I would've ever given Hollywood credit for being able to do anymore, an engaging thriller for both the mind and the senses that comes strongly recommended, but only if you go into it realizing that you're not going to be getting some JJ Abrams, callback-laden, pew-pew-filled Star Wars film. For those on the search for something denser and meatier, this is the movie for you.

Jason Pettus liked these reviews