JR’s review published on Letterboxd:
This movie breaks the world.
Seriously, let’s take a moment to remember what this actually is, a sequel to a 35-year-old movie that’s been enshrined as a classic. Everything about that points to a stain on the original’s legacy, the best case scenario being one that would fade with enough bleach. This couldn’t be good.
And it’s not. It speeds right past being “good” without breaking a sweat.
What it is is one of the most intelligent, ambitious and provocative big-canvas endeavors Hollywood has attempted in quite some time. This movie is massive; the original is positively intimate compared to the scale Denis Villeneuve and company are operating on. It’s easy for a filmmaker to be overwhelmed by such bigness, especially in the added company of Ridley Scott’s 1982 original, but Villeneuve admirably, astonishingly rises to the occasion. For while it’s absolutely flawless technically, with DP Roger Deakins and production designer Dennis Gassner giving you imagery to die for, there’s also so much more.
The trick is that it’s not interested in just reminding you how good the original was; FORCE AWAKENS this isn’t. Instead, it takes a long look at the ideas, concerns and conclusions of its forebear and decides to press further onward. It’s a grand, glorious flowering of the possibilities of the original, its pedals opening up to a wider world. Think of the relationship between the Arthur C. Clarke short story “The Sentinel” and the novel & film of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and you have an idea of the progression that’s happened. This movie’s obviously no 2001, but you get the point.
In fact, you don’t even need to have seen the predecessor to have a full experience. (I know because I saw it with someone who hadn’t seen the original and didn’t think to tell me until the last minute.) The new story that Hampton Fancher and Michael Green have come up with is a doozy that’s never less than enthralling, even at a leisurely 163 minutes. It’s intricate and inventive, twisting and turning enough times to give Shyamalan whiplash, but the real surprise is how incredibly emotional it is. If the original was a brooding, moody meditation, this is a time bomb that keeps threatening to blow.
Credit has to be given to the major players. For all Scott’s gifts, Villeneuve has a better hand with actors, and this time around all the performances shine. Dave Bautista reveals depths he’s never shown before, creating a full flesh-and-blood character in five minutes flat. Ana de Armas consistently steals the show, and only half because of her delicious chemistry with Ryan Gosling. If the romance between Harrison Ford and Sean Young was always the original’s weakest point (never mind what this sequel says), that bullet’s been thoroughly dodged. Among everyone else, Robin Wright exudes authority as Sylvia Hoeks exudes menace, and Jared Leto is a more effective villain in a single scene than in the entirety of SUICIDE SQUAD.
Yet there’s two people whom this movie belongs to above all, the first being Gosling in the lead. It’s not just that he fits the milieu, even though he does; with his bullet mug and gumshoe mumble, dude was born to wear a trenchcoat. His K is an intimidatingly complex character, a replicant who may actually be human and who outwardly fears it but secretly wants it. It’s an incredibly demanding part, and from the outward menace in his opening scene to the inner peace in his last Gosling owns it.
The other is Harrison Ford himself. He’s not in the movie all that much, but when he finally appears in the flesh it’s well worth the wait. All these years after running into Rachael, Roy Batty and the rest, Rick Deckard has certainly gotten some wear and tear. The difference is he now has a purpose, and Ford’s subtle determination makes that damn clear. He doesn’t have time for your human vs. replicant debates, he knows what’s real.
To be honest though, what’s real - and what you should never forget, never mind how excited this review gets - is that this movie still isn’t up there with the original. It’s straightforward where the original was elusive, self-contained where the original was evocative, and where the original tied everything together this one leaves behind a few threads. Villeneuve is a more clinical, measured filmmaker than Scott, which results in a film where everything exists to be in service of the central idea. The unfortunate side effect is that his 2049 just doesn’t feel as limitless as Scott’s 2019. Also, as great as this story is, it’s in desperate need of a Roy Batty figure; Rutger Hauer, you are missed.
Still, it’s hard to fault Villeneuve and his collaborators for these complaints. After all, they’re only human.