Part love letter, part clever expansion, “Blade Runner 2049” is a worthy sequel that has the legs to become a classic unto itself.
Over the 35 years since its release, Director Ridley Scott’s sci-fi noir film Blade Runner has come to be revered, as both a classic in the sci-fi genre and a visual masterpiece. In taking up the story again three decades later, Blade Runner 2049 runs the risk of bumbling what’s become a frighteningly heavy burden in carrying on the original film’s legacy. But, to get right to the point as we begin our review, it’s a mandate director Denis Villeneuve deftly handles throughout the sequel.
Blade Runner 2049 returns audiences to the dark and beautiful vision of a dystopian future created in the first film, while effectively advancing both the story’s original themes and its science fiction aesthetic. It’s a movie that manages to remain true to its ancestry while also striking out into new territory. In short, it’s exactly the kind of Blade Runner sequel fans have been dying to see.
More Human Than Human
In keeping with the time that’s passed in the real world since the release of Blade Runner (although the movie has seen several re-released director’s cuts since it hit theaters in 1982), 2049 rejoins the film’s bleak world nearly 30 years after the original. A lot has changed: Replicants, the genetically engineered android slaves hunted by Blade Runner’s original protagonist, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), have seen a resurgence. Thanks to the work of genius industrialist Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), Replicants are back on the market and more obedient to their human masters. Renegade Replicants are still feared, however, and still hunted — this time around by a “blade runner” police officer called Officer K (Ryan Gosling).
Blade Runner 2049 picks up threads of the original’s story, which ended with Deckard fleeing Los Angeles with the Replicant woman he’d fallen in love with, Rachael (Sean Young), after hunting down four renegade Replicants. The original movie addressed the ideas of what it means to be human and what intrinsic value there is in consciousness of any kind, and 2049 grabs those pieces and runs, right out of the gate.
The story is distinctly K’s, however. The film starts with him on the job, hunting a rogue Replicant who is now a quiet grub farmer, before following K in his otherwise quiet existence. He resides in a tiny apartment within an overflowing tenement in future Los Angeles. His only real companion is a computer-generated hologram girlfriend called Joi (Ana de Armas), herself a human-like machine manufactured solely to meet the needs of others.
Blade Runner 2049 is exactly the kind of Blade Runner sequel fans have hoped to see.
The aftermath of Deckard and Rachael’s story becomes central to the film – as the trailers have made clear, Ford reprises his role 35 years on — and the script weaves an affecting and personal mystery for K as he starts to find clues related to the original movie. Blade Runner brought audiences along with a killer who starts to question whether he’s justified in killing his manufactured victims, and K’s journey brings up questions about his place in the world and the overriding question about how valuable life is, whether natural or artificial.
Gosling handles the role with the quiet build-up of a pot slowly coming to boil. He brings his signature subdued approach, ostensibly reminiscent of his nearly mute character in Drive, but underneath is a growing intensity. K’s identity centers on his place and role in the world, and there’s a comfort in that detachment — but as time goes on, holding on to that personal facade becomes more and more difficult.
It’s de Armas who’s constantly stoking the flames of K’s humanity. Much of the story concerns their relationship and its authenticity as Joi executes the programming that’s inextricable from her identity. Their scenes together are the movie’s beating heart, made all the more poignant when Mackenzie Davis enters the picture as a Replicant sex worker.
But the underlying current that drives the story is its mystery, and Blade Runner 2049 does a solid job of toying with fan expectations as it keeps things moving. Ford’s return as Deckard brings just enough of the original to bear without becoming overpowering, and his take on the character as an aging and maybe broken version of himself is just enough to remind us of Deckard, without saturating the new story with nostalgia.
At times the film can get a bit overwrought. For instance, the primary function of Leto’s Wallace seems to be delivering soliloquies of supervillain philosophizing, and his character rolls out references to religion that can feel like he’s battering you about the face with thematic grandstanding. But these moments are few and they’re not really the focus of the story. Leto eventually develops the right amount of sinister creepiness that makes his character a frightening, if distant, antagonist. It’s his Replicant enforcer Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) who administers his will on the world, and Luv does so with a mix of awe for her creator and sadistic glee at being his instrument, making her the more interesting of the two villains.
The new film effectively expands on the cyberpunk world of the original with hints at deeper conspiracies. Even if you know Blade Runner inside and out, 2049 does just enough smart work with new information to re-contextualize its predecessor for its own ends, effectively expanding on Scott’s original vision, rather than transforming it into something different.
Blade Runner is perhaps better known for its futuristic vision and aesthetic than its thematic storytelling, and it sets a high visual bar for its sequel to reach. Luckily for us, Blade Runner 2049 comes through in a big way, presenting a gorgeous and haunting dystopia, doing justice to its world with every frame.
Villeneuve creates a gorgeous and haunting flim, doing justice to its world with every frame.
Villeneuve and Director of Photography Roger Deakins create an eerie and luminescent Los Angeles, managing to recapture a world that’s both blazingly alive and slowly suffocating. Ping-ponging between glowing neon ads and desolate, barren wastelands, every shot of Blade Runner 2049 tells a story of the world itself. Where Blade Runner set a bar with its imaginative but ultimately pessimistic look into a future of flying cars and overcrowded cityscapes, Blade Runner 2049 reaches out even further, visiting destitute locales like a sand-swept Las Vegas, and farms bristling not with crops, but with sun-catching mirrors and solar panels.
The visual elements work in tandem with a soundtrack that’s a similar hybrid of nods to the past and an expansion into the future. Aesthetically, Blade Runner 2049 feels quintessentially Blade Runner (imagine that). Yet, like the new film’s story, the look and feel offer a new and refreshed take on the classic material. Balancing those conceits is a tightrope to walk. Villeneuve and the cast and crew don’t exactly make it look easy, but they do make it beautiful.
If there were any nagging worries about trying to make a sequel to Scott’s sci-fi classic after so much time has passed, Blade Runner 2049 more than dispels them. From its stellar cast to its phenomenal ’80s future aesthetic and its clever expansion of the material, Blade Runner 2049 is a worthy sequel that has the legs to become a classic unto itself.