Blade Runner 2049 can’t be the enduring classic the original is.
For a large part, that’s based in the impossibly different approach the two films take to their world. Not just in the actual material, but in the process that got it there.
Blade Runner had cut after cut, a formative legend that eventually pulled some grand truth out of raw material. Blade Runner 2049 arrived fully formed on the back of three decades of legacy-making. Blade Runner is a film that was forced into ambiguity, its questions more important and more formative than the answers it gave. Blade Runner 2049 is founded in its directness, barreling forward into a world in the hope of unraveling its mysteries.
Blade Runner is a sci-fi film told with detective flair. Blade Runner 2049 is a mystery story told with a sci-fi thought process. The former can leave threads for years, the latter must leave only its reactions.
But despite all this, let it not be said that Blade Runner 2049 is not a staggering and extraordinary work of cinema. Few films could come in with such personal attachment for me and such difficult mountains to surmount and end up creating something that feels as real and vital and alive and as ahead of its moment as the original did, even if it only expands where the original created.
Part of the reason I chose to wait to write this review was because I needed a while to let the initial reaction wear off, the other because I wanted enough time to actually be able to safely talk about some details of what happened. This is a film that has a lot to uncover.
K (Ryan Gosling) is a Blade Runner, a cop specifically designated to hunt down the superhuman slave-clones known as replicants, in LA in the year 2049. K is also a replicant himself, tasked specifically with turning in his own kind.
A job hunting down runaway replicant Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista) puts K on the trail of a possible replicant child, a child that turns the world around as replicants become capable of reproduction. But K is by no means the only one interested as creator of the current, more compliant replicants, Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), stays on K’s trail, sending his badass assistant Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) after him as K follows the obscured trail to the truth.
There’s almost no way to begin talking about Blade Runner 2049 without talking about its visuals. There’s a lot underneath them, but Blade Runner 2049 is undeniably one of the most striking works of cinematic visualization put out in theaters in sometime. Director Denis Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins have joined to create something that I imagine looks like what every blockbuster will in about 5 years.
It’s not just Villeneuve’s able visual direction, tight and focused and maintaining an almost supreme control over its pace where the extreme length (for a blockbuster) feels absolutely deliberate and unfurling.
It’s not just Deakin’s camera work, deep and inky shadows unveiling and unfurling its world and brilliant neon illuminating a cold and unforgiving air. The natural and clever lighting creating something magical and aching and impossible.
It’s not just Dennis Gassner and Renee April’s production and costume design, real and advanced and functional and just as tangible as ever despite its scale and its distance from our own world.
It’s not just the special effects work, the ingenious holograms, the unnerving de-agings, the ads in the background sprinkling information.
It’s all of those things. Blade Runner 2049 is a stack of visual wizards doing the best work they’ve ever done, creating something ahead of its time and something that makes the loudest and best possible argument for seeing a movie on the big screen that anything ever has. To say nothing of the need to hear this thing on the big screen, one of the loudest movies I’ve ever heard sure, but one where every sound only heightens the envelopment of this movie.
Was it just the technical work, Blade Runner 2049 would earn the praise many have given. But to earn the praise I’m going to give, it’s also the story being told by the people who are telling it.
Villeneuve begun his career looking at the worst of humanity, its violence and its repression. Prisoners about tragedy, Enemy about control. Arrival seems to have signaled a possible shift for the filmmaker, a turn to something (while keeping his icy brutality) more about humanity. Arrival was about what it means for us to communicate as humans with each other.
Blade Runner 2049 is down to that very fundamental question…what is humanity anyway? It’s the same question Blade Runner asked, of course. But 2049 wants to attack it from a direct angle, interrogate what specifically divides us between the human and non-human, whether there is a difference, and whether it matters.
2049 turns things we identify as human and gives them a sheen of technological separation. One of the best cyber-sex scenes since her turns sex into something both recognizable and advanced beyond our years, asking what point this became that very human act.
Again, to ask, what is our humanity, what makes it ours? If the original was Biblical, Roy Batty a Lucifer tempting towards a better world, then 2049 is Nabokov asking what meaning these things have that we give them and Kafka asking what barriers we’ve set up to divide ourselves from the inhuman world.
Hampton Fancher and Michael Green have done all this in a script that still manages to function well on its narrative level. Every twist and turn is in service of that larger thematic and the stories we tell about these people, but it’s strong enough to keep you engrossed and difficult enough to force you to peel underneath the surface to find what’s going on. It’s remarkable this kind of storytelling, deliberately poetic and meditative, was in a studio film and in a blockbuster framework. Fancher, Green, and Villeneuve have created something beautiful and bold on the kind of scale few get to.
Its cast does remarkable work. More than Blade Runner, it’s the female cast that gets to stand out and drive its narrative. Ana de Armas gives a hypnotic performance as K’s girlfriend Joi, pushing and prodding him to ask questions of himself. Sylvia Hoeks gives a performance worthy of every henchman from Blade Runner, badass and cool and yet somehow petulant, like she’s going after K to be the best. And points to Mackenzie Davis for making the most of a short few scenes and reminding us why we need to see way more of her.
This also may be one of Ryan Gosling’s best performances. He’s given a complex character, a cold and difficult person who does hunger to reach for something more, who believes in a possibility that he’s greater. Gosling uses that great star persona (cool, calm, collected with rage willing to burst through) with just hints of the humanity appearing underneath that he’s so good at in other roles (see: The Big Short, La La Land).
Blade Runner 2049 has its flaws, yes. Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch’s score just doesn’t feel as apt or deft as the now-legendary Vangelis score. And Jared Leto’s Niander Wallace feels sewed on from another movie. Not bad but just not of a piece with the rest of the film.
But for someone who holds the original as one of the greatest films ever made, Blade Runner 2049 is as worthy a sequel as I can imagine. An expansion of the universe, a new story being told in a new way by a new storyteller using the same world looked at through new eyes. It joins films like Creed and Mad Max: Fury Road as a filmmaker carving out a new path through a classic.