Hollywood’s recent trend of producing sequels to some of the most beloved films and series in its history is, if nothing else, bold. For every genuinely brilliant continuation like Mad Max: Fury Road there’s an abomination like Terminator Genisys. Fortunately the misfires have so far been new follow-ups to films or series that have less vocal fanbases (can you imagine if Star Wars Episode VII was objectively bad after the prequel debacle?) The announcement of a sequel to Blade Runner was both one of the most risky and interesting of these propositions. While many less optimistic fans predicted the new entry would be nothing but a soulless cash-grab, it was always worth remembering that the first film was far from a smash hit at the box-office and only gained its critically acclaimed reputation years after its initial release (partly due to the plethora of different editions Ridley Scott and company kept releasing). The appointment of talented director Denis Villeneuve further cemented the idea that Warner Brothers really might have something more on its mind than money. After his recent string of dark and affecting films, Villeneuve seemed like the kind of filmmaker that just might be able to follow-up Scott’s classic in a fresh way. Now that the fruit of his labor has arrived I can confirm those optimistic suspicions were right. Blade Runner 2049 is an ambitious, emotional piece of sci-fi filmmaking that is bold enough to walk its own path but clever enough to honor its famed predecessor in intriguing ways.
We return to the dreary, despairing, futuristic Los Angeles Scott based off Phillip K. Dick’s novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, thirty years further down its path of decay, to follow the story of a new LAPD blade runner, K (Ryan Gosling). The job is the same for K as it was for Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard in the original film, hunting down and destroying rogue replicants, the bioengineered humans the new world uses as slaves. The film opens with K “retiring” his latest target (or victim), Sapper Morton (a bespectacled, philosophical Dave Bautista). The shocking secrets of bodily remains found on Morton’s property set K on the path to unraveling a mystery with profound implications for himself and the long-missing Deckard. Before he is killed, Morton assures K the only reason he can participate in such a cruel occupation is because he’s “never seen a miracle” and the eerie beauty of this scene sets the tone for the entire film. Villeneuve has crafted something sad and strange here, but its also something not devoid of hope, a kind of melancholy wonder.
One of Blade Runner 2049‘s greatest strengths is the way it devotes itself, even more so than its predecessor did, to its noir influences. This may be a tale of complex, challenging sci-fi, but its all wrapped up in an engrossing, dark mystery that sucks the viewer into its shadowy world so effortlessly that they don’t realize for a long time that they’ve become much more invested in the characters and themes than the plot. It’s the perfect way to draw viewer’s into K’s subtle, affecting story. Of course there’s more to that story than just the thrill of the unknown. Like the original film, 2049 is all about the meanings of humanity and what separates genuine life from its artificial counterpart and these contemplations make for mesmerizing viewing, especially since the story is approached from angles different enough to its predecessor’s to feel unique. Gosling brings the perfect mix of detachment and existential pain for the material. K’s character has his similarities to Deckard but where Ford played a tired, beaten down man, Gosling makes it clear K is just plain lost. Ana de Armas is a scene stealer as K’s holographic girlfriend, Joi, and their peculiar romance provides a necessary sense of warmth to the otherwise very dark film.
Its worth emphasizing that this really is K’s story first and foremost. Deckard is a supporting character in every sense of the term, which fans of the original film are probably best off knowing going in. The mythology and continuing plots from the first film, including what links K’s investigation to Deckard, are established early on but 2049 is in no rush to reintroduce the original cinematic blade runner. I’m not particularly good at estimating how much real time passes during a film, but I’m willing to bet Ford’s first scene isn’t until past the hour and a half mark. None of which is an indication of the quality of Villeneuve’s use of Dick and Scott’s famed protagonist. Deckard receives a well-developed, moving story that, much like the new film as a whole, is marginally more clear than its counterpart in the abstract original. Deckard as a character reflects this greater clarity himself. Ford turns in a completely different performance than he did in 1982, open-hearted and emotional where he once was weary and merciless. You might say Deckard’s more human here, which is one of the sequel’s most subtle, significant points. Regarding the one great question about the character that has haunted audiences for decades, Villeneuve is particularly graceful. 2049‘s plot more strongly suggests one answer but it never outright confirms or denies the true nature of Rick Deckard.
If there are any areas in which 2049 truly replicates its predecessor they are in the film’s look and sound. Villeneuve and famed cinematographer Roger Deakins do excellent work visualizing what Scott’s famed cityscape would like thirty years further into the future and make some strong visual choices of their own when the story ventures outside Los Angeles, with an irradiated, ruined Las Vegas being particularly striking. The work of composers Benjamin Wallfisch and Hanz Zimmer on 2049 would feel right at home among the haunting, iconic efforts Vangelis produced for the first film. The one technical element that is suprsingly bland about 2049 is the direction of its action sequences. In both films fight scenes come about more from plot necessity than anything else and neither director seems particularly interested in extensive choreography or exciting stunts. That said, Scott was still able to make a point with his set pieces which had some effective displays of the enhanced strength of replicants, which in turn proved Deckard’s formidability in defeating them. Villeneuve’s fisticuffs are simply slow and visually uninteresting, which is disappointing coming from the filmmaker who staged Sicario’s quick but memorable shootouts.
It has its flaws, but Blade Runner 2049 is a rare sequel in that it can truly stand as equal to, or perhaps even surpass (in at least some regards), its legendary predecessor. While the themes and questions being dealt with are those already addressed by Dick and Scott, Villeneuve and company have their own unique answers and perspectives that are equally compelling. This is everything good sci-fi films should aspire to, a unique story that uses outlandish concepts to dissect fundamental aspects of life, in this case, what it means to be human.