How do you follow an enigmatic masterpiece that has only grown in stature over the last 30 years? If you’re director Denis Villeneuve, you take everything that was iconic about Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and expand it into a sprawling examination of hope, destiny, and creation. Not everything in Blade Runner 2049 works — it grows increasingly messy over the bloated 160 minute running time — but this is an ambitious vision of startling cinematic beauty.
Much like its predecessor, Blade Runner 2049 raises more questions than it’s willing to answer. Was Deckard a Replicant? What happened after Tyrell’s murder? What’s the deal with Sean Young? Villeneuve cleverly sidesteps several of the more pressing questions raised by Scott’s endless litany of Blade Runner cuts and re-releases, and re-frames the rest in clever and satisfying ways. True, many of the mysteries in this film arise from vague character motivations, but Villeneuve clearly understands the value of keeping resolution tantalizingly out of reach.
Blade Runner 2049 expertly performs the cinematic balancing act of honoring the source material while standing on its own narrative merits. The surprises and twists shall remain a mystery (under penalty of excommunication by an over-protective Warner Bros. studio), but the premise is simple enough: LAPD Blade Runner officer ‘K’ (Ryan Gosling) uncovers a dangerous secret while tracking and ‘retiring’ the last remnants of an antiquated Replicant generation (Nexus 8). The rest is just atmospheric dread instilled by a visual world that manages to somehow feel expansive and suffocating at the same time.
Villeneuve (Arrival 2016, Sicario 2015) places a priority on preserving the visual and auditory hallmarks of Scott’s original creation. Los Angeles still seems to be trapped in a perpetual rainstorm. Colorful holographic advertisements punctuate the grimy urban sprawl, with giant ballerinas prancing amidst the skyscrapers and naked sex escorts propositioning lonely passersby. ‘Skyscraper’ is a misnomer, actually, as this is a world without a sky; consumed years ago by the remnants of industrial hubris.
Composers Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch rightfully honor the momentous score from Vangelis, replicating his evocative synthesizer with frightening precision. Famed cinematographer Roger Deakins must have been salivating at the prospect of dancing with light and shadow in the Blade Runner universe, and his work is (unsurprisingly) exquisite. When Deakins and Villeneuve venture outside Los Angeles, perhaps to the desert or a desolate military compound, they create unique, saturated visual signatures that rival anything found in Scott’s original vision. It’s the sort of spectacle that overwhelms the senses, creating a thoroughly plausible world through painstaking detail and fantastical flourishes.
This is a chattier piece than its predecessor (excluding the original theatrical version of Blade Runner that features Harrison Ford’s infamously bland voiceover narration), though our lead character, K, much like Deckard before him, is something of a “cold fish”. He lives the solitary lifestyle of a government sanctioned assassin, relying upon his mercurial girlfriend (Ana de Armas as ‘Joi’) for social stimulation as he awaits the next assignment from his commanding officer (Robin Wright). Mandatory behavioral tests after each completed assignment (i.e., Replicant retirement) reveal a man whose conscience isn’t so much clear as non-existent. A man like this has no reason to talk. All he cares about is the next ‘skin job’ he must track down.
Those surrounding K, however, are more eager to chat. Not the least of which is a pioneering scientist named Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), who bought the remains of Tyrell Corporation and set about updating its genetic engineering program. As played by the ever-measured Leto, Wallace is a Messianic figure obsessed with creating the perfect machine for ‘off world’ colonization. He’s the sort of character you might expect to find in a Ridley Scott film (Scott serves as executive producer); a man consumed by the desire to not only engineer, but to create life in his own image. Wallace’s quest, and its consequences on K, forms the thematic backbone of Blade Runner 2049.
Villeneuve and his screenwriters pack plenty of thought and revelations into their story, greatly expanding the boundaries of Blade Runner’s insular detective plot. Complicated themes hinted at by Scott, such as social stratification and the industrial reliance upon a slave labor force, are tackled head-on by Villeneuve, who understands that science fiction is the perfect genre for such heady concerns. Here, the weight of oppression extends beyond mere dramatic subtext; it’s a paralyzing affliction that plagues Replicants and humans alike.
Though this will likely be a movie remembered for its visuals, the performances are also sharp and effective. Gosling functions well as the blank slate, remaining a believable center that we desperately want to break free of his moral malaise. The real surprise here, however, is Harrison Ford. For the first time in years, the famously laconic Ford seems eager to please, as he throws himself emotionally and physically into a role that has often seemed to baffle him (Ridley Scott and Ford disagree, for instance, on whether Deckard is a Replicant). Here, Ford conveys the regret and crushing denial of a man (or Replicant?) who will never regain his soul. “Sometimes to love someone,” he laments, “you’ve got to be a stranger.”
Of course, Blade Runner 2049 has blemishes. The narrative arc, character motivations in particular, doesn’t quite align, creating an artificial sense of mystery in this otherwise linear story. It’s also too long, which results in a third act that temporarily loses some forward momentum.
Still, it’s hard to criticize an ambitious sequel that strives to improve upon the genius of its predecessor. The initial trepidation surrounding Blade Runner 2049 should be replaced by relief and exhilaration, as it’s now clear that Villeneuve was the right man to helm such a risky project. We didn’t know we needed a sequel to Blade Runner, but thank goodness we got one.