How do you a make a sequel to one of the most influential science-fiction films of all time? The presence of 1982’s Blade Runner in modern media is wide and deep, evident in everything from anime to video games to (of course) film. It’s dialogue and music have been sampled more than nearly any film in existence. How can any sequel possibly compete with any of that? The answer to that question has taken 35 years to develop, culminating in the haunting, complex, and undeniably beautiful Blade Runner 2049.
WARNING! MAY CONTAIN MILD SPOILERS!
Officer K (Ryan Gosling) is the titular blade runner, a cop who’s job is to hunt down and “retire” renegade bio-engineered humans known as replicants. On his latest assignment, he uncovers a buried secret that unsettles his superior, Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright), who tasks him with discovering the truth behind it and destroying anything he might find. His investigation leads him to ex-blade runner Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), who vanished 30 years earlier. At the same time, K’s work is noticed by replicant creator Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), who sends his enforcer Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) after him.
Very little of 2049’s plot can be discussed without major spoilers, however, as the mystery behind K’s investigation is crucial to the film’s hypnotic allure. Director Denis Villeneuve lets the narrative unfold slowly and organically, telling the story as much with visuals as with the tight and wickedly lean script by Michael Green and Hampton Fancher (who also wrote the 1982 original). Villeneuve is adept at drawing the viewer in, teasing the audience with just enough clues to make them think they’ve figured everything out before upending that with new information. We never know more about the mystery than K does, allowing Villeneuve to create an undeniably intriguing narrative.
Much of the power of 2049 comes from Villeneuve’s bold and vibrant visual compositions, filmed with masterful grace by Roger Deakins. Eschewing the quick-cut style of modern genre films, Villeneuve favors imperceptibly-slow pans and takes that are held to an almost uncomfortable length. It encourages immersion into the setting, turning the film into a kind of lived-in experience that mimics the all-encompassing environment of the narrative itself. Beyond the opening text crawl explaining the nature of replicants, there is very little exposition offered, but Villeneuve’s approach makes everything seem familiar and real, which is highly appropriate for a film that explores the nature of identity and memory.
Villeneuve doesn’t cover the film in sci-fi trappings, at least not more than the film requires. Unlike more spectacle-based films indebted to Blade Runner like Ghost In The Shell, there is a tactile nature to the world of 2049, almost unsettlingly so. The art of the film, while eye-searingly colorful and active, is in service to the story. The world of 2049 is a harsh and unforgiving place where simply surviving day to day can be a struggle, but Villeneuve conveys that through the twists and turns of the narrative and through the interactions of the characters with the environment, encouraging the viewer to take in every inch of the expertly-framed visuals.
2049 boasts an impressively-complex sonic palette as well, thanks to a mesmerizing score by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch (whose score for last month’s It was also one of that film’s major highlights). Like the film itself, this is a new exploration of the themes and motifs of what has come before, using Vangelis’ iconic score from the original as a stepping-off point. Heavy with sounds reminiscent of vintage analog synths and undercut with Zimmer’s trademark drums and heavy bass, it tells as much of the story as much as the script does. It’s a rich, layered, electronic symphony that compliments Villeneuve’s stunning visuals perfectly.
Similarly, Ryan Gosling’s K isn’t a copy of Harrison Ford’s original performance as Deckard. Gosling’s performance is informed by Ford’s, which was probably unavoidable, but he makes K his own complex character, expressing a vulnerability that Ford only hinted at. Ford himself is in excellent shape, looking more at home here than he has in any film for decades (including The Force Awakens). Like Gosling, he’s fully committed to the performance, infusing each line reading with humanity and depth. The scenes where Ford plays against Jared Leto (who’s more downplayed and grounded than he has been lately) are thick with tension, with Deckard keeping a tight grip on his emotions and Wallace seeming to do away with emotion altogether.
There is a stronger female presence than there was in the original, which is not to discount the remarkable women in that film. Like she was in Wonder Woman, Robin Wright is an ensemble dark horse, intriguingly able to make Joshi as warm as she is cynical. She makes remarkably efficient use of her relatively small amount of screen time. Sylvia Hoeks’ Luv is just as dualistic, being both a corporate deadpan snarker and an in-the-trenches bad-ass bruiser, a captivating Eve of destruction. But one of the most arresting performances belongs to Ana de Armas’ quietly sensual performance as Joi, a holographic companion A. I. that serves as K’s “girlfriend.” She has an amazing level of chemistry with Gosling, and their relationship is more believable than those in most romantic films.
If the film has any flaws, its primarily that it doesn’t explore any social issues beyond those related to K’s investigation, which centers around the idea of what constitutes humanity and being human. The social and income equality that makes the backbone of the setting and the sexist connotations of Joi as a mass-marketed “perfect woman” are intriguing ideas that don’t get much screen time. However, while the film doesn’t explicitly deal with these issues, much can be extrapolated through a post-viewing analysis. The setting of the film lives and breathes and is full of subtle complexities that require a bit more work to parse out. The characters are so enmshed in the settings — and all the social problems it entails — to the point where they don’t question what happens around them. To them, that’s just the way things are, and Villeneuve lets it stay that way. It may be more of a modern audience expectation than anything to do with the film itself.
The film’s other demerit is that it feels a bit too long. Villeneuve makes expert use of his time. No scene feels extraneous, but it eventually does start to drag, especially because Villeneuve is stingy with his action scenes, saving most of them for the third act. Beyond that, however, is an otherwise fascinating science-fiction film that is as worthy of the top tier of the genre’s canon as its predecessor. Captivating visuals, a haunting score, and a cast that’s uniformly at the top of their game make 2049 more of an experience than a film. It’s nothing short of an electric dream.
FBOTU Score: 8 out of 10 / A-