A sequel to Blade Runner is an odd concept to wrap one’s head around. The 1982 neo-noir sci-fi masterpiece was a misunderstood gem, timeless in its presentation and headiness. It confronted audiences with an avalanche of big ideas— what it means to be human, how memories create who we are, themes of love, exploitation, post-colonialism, mortality, social hierarchy, social decay. Blade Runner was a revolutionary moment in genre filmmaking through its confluence of high tech and low life, a morose contemplation on humanity, a thrilling yet thoughtful journey, and this writer’s favorite film.
But most importantly, it was a film built on ambiguity. Audiences latched onto the questions presented throughout the film and just about everything was up to interpretation. Sequels, by their nature, have to answer questions, or at least address them in a way that removes much of their holy mystery. Historically, some sequels take an abstract film and make it frustratingly concrete. Others solve this problem by inventing a bunch of brand new mysteries, thusly never betraying the inscrutable nature of its predecessor. Blade Runner 2049 splits the difference.
There are questions and there are mysteries, but they don’t possess the same elemental magic of the original. Where the first film was about the creeping loss of humanity, the sequel is about trying to get it back, which necessitates an emphasis on the tangible. This is not to say that Blade Runner 2049 is sub-par— very far from it— but it is, at least after a first viewing, difficult to detect its true depth due to its spiritual fallibility. 2049’s highbrow ideas and goals are relayed directly through a corporeality of hope, rather than layered underneath an implied sense of hope. In other words, the film often wears its brain on its sleeve. Such a realization, however, is not all bad, as the result is a line between human and Replicant that is even more blurred than it was the first time around; and the effects of that blurring bear a heavy emotional weight for the characters and the viewer.
Director Denis Villeneuve has proven himself recently to be a master of evoking emotion through the technical aspects of cinema (his mastery of aesthetic distance in last year’s Arrival is among the most powerful instances of cathartic filmmaking in recent years), and his work here is no less evocative. He is especially adept at conveying the setting, just as Ridley Scott did, with mesmerizing shots of a grotesque industrial future hell-scape, offering those hypnotizing flyovers of future Los Angeles that wowed audiences the first time around in their overbearing consumerism and odd beauty. That being said, there is an eerie stillness in this picture that could alienate audiences. But if it wasn’t a bit slow-footed in places, I’d be upset. The original film traded on film noir clichés about hardboiled, emotionally distant detectives and the shady women who upend their lives. This sequel slightly de-emphasizes the first film’s intimate, downbeat noir qualities in favor of something more gigantic and monolithic, preserving Ridley Scott’s massively controlled andante tempo.
And to reiterate: Blade Runner 2049 is monolithic. The film’s sheer scale has the power to leave one hyperventilating. Not only have Villeneuve and legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins successfully recreated the world of Blade Runner, they’ve also organically expanded it beyond the confines of Los Angeles in addition to building upon what came before. Deakins’s cinematography and the production design by Dennis Gasner are both delectable; it is a miracle that a slow nearly-three hour contemplative genre film could muster the budget and talent to allow for this level of production. Giant arcologies, neon laced storefronts, probing lights, and vast unique settings swell the feelings of claustrophobia while offering a lived-in, longed-for feeling to nearly every scene. Every image in this film is gorgeous and dripping with color, life, and feeling. Visually speaking, this is quite possibly the best sci-fi film ever made. It is a tribute to the way in which world building through cinematography and production design produces such a powerful emotional core. The camerawork additionally echoes the best aspect of the previous film, in which scenes still carry on even after all of the relevant information for that point in the narrative is relayed, generating a more fleshed out, lived-in setting. These moments weave throughout the film, adding atmospheric and emotional context to produce a world, the keynote of which is malaise. While unable to relay as much thematic ambiguity, Villeneuve’s team has excelled in inhibiting emotional ambiguity and weight throughout the film.
In fact, Blade Runner 2049’s heavy tilt towards emotion is integral to its story about artificial humans possibly becoming humanity’s next step in evolution. As such, the film does not feel a need to revisit its predecessor’s beats, but rather continue them. 2049 does its level best to capture the bracing eccentricity and opaqueness of the first film, while expanding the setting and introducing new arcs. To go into the story is to perform a disservice to any potential viewer of the film, as it is best experienced knowing nothing besides its status as a follow up to Blade Runner. Ryan Gosling portrays the titular blade runner— a special police task force officer tasked with hunting Replicants (synthetic humans)— and gives an appropriately icy performance. His character, dubbed K, has subtle points of departure from the original protagonist Rick Deckard, but he’s still just as detached, world-weary, and unknowable. After making a sensational discovery, K embarks on a dangerous mission that eventually leads to a mysterious, Freudian encounter with Deckard himself. Harrison Ford’s return as Deckard is shorter than anticipated but worth every moment that has built up to it. Similar to his Star Wars return, Ford plays Deckard not having just picked up where the previous film left off, but rather having lived through the past thirty years and having changed along the way; this time around imbuing his character with a haggard misanthropy that establishes a true weight for the harsh revelations that would upend the universe of the film. Just as Ryan Gosling is able to draw parallels with Ford without fully becoming the archetype, Jared Leto channels the lofty pontification of Joe Turkel, but never falls into caricature. The work of Leto in the role of messianic entrepreneur Niander Wallace is one of the true pleasant surprises of the movie, considering how polarizing he tends to be. Overall, the performance hits the very specific tone of Blade Runner incredibly well, yet is unfortunately featured in the movie very sparingly.
The notes that aren’t hit with as much success are the ones created by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch, late replacements for Villeneuve mainstay Johann Johannsson. Boy, do they try, though. When atmospheric, contemplative, or reservedly epic, the soundtrack soars, with a feeling that can only be described as aural neon. However, while the hints of Vangelis’ classic score are there, they are sometimes blunted by the necessities of modern film music. A chase scene in the third act contains music so out-of-place and generic that one might be fooled into thinking the filmmakers forgot to replace the temp track.
It is this rare adherence to the modern blockbuster formula that holds Blade Runner 2049 down a bit. Hard-hitting punches that come out of nowhere and leave the protagonist weary are a delight, but prolonged fight sequences set to fast “action movie” music have the power to take one out of the identifiably slow, wandering movie. Furthermore, major revelations in the film treat the viewer much too mercifully, sometimes showing visual callbacks to a previous scene in the film to help the viewer realize what K has just discovered in the moment. These obstruct the impact of certain twists, making them feel both less earned and less rewarding, incongruous to the feelings evoked throughout the rest of the film. These occasions of dissonance feel unwelcome in a property like Blade Runner, and are especially frustrating because most of Villeneuve’s film excels at evolving the atmosphere and tone of the story. On the whole, Blade Runner is not fun; it is challenging. But these occasional desires to be fun, or to appeal to a simpler frequency, are where the film slightly falters.
This is not a movie made for the binary, “rotten or fresh” critical dynamic, but then again, neither was the first movie. Blade Runner is not a rip-roaring adventure story. It’s a character piece about such heady ideas as the nature of existence, our relationship to God, and our fear of mortality. That’s just scratching the surface of what you can sink your teeth into. It transcends the way in which we commodify film criticism. Blade Runner 2049 is all of that again, but without the cult mystique of the misunderstood classic. It continues to ask those questions, to a degree, while bringing new and fascinating variations to the theme, and satisfactorily resolving Deckard’s story along the way. And it does so through the vessel of a meditative and morose journey, offering imagery with the power to trigger awe or even a kind of ecstatic despair at the idea of a post-human future, and what it means to imagine the wreck of our current form of homo sapiens.
As so often in literature and cinema, we are reminded that science fiction is there to tackle big ideas, and makes realist genres look flimsy and parochial. Science fiction isn’t really about the special effects or giant battles between forces of good and evil. It’s more about using speculative scenarios as a lens to examine the human condition. Blade Runner 2049 embraces this identification and usage of the genre to its benefit. This is a film we will debate and discuss for some time; maybe not to the same level as the first one, but it does ask provocative questions, just in a more blatant fashion.
One could suppose a kind of cinemonarrative consonance— wherein the cinematic grammar matches the intonation of the narrative themes— in identifying Blade Runner 2049 as being closer to Replicant than human. Whereas Blade Runner tackled humanity and mortality, looking back on a decrepit yet pseudo-utopian past that brought us to a state of exploration, 2049 looks to the future, building on the tribulations of the past to evolve the series (in some ways good and in some ways bad). It lacks the imperfections that generated in its predecessor a glimmering wonder, but still carries on as perhaps a more complete and monumental achievement.