'Blade Runner 2049'
Of all the revived franchise extensions to pop up in recent years, ‘Blade Runner’ felt like the riskiest proposition. While Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi/noir made a huge mark on pop culture with its groundbreakingly bleak design and formation of the cult of the director’s cut, it’s also a rather slow, ambiguous, even philosophical film – not the sort of thing suited to blockbuster success these days. Despite a few minor hiccups, ‘Blade Runner 2049’ emerges as a remarkable sequel that honors everything that made the original masterpiece so special, regardless of whether or not the material is commercial.
This is the portion of the review where a plot summary is supposed to arrive, but Warner Bros. has put an odd and unexpected number of restrictions on what can be discussed, so I’ll stick to the basics. The film takes place 30 years after the original. The world is still a polluted neon wasteland, but the population has shifted. Environmental disasters led to an Earth where no food can grow, causing so many people to move off-world that now much of the population consists of a new generation of Replicants created by a new corporation run by creepy Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), who also provides all the synthetic food. K (Ryan Gosling) is one such Replicant and a Blade Runner, mostly assigned to killing off the few original-generation Replicants left. A new assignment from his commander (Robin Wright) pulls him into a larger mystery with bizarre twists and a history that eventually leads him to Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford).
I think that avoids all the spoilers on the list I was given. I hope and pray that you haven’t learned too much.
Sarcasm aside, having only a vague notion of what ‘Blade Runner 2049’ entails is for the best and also not that big a deal. While the film has secrets worth saving and a sprawling plot compared to the sparsely structured original, story beats aren’t really the sequel’s strengths. Director Denis Villeneuve and his team have come to the project with a sense of reverence for the original. They hope not just to recapture the look and feel of the film, but also the sense of depth and mystery. The film posits big questions about consciousness and mortality and the cold artificiality of so much modern human interaction. It toys with concepts related to human rights, identity, creation, and playing god. It doesn’t necessarily answer any of the those questions. That’s not really the point. This is a blockbuster genre movie designed to provoke and challenge. At times that’s wondrous and at times that’s frustrating. Just like ‘Blade Runner’.
One thing the filmmakers certainly nail is the style and rain-drenched neo-noir aesthetic that Ridley Scott delivered in 1982. Recreating that after so many knockoffs was an extraordinary challenge, but somehow the film delivers. Familiar and expanded ‘Blade Runner’ landscapes appear with mind-boggling detail and immersion. The world-building effects are absolutely astounding, with digital and physical effects seamlessly merging and Roger Deakins’ smoky neon-lit photography delivering some of the most beautiful big screen sci-fi images since the original movie. The film doesn’t necessarily create a new vision of the future destined to be imitated for decades. It sticks to the ‘Blade Runner’ template in ways both technically breathtaking and thematically unsettling. Pollution is a little thicker, advertising is a little more obnoxious, and despite all the retro future beauty, it still feels foreboding. It’s world of abandoned architectural triumphs that feel crafted more for design than life. The movie has a sense of lived-in reality and a commentary on how urban spaces sprawl into challenging new terrain unfit for healthy life despite being created for that purpose. As with the original film, design and effects are paramount above all other concerns. The world is easy to get lost in and at times it feels like the filmmakers did get lost in that space.
Just like ‘Blade Runner’, a few performances stand out, including the tragic minimalism of Ryan Gosling’s lead, Harrison Ford’s grizzled pain, Jared Leto’s eccentric evil, and Sylvia Hoeks’ creepy assistant. Still, it’s not an actor’s movie. In keeping with a world where relationships are artificial and synthetic life is almost indistinguishable from the real thing, everyone tends to act in a fairly subdued and cold manner. That’s another echo and reflection of ‘Blade Runner’ in a sequel defined by them. It’s hard to say how this sequel would play to those who aren’t familiar with what came before. So many of the themes, characters, and plot arcs are revived and/or revised here that pre-reading feels necessary. It’s also hardly an action-packed endeavor. The violence is terse and brutal. Most of the screen time is dedicated to the gloriously sumptuous world-building and thoughtfully ambiguous science fiction storytelling.
Overall, that’s a damn good thing. This is a massive science fiction blockbuster driven more by evocative ideas and images than spectacle. It’s a miracle this movie even exists. The same was said not too long ago about ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’, another thrilling and ambitious sci-fi sequel from Warner Bros. Even so, that one was still wall-to-wall action, an easy crowd pleaser. ‘Blade Runner 2049’ is a bleak, depressing, and challenging film that takes its time to tease out ideas rather than offering a giddy sugar rush of genre pleasure. That makes it an accurate ‘Blade Runner’ sequel and also an odd fit for a blockbuster.
Denis Villeneuve and everyone involved should be applauded. Their film may have issues related to pacing, excess, and a complicated depiction of society’s dismissive view of women sure to fuel plenty of angry thinkpieces, but overall it really is the best ‘Blade Runner’ sequel anyone could have made in 2017. This is a film that proudly stands alongside a milestone genre masterpiece and is guaranteed to be obsessively studied by a legion of cult fans. Will it be the hit the studio craves? That’s tough to say. Then again, poor box office didn’t exactly tarnish the reputation of the original film, did it?