The moments of Blade Runner 2049 pass by too quickly, lost in the next gorgeous shot, meticulous special effect, or confounding mystery. Fluorescent advertisements reflect off of murky puddles at the street level, while the higher classes enjoy the seemingly infinite refraction of a glorious light off of crystalline indoor pools. It’s evident immediately: the world of Blade Runner 2049 is complex, dark, and fascinating – a finely-crafted melding of science fiction and noir filmmaking.
It is folly to discuss Blade Runner 2049 without reference to the original, which is probably one of the five most influential science fiction films of all time. That’s not an easy thing to live up to. There is a burden associated with the continuation of a masterpiece, and outside of sequels that are masterpieces in their own right (Godfather Part II, Aliens, The Empire Strikes Back), few films have withstood such weight, and rarely after such a long time has elapsed. This is not a review of Blade Runner, nor a definitive evaluation of 2049 in relation to it. This is a look at how this new film stands on its own as the next chapter in the story.
If there’s a director working today who is up to the titanic task of directing a sequel to Blade Runner, it is Denis Villeneuve. He is potentially the best director working today, and I would stack his filmography over the last 15 years against anyone’s. In reverse chronological order: Arrival, Sicario, Prisoners, and Enemy round out his most well-known fare, but he also has the smaller, foreign films Incendies, Polytechnique, and Maelstrom. All of his films have superlative qualities, but it is only in the last few years that his talent has become obvious to the casual fan.
Like the original, Blade Runner 2049 is a science fiction noir, leaning on dystopian and cyberpunk elements. This time, instead of hinting at that great philosophical quandary, “What does it mean to be human?”, Blade Runner 2049 makes this timeless question the thrust of the story: Ryan Gosling is K, a replicant detective pursuing a cryptic miracle that he discovers early on: the replicant Rachael from the original film died during an emergency caesarian section, and her child may still be out there somewhere. Replicants are not meant to procreate, and it is unclear why Rachael was able to. Like the best MacGuffins, many players are intent on discovering this secret. Some seek to exploit its power, while others want to squelch it altogether.
The noir detective story married with dystopian science fiction was always a major part of the Blade Runner ethos. Villeneuve absolutely nails it, including elements of both. The skeleton of the story is the detective noir, as K seeks the truth behind this woman-born replicant. But, around the edges there are some amazing science fiction elements. Obviously, the legal presence of replicants in this society is a major idea that pops up, and we see K deal with prejudice in many different contexts. He also has a holographic computer program named Joi as a companion, a la the Scarlett Johansson character from Spike Jonze’s Her. Around the edges, there are a lot of great science fiction ideas that hearken back to the original, from neon hologram advertisements to great expanses of cityscapes.
Blade Runner 2049 boasts an impressive cast, an ensemble headed by a few great central pieces. Ryan Gosling is great as K, a replicant blade runner tasked with hunting down and “retiring” his own kind. At his side is the holographic woman Joi, (Ana de Armas), and she’s equally fantastic. On the fringes of the story there’s Jared Leto as the head of the Wallace corporation, his right-hand replicant Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), a replicant pleasure unit named Mariette (Mackenzie Davis), Dave Bautista playing a small part, and Robin Wright playing K’s superior in the LAPD. Harrison Ford shows up near the end and he’s mostly fine. He’s a little old and it shows, but Blade Runner 2049 relies less on his waning acting skills than worse attempts at sci fi reboots.
Visually, Blade Runner is impeccable, both from the standpoint of the cinematography and the special effects. The former is the purview of Roger Deakins, maybe the best cinematographer working today. He has worked with Villeneuve in the past, and always displays an outstanding command of color, framing, and camera movement. Deakins adopts the fundamental style from the original, using deep shadow and a darker color palette for most of the cramped urban setting. Also like the original, this is sharply contrasted by two distinct but related elements, which sparkle with fluorescence and color: advertisements for the masses, and the environments of the rich moguls who are the masters of this world. Here, the color is a kind of facade, a manipulation meant to distract from the fundamentally dark and depressing world of 2049.
The special effects are just as impressive as the overall look of the film. Some sequences are obviously meant to remind of the original, as there are references to the “Enjoy Coke” advertisement. The film also borrows from other movies that clearly used the original Blade Runner as inspiration, most notably Stephen Spielberg’s A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. But there are CG visuals in this movie that have never been seen in any film before. In particular, the hologram visuals that occur throughout this film are astounding. The CG used to create the holographic character of Joi is fantastic, especially during a crucial romantic sequence. It is an absolutely jaw-dropping moment in the film, and simply looks perfect. The larger CG visuals look great too, and they serve as little digital tricks and details completing the transportation into this dystopian future.
It is in that dystopian future that Villeneuve augments the themes from the original film with newer, more complex ideas. Refraining from spoilers as much as possible, Blade Runner 2049 discusses ideas like what it means to be human (much like the original did), and what the mindset of a non-human might look like. What if you knew you weren’t human, were something lesser-than, and had accepted your subservient role? The potential psychology of a non-human is fascinating. Blade Runner 2049 takes the standard Pinocchio ethos and subverts it: instead of wanting to be “a real boy”, K fears that he may actually be one, throwing his previously comfortable world into upheaval.
The film also discusses the nature of desire and love, and casts those who would manipulate these feelings in a harsh light. Bubbling under K’s investigation is his romance with this bizarre companion Joi, a relationship that feels important to both of its ersatz participants. This feels like a paradox, two fake beings finding something real and important, and Villeneuve definitely wrenches genuine emotion from this union, but like most things in Blade Runner 2049, there’s something sinister under the surface, something manipulative.
The marriage of style, story, and theme is one of Villeneuve’s greatest strengths – the man can put together a quiet and dark character study, a high-concept science fiction story, and a special effects extravaganza with a cyberpunk noir skeleton without any dip in quality. He can handle a black-and-white Indie and a $150 million blockbuster. And he’s done it over and over again. He’s reportedly tackling Dune next (though it is not official). Alejandro Jodorowsky, eat your heart out.
Certainly, Blade Runner 2049 stands on the shoulders of giants – but deserves its spot. It is a brilliant continuation of the story and themes of the original, and manages to look just as gorgeous and spellbinding as one of the most impressive visual feasts in the history of science fiction. The movie is an unmitigated triumph, with a complexity that will reward multiple repeat viewings and considerations from different points-of-view. In a year of strong Hollywood blockbusters, Blade Runner 2049 is the most impressive one yet.