Review | 'Blade Runner 2049' honors, surpasses the original
WARNING: I went into Blade Runner 2049 totally blind; I’d advise you do the same. This review does its best to avoid any fatal spoilers, but some basic plot points are discussed. And obviously, this review assumes familiarity with the original Blade Runner.
In the pantheon of revered classics, few have had a journey to that lofty perch as tumultuous as that of Blade Runner. Released in 1982 to middling reviews and poor box office, the film underwent a rediscovery over the subsequent decade. Director Ridley Scott tinkered with the movie in 1992, releasing a so-called “Director’s Cut,” and 15 years later, released what is widely considered to be the definitive version of the film: The Final Cut.
A dystopian neo-noir, Blade Runner follows LAPD Detective Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), as he reluctantly takes on an assignment to kill, or retire, several Replicants, which are exceedingly human-like androids manufactured for slave labor on off-world colonies by the mysterious Tyrell Corporation. While it’s an easy film to admire and respect, especially for its incredible visuals and a delightfully unhinged performance by Rutger Hauer, it’s ultimately too cold, too detached, and frankly, too narcoleptic to ever really love.
I say all this because regardless of what you may think of Blade Runner as a film, the movie told a fundamentally self-contained story. Sure, not every question was answered when the credits rolled, but ultimately the story had been told to its completion. Generally considered a masterpiece, Blade Runner’s place in cinema history is secure, making the idea of a sequel all the more tantalizing — and terrifying.
Thankfully, Blade Runner 2049 somehow bucks decades of conventional wisdom regarding sequels and the unnecessary milking of a beloved classic. Sharply written by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green, and brilliantly directed by Denis Villaneuve, Blade Runner 2049 doesn’t merely do justice to its big brother — it exceeds it in nearly every way.
In the year 2049, the Tyrell Corporation no longer exists. The company went under, and a new conglomerate run by Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) manufactures new Replicants that can now safely be used alongside humans on Earth and off-world. LAPD Blade Runner Officer K (Ryan Gosling) is one of these Replicants, sent out to retire any Replicants still around from the Tyrell days. K inadvertently stumbles upon a conspiracy that hides a shocking truth about Tyrell’s Replicant program; a secret that, if discovered, could shatter the very fragile balance between humans and Replicants. To get to the bottom of the mystery, however, K needs to find a former Blade Runner who holds all the answers: Deckard.
Clocking in at nearly three hours, Blade Runner 2049 doesn’t honestly have a lot of story to tell. It does, however, have a lot of thematic meat it wants to chew on. The sequel returns to the central themes of its predecessor, asking about the nature of identity, humanity, self, and ultimately, life. The film shares a surprising amount in common with this summer’s Alien: Covenant, as both films deal with sentient androids looking for purpose to their existence, and finding that purpose in the same thing: creation.
Without giving too much away, Blade Runner 2049 goes down a very challenging road narratively, weaving a tale that’s less cyberpunk and more Biblical. Gosling’s character undergoes a journey into the very heart of Replicant existence, and the ensuing mystery addresses some lingering questions from the original film. For example, we get a very interesting explanation for the reason as to why Deckard was chosen to retire Batty and his gang in the first place. And while a conclusive answer is wisely never given, the possibility of Deckard being a Replicant is touched upon once again.
Deckard himself, however, is relegated to little more than a glorified cameo. I honestly forgot Ford was even in this movie until he showed up at nearly the two-hour mark. While Ford may have had a miserable experience making the original Blade Runner, he does very strong work in his return to the Deckard role. This isn’t Ford cashing a paycheck, this is Ford giving a damn, and it’s something we haven’t seen in a long time (that includes The Force Awakens).
The entire cast is strong. Gosling, front and center for nearly the entire movie, is a great anchor. His performance veers dangerously close at times to being a repeat of his work in Drive and Only God Forgives — and visually, Blade Runner 2049 recalls the latter several times, bathing a bloody Gosling in the glow of neon lights — but Gosling’s commanding screen presence is enough to make the movie work. Leto’s role is even more a cameo than Ford’s, with only two or three scenes, but he makes the most of them. Robin Wright, as K’s boss Leiutenant Joshi (I don’t know why she has an Indian name) is fine, as is Mackenzie Davis as a prostitute who takes a shine to K.
Ana de Armas and Sylvia Hoeks are phenomenal. De Armas plays Joi, a hologram girlfriend of K whose role in the movie recalls some of the thematic ground covered by the 2013 film Her, although it’s done much better here. Hoeks plays Luv, the personal bodyguard and assassin of Wallace. She has some great action sequences and a stunning physicality that will be hard to people to forget. There’s also a couple of cameos, one relatively inconsequential and one that will forever change the way you watch the original.
Production design here is fantastic, doing an effective job of retaining the original movie’s aesthetic while updating it in a credible way. Roger Deakins’ digital photography is, as always, stunning. If the man can’t win an Academy Award for this, he never will. I don't know why Vangelis wasn’t brought back to record the score for Blade Runner 2049, but Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch do an admirable job of replacing him. Sound design is impeccable, as are all the technical credits, which is to be expected from a movie costing upwards of $180 million.
If the movie has a flaw, it's in the editing. Blade Runner 2049 is a long movie, perhaps needlessly so, especially as the first half takes a lot of time introducing characters and plot points that only tie together towards the end of the movie. While the information in these scenes is vital, it's a slow ramp-up to the intensity of the movie's second half, when things really get going. There's also a brief fight scene that happens about two-thirds of the way into the movie that, while perfectly fine on its own, could easily have been excised without the movie missing anything.
With Blade Runner 2049, Villaneuve cements himself as arguably the most exciting director in the game. With a style that lands somewhere between Fincher and Nolan, he has a keen eye for visuals, performances, and story. If Arrival wasn’t enough proof of his talent, this movie certainly is. If rumors of Villaneuve directing a new version of "Dune" are true, I truly can’t wait.
So much could have gone wrong with Blade Runner 2049. The fact that the movie even exists is a minor miracle, let alone that it’s this good. The final moments of this film are perfection, with a moving callback to the original film’s most iconic scene. Structurally, there are similarities between the two, but Blade Runner 2049 has a voice and a mind of its own. This is a great film, low on emotion but high on intellect. Stunning in nearly every way, Blade Runner 2049 is one of the all-time great sequels and a movie that demands to be seen.