Here’s where I’ll lose a solid chunk of people reading this review: I don’t much care for Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. I’ve seen it three or four times, and while I can respect the visual artistry on display and how it influenced decades of filmmakers, it doesn’t ever work for me on a narrative level. I don’t care about Rick Deckard, and a large part of the film’s appeal seems to be that it offers the contours of big ideas, and then has the audience do the work of filling those ideas in. While I’m all for ambiguity in narrative storytelling, Blade Runner does the bare minimum when it comes to ideas about the nature of the soul, identity, and humanity. It’s a very pretty, but also gratingly hollow, sci-fi classic.
Denis Villeneuve’s sequel, Blade Runner 2049, takes everything that Scott attempted with his 1982 feature and improves upon it by embracing real characters and a worthwhile storyline. While the director has demanded that the details of this story be shrouded in mystery, it’s at least a narrative where I can see clear forces in conflict rather than Deckard running around, shooting replicants, and then we all wonder at the end if he was a replicant or not. 2049 takes all of the strengths of the original as well as a couple of the weaknesses to create something more stunning and powerful than its inspiration.
[While I would normally provide a few more details on the plot, before and after the press screening, the publicist conveyed a message from Villeneuve specifically asking us to steer clear of spoilers to the point of noting specific plot points and characters that should be left obscure. Although I don’t think knowing these plot points would lessen one’s enjoyment of the film, I’ll respect Villeneuve’s wishes and try to keep things as vague as possible as far as the plot is concerned.]
In the year 2049, thirty years after the events of the first Blade Runner, “K” (Ryan Gosling) is a detective working for the LAPD and hunting down replicants (synthetic humans created as a labor force) when he comes across a surprising discovery buried near the home of a target. His investigation leads him to make a startling revelation, and his investigation leads him to try and find Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford). However, K’s investigation also earns the attention of replicant manufacturer Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), who sends his employee Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) to reach K’s target before he does.
There are major revelations throughout the plot that change the complexion of the story, some of which you’ll learn within the first ten minutes of the movie, but overall what makes Blade Runner 2049 a much richer experience is that there are details to latch onto. By the end of the movie, I had a good sense of who ‘K’ was even though Gosling gives a restrained, measured performance. I know what he wants, what he’s puzzled over, and what he’s lost. By comparison, when we meet Deckard again, I can’t make a connection. When Ford reprised Han Solo in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, he slipped back into character and that character was recognizable. Since the original Blade Runner never gives us much with Deckard, Ford’s work in 2049 is an excellent performance in search of a character. You feel the weight of age and loss, but almost everything that gives dimensionality to Deckard comes from material that’s introduced in the sequel, not something we got from the original.