‘Blade Runner 2049’ Review: The Rare Sequel That Surpasses a Classic
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.
I’m not sure how fans of the original will feel about 2049, but I admire how Villeneuve uses Scott’s movie as a springboard to try and flesh out ideas, which helps makes the picture feel like more than just a pretty shell for some ridiculously broad concepts. 2049 has some very specific things on its mind, and those ideas, specifically with regards to identity and doubling are concepts that Villeneuve has explored before in movies like Enemy and Arrival. Although Villeneuve has clearly been influenced by the original Blade Runner, he doesn’t lose himself in the world and make a lavish fan film.
By deeply investing in the characters and story, Blade Runner 2049 feels like a fully-realized feature to the point of almost turning the original into a prologue. More than once, I was reminded of Mad Max: Fury Road, a movie that was inspired by a sci-fi classic but, thanks to a more expansive vision and detailed characters, surpassed its source material. The films are also similar in that Villeneuve has constructed a brilliantly conceived world that’s not just rain and neon. The production and costume designs are exquisite, highlighting a diversity that takes Scott’s concepts and runs even further with them.
And while the original Blade Runner was inarguably gorgeous, cinematographer Roger Deakins turns in some the best work of his impressive career. The way he uses light in this movie and sets up certain shots makes 2049 feel vast and expansive. From K’s tiny apartment to the wastelands where Deckard resides, every frame is astounding. If there’s a movie out there that can convince people to make the leap to 4K, Blade Runner 2049 will do it. It’s the kind of movie that you’d be fine putting on mute and just letting it play in the background while you gawk at the visuals.
Despite the gorgeous cinematography, the film can still feel a bit cold and remote, partially due to trying to emulate the original and partially due to the slow pace. Blade Runner 2049 is never boring, but it’s definitely a movie where you feel the runtime and that Villeneuve is in no rush to carve out a sci-fi epic where the story is expansive as the themes. While some may be hoping for a more action-packed sci-fi movie, that’s not the story the original or Villeneuve are setting out to tell, and hopefully the viewers he won over with the hard sci-fi of Arrival will go with the director on this new journey.
There’s plenty of details I wish I could get into with Blade Runner 2049, but with the restrictions on what I can and can’t reveal, I’m a bit boxed in. I will say that 2049 doesn’t live or die with its reveals. While it’s nice to be surprised, it’s not a movie that relies on twists and then will fall flat without them. There are some plot points that seem to rest on coincidence and while the world is more fleshed out, it also feels more limited at times in terms of the details of how it functions (again, I can’t say how without spoiling stuff). Nevertheless, Blade Runner 2049 feels like a richer, more thoughtful experience, and while every time I go back to the original it’s like trying to decipher the movie’s popularity, I can’t wait to return to the future Villeneuve has constructed.