It’s hard to pinpoint exactly who was clamoring for a sequel to Blade Runner. It had been 35 years since Ridley Scott’s film hit theaters, and Philip K. Dick hadn’t written a sequel to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, making the announcement of Blade Runner 2049 smell worryingly like a cash grab, another in a long line of weaponized nostalgia. It could have been worse, though. The announcement that Hampton Fancher, screenwriter of the original film, would be coming back to write its sequel and well-regarded director Denis Villeneuve would direct felt like a step in the right direction, especially coming on the heels of ARRIVAL, and early teasers made it clear that Roger Deakins’ cinematography would likely be worth the price of admission alone. It was still tough to figure out just what to expect from it. Would it touch the long-held speculation that Rick Deckard was secretly a replicant? Would that make any sense considering Harrison Ford’s advanced age? Where else could the story go?
In a way, the film takes one of those aspects and meets it head on. Opening with a title card that brings everyone up to speed on just what replicants and blade runners are, it jumps right in to introduce Officer K (Ryan Gosling), a replicant blade runner investigating a farm in rural California where a fugitive skin job (Dave Bautista) is living out his years in quiet solitude. The retire op goes smoothly to the delight of K’s superior officer (Robin Wright, as austere as ever), but the discovery of remains buried next to a long-dead tree on the property lead to the unfurling of a mystery far deeper than K could hope to understand on his own. With the help of his synthetic assistant/girlfriend Joi (Ama De Armas), K seeks information from the monolithic Wallace Corporation, the new paradigm of replicant manufacturing. The company’s namesake (Jared Leto) and his assistant/muscle Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) are very interested in K’s exploits, as they believe it could end in establishing a new form of replicant evolution and domination over the human race. And somewhere out there, Rick Deckard (Ford) lurks, a wrench in the gears waiting to happen.
Villeneuve’s widescreen sensibility is certainly on display here, with more emphasis on open locales and vistas than the monolithic, claustrophobic cityscapes of the original. And regardless of anything else, it sure is pretty to look at. Villeneuve and Deakins have been a dependable pair since Prisoners (with the more than capable Bradford Young filling in for Arrival while Deakins shot Hail, Caesar!), and the juxtaposition of grime and technicolor that made Scott’s film so unique is an enticing palette in which they can play. The thirty years that have passed since the events of Blade Runner have not been kind to the world, feeling more decrepit and run down in contrast to the garish neon advertisements that tower (often literally) over the impoverished populace. Gosling strikes a dashing figure in his duster as he walks the streets in driving rain or gentle snow, and Villeneuve is perfectly at home in the neo-noir stylings everyone would come to expect from a new Blade Runner film. There are sequences of almost unfathomable beauty and majesty (the orange and amber-soaked bombed out Las Vegas that was featured in the first teaser trailer is breathtaking when blown out to a full sequence). It’s the sort of spectacle that giant screens were made for, but the design of it, from costumes to visual effects to to sets to shot composition, has an art to it that other spectacles rarely come near. Add in the cacophonous and a-melodic score from Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch, awashing the speakers in tones and moods, and Blade Runner 2049 boasts an audio-visual feast most films could only dream of trying to match.
None of this should come as a surprise. Regardless of its narrative quality, Blade Runner 2049 was always going to be gorgeous. Villeneuve and Deakins are not capable of disappointing in that regard. The story was the question, the need to justify an original sequel to a beloved adaptation without additional source material to draw from was the question. And indeed, this just may have ended up as Villeneuve’s more consistent narrative to date. Previous projects of his have struggled in the third act, making his movies into a maddening push-pull between delight and dole, unable to fully satisfy. Arrival seemed to indicate that science fiction may just be the ideal genre for him, and that belief is meted out here. Blade Runner 2049 is engaging and exciting as a story, a labyrinth of twists and turns, double and triple crosses, mergers of flesh and circuits, a perfect science fiction take on the noir stories of old. It takes its time unveiling where it wants to go (understandable considering its 2 hour 43 minute run time), focused just as much on building and expanding the world as its characters, full of allure and intrigue. It’s hard to tell just what it means to so pointedly have K be exactly what everyone has come to assume Deckard was in the first film. It’s not exactly the same situation, as the intrigue of this interpretation of Blade Runner lied in the notion that Deckard was not only hunting his own kind, but wasn’t aware of it. K is fully aware of his replicant origins; he’s described in the opening crawl as a new subservient model that can do such things without worry of going rogue. It makes for a fascinating foundation, especially as the mystery becomes deeper and the very nature of how replicants interact with the world is called into question. It’s a case of deepening the mythos behind the world of Blade Runner while still respecting the design and logic of its origins. It’s remarkable how smooth it all feels, like someone had unearthed a long lost Dick manuscript that kept the story going. The story is more than up to the task of keeping up with the visuals, which is not something I expected to see coming in.
In Gosling, Villeneuve has found his Harrison Ford. He’s in full Drive/Only God Forgives taciturn mode, only letting his guard down when alone with his e-mistress. He plays K like someone who grew up idolizing and internalizing legendary stories of supercop Rick Deckard, determined to follow in his footsteps but still forge his own way. It makes for an especially gratifying experience when Gosling and Ford come face to face. Deckard sees a shadow of himself in this new model, one so much younger and more capable than he now finds himself, turning Ford into more of a damsel in distress than the roguish action hero we’ve come to expect from him. Much like his return to Han Solo, Ford is more committed than you might think he would be. Ford and Gosling form the core of the film, but the cast is as sprawling as the run time, chock full of all sorts of bit roles from excellent performers like Wright and Leto, and the continued evolution of Dave Bautista as an actor remains one of the more pleasant revelations of the last few years.
Blade Runner 2049 needed to do a lot of work to justify its existence. So often, movies like this fail to give concrete reasons for why they were made beyond a studio-led desire for some serious box office receipts. Blade Runner 2049 feels like a movie that everyone wanted to make based on a story that was actually robust enough to support it. The visual style is peerless (this one’s a shoo-in for every technical Oscar that can be imagined), and the script is much stronger than it has any right to be. I can’t say I expected to find this movie to be Denis Villeneuve’s best, but here we are.