Everything Blade Runner did poorly, Blade Runner 2049 does properly. It also manages to develop its predecessor’s themes into even more interesting areas. It’s the perfect sequel, really. Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, Arrival) has made a better movie than Ridley Scott did in 1982, although Blade Runner will be more deservedly recognised as a pioneering work of art. Blade Runner 2049’s technically and emotionally superior in every way, however, despite being indebted to the groundwork of author Philip K. Dick and Scott’s visual style. It never feels ahead-of-its-time, but it’s one for the ages.
Set 30 years after Deckard’s (Harrison Ford) adventure, Blade Runner 2049 tells a new story that follows in its footsteps. The Tyrell Corporation went bust following the mutinies of their Nexus 6 models, but new replicants started to be manufactured by a blind genius Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), meaning ‘blade runners’ are still required to “retire” the old rogue models. One such agent is “K” (Ryan Gosling), a replicant created to obey mankind, who faces workplace taunts at the LAPD for being a “skinjob”, and has to carry the burden of existing to terminate his own kind.
The clever thing about Blade Runner 2049 (hereafter 2049) is that it runs with the idea of having the protagonist be a replicant, which was only ever a late tweak Scott made on the Director’s Cut — without understanding the implications of this idea on the preceding story. This makes for a much more enjoyable film because you’re walking in the shoes of a replicant who’s trying to understand his place in the world, driven by (false?) childhood memories, while dealing with the cruelty of mankind while doing his utmost to be a productive citizen.
There’s a whole subplot concerning K’s touching relationship with Joi (Ana de Armas), a virtual girlfriend who exists as a holographic projection in his department. She’s his soulmate, but can never touch him. Seeing a love story unfold between two non-human characters (one physical, one non-corporeal) is often more fascinating than the main plot. Blade Runner is often misidentified as a story about “artificial intelligence” (but replicants are genetically-engineered humans not robots), so it’s great that 2049 actually finds room to explore the idea of A.I, too.
K also does some actual detective work, undertaking an investigation where discoveries are made that elucidate the narrative and open new doorways for the audience to go down. Again, this is in stark contrast to the slow-paced original, which often went nowhere very slowly because the resolution to its “mystery” was obvious from the start.
In 2049, things aren’t as easy to pin down — although the film manages to make you believe you’re a few steps ahead of the curve for awhile, before it slaps you with an unexpected twist or reveal. And even if you’re clever enough to predict where things are headed minute to minute, there’s still real pleasure in following K’s journey. His character arc is beautifully done, performed with restrained nuance by Gosling. It’s also an added pleasure seeing K explore this vast futuristic city once again, which I didn’t realise is one of my absolute favourite fictional worlds….
2049 takes everything you loved about Blade Runner’s celebrated visuals and amplifies them with today’s photo-real F/X, but without causing you sensory overload. Villeneuve knows what made the original such a joy for your eyes and ears to revel in, so we get a more technically impressive version with the same atmosphere and new environments to explore.
The movie even opens with a shot that’s the tonal inverse of how Blade Runner began in darkness with tall buildings belching fire, by showing us a bright, quiet farm nestles in blighted fields. There are also some fantastic gadgets and use of technology, which honours the ‘80s-flavour of what came before, making you feel these movies exist in a parallel dimension.
What was particularly memorable, to me, was the aforementioned tech of Joi being a computer simulation that can exist in the outside world thanks to a mobile emitter K buys her later, and one strange but beautiful sequence when the bodiless Joi finds a way to have sexual intercourse with K, using the body of a willing prostitute (Mackenzie Davies). There were shades of Ghost (1990) in that threesome, actually.
I don’t want to discuss specifics of the plot too much, as that’s part of the fun in watching 2049 unfold. But it does continue the legacy of Deckard’s (Harrison Ford) storyline in a very interesting way, that enriches the previous movie to some extent.
You don’t need to have seen Blade Runner to understand and appreciate 2049, but doing so will probably give you a more rewarding experience. There are several references and cameos that are sure to make longtime fans smile, which would otherwise go over the heads of newcomers. And why would anyone want to avoid seeing Blade Runner, anyway? It’s a flawed masterpiece, but essential viewing for anyone interested in film history and science fiction. Or visual effects.
If there’s one area 2049 arguably drop the ball, it’s in not having a big antagonist to match Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty — even with the misleading presence of Dave Bautista (Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol.2). This is understandable, because it’s a different story that needed a fresh approach, although there is a memorable villain in a replicant called Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), who’s manipulating K for the benefit of her creator. Hoeks is fantastic — and another Dutch actor, like Hauer — but because the story is never really about her motivations, 2049 doesn’t have the same level of satisfaction as the original in terms of having a clear enemy to defeat. It’s more complicated than that, really.
The story here is actually more about K discovering the truth of his existence, and learning how that ties into the 30-year mystery over what happened to blade runner Deckard and his replicant lover Rachael (Sean Young). Considering how badly a Blade Runner sequel could have gone, this is an astonishing and unexpected improvement on what came before. The script by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green (Hannibal) even handled the difficulty of confirming or denying Deckard’s a replicant with great skill. I was delighted by that, as someone with a firm opinion that he should remain a human hunter who fell in love with his prey, but who doesn’t want to deny believers their own fun (including Ridley Scott).
Overall, 2049 has a sharper storyline, more interesting characters, a broader scope, a grander vision, and some of the best performances Harrison Ford and Jared Leto have given in years. It’s the perfect companion movie to something now given classic status. Denis Villeneuve takes everything Ridley Scott achieved in ’82, and does his own thing in this beautifully authentic universe which he treats with respect and reverence. The music alone in a thing of haunting beauty, with Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch weaving in some Vangelis themes to spine-tingling effect. And with Roger Deakins working his usual magic with the spellbinding cinematography, Blade Runner 2049 is unarguably one of the most beautiful movies of the past decade or so. Or ever? That it’s also one of the best sci-fi movies this century comes as a great source of joy.
Cast & Crew
director: Denis Villeneueve.
writers: Hampton Fancher & Michael Green (story by Hampton Fancher, based on characters from ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’ by Philip K. Dick).
starring: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, Robin Wright, Mackenzie Davis, Carla Juri, Lennie James, Dave Bautista & Jared Leto.