It’s a genuine work of art… so it isn’t making money. Cal tells you why this long-in-the-tooth sci-fi sequel deserves your hard-earned cash.
It took thirty-five years, but Ridley Scott’s highly-acclaimed 1982 box office flop Blade Runner has finally spawned a sequel. At once, Blade Runner 2049 is the follow-up that Scott’s science fiction classic deserved, and it’s also better than it had any right to be, standing alongside the likes of Aliens, Mad Max: Fury Road and The Godfather: Part II as one of cinema’s all-time greatest sequels. Bolstered by outstanding technical specs, smart writing and immaculate acting right across the board, 2049 is a breathtaking extension of Blade Runner, overseen by visionary French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve who proves to be an ideal successor to Scott.
Written by Michael Green (Logan) and Hampton Fancher, the story of 2049 is intrinsically tied to Scott’s movie in ways that cannot be spoiled, but it also confidently stands alone. Be warned, however, that this is not an action-heavy mainstream sci-fi film, à la Star Wars – in keeping with its predecessor, Blade Runner 2049 is for a specific type of filmgoer, demanding patience as it plays out at its own pace. It’s essentially the most expensive art-house movie ever made. And if you dislike Blade Runner, it’s probably best that you sit this one out.
Set three decades after the events of the first movie, Officer K (Ryan Gosling) works as a blade runner for the LAPD, tasked with tracking down and “retiring” the artificial beings known as replicants that have grown out of control or obsolete. Led to a farm overseen by rogue replicant Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista), K discovers skeletal remains pointing to a thought-impossible anomaly. K’s superior, Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright), sends him to investigate, hoping to clear up the situation as quickly as possible. But the discovery attracts the attention of Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), who is responsible for the new generation of replicants after the Tyrell Corporation went out of business. Hoping that the discovery can benefit his company, Wallace sends his enforcer, Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), to follow K, making the blade runner’s investigation all the more perilous. In addition, K finds himself searching for former blade runner Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), who disappeared many years prior.
Like Scott’s film, Blade Runner 2049 is a noir-ish detective story first and foremost, deepening the details of this vivid futuristic world as K pursues leads and clues, grappling with the gravity of his shocking discovery. Built upon a core of intriguing ideas and themes, the story – which was hatched by original Blade Runner scribe Fancher – avoids simply rehashing its predecessor and creates a more pronounced narrative trajectory, ensuring that it never meanders despite a meaty running time. Clocking in at a staggering 163 minutes, 2049 is packed with story and subplots, but not a single piece feels inessential. Even a cameo appearance featuring Edward James Olmos reprising his role as Gaff might seem like simple fan service, but it serves to make the movie feel more complete. Furthermore, unlike the original film, 2049 is imbued with emotion to supplement the spectacle – in particular, the final scene is heart-wrenching. K feels like a fully-realised character despite the coldness of this world, and shares an intimate relationship with his responsive holographic companion Joi (Ana de Armas), whose presence is announced with notes from “Peter and the Wolf.” Even though both are merely artificial intelligence, this aspect of the story is unexpectedly poignant, highlighting that Joi can only satisfy K on a superficial level since nothing can quite replicate the raw intensity of human interaction despite insane technological advancements.
With movies such as Sicario and last year’s Arrival under his belt, only Villeneuve could have successfully pulled off a Blade Runner sequel, as he’s one of the only modern-day filmmakers able to handle the complexity and density required for such an endeavour. In fact, it’s seriously doubtful that even Scott himself would be able to so much as match Villeneuve’s directorial brilliance or confident sense of pacing. It would have been easy enough to create a more action-oriented sequel for easier mainstream consumption, and to an extent that might have been enjoyable, but Villeneuve is more interested in a purer form of cinematic poetry, providing the perfect alternative in an overcrowded cinematic marketplace dominated by superhero movies. Blade Runner 2049 does its best to replicate the viewing experience of Scott’s original movie, with patient pacing and a proclivity for scenes filled with silent, lingering study, but this isn’t just an unnecessary homage – Villeneuve deepens and develops this hellish world, revealing that San Diego has become a trash dump and there is more to learn about replicants. Luckily, too, the minor bursts of action are brutal and enormously effective. In particular, a climactic battle is one of the most nail-biting sequences of the year, and it exists without cheapening the material in any way.
From a visual standpoint, Blade Runner 2049 is unequivocally flawless, emerging as one of the most aesthetically unique and distinctive science fiction movies of the 21st Century. From top to bottom, the set design represents an organic extension of the original movie, preserving the futuristic, Tokyo-esque vision of Los Angeles filled with industrial-looking buildings, flying cars and gigantic advertisements, while the metropolis is bathed in perpetual darkness and rain. 2049 was lensed by cinematographer Roger Deakins, who has been nominated for many Oscars and previously collaborated with Villeneuve on Prisoners and Sicario. Deakins is the best cinematographer in the business bar none, and with Blade Runner 2049, he again demonstrates his astonishing talents for composition and lighting. It’s doubtful that anybody else could have made this follow-up look so thoroughly eye-catching in every single shot. Perhaps shooting on 35mm film stock could have brought the visual aesthetic even closer to the original movie, but this is just nitpicking.
Blade Runner 2049’s special effects deserve the highest of praises; Villeneuve’s vision is flawlessly brought to life, making astute use of the monstrous budget. There is no obvious CGI to speak of – every visual element looks tangible and real, ensuring that nothing will look dated a few decades down the track. There is a brief cameo by a character from the original film who is made to look precisely the same as they did in 1982, and the illusion is seamless. Digital de-aging is nothing new thanks to Marvel, but this is next level – it’s overwhelmingly convincing. Composers Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch were actually brought onto the project at the last minute, but the resulting original score is a huge asset, reminiscent of Vangelis’s iconic synth-based music from the original movie, perfectly complementing the breathtaking visuals. The soundtrack also contains songs by Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra, which enhances the picture’s flavour. However, at times, the score does lack the distinctive presence of Vangelis’s work, particularly during sweeping shots of the city, but that presumably comes down to the style that Villeneuve was aiming for. Again, this is nitpicking.
Gosling may not seem like an obvious choice for this sort of motion picture, but it seems we’ve been underestimating the actor, who truly brings his A game and then some. The actor doesn’t say a great deal, but subtle facial expressions convey a lot; Gosling is perpetually committed to the role and not a single moment feels contrived. Just as impressive is Ford, reprising his role as Rick Deckard. Ford’s presence is certainly minimised compared to what the marketing implies, but the story itself is so spellbinding on its own merits that you’re never left yearning for his arrival during the first two-thirds of the movie. When he does show up, Ford delivers the performance of his career, bringing honest-to-goodness emotion and plenty of attitude to the role that he played thirty-five years ago. The good news doesn’t stop there – Villeneuve also coaxes top-flight performances from the likes of Sylvia Hoeks, Jared Leto, Robin Wright and, particularly, Ana de Armas. Blade Runner 2049 may be a stunning visual feast, but thespian achievements are equally impressive.
Perhaps Blade Runner didn’t need a sequel due to the nature of its narrative and the ambiguity that Scott was aiming for, but Blade Runner 2049 continues the story in a logical way without diminishing the impact of the motion picture which started it all. In addition, Villeneuve builds upon the original movie’s thought-provoking themes, with existential questions about humanity and the power of memories. And even though it’s a longer movie, 2049 arguably surpasses its revered predecessor due to its understated emotional and dramatic resonance, and more sure-handed pacing. To be sure, not everyone will take to 2049, just as certain viewers did not take to Blade Runner back in 1982, but the movie works like gangbusters if you have the patience to appreciate it. This is not just an amazing Blade Runner sequel, it’s also an outstanding original sci-fi and another winning directorial effort for Villeneuve. Blade Runner 2049 is the purest and most rewarding cinematic experience of the year.