Denis Villeneuve does have some different ideas to bring to Blade Runner 2049’s table, but there’s so much about this followup to the 1982 cult science fiction film that captures the first movie’s memorable atmosphere. Roger Deakins is in top form as a cinematographer, with sweeping overhead shots of a grimy Los Angeles. It’s as cramped and rainy as ever in the distant future, with neon product placements to the left and gigantic, seductive female holograms to the right.
For a film with such a niche following, the budget for this sequel has been considerably ballooned, which leaves me worried for its chances at turning a profit- there’s a lot of money burning on the screen. But combined with yet another enveloping score from Hans Zimmer (who also helped to make Dunkirk even more intense), once again the world of Blade Runner is a stunning spectacle to take in- both visually and narratively.
“K” (Ryan Gosling), a replicant who works as a Blade Runner (perhaps a nod to the famous theory of the original?) stumbles on some mysterious, allegedly human remains after retiring bioengineered fugitive Sapper Morton (Dave Batista) at his farm. The LAPD’s forensics indicate they’re that of a female replicant who died during childbirth, something considered impossible for them.
It’s a revelation that could potentially upend their society as they know it, so K’s boss Lieutenant Joshi (a steely Robin Wright) orders him to find the child and eliminate them. But K’s curiosity gets the better of him, and his investigation takes a turn for the personal when he begins to wonder if he’s the dead replicant’s child. Is there any truth to the memories that have been implanted in his mind?
The situation gets even more complicated when K crosses paths with Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), a blind replicant manufacturer (using small drones for visual aid) who’s intrigued by the labor potential in replicants that can reproduce.
As Wallace’s replicant enforcer Luv, Sylvia Hoeks is an utter savage as she stalks K during his hunt for the truth. Meanwhile, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) has exiled himself in a devastated Las Vegas and just wants to be left alone, but it’s only a matter of time before his past catches up with him as well.
1982’s Blade Runner wasn’t what I would call a totally impersonal film, but there are stronger emotional beats to 2049. Even though it’s still very much neo-noir, the moralities of the characters this time aren’t quite as grey. Social progress for replicants hasn’t improved much in thirty years, and this new story takes a more obvious stand against prejudice and oppression within its narrative.
Gosling has a mostly reserved performance as K, but he’s not without understandable bursts of passion as he delves deeper into his upbringing. Combined with the now-no-longer-subtle bigotry- as opposed to the original film- he encounters (people regularly lob “skinjob” insults his way and scrawl hateful graffiti on his front door) and the brutal, lonely way he makes a living, it’s hard not to feel bad for the poor guy. The only real bit of tenderness in his life comes from Joi (Ada de Armas), a holographic girlfriend with the ability to shapeshift. They might be artificial, but their chemistry together certainly feels flesh and blood.
In contrast, Leto’s Wallace has an ominously formal and cold aura, who clearly believes he’s benefiting humankind with his heartless deeds. I would have liked to have seen more screen time with him and Ford together, who also has a great supporting performance, but the scene they do share hits especially hard if you’re familiar with Ridley Scott’s first cut.
There are some impressive action scenes to be enjoyed, particularly from Ford and Gosling when they throw down in a casino ballroom while holograms of Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, and other icons flicker in and out. The improved budget allows for more potential with the flying cars, which results in some cool futuristic dogfighting. Sadly, the pacing during the middle gets unsettling slow, a good deal of time is spent by K observing his surroundings. It’s great eye candy to be sure, but the story isn’t quite as complex enough to justify it. That’s mostly a minor complaint though, as the first and third acts still feel pretty consistent.
I doubt there’s much else I can describe without spoilers. But overall, as melancholy, harsh and thoughtful as Blade Runner 2049 is, there are genuine moments of hope and affection to keep audiences interested. It opens up new, interesting aspects of the Blade Runner universe to audiences, without overexplaining the details (looking at you, Star Wars prequels). And like the first film, there are still mysteries left somewhat unexplained, leaving viewers with ideas and questions to keep exploring. It’s a quality that aided the original, and I predict it’ll be the same for Villeneuve’s latest effort. Highly recommended!