In an industry saturated with franchises and sequels (a tired complaint, but true nonetheless), Blade Runner 2049 may simply appear to be the next in an endless slough of uninspired cash-grabs. The onslaught of big-budget and often mind-numbing blockbusters has now become a year-round affair rather than something only to be expected in summer. True, the film may have all the trappings of your standard box office juggernaut: a Jake Gyllenhaal/Ryan Gosling type that can do no wrong in the leading role (hey, we get the real thing here), a massive budget exceeding $155 million, and the promise of many an action sequence. However, there are several things which set 2049 apart from seemingly similar fare, among them the fact that its predecessor is the beloved cult-classic Blade Runner.
Released more than 30 years ago in 1982, the original film is often heralded as director Ridley Scott’s magnum opus. Blade Runner, for good reason, is said to be science fiction cinema at its apex. Setting aside the original’s stunning visuals (which still hold up today, by the way), the film was successful not because it demonstrated how sci-fi should be done, but because it instead subverted expectations of what the sci-fi genre has to offer. It is ultimately a simple noir dressed in futuristic garb, much like Alien (the 1979 classic – also from Scott) is a haunted house tale at its heart. Although it is simple in structure, the film has plenty to say on the existential topics all good fantasy and science fiction stories attempt to tackle in some capacity.
Scott establishes a universe based upon the one detailed in Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, in which blade runners are officers of a special police unit tasked with hunting replicants, androids with superior strength and tendencies toward violence that are otherwise indistinguishable from humans. The exploration of moral concerns surrounding the replicants’ extermination and, by natural extension, what it is to be human which proceeds may seem a little too obvious. The presentation of these dilemmas are admittedly less nuanced than one might desire in a few instances. Thankfully, these moments are few and far between. What makes Blade Runner so re-watchable, despite its needlessly deliberate pace, is its thematic richness and ambition. Not only does the film touch upon the enslavement, sexual denigration, and murder of oppressed populations, but dares to have its protagonist, Officer Deckard, perpetrate such actions. Scott, by placing Deckard in this position, forces his audience to countenance the mistreatment of others or question the morality of our supposed hero (as the character himself begins to). The sequel, 2049, offers everything the original does and more.
It is surprising it took over 30 years for a sequel to be conceived and greenlit – Alien had spawned three sequels and two prequels in the same period. Within those 30 years, the specific brand of dystopia Blade Runner constructed had been reproduced and recycled to the Moon and back. Perhaps the only true drawback of waiting so long to produce a sequel was the risk of having the subject matter become stale and hackneyed. While 2049 isn’t groundbreaking or visionary like its predecessor, the craft at work here is more than enough to justify its existence. This time around, Denis Villeneuve is at the helm, directing Ryan Gosling as a replicant blade runner (talk about moral dilemmas). The pairing of Gosling and Villeneuve alone should guarantee 2049 is, at the least, great. The Canadian director’s other work includes recent master strokes Arrival, Sicario, Prisoners, Enemy, and Incendies. While Blade Runner 2049 is arguably the least of these, the technical prowess on display and the sheer scope in story and theme are still wowing.
An understated Gosling allows the plot to take a front seat. The script here, although equally as plodding (meditative?) as the original, provides more than a few left turns to keep things fresh just when you think you have everything figured out. The real stars, however, are the visuals and the cinematography; every shot demands to be seen on the largest screen available. The garish colors and stark landscapes, while noticeably evoking Mad Max: Fury Road, are mesmerizing – more so than in the original (as one might/should expect). The futuristic but derelict Los Angeles we saw in Blade Runner is more fully fleshed out thanks in no small part to a massive budget and the advancements in CGI since 1982.
All in all, Blade Runner 2049 stands out amidst the general sameness of the growing sea of sci-fi while only intermittently revealing its self-importance. Villeneuve’s choice to build off of rather than pay homage to is commendable; his film does not simply serve as a postscript to Blade Runner. The experience – it is an experience – is at once hypnotic and profound, cold and intimate. Best of all, the mystery surrounding Deckard’s identity which is at the heart of the Blade Runner mythos remains unresolved. It is the way of ambiguous and bittersweet endings to tinge that which precedes with new meaning and beauty.