Blade Runner 2049
Updated: Feb 5
In 1982, Ridley Scott released Blade Runner (a loose adaptation of Phillip K. Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?). It was an intriguing cross between science-fiction and film noir. Harrison Ford starred as Rick Deckard, a Blade Runner assigned to “retire” several rogue replicants (a replicant is a human-like robot and a Blade Runner is a detective whose job it is to hunt them down and kill them when they stop being useful). It was a surprisingly deep film with some fascinating, Frankenstein-like, themes about creation and humanity. At the time of its release, it failed at the box-office and was considered to be a bit of a disappointment by critics. At that time, popular science-fiction was mostly fun, crowd pleasing, adventures like Star Wars or Star Trek (one could argue that things aren’t that different today). Blade Runner certainly does not fit that mold.
It took a while, but eventually the praise came. Now it is considered a classic of the genre and has influenced many science-fiction films that have been made since. And finally, after a thirty-five year wait, there is a sequel.
Blade Runner 2049 (153 minutes without the end credits) takes place thirty years after the events of the original and stars two-time Oscar nominee Ryan Gosling as K, a Blade Runner assigned to eliminate the previous model of replicants. He soon becomes embroiled in a mystery that could change what it means to be human. Also involved are Robin Wright (Claire Underwood on the Netflix hit House of Cards) as his police lieutenant, Jared Leto (a Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner in 2014 for Dallas Buyers Club) as Wallace, the creator of the newer replicants, Sylvia Hoeks as his enforcer, replicant Luv, and Ana de Armas as K’s AI companion, Joi. Harrison Ford also reprises his role as Deckard.
That is all of the plot I will reveal, but I will say that the story here is a fitting follow-up to the original. It takes some of the more thought-provoking aspects from that film and moves them forward in an interesting direction. It is not just another story taking place in that world; it also deepens the world Ridley Scott created all those years ago. Scott has handed off the directorial reigns this time around (he served as an executive producer) and that seems like a good choice. It gives the sequel a chance to explore this landscape in a completely different way than the original.
However, the story, while good, is not the main reason to see Blade Runner 2049. The main draw is the visuals painstakingly created by director Denis Villeneuve (a Best Director nominee this year for Arrival). Every detail of every frame appears to have been carefully crafted by Villeneuve and his team. From the sets to the clothes, from the lighting to the way that elements are arranged in each shot, the film is a wonder to look at. If this summer’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets was amazing because it showed me things I have never seen before, Blade Runner 2049 is amazing because it showed me familiar things in ways I could never have imagined. It is an incredibly impressive achievement.
The original Blade Runner mainly took place in a dystopic future Los Angeles. 2049 explores much more of California and even travels to Las Vegas for a dream-like trip to a rundown old casino. The great cinematographer Roger Deakins (he has been nominated for 13 Oscars for his work, but is yet to win one) creates a gritty realism even in this futuristic world. Clearly, what we are seeing is fantastical, but Villeneuve and Deakins ground it in an internal logic. The visuals may be amazing, but they serve the universe that has been created, instead of the other way around. That makes them a part of the story and strengthens the entire film.
There is one scene in particular that really stands out. It is a success not just of direction and camera work, but also in terms of the acting, visual effects, editing (by Joe Walker, who has worked with Villeneuve on Sicario and Arrival) and writing. It is a sex scene involving K, Joi and a woman played by Mackenzie Davis (of AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire). Without giving away too much, all of those elements come together to create something completely original. Two of the characters meld together into one in a way that not only makes sense in the moment, but becomes one of the most beautiful images in the entire film.
The Blade Runner films are about, among other things, what it means to be alive and human. This particular scene, while being visually impressive, also does a great job of exploring those themes. There is a sensuousness and vitality to all three of the characters that is especially amazing when you consider that not all of them are human.
Generally speaking, that is how the screenplay works. It uses the visuals to enhance its story. There is not a lot of speechifying or exposition. Viewers really have to pay attention, especially when there is no dialogue, because it can be very easy to get lost in the mythology of this world. It is a credit to screenwriters Hampton Fancher (co-writer of the original Blade Runner) and Michael Green (who wrote next month’s Agatha Christie adaptation Murder on the Orient Express) that they never let their cleverness as writers get in the way of the breathtaking visuals. They let the imagery speak for itself and Villenueve takes great advantage of that in the final product.
Blade Runner 2049 is not going to please every viewer. It is dark, long, slow-paced and is not always easy to follow. It is a sequel to a thirty-five year old movie that is far more appreciated by critics and film aficionados than by general audiences. For me it never dragged and the pace felt natural instead of slow. I was able to follow the story easily, though I have seen the original many times so perhaps I have an advantage there.
I found Blade Runner 2049 to be an amazing cinematic experience. The images, the intensity of the performances and the subtleness of the writing all add up to an original, fascinating and brilliant film. I am not sure if it is better than its predecessor, but it is one of the best films of the year.
Note: I saw Blade Runner 2049 in IMAX. Though it was not filmed using IMAX cameras (unlike Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk), it takes full advantage of the larger screen. I highly recommend it.
5 out of 5
Ryan Gosling as K
Robin Wright as Lieutenant Joshi
Ana de Armas as Joi
Sylvia Hoeks as Luv
Jared Leto as Niander Wallace
Dave Bautista as Sapper Morton
Mackenzie Davis as Mariette
Harrison Ford as Rick Deckard
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Screenplay by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green