It’s no secret that Hollywood is pretty desperate to make sequels to pretty much anything, but there are certain boundaries that they don’t cross every day, and in making the film Blade Runner 2049 they were certainly crossing into dangerous territory. Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner is a true science fiction classic. It’s a film that has a truly remarkable look which holds up remarkably today and which has had a massive influence on pretty much every future city that has been seen on film since and its combination of science fiction with film noir was an incredibly smart move that was consistently fun to watch. On top of that the movie is this really special, really deep mediation on what it means to be human and the ways societies abuse the disenfranchised and uncaringly discard unwanted elements. It’s a brilliant movie and when I ranked my top 100 favorite films recently it came in at number 59, which also placed it as the third best movie of the last 35 years, it’s that good in my eyes. I don’t think in recent memory I’ve been in the position or reviewing a sequel, made so long after the fact, to a top 100 caliber movie like this. The last movie I can think of as being in a comparable position was probably 2010: The Year We Made Contact, the 1984 sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey. In short, the movie has some really big shoes to fill so I was certainly going into it with some a lot of skepticism.
Set thirty years after the original Blade Runner (which was set in what 1982 assumed 2019 would be like) this new film establishes that sometime after the events of the first film the old line of replicants prone to rebellion have been replaced by a new more obediant form of replicant that is allowed to operate within earth society. One of those replicants is KD9-3.7 (Ryan Gosling), who is an LAPD “blade runner” tasked with tracking down the few remaining old world replicants and taking them out. After the completion of one of his assassination missions KD9-3.7 finds a box filled with the remains of a long dead female replicant buried near a tree. When these remains are discovered the autopsy shows something disturbing: this replicant seems to have died in the process of childbirth, implying that a replicant was somehow able to reproduce and also that the child that was born may still be out there. His commanding officer, Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright), orders him to cover this up and tie up whatever loose ends exist so as to not cause mass pandemonium. Meanwhile Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) is also following these developments through various connections and plans to send his agent, Sylvia Hoeks (Sylvia Hoeks) to see to his own interests.
What’s immediately striking about the movie is, of course, just how well it manages of recapture the look and more importantly the feel of that original film. That is no easy task as the set decoration of that original film is beyond iconic and Denis Villeneuve seems to realize this and is very careful to make this Los Angeles look like the Blade Runner Los Angeles rather than the various cityscapes that it inspired. Part of the way Villeneuve accomplishes this is by knowing the value of restraint. It would have been easy for him to pump up the CGI and gone full Fifth Element but he does hold back and it does look like that original film, but it also isn’t afraid to expand on the world of Blade Runner and show other areas of California and even another American city. Even more impressive is that Villeneuve didn’t seem to bend to pressures to make the film more of an action movie and to speed the movie up to fit the pacing of modern blockbusters. It’s a bit less indebted to film noir than the first movie but all the moodiness is still there and it also remains somber and doesn’t feel pressure to rush its way through its plot to appease short attention spans.
While he’s prominently featured in the film’s advertising, Harrison Ford actually has a fairly small role in the film. Stepping into his shoes as a blade runner protagonist is Ryan Gosling, who unlike Ford is playing a character who is unambiguously a replicant. To do this he adopts a sort of detached but not exactly robotic cool. Unlike the replicants we saw in the last movie like Roy Batty he’s a newer model that “obeys,” but this is rendered more like a personality quirk than a hard-wired programing and Gosling does a pretty good job of rendering this spot between human and machine. Also in a place of nebulous humanity is his holographic girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas), another product of the Wallace corporation who certainly seems to have a higher degree of individuality than you’d expect from a literal consumer product and the bad guys played by Jared Leto and Sylvia Hoeks also prove to be interesting additions to the cast while smaller roles played by the likes of Dave Bautista and Robin Wright also fill in the world of the movie nicely.
When I first left the theater after seeing Blade Runner 2049 I was pretty high on it and was just gobsmacked that Villeneuve had managed to get something like this through the studio system and I pretty thoroughly enjoyed watching it. In the week or so since then, my reaction has cooled on the movie just a little bit as I’ve re-considered some of its story implications. I think in many ways the movie works better as a spinoff of Blade Runner than as a sequel to Blade Runner. It’s great at recapturing the world of that first movie and populating it with new characters but I’m not a fan of what they do to connect all of that with the story of the original film. Spoilers ahead. I think the idea of a replicant having given live birth is… interesting, although it’s certainly never explained how a thing like that could happen which is perhaps understandable. However, I kind of wish that the trail of clues related to this hadn’t led straight to Deckard and Rachael. The romance between these two characters is not necessarily the most memorable part of the original film but it had a certain melancholy fatalism to it straight out of film noir. This notion that they were in fact destined to give birth to “the chosen one” the whole time feels less like something from film noir and more like something out of modern franchise filmmaking. The film also conveniently leaves certain plotlines like the fate of the Jared Leto character and the specter of a robot rebellion dangling, possibly for a future sequel if this thing does well at the box office.
Of course this movie’s box office success is far from certain. Earlier I commended the movie for not pandering to the short attention spans of modern audiences, but truth be told this kind of pacing proved to be rather challenging for audiences in 1982 as well. It was crazy enough that they managed to make a movie like this in Hollywood once much less twice. If I have any reservations about where they took the story they’re more the kind of problems that emerge in hindsight than they are problems that really cloud the experience of actually watching the movie. We don’t get movies like this every day and I’m not going to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. This certainly isn’t the classic that the original film was but it’s entertaining, well-constructed, and just generally better than most of what we get from big budget movies like this.