Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner sequel rejects blatant fan service and honors its thematically complex source material the best way possible: by elevating it in new and original ways.
Every civilization was built on the back of a disposable workforce, but I can only make so many.
— Niander Wallace
Harrison Ford is having quite the late career, seemingly attempting to make one last film (and cash one last paycheck) for every major property that made him the world’s biggest movie star. I’m not even mad. Let Harrison Ford be; he’s given us enough. But where angry fans have hurled darts at Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and Star Wars: The Force Awakens for being cash grabs and fan service that blemished the original movies, I don’t think the same will happen for Blade Runner 2049. You may not like the film, but there’s no denying that Denis Villeneuve and his team took a massive swing for the fences.
2049 takes place thirty years after the events of Blade Runner in a world shaped by the fallout of the original film’s events. The Tyrell corporation went bankrupt after one too many replicant rebellions, and the creation of new Tyrell-version replicants is banned. Those replicant androids with four-year lifespans have long since died out, but some enhanced Nexus 8 models with infinite lifespans still live in hiding, constantly pursued by the blade runners whose job it is to hunt them down. These new blade runners, including Ryan Gosling’s K, are among a new generation of replicants designed to fully obey their orders, designed by a mysterious corporate head named Niander Wallace who purchased the crumbled remains of the Tyrell Corporation.
Director Denis Villeneuve has specifically asked reviewers not to reveal the plot of the Blade Runner 2049 beyond the film’s opening text, and (though our small potatoes website is hardly who he had in mind when making this request) I’m content to adhere to that request, because there’s so much else to talk about.
Blade Runner is one of my all-time favorite films, and I had real reservations about revisiting the story after thirty-five years. We certainly didn’t need a sequel, and Ridley Scott’s middling success with his Alien sequels wasn’t inspiring. But the producers made a wise decision in selecting Denis Villeneuve to helm the project after his success with Arrival last year. He and Alex Garland seem to be the two last bastions for getting intelligent adults to the theater for science fiction films, knowing how to hook an audience with star power, cool visuals, and a one sentence premise before delivering the thematic goods once the audience is in their seats.
Blade Runner 2049 is no different. Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford will get you to the theater, but it’s everything else that will make you want to stick around. As writer Drew McWeeny recently noted, Gosling’s greatest strength may be his ability to coax interest from an actor who’s spent years coasting. Think of Russell Crowe in The Nice Guys or Albert Brooks in Drive, and now add Harrison Ford to that list. Gosling, like DiCaprio, is a handsome actor seemingly always committed to push himself for a good project, but where his charm and humor are perfect for The Big Short or The Nice Guys, I’m not sure he was the best choice for this part. Charm and humor aren’t necessary here, and he ends up a blank face for much of the film.
Still, Gosling gets a pass. He did his job as the face of the film and a funding magnet, and his involvement paves the way for the less well-known actors in the cast who get the chance to be great. Dave Bautista continues his career change from WWE wrestler to surprisingly good character actor with another scene stealing turn here, and Mackenzie Davis makes the most out of a thankless role that’s more philosophical question than character. Even Jared Leto is good as the enigmatic Niander Wallace, with a capable director like Villeneuve holding the reins on his self-indulgent tendencies. But my highest praise goes to Ana de Armas and Sylvia Hoeks, who give standout performances that double down on the original Blade Runner’s investigation of robotic humanity.
Yes, Blade Runner 2049 is just as interested as its predecessor in the blurred lines between androids and human emotion, but it’s hardly a retread. While respectful of the source material, Villeneuve isn’t here to pay homage (spoiler: to the point that Harrison Ford doesn’t show up for almost two hours), opening the world up to broader investigations of slavery, revolution, and destiny. I actually even spent parts of the film wondering if I’d like it more if it wasn’t a Blade Runner sequel and was free to tell its own story without eventually having to circle back to what happened to Ford’s Rick Deckard. Minor qualms.
Blade Runner 2049 is an incredibly immersive experience, and even the less enthusiastic reviews have praised the work of cinematographer Roger Deakins, and rightly so. The film is an incredible visual feat, and I found myself constantly marveling at the shot compositions which are worth the cost of admission by themselves. Deakins is a master, but the acclaimed director of photography has never won an Oscar, and there’s already talk that 2049 could be the film that finally wins him the award after thirteen nominations. It would be justified. For a director of photography who is so noted for visual naturalism, a sci-fi epic seems like a weird fit, but Deakins’ work serves to ground the film amidst the blizzard of visual effects used to evoke the future.
Whether using symmetry to evoke a sense of unease in the film’s early moments, perspective as a vehicle for emotion, or color as a narrative theme, Deakins’ photography is a major element of a film whose dialogue is purposely limited. It visually fills in the gaps, allowing Hampton Fancher and Michael Green’s script to function in purposeful obliqueness. Deakins even manages to brighten up a cinematic world that’s best known for noir-ish grime. Further adding to the mix is Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch’s booming score, which doubles down on Zimmer’s post-Inception love for soft/loud scores that will drive you crazy when watching at home, but adds one more reason for you to take a trip to the local Cineplex. It draws you in, mixing with the photography and visual effects, plus a sizable portion for Philip K. Dick’s futuristic philosophy to yield a film that’s hard targeted at adults.
Anyone looking for an adventure styled after the Marvel Cinematic Universe is probably in for a letdown. Blade Runner 2049 is a slow, purposeful 163 minutes that’s much more concerned with thematic complexity than action sequences. It’s not boring, but even I think it’s a half-hour too long. It’s worth remembering that the original Blade Runner was not a hit, dwarfed by the more action-packed Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial that hit theaters the same month. Its reputation as a science fiction classic was built over time by repeated deconstruction and word of mouth. I won’t be surprised if the sequel has a similar life cycle. Fancher, Green, and Villeneuve have packed the film with ideas that demand patience and multiple viewings. It wants to be discussed and puzzled over, especially as robots increasingly becomes a larger part of our lives. I’ve always loved robots as a vehicle for science fiction themes. They force us to focus on life, morality, consciousness, and emotions. And what’s more human than that?