Blade Runner 2049 is a breathtaking achievement which can remind even the bitterest critic of contemporary moviemaking that the big studios can still deliver artistic, emotional, and thought provoking material to cinemas. Between its expert handling of the source material, its downright gorgeous set design and cinematography, and its incredible performances, the film is a bona fide masterpiece which is more than worthy of the Blade Runner name.
Thirty-five years ago, Blade Runner was released in theaters after a rocky production period. The film didn’t exactly receive a warm reception, and there have since been multiple cuts of the film to more accurately reflect director Ridley Scott’s unadulterated, yet updated vision. However, throughout all of the cuts of the movie, fans and critics began to appreciate it more and more. Its aesthetic was decades ahead of its time, and its themes and motifs were simply beyond the scope of anything else available in the early 80s. It was beautiful, it was terrifying, it was haunting, and it was unforgettable. The movie has since achieved the kind of legendary status that few of its contemporaries currently enjoy; and creating a sequel after 35 years of nostalgia and canonization would be a daunting task for any director.
Fortunately, director Denis Villeneuve proved to be more than capable to handle the job. He has been building up an impressive resume over the years with projects like Sicario and Arrival, and he has somehow managed to capture the world Scott and artist Syd Mead established all those years ago while expanding the visual and geographic borders of anything that was even remotely possible in 1982. Up until this point, Villeneuve was not particularly known as a visual storyteller. Sicario is a beautiful film, but its shots aren’t going to change your world; and Arrival‘s “too dark” color palette and close-up shots often remind the viewer that the film is more about ideas than eye candy. That all changes with Blade Runner 2049. The filmmaker’s use of scale and colors put the viewer in an incredible state of astonishment throughout the movie’s long runtime. The signature rainy, gritty cityscape of the original film are still here, but Villeneuve contrasts that with barren wastelands of a variety of different color palettes and earthy traits. His opening shots flood the viewer with memories while presenting signature tweaks to let us know that things are going to be different this time around. We get the eyeball close-up shot, but this time it’s sterile and devoid of color. We get the neon advertisements, but they’re contradicted by new architecture spanning numerous new styles and decades. Open, bright locations and shots are often followed by anachronistic dark and dingy visual delights. These images are all captured beautifully and enhanced by the photographic expertise of legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins (No Country for Old Men, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Sicario), who delivers what just might be his greatest work with this movie. The world of the film seems to have opened tenfold, and viewers are treated to startlingly new locations right up until the last quarter of the picture. Somehow, all of these seemingly contradictory elements all feel connected to present a fluid and lived-in world like no other.
Arrival showed that Villeneuve likes to pull at the viewers’ heartstrings, and Blade Runner 2049 tends to achieve this despite the sterile and barren world it presents. The movie is much less ambiguous than its predecessor about who is a human being and who is an android, and we certainly see many more androids in the film than humans. Regardless, the characters’ individual quests to define their own humanity and their personal story arcs are delivered so beautifully, that the movie explodes to a cacophony of legitimate feelings and emotions upon its conclusion. Rarely do I leave a movie and feel so satisfied and moved by the time the credits roll as I felt by the end of Blade Runner 2049.
A lot of that credit goes to Villeneuve for managing such a giant project with such impossible expectations; but the film’s actors and actresses truly deliver Blade Runner 2049 to astonishing heights. Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford aren’t approaching these roles any differently than you might expect; each actor has crafted a new type of cinematic character who can be played perfectly by him and him alone. Gosling’s cold and calculated movements, harboring an emotional core beneath the skin, can be seen in numerous films like Drive and The Place Beyond The Pines; and Ford’s gruff but likeable archetype has been perfected decades ago. Each actor delivered the kind of strong performance the movie needed, without traveling too far from their respective wheelhouse. But why reinvent the wheel when trying to replicate (see what I did there?) a story that has already been perfected thirty-five years ago? One tendency of long-awaited sequels is to bring in a new protagonist from a new generation to sort of act as a clone of the protagonist of the original source material. Despite the fact that everyone knows Ryan Gosling can be a charming devil, I’m pleased that Officer K. never mimicked to Rick Deckard’s endearing quips and ladies-man approach to solving problems. When you see him on the movie poster decked out in a trenchcoat, you might think he’s the Deckard of this generation. When you watch the movie itself, you realize that K. has character traits which extend far beyond those of the original protagonist, sometimes even taking on the contradictory alpha-male/sensitive-intellectual qualities of Roy Batty. Ford plays Deckard in the kind of way you’d imagine Deckard to be in his later years of life. He’s still a man of few words, he’s still kind of a jerk, and he’s still delivered to a satisfying character arc at the expense of a more thoughtful, more capable counterpart. His screentime is quite limited in comparison to what you might expect given his frequent and visible appearances in the promotional materials for the movie, but he makes the best of every one of his scenes.
All of the supporting cast work to flesh out the unique world of the film. Dave Bautista’s Sapper Morton is one of the first characters we meet, and Bautista delivers a nuanced performance which is arguably his best to date. Robin Wright, Ana de Armas, and Sylvia Hoeks all help to redefine the franchise with characters which are completely new to Blade Runner‘s diverse archetypes. de Armas aims to please K. the best she can as artificial intelligence designed to help K. feel the positive effects of a living, breathing relationship; and their eventual separation has a certain gravity to it because of the fact that she approaches the role with such tender sincerity. Wright’s and Hoek’s respective characters seem to be in contrast to one another, and its interesting to watch the scene unfold when the two finally meet in their first and only scene together. In Blade Runner, Deckard’s colleagues and superiors were all men, spearheaded by the unforgettable M. Emmet Walsh. In 2049, Robin Wright’s Lieutenant Joshi acts as a matriarchal figure to Gosling’s K. … a filmmaking decision which works remarkably well given the fact that K. is so focused on the search for family that he seems to gravitate towards mother and father figures in a way that Rick Deckard never seemed to care about. Hoeks’ Luv (An ironic name, if I may say so myself!) is interesting because she is so different from any of the Blade Runner antagonists which have come before her. She isn’t caught up in the search for meaning or the pursuit of life. She knows what she is and she seems content to carry out all of Niander Wallace’s wishes with extreme prejudice. Speaking of Wallace, Jared Leto’s performance is spot-on for the film. While many of his roles of late have been over the top, his character fits right in to the world of the film; and he conveys a certain nastiness which Joe Turkel’s Eldon Tyrell never approached. Edward James Olmos deserves a special shout-out for his brief, but poignant, cameo where he delivers interesting insight into Deckard’s character while folding up a fresh new piece of origami.
What does Gaff create this time around? A sheep, of course, which is a testament to the script’s adherence to the source material. Blade Runner was written by Hampton Fancher and David Webb Peoples, but it was based on Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? While the two stories ended up being remarkably different, the film series’ fascination with animals and its ambiguous exploration into what’s real and what it means to be human come directly from the book. On the surface, Gaff’s sheep is likely a criticism of the fact that K., a replicate himself, blindly executes his own kind and never questions his commitment to the status quo… like a sheep. But I can’t help but wonder if the paper animal is there to force us to come to grips with the startling answer to the question the title of the book asks. It’s no coincidence that we learn in the film that it is the woman born of an android who can create the world’s most vivid dreams and memories. Blade Runner 2049 takes this idea even further with its exploration into the difference between the androids and the human characters of the film.
In the original, the ragtag gang of androids clung together like a pseudo-family. They had legitimate feelings for each other, and they were deeply moved when the members of their “family” were hunted. In 2049 those motifs are explored even further as we see androids constantly contemplating an existence within a familial structure. Officer K. is of the belief that he can’t be a boyfriend or a husband, so he owns an AI program that lets him play a boyfriend. We learn that there is a group of androids who have banned together all these years to protect the born android with their lives. They view her existence as something bigger than their own lives, and her legitimacy gives them greater meaning to their own existences. Officer K. makes the ultimate sacrifice to reunite the fractured nuclear family in an emotionally jarring display of selflessness.
On the other hand, the human beings of the film are petty, ruthless, and shallow. They serve the company, or the police, or organized crime; and they do not value human connections the same way as the androids of Blade Runner 2049 do. Intimacy is a commodity to them, and nothing more. The corporation can create human beings, but the act is purely biological… devoid of the subtle touches of real life. This idea was touched upon in 1982, but it is explored much more deeply in the sequel. At its core, Blade Runner 2049‘s most profound statement is its one on humanity and the quest for family. It was brilliant of the studio to bring back Hampton Fancher to write the script with Michael Green (Logan) because the story truly feels like it never skipped a beat despite the 35 years which have passed. Despite the long runtime, the script is concise and direct. While, upon my first viewing, I don’t believe there are as many quotable lines in this one as the original (like pretty much everything Roy Batty ever said), the overall gestalt of the script feels very much like the original, albeit slightly more serious in its delivery. The slight shift in tone helps the movie achieve its ambitious goal in packing an earth-defying existential and philosophical punch to the gut. If the first movie had viewers questioning whether androids should be allowed to live side-by-side with humans on our planet, the second one might be asking the exact opposite.
Beyond its impressive visuals, Blade Runner is known for its incredible sounds. Vangelis’ score is one of the most unforgettable arrangements of music in film, and the music for the sequel was bound to be a tough nut to crack. This time around, Hollywood music legend Hans Zimmer collaborated with Benjamin Wallfisch (It and a previous collaboration with Zimmer on the Dunkirk score) to ultimately deliver something very different, yet oddly familiar. The ambient cues of Blade Runner are sometimes present amid this much more aggressive soundscape, but the sounds of 2049 venture into new territory throughout the majority of the film. Zimmer’s signature swelling score which accents major plot beats is all here, and it often amplifies the small-scale action occurring on screen. This is not the kind of movie with hundreds of characters exploding into each other in battle, but it often feels like that even when there are two individuals on screen because of the film’s emotionally pounding score. It’s foreign ambient cues sound oddly similar to what could be heard in Arrival, so it’s likely that Villeneuve selected the duo with exactly these sounds in mind, and the knowledge that they’d be the team to best deliver them. When the Vangelis tunes finally come together in the final scene for an extraordinary and emotionally satisfying conclusion, they tie a bow on the end of the score that brings the whole thing together and ties the new music into the world of Blade Runner. While some fans may miss the more subtle notes which can be found in the original, Zimmer’s and Wallfisch’s work enhances Blade Runner 2049 and helps it to realize its emotional gravity.
Blade Runner 2049 is a remarkable achievement, a high quality work of art that is the result of numerous talented individuals performing at the top of their game. Long after this movie finishes its run in theaters, viewers will want to watch this one every time after they decide to go back and revisit the original film. It compliments the original and builds upon it in a way that wouldn’t have been possible if it were made a year or two after production wrapped in 1982. Blade Runner was always a uniquely special film. With this new sequel, Blade Runner is now a uniquely special series… one of the finest examples of its kind.