Among the reasons the original Blade Runner is held in high esteem is because it wasn’t afraid to ask open-ended questions.
It asked for something special from its audience.
In a future where Replicants (human-like biorobots built for slave labor on off-Earth colonies) have developed memories, personalities and emotions, what differentiates them from biologically created humans? If both have memories … if both love, and fear, and value the experience of being alive, what’s the difference? If memories are subjective, does that impact their value?
Most enduringly the first movie created an atmosphere where the humanity of Blade Runner Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) was called into question. It remains one of science-fiction’s great debates.
At the end of that movie we saw Deckard and Rachael (Sean Young), his Replicant lover, leave the dystopic industrial hellscape of 2019 Los Angeles for presumably greener pastures, leaving the audience to find their own answers.
“Within Cells, Interlinked”
Blade Runner 2049 picks up from the first film 30 years later. Los Angeles 2049 is familiar, but changed. Cleaner. A cataclysmic blackout in 2022 wiped out everyone’s digitized personal information, changing the world. The simultaneous collapse of Replicant manufacturer Tyrell Corp. after the Nexus 8 — a model with exceedingly long lifespans — led to a prohibition on Replicants.
Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), a scientist responsible for the salvation of the starving human race through his mastery of agriculture, revives the use of Replicants as a means of spreading human life throughout the galaxy. His new models live, breathe and, unlike their predecessors, obey.
Officer K (Ryan Gosling) is a Blade Runner, whose objective is to hunt down the remaining Tyrell models. A routine case leads him in an unexpected direction. To solve this case, he must hunt down the long-missing Deckard (Ford, returning).
Avoiding spoilers for 2049 is interesting because the movie’s story isn’t built on shocking reveals or twists but rather on the sensory experience of following K as he unravels the mystery in front of him. Writers Hampton Fancher and Michael Green deliver a detective story through-and-through; the story flows at the pace of uncovered ledes and shadowy motivations.
K, and the film, take up several of the questions left dangling at the end of Blade Runner and expand them without definitively answering them. Nothing from the end of the first film is brushed off or contradicted in a way that lessens the original’s impact. In many ways this is a perfect sequel, furthering the first movie’s themes while also opening the mind to new meditations.
It is absolutely essential that you’ve seen Blade Runner before seeing 2049.
“The Space Between Stars.”
Director Denis Villeneuve has made a name for himself recently with moody hits like Prisoners and Sicario. His best, until now, was last year’s science-fiction, heartstring-pulling Oscar contender Arrival. Paired with cinematographer Roger Deakins (American Beauty, Skyfall, etc.), this is hands down the prettiest movie this year. It’s all mood, tone, and theme. Earlier I called it a “sensory experience,” and that’s the only real way to describe the way the film. The 163-minute running time feels like a threat until you’re in your seat and fully transported.
2049 feels like a culmination of all of Villeneuve’s films so far, but it owes the most to Arrival. The power of science-fiction is never the robots, flying cars, space ships or holographic lovers. It’s what the storyteller expresses using devices, about the essence of the human experience. Among the stars, what truly matters is the nature of the soul.
“To Be Born is to Have a Soul.”
Despite Ford’s presence in the marketing, this movie belongs to Gosling. It’s tempting to joke that this is the third (after Drive and Only God Forgives) film in a trilogy of movies about Ryan Gosling staring blankly … gorgeously … while colorful lighting illuminates his perfect face. But that’s a disservice to those performances, and most of all this one. The subdued emotion of 2049 contrasts with its effervescent color palette, its remarkable environment. Gosling is all restraint, saying everything with nothing. There is a scene deep into the movie about memory that is indescribably beautiful.
As is his relationship to Joi (Ana de Armas), another stellar performance whose character can’t be described without spoilers. She brings a new kind of presence to the world of Blade Runner, a thematic expansion I did not expect. Her role is one that I think will provide a lot of thoughtful commentary in the months and years to come, both in her impact on the fictional world and what her relationship with K says about the nature of love.
Although Leto has gotten all the attention for his “method acting” as Wallace, the stand-out antagonist of the piece is Sylvia Hoeks as Luv, a Replicant whose behavior brings into question just how capable humans are of controlling their creations. She, too, provides a lot to unpack.
“Off the Shoulder of Orion.”
The value of memory is one of the main thematic concerns of both Blade Runner and 2049 and I think it needs to be stressed that your reaction to 2049 will likely rest on how well you tolerated the original.
I’ve read many, many reviews of the original over the years that complain about it being “style over substance,” which never felt like a fair assessment to me. It’s a widespread opinion, though, so it must have merit to many. If you feel that way about the first movie, don’t let the action-packed trailers for this one fool you. This film is of a kind with the first, albeit a little softer around the edges and more tender at its core. It is a deliberate and thoughtful piece of work.
I have always appreciated how Blade Runner feels like the truest cinematic translation of classic science-fiction novels from the 1950s to 1970s. More Isaac Asimov than Philip K. Dick. Those books always meander, diving deep into worlds of vivid complexity. More often than not they end on thoughts — philosophical musing or scientific ideas or moral lessons.
Few science-fiction films ever allow themselves the pacing to fully explore this kind of story. Action, drama and romance are the ways of cinema, the medium’s greatest strength and sometimes its most unfortunate constraint. 2049 feels like the next novel in a series of classics, “The Naked Sun” to the first movie’s “The Caves of Steel” (for those of you who enjoy Asimov). What an absolute joy.
Of course, those classic stories were largely written by men and are naturally very much about a male perspective. It’s fair to say that 2049 does, too. That isn’t to say it exhibits the same thoughtless “of-the-era” misogyny as some of Asimov’s stories. I’ll be interested to see how K’s journey plays to the wider critic community.
“Blade Runner Blues”
Hans Zimmer’s score is a complete homage to Vangelis, echoing the themes we expect. It’s not a complete riff, but it’s appropriately synth. It is the best possible outcome of having someone else compose a sequel to one of the best scores of all time.
Whether 2049 will be remembered alongside its predecessor as an all-time classic of science-fiction cinema is up in the air. Blade Runner had such an outsized influence on the genre that it’s hard to imagine any sequel ever taking hold in quite the same way.
But here we have a sequel 30 years in the making that doesn’t impinge on the original. It is a fantastically well-written, scored, directed, shot, acted and realized vision of genre storytelling. As a sequel, it manages to hit all the right beats. To say it isn’t for every audience is only stating the obvious; those who are worried it won’t live up to their memories of the first, fear not.
The strongest memories are feelings, after all, and this understands that most of all.