It is no secret around these parts that I’m not a big fan of Blade Runner. Don’t get me wrong; it’s not a bad film. It’s got some interesting themes, the use of film noir is evocative, and the influence it has had on pop culture is undeniable. It’s just that I find it a little too cold and uninteresting to be the classic it is considered, no matter how many cuts I watch. So the news of a sequel, Blade Runner 2049, did little to raise my excitement. Nor was I impressed with the trailers that were released for the film, as I found them to be more of the same, albeit visually striking. So you can imagine how shocked I am to say that Blade Runner 2049 is one of the most astounding films I’ve seen in years, visually groundbreaking and thematically rich in a way that most films just don’t dare to be.
It has been 30 years since Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) had his encounter with Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) and ran off into the night with the replicant Rachael (Sean Young). The production of replicants has been taken over by Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), who makes his models more complacent than the older models, which are hunted down by the LAPD blade runners. On one such mission, blade runner Officer K (Ryan Gosling) discovers a secret long since buried. What follows is a journey throughout the Los Angeles underworld with his holographic girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas), trailed by replicant prostitute Mariette (Mackenzie Davis) and hunted by Wallace’s handywoman Luv (Syvia Hoeks).
Blade Runner 2049 is not just some simplistic sequel to a classic. This is a film that deeply understands the thematic lore of its predecessor and builds on it – thematically, visually, and narratively. The minute the opening scroll goes by, and you learn where the world is in 2049, you immediately think to yourself, “Yeah, that seems like the logical next step for this universe.” This is a fairly simple detail, and yet one that many sequels fail to get right. However, that’s really nothing compared to the way this film expands on the themes of the original. Original director Ridley Scott has always been fascinated with the uncanny valley between humans and robots. It’s a theme that appears in most of his works, from Alien to Blade Runner to his most recent films Prometheus and this year’s Alien: Covenant. People who watch the original often fail to recognize that you’re supposed to dislike Deckard just as much as you’re supposed to like the villain Batty (essentially, they meet in the middle). The film’s purpose is to ask questions about what makes something human, a living being with a soul that deserves a chance to live, and choose, and die. However, outside of the now-famous “Tears in Rain” monologue, the original film has never clearly demonstrated these themes in the way it wanted to. That’s not necessarily Scott’s fault – the film went through a thousand different cuts that severely damaged any hope of its message being properly received. However, that makes it all the more remarkable that Denis Villeneuve’s newest addition to the universe is so perfectly managed. The film bathes in these themes, slowly drawing them out and adding layers and layers of subtext to them until there’s nothing left to say. And sure, Villeneuve got an extra hour and limited studio interference to explore this overall message, and nothing in the film quite matches the “Tears in Rain” scene, but as a whole, this is a more thoughtful, meditative experience than even Scott could have imagined in 1982.
Every frame in this film builds to a higher purpose, asking a question that ties in to the film’s overall ideas. Am I human? What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be free? Do I have a soul? Is a robotic being I created human? Is it expendable? Am I expendable? Is your life expendable if you are giving it up for a higher cause? These are but a few of the questions raised throughout the film, as the characters struggle to find the answers they want and need. And unlike the original Blade Runner, where almost every human was kinda sh*tty and almost every replicant was kinda well-intentioned, here, things aren’t so clear cut, making the answers to these questions all the more ambiguous, thoughtful, and all-around impressive. And the symbolism doesn’t end there. While the enslavement and treatment of the replicants has always been tied to racial undertones, here they are taken to their next logical conclusion. As replicants are now free to roam the streets, they begin to experience hatred and animosity from the casual passerby, often being cursed at for being a “skinner,” a fairly clear metaphor. I won’t spoil one early use of the insult here, but I will say that it stuck with me, as it allowed for several minutes of analysis, context, and haunting symbolism all surrounding a one-second throwaway sequence. This is the way that Villeneuve explores his material – with small moments that tie into the bigger picture, questioning race, humanity, the meaning of life, our desire to survive, and more. Altogether, it takes those themes that made the original film stand out and expands them to their greatest possible potential.
Miraculously, the film’s general aesthetic matches the tone set by the film’s thematic storytelling: simple, yet bombastic, and all-around gorgeous. I’ve honestly never seen a film that looks like this before, not even the original Blade Runner. Blade Runner’s original concept design is considered revolutionary in the industry, utilizing the greatest of special effects at the time (a blend between computers and practical sets) to create a sprawling futuristic landscape that has been copied thousands of times, from Gattaca to The Dark Knight to Her. 2049 is every bit as impressive as the original, and then some. Sure, it captures that realism and grittiness the original film had, and yet it expands upon it in the best possible ways. Everything just looks so crisp and gorgeous and real. I honestly don’t know how they did anything in this movie; I refuse to believe that any of it is CGI, as it just looks too human, in the best possible ways. Every set piece is a wonder to behold, from a crappy apartment building to a city landscape to the massive structures of businesses and casinos. Hell, they even find ways to pay homage to the movies paying homage. There’s instances that evoke Gattaca in its simplistic beauty and The Dark Knight in its bombasticity (as well as the choreography of the fight scenes), and a sequence paying homage to Her involving a hologram reflected over a human being is the year’s biggest mindf*ck in terms of special effects. It’s all something that needs to be seen to be witnessed. Meanwhile, it may not make a lot of sense to congratulate the editing of someone who has made a nearly three-hour film, as they clearly don’t know how to cut anything out, but Joe Walker, the man who gave us the master class in editing that was last year’s Arrival (also by Villeneuve), knows what he’s doing. Every sequence is essential to the tapestry that is this film noir masterpiece. Even if you don’t think it’s important, wait – several scenes that seem like they could be unnecessary end up being the most important of them all, thematically and narratively. And the score by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch is haunting, building upon the legendary Vangelis score and adding their own melancholic take.
Hovering above all of this, however, is the cinematography of Roger Deakins. Deakins is widely considered the greatest cinematographer of all-time, taking the most simplistic shots of men standing on hills or crossing railroad tracks and altering the very face of film to create something more picturesque. Here, he changes the game once again, this time in his grandest tour-de-force yet. Each frame is utter perfection, finding beauty either in an overabundance of or complete lack of color. From the dark greys of a film noir lamp-lit street to the pasty whites of skin inside a replicant factory to the electric oranges of a desert landscape, each frame is utterly gorgeous, working with the film’s production design and visual effects to comfort, haunt, seduce, and entertain you. There are thirty shots in this film alone that I could call out as my all-time favorites, but one I want to give special attention to is the simple act of a dam releasing excess water down a chute. It’s a simple, evocative shot that ties into the film’s theme of the continuous effort to exist, the same way this water will continuously rain down for all eternity. This is, without a doubt, one of the greatest looking films ever made.
On a performance level, I really can’t think of a weak link. Ryan Gosling can really only play two types of characters: the hopeless romantic and the hardened film noir antihero. Here he is wholeheartedly in the second category, and it’s really something to behold. It’s one of his best performances, and I dare say he fits the mold of noir detective even better than Harrison Ford did back in 1982. Speaking of Ford, my God, he’s great in this film. Truth be told, the marketing is a bit misleading, as Ford doesn’t show up for two hours of the film’s nearly three-hour runtime. However, when he does, the energy just changes. Deckard was never a quipmaster back in the day, but Ford does get in a few zings as the brooding misanthrope. But the sequences I’ll remember from him involve his more sensitive side, and it may actually be the best work the Hollywood legend has ever done. Outside of the blade runners, the film is brimming with talent. De Armas is so touching and wonderful as Joi, creating a sexy, memorable character evocative of Johansson in Her. She is the film’s moral conscience, and she makes herself so much more than just a traditional sci-fi movie girlfriend. Meanwhile, I can’t shake the image of Sylvia Hoeks from my head, as she is perhaps the most fascinating character from this series outside Batty. She is a fiery, intelligent replicant of the highest order, modeled and dressed like Young’s Rachael, and yet with a cruel, cruel heart. I absolutely loved her performance, and consider her the best villain of any movie this year. Carla Juri has a couple great scenes as the creator of false memories, and Robin Wright shows up as K’s boss, Lt. Joshi, in a wonderfully memorable role. She looks like she’s having the time of her life up there, and I am all about that. Hell, I could have the entire movie just be Wright and Gosling getting drunk together. Mackenzie Davis doesn’t have a very large role outside of looking exactly like Pris from the original, but I dug her performance, and found it pretty solid, and nothing makes me happier than seeing Barkhad Abdi show up in his first major role since his great turn in the average Captain Phillips was wonderful, especially because it was such an odd, yet wonderful cameo. Hell, I even liked Jared Leto in this movie. Jared Leto. He only appears a few times, yet watching him wax philosophic in the douchiest way possible just seems like the perfect fit for him. However, I will admit that I did mentally replace him with the director’ first choice, the now late David Bowie, and to be quite honest, once you imagine how great Bowie would have been in the role, it kind of changes the entire arc of the character and your relationship to him. Whether that’s for the better or for worse is up to you.
I loved this movie. I loved everything about it. It’s the kind of intelligent, rich movie that we have always deserved and never received. It takes the world of its predecessor and makes it better, not unlike 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road. And it completely changes the game in terms of what effects can and should do. Watching this movie, I couldn’t help but feel in awe at what director Denis Villeneuve has done in his relatively short career. He’s made such a wide variety of films, each one unique, different, and remarkable in their own way. However, this here just may be his masterpiece. He took a source material that has been stale for decades, added his visual and intellectual flair to push filmmaking to its limit, and has forever moved the chains in terms of what we should expect as an audience. I’ve always felt that Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? deserved a truly great film adaptation. Blade Runner came close. Blade Runner 2049 surpasses them both.