Written By: Daniel Kinsley
Blade Runner 2049 (2017) is something of a miracle. While the original 1982 film was a box office and critical failure at the time of its release, it has since gone on to be an enormous cult hit, earning respect as one of the great science fiction films. Several versions of the film have subsequently been released (theatrical, director’s cut, and the final cut) sparking intense debate about which cut is best, and its biggest questions (namely, is Deckard human or replicant?) remain a point of public disagreement between the original director, Ridley Scott, and its star, Harrison Ford.
As someone who is not blown away by the original film, this writer was nonetheless drawn in by the idea of revisiting such a rich world. The influence of the film cannot be overstated, both from an aesthetic standpoint (just watch any film set in the future after ’82) and in the way it raised large, bleak questions about humanity and consciousness, all draped in a fog-drenched neo-noir setting. In an age of reboots, sequels, prequels, and cinematic universes, a sequel to Blade Runner seemed especially unnecessary. A large part of what has endured so much about the original film is the conversation it has inspired. A sequel, it seems, would have to confront some of the those ambiguities (as sequels often do). It is a wonder, then, that the film manages to expand the mythology of its world without definitively answering the biggest question posed by its predecessor, and more impressively, manages to do so without rubbing the audience’s nose in it.
Over thirty years after Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) disappeared in a dystopian Los Angeles, the world has undergone vast changes when it comes to production of replicants, the bio-engineered robots first seen running amok in the original film. Since the events of 2019, replicants were outlawed completely and Tyrell Corporation (the company responsible) went under. Eventually, titan of industry Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) bought what was left of the Tyrell corp and learned to perfect the production of replicants, creating a new model that is completely under human control.
Officer “K” (Ryan Gosling) is a blade runner, responsible for hunting down any replicants still trying to pass themselves off as human and “retiring” them. Unlike the original film, it is clear from very early on that “K” is a replicant, and he is well aware of his place in the world. During a routine “retirement” involving Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista, truly making the most of a small role) “K” uncovers a strange clue that leads him down a rabbit hole which will eventually lead back to the missing Deckard.
The filmmakers have gone to great lengths to keep the plot under wraps, and this review will not be the place where all the film’s secrets are revealed. It is a very deliberate film, moving at a slow, determined pace that will be sure to frustrate some viewers. At 163 minutes, it is quite a long film, with a lot of heady ideas. It has not been surprising to this writer to see that the film is not connecting at the box office so far, as this is the sort of hard science-fiction that rarely finds its audience quickly. Nonetheless, it is a stunning work philosophically, totally worthy of a follow-up to its predecessor. There are scenes of action, but in no way is this an action film. There is no plot-defining set piece, no third act showdown with the fate of the world hanging in the balance. Much like the original film, it is a small story draped in huge implications.
As “K”, Ryan Gosling is pretty much as good as it gets. There is a real stillness to the performance that plays to his strengths, making it all the more affecting when he expresses very real emotions. It really is a very subtle role, but this viewer was glued, as he is in the majority of the film, and remains totally in command of the screen. The relationship “K” shares with Joi (a spectacular Ana de Armas) is the true beating heart of the film, and it is incredible the way it continually pulls the emotional rug out from under the viewer. There is one scene in particular, shared with Mackenzie Davis, that manages to be totally uniquely sensual and wildly strange, and it does not feel that far off from where technology may lead us in the near future.
Harrison Ford, meanwhile, does truly terrific work in an extended “cameo.” Ford has a reputation for being a bit of a grump about revisiting his most famous roles in nerd culture, but any of that is forgotten within seconds of his appearance. Ford matches Gosling beat for beat, playing elegiac, and angry, and with a belly still full of fire. The emotional arc shared between the two never feels rushed, or like it takes any short-cuts, and watching the two men play off one another is a true pleasure. As a young man, Ford was one of this writer’s earliest cinematic heroes (as he was with many kids of that generation) and it is captivating to see him remind audiences how capable he remains. The film takes its time getting there, though. What is so important (and what so many follow-ups fail to grasp) is that a truly great continuation of a story must be able to stand on its own, and 2049 does that in spades. Make no mistake, while Deckard is important to the events of the film, this is “K”s story first.
It would be impossible to discuss the film without acknowledging the aesthetics. It is, hands down, the most beautifully shot film of 2017. Cinematographer Roger Deakins is one of the all-time great photographers in cinema, and what he has accomplished in tandem with production designer Dennis Gassner is nothing short of breathtaking. It manages not only to feel like a perfect continuation of the visual universe established in the original film, but gives new breadth to its scope without ever feeling like they are just flexing the budget. Similarly, the score by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch feels like the natural next step in the sound of this world, both familiar to what came before and true to Zimmer’s sensibilities. It is positively haunting.
While all involved are worthy of praise, perhaps no one deserves it more than director Denis Villeneuve for going above and beyond just holding it all together. What very easily could have devolved into an exercise in nostalgia instead feels uniquely its own, and equally worthy of inspiring debate and obsessive unpacking of its ideas. Villeneuve is one of the most exciting and unique voices working in mainstream cinema today and while this film is unlikely to knock down any financial doors, anyone who cares about film as an expression of art will be forced to sit up and take notice.
For this writer, the film walks a tightrope between the philosophical underpinnings that drive the plot and the emotions that propel its characters. While there are plenty of interesting ideas at play throughout, what really resonates in the final scenes is how small and intimate things feel. The final shot is simple, and plain, but thanks to the emotional weight behind it, it may be the best one in the whole film.
When people complain about a lack of original ideas (or at very least, execution) in film, Blade Runner 2049 is here to answer that call, irony and all (seeing as how it’s a sequel). While it may not be as much of a failure, nor go on to have as enduring of a life as the original film (though this writer is willing to bet it might do both), it is undoubtedly a journey worthy of experience, and one of the best films of 2017, hands down.
(Header Image courtesy of Warner Brothers)