Written by Michael Green and, one of the original Blade Runner screenwriters, Hampton Fancher, and directed by Denis Villeneuve, Blade Runner 2049 wonderfully captures the essence of the original, then builds upon it with something utterly new. For those unaware, the original film underwent several updates and edits, with the final version – Blade Runner: The Final Cut – serving as the official version for Villeneuve’s 2049. Where the first film was a future noir in style only whose narrative espoused philosophical ideas of life and identity in the digital age, 2049 digs deeper into these ideas through a mystery inside an enigma wrapped in a conundrum. Those put off by Blade Runner’s infamous ambiguity will be pleased to discover the concepts and issues that 2049 implies are easy to follow, but don’t fret, deep thinkers, there’s plenty for the more cerebral audiences to dive into. Though we observe how the players behave, the explanations for that behavior is largely left open, leaving the larger questions of intent and design up to the audience. Borrowing this approach to storytelling, along with the visual, auditory, and narrative styles of the original, 2049 takes them and extends them in natural ways that arouse new philosophical questions of life, the soul, and purpose.
Set 30 years after the events of Blade Runner, LAPD Officer and Blade Runner K (Ryan Gosling) stumbles across a long-kept secret whose revelations will destroy society as we know it. Under the direction of his superior, Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright), K must collect every scrap of evidence of the secret to prevent any hostile action. Digging through old files kept in storage from the now bankrupt Tyrell Corporation that created the replicants, K discovers a connection to Rick Deckard, who’s been off the grid for decades. With the future at stake, nothing is sacred and each man must make a choice of what’s worth living for and what’s worth dying for.
As made clear through promotional materials, the visual and auditory design mimic, and improve upon, the original film. Villeneuve, and frequent cinematography collaborator Roger Deakins, craft a future that feels like a natural extension of what was seen before. This is a world 30 years older, so the changes aren’t so much drastic, as they are noticeable. The highly-populated streets that Deckard maneuvered to close his case are now over-crowded and narrower as K sifts through clues to close his. The futuristic cars and technology all remain, though advanced significantly. Billboards still stand stories high, but now they try to reach out and touch you. Even in open environments, the claustrophobia of man’s overpopulation and indulgence presses down on the characters, highlighting one of the underlining themes of both films – man’s destruction of nature and nature’s power to return. This is one of many interesting themes explored by the film, though only through tangential conversations or inference. Though symbolic in nature, this conflict strongly enhances the feel of the film.
Complementing the visuals is a wonderful score by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch. Though it features the ear-pounding bass blasts Zimmer’s grown fond of since The Dark Knight, Zimmer and Wallfisch craft a synth sound that continuously enhances the cerebral feel of the story by first emulating the classic Vangelis score of Blade Runner before making it their own. Working in concert, the style and sound of 2049 reflect the future in a mystical, yet corporal fashion that bring to life a potential future, in all its grimy, jazz-synth glory.
Much like its predecessor, 2049 is nothing without some truly amazing performances. Gosling’s K is depicted as a loyal, obedient replicant who gains no pleasure from his work. Since his character is designed devoid of emotion, watching Gosling convey the depth of K’s longing for connection is captivating. For his part, Ford easily recaptures the character he’s revisiting after 35 years, instantly conveying the gruff, quiet strength of Deckard. Newcomers to the Blade Runner universe are Jared Leto as Wallace Corporation CEO and the latest replicant creator Niander Wallace, Sylvia Hoeks as his replicant number two Luv, and the previously mentioned Wright. Leto and Wright both deliver stellar performances in minimal roles, despite what the advertising suggests about the length of their screen time. This is a return to the well as it’s replicant versus replicant, and Hoeks’s Luv proves to be every bit as devastating as Roy Batty, though her motivations are significantly different. Perhaps the favorite of the bunch is Ana de Armas’s Joi, a Wallace Technology hologram that serves as K’s domicile companion. Whether as merely a disembodied voice or an ethereal presence, Joi enhances every scene she’s in due to Armas’s portrayal. Sweet, brave, gentle, and fierce, Joi offers an impassioned foil to K’s stiff, emotionless veneer.
For all of the wonderful things within 2049, it’s not the Second Coming that most early reviews suggest. In fact, its willingness to hold so dearly to the past is both its greatest triumph and its greatest weakness. For a film built upon the premise of a mystery, anyone who’s watched the original film will piece it all together quickly, which means that the remaining narrative isn’t meant for the established audience, but for the new-comers and the characters. Rather than K being the surrogate for us, we’re stuck waiting for him to catch up to us. This diminishes an otherwise intriguing narrative, shifting it from an interesting, fast-paced mystery to an often frustratingly slow, pretentious watch.
Despite its narrative shortcoming, Blade Runner 2049 deserves to be seen on the big screen. From the top down, Villeneuve crafted a worthy sequel to one of cinema’s most divisive stories. It’s imaginative, challenging, beautifully constructed, and excellently performed. It may have taken 35 years to arrive in theaters, but Blade Runner 2049 is well worth the wait.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.