So much has already been said about Blade Runner 2049 that it’s hard to know where to begin. Directed by Denis Villeneuve, the film is a belated follow up to Ridley Scott’s 1982 cult sci-fi classic, itself inspired by Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep. Sequels released decades after the original tend to disappoint, however, Blade Runner 2049 has enjoyed near universal acclaim from critics – many of whom have proclaimed it a masterpiece.
But amid reports of underwhelming box office returns, casual moviegoers might be wondering if Blade Runner 2049 lives up to the hype. The honest answer is no, probably not. That said, if Villeneuve’s film isn’t quite as spectacular as its critical reception suggests, it’s always good and often brilliant. More importantly, it’s also a worthy yet flawed continuation of the Blade Runner story that should please newbies and diehards alike.
Set 30 years after the original film, Blade Runner 2049 introduces us to K (Ryan Gosling), an enhanced artificial human, or “replicant”. K works as a “blade runner”: a police detective charged with “retiring” (read: killing) unsanctioned, older model replicants.
During a routine investigation, K unearths a mystery that threatens to tip the perilously balanced human/replicant society over the edge and into a full-blown revolution. Driven to learn more, K begins to dig deeper, which brings him to the attention of sinister replicant manufacturer Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), who will do anything to get his hands on the knowledge K has uncovered.
Wallace sends his replicant enforcer Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) after K, as K – accompanied by his AI girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas) – goes off-grid in his search for the truth. This leads him to legendary former blade runner Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), who holds all the answers K and Wallace are both desperate to find.
Right off the bat, Villeneuve and Blade Runner 2049 co-writers Hampton Fancher and Michael Green deserve kudos for delivering a story that’s both accessible to newbies and appealing to long-time fans. Fancher and Green show admirable restraint when it comes to referencing the first Blade Runner; what callbacks we do get to the 1982 original mostly feel organic and drive the plot forward. This isn’t a “greatest hits” outing, either. It doesn’t simply recycle the best bits of its predecessor, but rather attempts to tell a new story set in a familiar world on a bigger scale than was possible 35 years ago.
Even so, what Blade Runner 2049 gains in scope, it loses in lyricism. Like the original film, the sequel’s script – especially the dialogue – is peppered with religious and philosophical undertones, yet these are less deftly handled. Viewers who come in expecting poetic sensibilities on par with Roy Batty’s dying soliloquy are going to leave disappointed. The film also suffers from a thinly drawn villain in Wallace, who wanders in and out of the narrative without ever properly clarifying his vaguely defined goals (he wants to expand his reach throughout the universe…or something?). This storytelling “looseness” extends to the plotting and pacing, and the meandering, plot hole-riddled narrative in Blade Runner 2049 slows to a crawl at times.
Still, the occasionally plodding pace evokes the original Blade Runner‘s more meditative spin on the traditional sci-fi blockbuster formula, and Villeneuve and the writers deserve credit for embracing the franchise’s intellectual roots. They even widen the thematic focus of the first film, probing not only what it means to be human, but the reality of what humans – artificial or otherwise – feel. Blade Runner 2049 repeatedly forces its characters to examine the authenticity of their relationships, memories, and even their very identities, knowing all the while that, deep down, they’ll never be certain of anything.
It’s heady stuff, yet unlike the original film, Blade Runner 2049 is less a movie about questions than answers. That’s not a problem per se, however, it does mean that by the end of the movie, we’re not left with much to reflect on. Mercifully, Villeneuve at least stops just short of definitively clearing up arguably the biggest ambiguity in the first Blade Runner (presumably understanding – unlike even Ridley Scott himself – that the question is more important than the answer). But otherwise, by the time the credits roll, there’s nothing to really mull over, which is a slight disappointment.
If the Blade Runner 2049 screenplay is a bit uneven, at least the cast in charge of bringing it to life is decidedly more consistent.
Gosling is a good fit for brooding detective K, while de Armas turns in a heartfelt, soulful performance as Joi. Mackenzie Davis – who garnered well-deserved acclaim for her work in the most recent season of Black Mirror – is also outstanding, imbuing her character Doctor Ana Stelline with just the right blend of intelligence and warmth. Then there’s Ford, who is a revelation in his second outing as Deckard. The veteran actor only has a small role (it’s almost cameo), but it’s some of his finest work – not just in recent years, but maybe ever.
Faring less well by comparison are Leto as Wallace and Robin Wright as K’s boss, Lieutenant Joshi. In fairness, it’s not really their fault. Both suffer from thinly-sketch roles that give them little to work with, and despite this, their efforts are still more than serviceable. Hoeks finds herself in a similar boat; while she’s effective as the main antagonist, Luv, her underwritten role ensures her performance lands somewhere between “intriguing cipher” and “stock psychotic henchwoman”.
Fortunately, there’s one area in which Blade Runner 2049 is an unqualified success: the visuals. As you’d expect, the marriage of legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins’ talents and the Blade Runner “neo-noir” aesthetic established by Syd Mead yields stunning results. Along with production designer Dennis Gassner, Deakins pushes this bleakly beautiful look even further, and the addition of stark, vivid desert landscapes lends the film a unique identity separate to (but in keeping with) its predecessor.
In many ways, Blade Runner 2049 is everything modern cinema needs: it’s ambitious, intelligent, and – despite being based on an existing property – largely avoids trading on nostalgia. That said, although director Denis Villeneuve deserves praise for delivering an enthralling sequel to the original Blade Runner, this sequel isn’t quite as flawless as the critical consensus suggests, and franchise newcomers should temper their expectations going in.