In 1982 a film was released that quietly went about changing the face of pop culture for the next 35 years. That movie was Blade Runner, and its impact on cinema, science fiction, TV, video games, music, fashion and anime — along with our overall view of the future — has been reverberating through the zeitgeist ever since. Even though the movie did not do well with either audiences or critics when it first came out, it has since grown in stature and become an important cultural and cinematic touchstone.
But here’s the thing: Blade Runner isn’t necessarily a great film. Visually and aesthetically, yes; the look and texture that director Ridley Scott and his team of craftspeople executed was profoundly unique and darkly beautiful. The film also does have a solid thematic underpinning in its exploration of what it means to be human. But the movie is slow-paced, the plot often incoherent, the acting all over the map and the narrative somewhat scattershot — which is perhaps one reason why Scott himself tinkered with it for years after its release until finally settling on a final cut he preferred.
That makes it fitting in a way that Blade Runner 2049, the sequel produced by Scott (and others) and directed by the often brilliant French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, triumphs in many of the same ways as its predecessor — even more so — but also suffers from some of the same issues that plagued the original. Like Scott’s film, Blade Runner 2049 moves at a deliberate pace (and, at two hours and 44 minutes, is a full 47 minutes longer than the first one). Also like the original, it’s a chilly exercise, almost Kubrickian in its lack of warmth, but missing the ironic and often pitch-black sense of humor that Kubrick instilled in his work. Instead, the movie can feel self-indulgent, especially when it moves its fairly straightforward plot through a maze of red herrings (the script is by Hampton Fancher — who co-wrote the original from Philip K. Dick’s novel — and Michael Green).
Yet at the same time, Blade Runner 2049 is a sensory masterpiece, a dazzling chain of stunningly gorgeous, utterly unsettling visuals, complemented by a powerful sonic and musical backdrop and all rendered through some of the most top-notch cinematography, editing and visual effects work ever seen on the screen. It expands the physical world of the first movie and progresses logically from what was established in that film while growing more distant from the real world. It also moves the narrative forward in a pleasingly science fictional direction, even if the themes laid down in the first movie are simply restated, this time with a nod toward other recent genre offerings such as Westworld.
30 years after the events of Blade Runner, two significant things have happened: the more privileged (i.e. wealthy) members of the human race have begun to move themselves off a clearly depleted and possibly dying Earth, leaving the rest of us behind to muddle through a world that seems on the brink of collapse; and a man named Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), at some point in the recent past, bought up the remains of the first film’s Tyrell Corporation and its technology, using that to create a more improved and subservient race of replicants — the Nexus-9 model — to serve humankind.
With many older Nexus-8s — the last model produced by Tyrell — still on the loose and long illegal, the Los Angeles Police Department has reactivated its blade runner program, commanded by Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright). Her top agent is K (Ryan Gosling), who as we meet him is on a routine mission to “retire” a fugitive Nexus-8. But it doesn’t take very long for K to discover a series of clues that lead him to uncover long-buried secrets — a mystery that involves an unidentified corpse, a missing child, repressed memories, unforeseen advances in biotechnology, and the fate of one-time blade runner Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), who vanished 30 years earlier.
Gosling’s K is our viewpoint character — at least until the third act, when things switch up a bit — and it is through his eyes that we watch most of the story unfold. He is deliberately introduced as a person who is enigmatic and hard to know, which leaves the audience at a remove from the character. Even with that challenge, however, Gosling is still a strong screen presence and we at least get to follow him as he moves steadily through the machinations of the plot (someone once said that Blade Runner was a movie about a detective who does no detecting; that’s not the case here).
Gosling is aided by a solid supporting cast that includes the always formidable Wright as her usual take-charge self, Ana de Armas as the one person in K’s life, Joy, who brings him some comfort (and is perhaps the most compassionate character here), and Dave Bautista and Lennie James in small but key roles. Leto doesn’t have a lot of screen time but makes the most of it as the eccentric, visionary yet compelling Wallace, and just as Rutger Hauer arguably stole Blade Runner as the eerily empathetic replicant Roy Batty, Sylvia Hoeks walks away with this film as Wallace’s assistant Luv in a powerhouse, menacing, yet slyly humorous performance.
And then there’s Ford, whose appearance relatively late in the film brings us the same jolt of nostalgia that his showing up in Star Wars: The Force Awakens did two years ago. Deckard is obviously older, wiser and a changed man here — we won’t go into it much more than that — and Ford brings a kind of naked vulnerability to the part that wasn’t there 35 years ago. Yet there’s also an argument to be made that Blade Runner 2049 doesn’t actually need Deckard — one of those scripting issues that seems to haunt this series and keep it from reaching the heights to which it clearly aspires.
But make no mistake, Blade Runner 2049 does meet and even exceed expectations in many other ways. Villeneuve, the great cinematographer Roger Deakins (who absolutely must win his long-overdue Oscar for this) and production designer Dennis Gassner have created perhaps the most gorgeous movie of 2017, a feast for the eyes that never lets up in providing us with one striking image after another. And it feels like Blade Runner — they recreate the visual palette of the first film easily, while enhancing and expanding upon it as they move the story outside the confines of Los Angeles.
The viewer is instantly transported back to the world of Blade Runner and Rick Deckard, while also giving us incredible sights like a ruined, desolate Las Vegas or a heavily radiated and blasted landfill in the region of what may or may not still be San Diego. The sets are massive and immersive — ranging from an overturned satellite dish serving as a vast shelter to the eerie, temple-like interiors of Wallace Tower — and the movie fills the viewer’s eyes with a continuing parade of details and otherworldly touches. The sound design is enveloping as well, while the music by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch is dark and atmospheric, channeling the Vangelis original with modern power.
Blade Runner 2049 is a real science fiction film — Villeneuve has a flair for this genre and its rich literary roots, as also evidenced by last year’s masterful Arrival — and it gets into some even headier concepts storywise than the first movie, although as noted earlier, the themes are essentially the same. The ambition on the part of the filmmakers is clear and genuine, and even with its problems it must be seen on the big screen. If only its narrative structure was tighter and provided us with some emotional entrance into the characters or story, it could have soared beyond the considerable achievement of Ridley Scott and company’s flawed classic. Instead, it’s a majestic filmmaking accomplishment that, ironically, may lack the same thing that the story’s replicants are accused of not having: a soul.
Blade Runner 2049 is out in theaters on Friday, October 6.