The term “sequel,” when it comes to film especially, is almost always liable to send a shudder down the spines of dedicated fans — something that’s doubly true when speaking about cult films. While it makes absolute sense for some movies to receive follow-ups, others are likely better off left as standalone affairs. For 35 years, Blade Runner definitely fell into the latter category, being one of the most beloved cult sci-fi films ever made. Ridley Scott’s 1982 classic remains an utterly definitive and complete film — one that left its viewers with a set of unanswered questions that would fascinate an audience and be mined over for decades to come; its ambiguity prevailing as one of its greatest strengths.
So when Scott began talking about a potential sequel earlier this decade, fans were understandably skeptical and rather doubtful of its ability to live up to the first. But with Blade Runner 2049, acclaimed director Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Arrival) has teamed with screenwriter Michael Green and original Blade Runner scribe Hampton Fancher to deliver what is not only one of the great films of 2017, but what will very likely go down as one of the best sequels in all of film history. 2049 does answer some ideas leftover from before, but in their place introduces its own bevy of compelling questions, being a successor worthy of the Blade Runner title as well as a film that may even surpass its predecessor.
As in the original, the universe of Blade Runner is a rather dire dystopia that’s sort of painted over through the allure of neon-lit cityscapes. The United States at large is decimated, filled with nuclear-waste zones and trash heaps that line cities, with dangerously rising oceans battering the gigantic concrete walls that now trap its remaining civilians within cramped city centers. 2049 jumps the timeline forward three decades ahead of its predecessor, and again is set within the gorgeously rendered but sordid and sleazy futuristic Los Angeles that was as iconic as it was influential back when it was first shown in the original. The city remains as intriguing ever, but the advanced set designs and remarkable special effects work together to further create an even more realized world.
Alongside its infamous cyberpunk style, another franchise staple that obviously returns are the titular “Blade Runners.” These are specialized officers whose specific job is to hunt down and “retire” (aka kill) rogue, human-like androids known as “Replicants.” Like before, in 2049 we follow one of these Blade Runners, this time being LAPD officer K (Ryan Gosling), as he embarks on a captivating journey of self-discovery that will examine just what it means to be sentient.
Early on we’re introduced to the central mystery that will provide much of the film’s driving force. K discovers the long-buried remains of an older-model Replicant, whose autopsy reveals that the cause of death was due to a pregnancy that resulted in an emergency C-section procedure. This perplexes K and his fellow officers, because Replicants shouldn’t be able to procreate. K’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright), fears that a war could break out between the human race and their android counterparts if knowledge of reproductive Replicants becomes public (the dismissal humans have toward Replicants is quickly made apparent, as they degrade them through the common use of slurs such as “skin-jobs”). K is ordered to eradicate any and all evidence related to this case, including retiring whoever the child is.
One of the key questions that the original Blade Runner left with its audience was whether or not the protagonist, Blade Runner Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), was a human as he believed he was, or was in fact himself a Replicant. 2049, however, interestingly twists this by immediately introducing K as a newer-model Replicant. These versions are far more obedient than their progenitors, having been generated by an industrialist named Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), who believes himself to be a god. But as K discovers more evidence, he begins questioning his own existence and will stop at nothing to find out the truth regarding the child. Villeneuve interestingly parallels the original and yet flips its subject, leaving us to ponder throughout the film whether K is in fact human (or part human) rather than a Replicant.
The plot fascinated me through its handful of powerful overarching themes that are executed in grand fashion due to a tremendous script. Even the film’s subplots are compelling, especially the romantic relationship we see between K and a mass-produced AI companion named Joi (Ana de Armas), who presents herself as a beautiful, holographic woman. Somehow, the relationship between two beings who aren’t truly alive makes for one of the most convincing and captivating on-screen love stories I’ve seen in years (and, yes, it is reminiscent of the incredible Spike Jonze film, Her, but doesn’t come off as a dull rip-off in any way).
As if the brilliant story wasn’t enough, Blade Runner 2049 also succeeds in every other way imaginable. Perhaps its greatest element — even over the narrative — is Roger Deakins’ stunning work as the film’s DP. I can say with certainty that this is one of the greatest looking films I’ve ever seen and will without a doubt win Mr. Deakins his Oscar. The cinematography, while genius, is heightened due to some spectacular CGI and special effects, which are similarly among the finest I’ve ever seen (Joi’s hologram is mesmerizing, while the de-aging effect utilized here is more convincing than what even Disney and Marvel has presented yet).
But even with my never-ending praise for this film, I can admit that it will likely alienate mainstream audiences. Its 163-minute runtime is already hard to penetrate, but it’s also a sequel to a 35-year-old film that wasn’t originally a success and, like the original, the action is sparse. However, the film is successful on its own and I don’t think that seeing the original is required to enjoy it, although prior exposure will certainly enhance the experience. And while there isn’t much exciting violence here, when it does come, it is punctuated by a stark punchiness and brutality that’s rarely seen in big budget science fiction.
Making the film even greater is how phenomenal the acting from all parties involved is. Ryan Gosling is perfectly cast as the main, while Harrison Ford returns as Deckard in what is probably his best performance in decades. The women in the film are all wonderful as well, with Ana de Armas particularly sticking out as the delightful Joi. Opposite her is Sylvia Hoeks’ Luv, Wallace’s powerful and threatening Replicant assistant, who is just as good in her role.
It should come as no surprise when I say that Blade Runner 2049 is a rousing achievement on every level, and a film that I very much love. I’ve seen it twice now, and even in my second viewing was I still enthralled by every moment. Denis Villeneuve has outdone himself yet again, delivering on and surpassing the expectations that came with the sequel to Blade Runner.
5 stars out of 5
— Michael Lane, Blog Editor