The Blade Runner sequel has been a long time coming and despite understandable concerns that the pioneering cyberpunk masterpiece would be impossible to follow up, the results are undeniably impressive. What we have in Blade Runner 2049 is a sequel made by people who understand what makes the original film special on all levels. Somehow Denis Villeneuve and his team have delivered a Blade Runner sequel not just as beautifully crafted as the original, but also just as evocatively (and at times frustratingly) complex. This is a thoughtful film about the nature of consciousness, creation, and existence that just happens to have been produced on a massive blockbuster scale. It’s a minor miracle of a movie that should please fans of hard sci-fi, if not necessarily the popcorn munching broad blockbuster audience.
In keeping with this unexpectedly thoughtful release, the studio has also made unexpectedly restrictive demands about maintaining a level of secrecy about the plot. Despite the fact that the studio gave away the biggest possible spoiler by announcing Harrison Ford’s involvement before production even began (he doesn’t even show up until two hours into the movie), it’s a reasonable enough request to honour. Blade Runner 2049 does boast a fairly labyrinthine plot (especially compared to the rather sparse story of the original film) with some pleasantly thoughtful surprises. So I’ll play the game. The basics are that we re-enter the Blade Runner world 35 years after the original story. Things have gotten worse. Food can no longer even be grown on this polluted earth, so much of the population has left the planet. Those that remain are stuck eating the synthetic food created by a new dominate corporation run by a creepy Jared Leto. He also created a new breed of more obedient replicant, which has taken up an even larger portion of the population. Ryan Gosling plays one such replicant, he’s also a Blade Runner primarily assigned to kill off the few remaining old models left. The opening scene sees him take out his latest such assignment (Dave Bautista) and that leads him into a larger mystery no one could have anticipated.
That should be vague enough. Not that plot summaries would particularly spoil this cinematic experience. Sure there’s a twisty-turny noirish detective story to explore. But the film isn’t so much about plot mechanics as brainy thematics. Building on the previous Blade Runner’s exploration of a disconnected artificial world and the nature of consciousness and life within a cyborg, Blade Runner 2049 slowly spirals out into a variety of pointed questions and images. New forms of holographic intelligence create new strata of artificial life. Leto’s CEO is even more overtly a god figure than Tyrell from last time (and hardly a benevolent one). The polluted and discarded world raises all sorts of questions about where our own may go. The use of women characters in the film further explores the commodification, objectification, and dismissal of that half of the species as teased out by the first movie. Basically, Villeneuve and his team have gone out of their way to explore every nook and cranny of the critical analysis spooned onto Blade Runner in the decades since it’s release and update n’ explore them all. The movie is filled with visual references, echoes, and even outright repetitions from the first movie, yet all with a purpose. Blade Runner predicted and defined many 20th-century sci-fi concerns and Blade Runner 2049 teases them up to the modern day and beyond.
All of which doesn’t sound particularly exciting and trust that this almost 3-hour long sci-fi epic isn’t one of constant visceral stimulation. There is violence and action in Blade Runner 2049, it’s just always terse, brutal, and unromantic (you know, like the last one). Most of the splendour and entertainment of the film springs from the stunning imagery and world building. After all, Blade Runner essentially created a future sci-fi aesthetic that defined so much of what followed. The design of the sequel doesn’t push things into directions that will redefine the future of the genre, but it does create an evocative and lived-in world as beautiful as any film made in the last 35 years. The mixture of practical and digital effects is seamless. The dusty and damaged worlds tell a deeper story through design than anything played in the drama. The smoky, neon-lit cinematography by Roger Deakins is never short of astounding. It’s the type of movie that demands to be seen on the biggest screen available, IMAX if possible. A bar has been raised.
Performances are strong throughout, but like Blade Runner, everyone is muted and lost to underline the themes of artificial humanity and disconnection. In no way is Blade Runner 2049 designed to offer a cuddly and satisfying emotional experience. It’s a harsh and uncompromising vision of the future and our world designed to provoke and create discomfort. There’s little joy here. In its place is a richly and evocatively cynical vision of the future that delights the eyes and toys with the mind with little space for the heart. That’s true to Blade Runner in ways practically guaranteed to please the most ardent fan base. It’s unlikely to please anyone who didn’t like the original or hasn’t seen it though. That’s fine. This is a blockbuster art film sequel to a cult film. The fact that it even exists is somewhat of a miracle. Those who will appreciate what Villeneuve and co. accomplished will appreciate it enough to make up for those who couldn’t’ care less. This is one for us and god bless Warner Brothers for making it happen. This movie was a risk that paid off beautifully in artistic terms. Now let’s see how the pesky marketplace responds.
Liked this article and want to read more like it? Check out Pill’s take on Kingsmen: The Golden Circle, American Made, and It! He also had a chance to sit down with Guillermo Del Toro. Check out his interview here!
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