Denis Villeneuve's Blade Runner 2049 is not for everyone, but the film is a remarkable slow burn that not only improves upon, but elevates, the original. Deliberate in its pacing and world-building, the follow-up to Ridley Scott's dystopian vision of Los Angeles uses breathtaking cinematography, impeccable production, and a gripping story to make our second visit even more revelatory than the first. Mild spoilers ahead...
I don't love the original Blade Runner. It is a film I greatly appreciate for the ground it broke in science fiction and genre filmmaking, but it is not a film I love. Although there are some glaring plot holes and some contrivances that have not aged well, my issue with Blade Runner is that it has become lost amongst its own iterations. Blade Runner, as of today, has seven different theatrical cuts. Some have significant additions or omissions that greatly change the meaning of the film, and some have a ridiculously hammy Harrison Ford voiceover, but all versions of the movie ignite one of the most heated debates in all of science fiction: "Is Rick Deckard a Replicant?" While an interesting topic, speculation on the true nature of Harrison Ford's rogue android hunter has largely eclipsed the originally intended and more poignant question: "What makes us human?"
Enter Denis Villeneuve. The acclaimed director explores the latter question without compunction and with a patient deftness seldom seen in modern cinema. The mystery of whether Blade Runner K (played by a quietly intense Ryan Gosling) is human or Replicant is answered matter-of-factly, and within the first fifteen minutes of the film. The reveal is definitive and without fanfare, and it unburdens the rest of the film, allowing it to focus on the new story crafted by Villeneuve and screenwriters Hampton Francher (of the original Blade Runner) and Michael Green (Logan).
30 years have passed since the events of Blade Runner. The Tyrell Corporation, which created the Replicants in the first film, went bankrupt - but not before releasing a final batch of Replicants with indefinite lifespans. The reins of synthetic labor have been overtaken by Niander Wallace (Jared Leto, toning down his most bombastic acting characteristics), who has since introduced a more compliant version of the old Tyrell androids. The film begins with Gosling's K, tasked by his superior Madame Joshi (a steely Robin Wright) to investigate an underground Replicant freedom movement, an investigation that leads him to a desolate farm inhabited by rogue Replicant Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista, playing a surprisingly sensitive brute). Revelations literally unearthed at the farm shape the rest of the movie as K begins to question the nature of consciousness, memory, identity, and his very existence. This is all I will mention regarding the plot of the film, as any more would venture into obvious spoiler territory.
Blade Runner 2049 is a labor of love, and every frame of the film shows it. Villeneuve, with the help of legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins (Fargo, Skyfall), creates a realistic and fully lived-in world with sprawling vistas, color-saturated landscapes, and little details that bring an entire fictional reality to life. Too often today, science fiction films suffer from "Apple-store syndrome," where in an effort to look futuristic and otherworldly, sets become sterile white boxes with zero evidence of the life that should occupy those locations. This is not the case with Blade Runner 2049. For every gorgeous establishing shot of a monochromatic wasteland, there is an equally beautiful little detail that breathes life into the world of the film: the holographic food projector that masks the bowl of slop in K's apartment, the blind Niander Wallace's seeing-eye drones, the dilapidated disrepair of Sapper Morton's refuge. These are all subtle touches that immerse the audience in the film and convey the filmmakers' love for the world of Blade Runner.
The moviewon't be winning any Academy Awards for acting, but the ensemble does an admirable job of filling out the gloomy world with character. At this point in his career, Ryan Gosling is pretty much resigned to the "cool-guy" archetype in his roles, but there is no one that does it better, and this film is no exception. K's stoic intensity that cracks under the weight of the plot's revelations comes across as nuanced rather than wooden, and his chemistry with the rest of the cast is quite palpable. Particularly delightful is his AI/holographic companion Joi (Ana de Armas), whose curiosity and proximity to the blank-faced K makes her a perfect foil for our protagonist, and a perfect contrast to the menacing Replicant enforcer Luv (Sylvia Hoeks). Rounding out the cast, Harrison Ford returns as Rick Deckard. And although I'm pretty sure his combined screen time is less than fifteen minutes, his introduction adds some much needed gruffness and gravitas.
However, as good as Blade Runner 2049 is, it is not perfect. The nearly three-hour length is enough to test even the most ardent movie-goer's patience, and although I didn't mind the length of the film nearly as much as some others, a few undercooked side plots could have been excised completely or revamped to lean out the story and runtime - namely, an underdeveloped story regarding the Replicant resistance movement that fails to gain any emotional traction, and an awkward orphanage excursion (although crucial to the plot) that wastes the talents of an always-game Lennie James.
In the end, Blade Runner 2049 is a more-than-worthy successor to the 1982 original. It is a film that is relentlessly beautiful and well-crafted, unburdened by silly controversy, and almost old-fashioned in its quality. While not without some minor flaws, director Denis Villeneuve has created something that is a science fiction rarity: a slow-moving thinkpiece that explores the depths of memory and human nature.