Blade Runner 2049 stands brilliantly apart from its 1982 parent

Thirty-five years after the release of Blade Runner — a contemplative sci-fi art-house B-noir that failed at the box office (not least because it was a contemplative sci-fi art-house B-noir), only to mushroom to cult permanence on home video and then become enshrined as a classic — now has a sequel.

We’ve known about this for a long time. And we’ve known that Ridley Scott, who directed the first picture and has of late needlessly revisited his 1979 Alien not once but twice, was producing. So I’m not alone when I say that I was skeptical at first. With time to consider a 21st-century Blade Runner, though, I found my skepticism becoming … cold terror. There were so many ways for a Blade Runner sequel to go wrong, maybe even tarnishing the original. As someone who saw Alien: Prometheus and Alien: Covenant, I can list a lot of those ways.

Yet director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, Arrival), cinematographer Roger Deakins and co-writer Hampton Fancher (who co-scripted the original as well) have willed into existence a defiant rebuke to my deep worries. Blade Runner 2049 does what I thought was impossible: It resurrects the spirit, tone and themes of Scott’s 1982 film without retroactively changing any of that movie’s meaning or allure. And it’s a dazzling achievement unto itself — one that couldn’t be more perfectly timed.

Villeneuve’s movie comes just as a dismal slate of unoriginal multiplex fare has conspired with the rise of home-streaming platforms to slap the industry with its worst box-office summer in more than a decade. Not that Blade Runner 2049 is going to save Hollywood. Though Warner Bros. has blanketed media with trailers and commercials heralding the movie’s arrival, what’s being sold is a major paradox: a mega-budget sequel to a movie that tanked, an IMAX spectacle that stubbornly adheres to the brooding rhythms and downbeat existentialism of its predecessor. The scale is enormous, but this is no ready-made blockbuster; the violence is brutal, but this is no action movie. 

Not just for business reasons does Blade Runner 2049 resonate. For one thing, an opening scene in which Los Angeles cop K (Ryan Gosling) sleeps at the wheel of his auto-piloted flying car feels considerably closer to our present-day reality than the spinners of the 1982 film did. And the artificial intelligence everywhere on display here (holographic life companions) provides very little sci-fi jolt; the tech simply doesn’t seem so far in the future. (Not that you shouldn’t feel unsettled by the power of this movie’s police state.) It’s a world conveyed with convincing subtlety, letting you forget at times that you’re looking at special effects. Yes, the holograms are visually stimulating, but those and other aspects of 2049 show us a deeply lonely place, all but devoid of human contact.

Fancher’s screenplay (co-written by Michael Green) is efficient, but it also detours from its basic plot to dwell on identity and solitude, and the results are fascinating and, again, tuned to 2017. As our virtual connections on social media dominate us and we move closer to real A.I., how far apart will we become from one another? How will our values and sense of self transform? 

The detailed art direction suggests bottomless layers of societal dissolution and disconnection, another way in which the 1982 film is both echoed and deepened. Despite the no-doubt necessary preponderance of CGI in 2049, its environments feel just as lived-in as the ones in Blade Runner, which was made before that technology was ubiquitous. Twentieth-century décor and furniture styles are still recognizable among all the futuristic design; we see figments of the original film’s 2019 and the demolished world that came before it (presumably something close to an America we’d recognize). By adding smog and snow to the first film’s ever-present rain, by pushing giant 3-D hologram ads up next to the original’s flat skyscraper-sized commercials, and by affording glimpses of the broken world outside Los Angeles, Villeneuve seems to have widened our view of Blade Runner‘s plane. Yet each of these elements only compounds his setting’s despair. The more he opens the frame, the more ghosts he lets in. 

You can get lost in the overpowering visuals — enough to forget the plot at times. But it’s not complicated: Like original blade runner Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) before him, K is tracking down rogue replicants (or androids, as author Philip K. Dick called them in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the 1968 novel on which the first film was based) that have been marked for termination.

Thirty-five years ago, Blade Runner suffered from the leaden handling of its detective story, which unfolded half-heartedly and lacked any thrill of discovery. Fancher and Green this time provide cleaner lines of investigation, without letting the new film bog down in procedure. At first, this threatens to overcompensate for the older movie’s failings, emphasizing revelation and story beats too much. When we meet Jared Leto, playing an agribusiness magnate with a vision for replicant slave labor, 2049 threatens to teeter into “evil plan” obviousness. But the movie thankfully regains its balance by focusing on K, whose drama is small and interior but confidently portrayed. (Not really an action movie, remember?)

When Ford finally enters the picture, he is immediately recognizable as Deckard, but the actor imbues his retired shamus with an intensity that seems perfectly in line with what we learn. (Ford also seems to revel in the opportunity to take another crack at a character that, though inspired by the private eyes of the 1940s, was dismissed as too morose by 1982 critics.)

Master director of photography Deakins creates memorable visual after memorable visual, pushing Villeneuve’s mood-making further toward storytelling. Thanks largely to Deakins, Blade Runner 2049 demands to be seen on the biggest screen you can find — more than once. Villeneuve’s stagings are strong and his choices are confident, but his hand isn’t overbearing. His patient pace is welcome (which is saying something when the movie is 140 minutes long), giving you room to think (and offering ideas that provoke further thought long after the credits).

If no movie set in this universe had preceded it, Blade Runner 2049 would still impress. But because it follows — by 35 years — one of cinema’s most debated and revisited films, it must be considered as something altogether separate. We have here a $185 million art house–blockbuster hybrid, yoked with almost unprecedented expectations. Especially in this blinkered year, that shouldn’t work. But in whatever category you file it, 2049 is some kind of miracle: Its submersion in Blade Runner‘s themes and ambiguities, in its essential mystery, feels both familiar and new. And then it somehow goes even deeper. 

Categories: Movies