This review contains minor spoilers for Blade Runner 2049.
Let’s get this right out of the way — many people are not going to enjoy Blade Runner 2049, Quebec director Denis Villeneuve’s sequel to the 1982 Ridley Scott cult hit. Those expecting any semblance of a traditional blockbuster may be surprised to find a nearly 3-hour long art-house film that has much more in common with the work of Terrence Malnick than say, JJ Abrams.
Making a sequel 35 years after the initial Blade Runner takes some serious chutzpah, but last year’s Arrival proved that Villeneuve could handle large-scale sci-fi tropes while still tackling some very-human issues. With Blade Runner 2049 that balance is a little more skewed, with spectacle often overwhelming any emotional response we should be having to the material.
Set 30 years after the original film, this is very much a direct sequel to Blade Runner — I saw this back to back with the “Final Cut” of Scott’s film (there are numerous versions of Blade Runner that have been tinkered with over the years) and without that double bill I would have been fairly lost. If you haven’t seen the original (or if years have passed since you’ve seen it), definitely plan to see it before Villeneuve’s sequel, or you will be in for a fairly perplexing 163 minutes.
The film is not heavily reliant on plot, and in order to keep spoilers to a minimum (the studio has kept all plot details heavily under wraps for some reason), the essential story hinders on a replicant Blade Runner named “K” (Ryan Gosling), who uncovers something on a mission to “retire” a rogue replicant that calls into question his entire existence. While his superior on the police force (played by the great Robin Wright) wants all evidence destroyed in order to keep the peace between the humans and the replicants, K goes in search of the reclusive former Blade Runner Deckard (Harrison Ford) for answers.
Blade Runner 2049 doesn’t so much create a new world as zoom out of Scott’s claustrophobic, neo-noir Los Angeles setting and show us what’s surrounding that vision. The future world is now even more desolate following an unexplained digital “blackout” and some sort of nuclear explosion in nearby Las Vegas — the world of this sequel is sparse and mostly unoccupied, save for the poorest denizens who can’t afford to move to one of the numerous “off-world” colonies.
On a visual level, Blade Runner 2049 is one of the greatest looking sci-fi films of all time. Working with the legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins (Fargo, Sicario), Villeneuve has created a jaw-dropping look at the future — nearly every shot here is frame-worthy, from the hyper-dense gritty streets of neon-drenched Los Angeles to the mustard-stained skies of the post-apocalyptic desert. Coupled with the ever-present bombastic score by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch, Blade Runner 2049 is above all a sensory experience — this is a movie that envelops you in its world, though often at the expense of a traditional narrative structure.
Like the original, the sequel is concerned with the same notions of artificial intelligence and the core tenants of humanity — what sets us apart as human once technology has evolved to the level of the replicants in the film? Unfortunately, Villeneuve seems content to raise these same questions that Scott was struggling with 35 years ago (and Philip K. Dick 14 years before that) without necessarily adding much new to the process. Of course much has changed in the intervening years since Scott’s original — our relationship with technology has altered our lives and relationships in ways we are still struggling to process, and Blade Runner 2049 posits a (de-) evolution that in many ways feels eerily possible.
The one relationship in the film that feels tangible and relatable is actually between Ryan Gosling’s character and his virtual assistant named Joi (Ana de Armas). They lead a sort of 1950’s suburban husband and wife existence in this bleak future, albeit one with more holographic renderings. In one of the film’s most unnerving and striking scenes, Joi arranges for a prostitute — appropriately named Mariette (Mackenzie Davis) to appear at their apartment so K can physically engage with Joi, who blends her holographic image onto Mariette’s physical body with almost-passable results. It’s one of the most striking scenes in the film, with Joi’s longing to please K one of the most “human” moments in a film relatively devoid of emotion.
The major detriment to the film is that central coldness — we have little reason to care about the struggles of any of these characters, whether they are “true” human beings or not. Apart from Joi’s struggles with her incorporeal form, there is nothing in the new film that even hints at the heart-stirring tug of Rutger Hauer’s infamous “tears in the rain” speech from Scott’s original film, or Ford and Young’s doomed romance.
Plot aside, Blade Runner 2049 is still a success in many ways — from a visual standpoint, this is epic filmmaking at a level that no one else is operating on. This is the rare film that is absolutely worth the upgrade for the biggest screen and best sound possible (although the 3D adds very little to the experience — IMAX 2D is the way to go if possible). Villeneuve’s sequel may not have the emotional heft of Scott’s original, but those looking for a challenging, contemplative look at the future will find much to admire here, even if all the pieces never fully fall into place.
Blade Runner 2049 is in theatres now.