Earlier this year, I read Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and found myself generally underwhelmed. Dick ran up against some interesting ideas but wasn’t able to make them all the engaging. I’d seen the Ridley Scott adaptation, Blade Runner, years before but I was underwhelmed by that as well. I liked it, but it wasn’t the sci-fi classic it was always hyped to be. That film was far from a success (critically or commercially) on release with most of the praise centered on the visuals. The Director’s Cut (which is the version I saw) helped popularize the notion of them and helped cement its reputation, a Final Cut coming as recently as 2007 to a divided reception. Still, it’s primarily its visuals which have seen a huge impact in sci-fi, its dystopic metropolis, distinctive flying cars, and plentiful neon colors becoming almost the default vision of the future.
When a sequel to the film was announced, I was completely uninterested. We’ve been here before with the late sequel to a cult film with 2010: The Year We Make Contact and Tron: Legacy being just two sci-fi examples. We even had a much later return to the series film by Ridley Scott (who directed the original and was originally set to help the remake) himself with Prometheus. While your opinions on all three films may vary (fine, no desire to see, enjoyable if dumb), generally that which has laid dead should remain so. There were a trio of reasons why this film deserved a chance though.
First of all is Denis Villeneuve, the Canadian director who directed the best film of last year (Arrival) as well as at least four other great films (Incendies, Enemy, Prisoners, and Sicario though I have heard great things about Maelstrom and Polytechnique as well). I’ve never been done wrong by one of his films and they are always at the least fantastic to look at. This brings us to the second reason, cinematographer Roger Deakins. Deakins (who worked with Villeneuve on Prisoners and Sicario) is the best in the business and his work here is up to his standards. Blade Runner 2049 is filled with gorgeous wide shots, characters framed beautifully in silhouette, and some fantastic and smooth camera work. The colors pop, the night and other obscured scenes feel dark yet perfectly lit when and where they need to be (the dust, and frankly every shot could be printed and framed. At the very least, the visuals deliver everything I could have hoped for and the film is worth seeing on the big screen assuming of course it is still playing near you.
The final reason to give the film a chance is Creed. Now that is an unusual film to bring into this discussion but to me it is the perfect comparison. Both were sequels to 80s titles (Blade Runner and Rocky V), both had seen the originals darker and grittier style repeated by so many others into meaninglessness (granted the Rocky series did that on its own), and both replaced the original’s director with that of a critically acclaimed one (Ryan Coogler and now Villeneuve). Both films tied in plenty of references to the first film for better or worse as there’s a few times in Blade Runner 2049 where they went a bit overboard in this regard, but more importantly, both modernized their originals in a way that felt natural. They weren’t trying to recapture the original or what it did right, they both feel like what the film would have been like if made today instead of decades ago (35 years later in the case of Blade Runner). There is one big difference though, Blade Runner 2049 is the far superior film to its predecessor.
Where Blade Runner had difficulty in creating engaging characters and relied too heavily on its style, 2049 takes the time to make even its smallest characters engaging and compelling. At the forefront is Ryan Gosling who in his collaborations with Nicolas Winding Refn, made for an image of detached coolness, which in seeing much of that here, is perfect for a replicant. He plays off that very Gosling image, the cracks that shine through it as the movie continues on becoming all the more impactful but still leaving him with an indescribably sense of “otherness”.
Harrison Ford gets a chance to prove he still can act when he gives a shit while Ana de Armas (in a role as a holographic character that makes this film a perfect counterpart to Her), Robin Wright, Mackenzie Davis (Halt and Catch Fire), Carla Juri (Wetlands), Lennie James (The Walking Dead), Dave Bautista (Guardians of the Galaxy), Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips), Wood Harris (The Wire), and Edward James Olmos all give memorable performances that are generally pretty quiet and often amount to little more than a scene or two but effective none the less. You may have noticed I omitted one name, the giant red flag of a name who despite critical plaudits has gained a reputation for awful behavior and embarrassingly overacting. While he still hasn’t recaptured his role in Requiem for a Dream and still chews the scenery, this was the least obnoxious role for Jared Leto in years (he has far less screen time than you’d expect) and casting him as someone intentionally creepy and off-putting was a smart move if you are going to use him.
The plot engages with the “what does it mean to be human” but is more effective than most because it lets most of that be handled by the acting and plot and not speechifying. The plot is slow and purposeful, straining but never breaking down under its long runtime and showing no concern if you can predict the plot ahead of it (I did). The very Hans Zimmer score (which he did with Benjamin Wallfisch) though I am of two minds about. On the one hand it is generally effective and mechanical sounding. On the other hand, it sounded a bit too much like feedback and did angry things to my head and occasionally overwhelmed what was going on the screen. It also wasn’t as bad to my body as a certain scene (the sex scene) which as beautiful and effective as it was, made me very sick to my stomach in the way it made my eyes convinced they were out of focus.
Blade Runner 2049 is the somewhat rare sequel that improves on its predecessor. It takes what works about the original in the visuals, builds on them naturally in a way that fits the established style, adds a simple but effective story, and some great acting. The world was not crying out for a sequel to Blade Runner and the more explicit ties to the original hold it back some, but as a film of its own, it delivers.