Trying to talk about Blade Runner 2049 without giving away any of the reveals is going to be difficult because somehow the marketing for this film has managed to keep a lot under wraps. To the point where I’m honestly surprised with how little they were able to show in the promotional material. I’ll try my best to keep things spoiler free, but at this point you already know if you want to see this or not. Either you’re a fan of the first film and are looking to see if this expands upon the world Ridley Scott built 35 years earlier, which it does. Or you’re not a fan of the first film, but want to see if a modern update can improve upon the legacy Scott left behind, which it arguably does.
In the years since the first film, the Tyrell Company has been bought out by businessman Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) who took over the Replicant programme and repurposed it to create more docile and obedient androids with Tyrell’s Nexus 8 models – those without a four year life span – being hunted down and ‘retired’ by blade runners. One such blade runner is K (Ryan Gosling), an agent investigating errant Replicant Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista) on one of Wallace’s protein farms. During his investigation, K discovers a hidden box with an impossible secret hidden away, with the risk of exposure K’s lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright) orders him to close all loose ends on the matter.
With help from his companion Joi (Ana de Armas), K digs into what the box is and why it was hidden away. In doing so, he attracts the attention of Wallace who plans to use the box for his own purposes. With time running against him, K follows any lead he can with one important name following him, that of former blade runner Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) who disappeared 30 years ago and who might know the meaning behind what K found.
For the record, I’m being deliberately vague, the story grasps onto what Scott presented in the first film and grows from there, expanding the questions of the meaning of humanity and emotions from a familiar but still tonally different angle than the first movie. This is a natural expansion and feels like all genuine sequels should, like the next step without straying too far from the original, the veins of Scott’s film run deep in here, but it’s own central mystery is what powers the story forward. For anyone expecting an action/thriller there may be some degree of disappointment, this is a far slower and more methodical film than that. Allowing it’s more gentle pace to unfold the mystery without losing sight of its central themes in the process. Some people might wish for a faster pace, but doing so would suffer the tone Villeneuve was going for.
Perhaps the most interesting part is that where the narrative ends there is still room left over for more, certain threads both thematic and plot related are left dangling for anyone to pull on and find discussion with, something this film openly encourages at times. And yet there’s no direct need for more, the film closes enough to contain a satisfying ending should it choose to, much like the original a lot can be said about where the film goes, and where it could go afterwards.
Characters throughout the film were strong but a few didn’t make the impact they should have. Jared Leto is the film’s weakest element with his monologuing, God-Complexing Wallace not having enough to do with the film’s main story-line. He’s creepier here than he was in ‘Suicide Squad,’ but he feels disconnected from the rest of the film. Rather the main villain of the film was Niander’s right-hand woman Luv (Sylvia Hoaks), who powers through the film as a mad killer robot. While simultaneously grinning with malice whilst also shedding tears over a cold, emotionless face, you’re never sure of what she’s thinking, and it makes for a great villain for the film.
K’s journey takes him to meet all people on the streets of L.A., Bautista makes the most of his small role as Sapper, mixing pathos and anger into the character in just a few minutes. Wright is strong-willed as Joshi, but even being the closest thing to a real friend K has she’s still cold and distant at times. Mackenzie Davis has an interesting role as pleasure-model Mariette including a rather odd scene with Joi but she does come up lacking to some of her counterparts. Lennie James gives an ‘all bark and no bite’ performance as child laborer Mister Cotton, while Carla Juri finds sweetness in the little things as memory constructor, Ana Stelline. The vast array of characters is typical of a mystery film like this with each one pointing K towards the next, but the different nature of them all helps to build this world, and showcase the different style of people living in it.
One of the film’s surprising standouts is Joi. Now I’ve been admiring Ana superficially for a couple years now given that she’s ridiculous attractive and willing to get very naked, but I’ve never actually seen her act until now, and I have to admit she more than makes her mark. More than just being K’s companion, she’s the one source of positivity and heart he has in his life and Armas is just completely enchanting in the role. The relationship she has with K ties into one of the film’s biggest themes about the motive of emotion. In particular love, with the love they share being close to one of the only real things in the movie.
Deckard’s return isn’t as expansive as Han Solo’s with Ford not being in the film until a good chunk of it has already passed, but it keeps him from overshadowing the film and works better for the character. Deckard has spent the last 30 years alone and is suffering from regret and cynicism, he’s not in a good place, and K arriving at his door brings up bad memories he’s spent the past 3 decades forgetting. I won’t go into too much detail of what Ford does but there’s more emotional weight to the character, particularly in a key scene near the end, that you might not expect. This shows that Ford hasn’t phoned his performance in and delivers a grizzled yet vulnerable character that only he could.
Finally we have K, Gosling’s always been at his best playing the strong, silent types, its why I still maintain ‘Only God Forgives’ to be his best performance. K is no different, here we have a police officer whose job is to kill robot people and it gets to him. This is a depressive and lonely life for him which is why he becomes so attached to Joi as an escape. The deeper K goes with this mystery, the more it starts to peel away everything he knows. It’s subtle at first with Gosling using a very slight form of acting with his emotions bubbling under the surface, but you can see the fear and anger growing in him and when it breaks, it’s a sight to see. Much like Ford, there’s an emotional layer to Gosling that I won’t get into, but it’s one of the film’s defining elements.
With everything from Incendies being absolutely fantastic and last year’s Arrival being my top film of the year, I’ve got a lot of love for Denis Villeneuve as a director. I went into Blade Runner 2049 with high expectations, while not as close to masterpiece status as Enemy or Arrival, this is only a film that Villeneuve could’ve directed. That slow, thematic pull that drives the film is key to what makes the film work. Had he approached this like Sicario it would’ve lost its audience by being too separate from the first film, instead Villeneuve delivers a methodical piece that allows the themes and questions to take center stage. Part of why this feels like such a great expansion is how easily it follows what Ridley Scott left in the first film. The question that Roy Batty asked are approached in greater detail without ever giving a definitive answer which will allows discussion in a more open-ended style. Even some more theoretically elements touched upon last time are giving credence here adding more fuel to a fire that’s lasted decades. This is definitely more of a thinking man’s sci-fi film than an entertainment piece, but that’s to its credit.
Overall, I prefer the look and sound of the original film, the way Scott was able to use the rain, smoke, and shadows to create the noir version of future L.A. is so goddamn timeless that people still reference it til this day. While Vangelis synthesizer tones captured the magic of old world feelings in a new world sound. They do try and recreate Vangelis soundtrack at times, but it gets droned out on occasion, not a mark against the film, but comparatively it does come up short. Visually while it’s not the same drenched, smoky city from 1982, but what Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger ‘Give him the damn Oscar already’ Deakins do is give a new vibrancy to the whole thing. There are still elements of the downtrodden, neon-lit, Asian-inspired L.A., even 30 years later they don’t stray too far away from Scott’s vision, but the crisper view allows the dirt to look dirtier and the lights to look lighter. The film travels from a perpetually dark L.A. with a depressing overcast as the general mood to an expansive junkyard with sharp angles and metal pieces jagging out in all directions. To a yellow-soaked wasteland, covered in a dust-cloud to give off a strange, isolated feeling that leads into one of the film’s best scenes where K is chased into a virtual casino with holographic performers intermittently lighting the area while Elvis sporadically bursts onto the soundtracks. It might not be as dour as the first film, but there’s no denying it’s a pretty picture.
Much like it’s predecessor, Blade Runner 2049 is going to need more revisits to fully grasp everything this film wants to share with you. Hell I still don’t think I’ve seen the first film enough to fully appreciate it. One viewing of 2049 isn’t nearly enough, but as first impressions go it captures the essence of that first film and expands upon those same themes and questions to deliver the only proper continuation this series needed. This is one of the most intelligent and discussion worthy Sci-Fi films of the decade.
I am giving Blade Runner 2049 a 4 ½ out of 5 Hairpieces!