Blade Runner 2049 not only succeeds at feeling like a necessary franchise revival, it also makes for a captivating standalone work of science-fiction.
Thirty years after the events of Blade Runner, the Tyrell Corporation has gone under and since been bought and re-branded by one Niander Wallace (Jared Leto): a scientist who pioneered advancements in genetically-modified food and now manufactures a more obedient type of replicant on Earth, known as the NEXUS-9. The older NEXUS model replicants that were produced by the Tyrell Corporation (including, those programmed with open-ended lifespans, aka. the NEXUS-8) are hunted by a new generation of Blade Runners. Among their ranks is a Los Angeles-based police officer codenamed “K” (Ryan Gosling), as well as his superior Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright).
Following what is otherwise a routine mission, K and Joshi stumble upon a dangerous secret that, should it become public knowledge, could destabilize the already-fragile world as they know it. As K investigates the situation in an effort to prevent that from happening, he comes to realize that there is a key figure who ties the whole mystery together: Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), a former Blade Runner who retired and subsequently vanished many years ago. It thus falls to K to track down Deckard and find out the truth, before other competing forces do.
The long-awaited sequel to director Ridley Scott’s touchstone 1982 science-fiction film Blade Runner, Blade Runner 2049 serves as both a continuation of Scott’s original movie and an expansion of the themes and mythology first established in author Philip K. Dick’s landmark 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (itself the basis for Scott’s adaptation). Rather than indulging in a trip down nostalgia lane, Blade Runner 2049 looks to the future of the franchise at the same time that it enriches the ideas and narrative from its predecessor. Blade Runner 2049 not only succeeds at feeling like a necessary franchise revival, it also makes for a captivating standalone work of science-fiction.
Taking over as director from Scott (who still served as an executive producer), Blade Runner 2049 helmsman Denis Villeneuve delivers the same combination of moody atmosphere, striking visuals and thought-provoking subject matter here as he has with his previous genre efforts, including last year’s sci-fi offering Arrival. Reuniting with his Prisoners and Sicario collaborator as well as overall legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, Villeneuve retains the practical sci-fi meets classic Noir aesthetic of Scott’s film (making heavy use of precipitation, fog, smoke and other such elements) and gives it a modern CGI-era polish. As a result, the futuristic, neon-lit urban landscapes that were first envisioned in the original Blade Runner look just as gorgeous here, even as fresh elements are incorporated as part of the sequel’s world-building process (see how the rising ocean levels have impacted Los Angeles in the film). Blade Runner 2049 doesn’t manage to break new visual ground for the Blade Runner property the way that, say, Mad Max: Fury Road did for the Mad Max franchise, but it does reaffirm Blade Runner‘s status as top dog when it comes to depicting a stylishly bleak future on Earth.
As beautiful-looking as the film is, in some ways Blade Runner 2049‘s screenplay is more ambitious by comparison. The script written by original Blade Runner screenwriter Hampton Fancher and Michael Green (Logan) effectively pushes its predecessor’s ideas about the nature of emotion, consciousness, and what it even means to be human/alive forward, in a way that makes sense given the pre-established “rules” of the Blade Runner universe. Blade Runner 2049 even has some things in common with Scott’s Alien prequel Alien: Covenant, when it comes to its perspective on artificial intelligence and the nature of evolution (something that makes all the more sense, seeing as Green also co-wrote that film). While there are noticeable parallels between certain characters and elements of the story in Blade Runner 2049 and its predecessor, the Blade Runner sequel never feels like a calculated recycling of what has come before, plot-wise, for these reasons.
That being said, the one issue that Blade Runner 2049 does have from a storytelling perspective is that of pacing. Like in both the original Blade Runner and his own previous directorial efforts, Villeneuve prefers to use slow-burn drama in Blade Runner 2049 as a way to build up tension (aided through very precise use of sound and silence) before delivering more intense bursts of action and/or violence. While this approach works exceptionally well for the majority of the film, there are other segments that drag and could have benefitted from having either more forward momentum or a little less room to breathe. Couple that with a pretty long runtime (even by modern tentpole standards) and Blade Runner 2049 seems destined to divide people in the way that its predecessor has for decades: between those who find it an excellent sci-fi mood piece and those who agree that it’s lovely to look at, but a bit pretentious and overly drawn out.
Emotions run even colder at times in Blade Runner 2049 than they did in the original Blade Runner, though for the most part that is by design here. In a world where artificial beings are sometimes (often?) more empathetic than the flesh and blood humans around them, the Blade Runner sequel’s cast manage to instill more warmth and humanity into the proceedings with their performances. Ryan Gosling and Robin Wright are both excellent in roles that call for nuance and subtly, as is Harrison Ford as he returns to play an older and much more experienced, yet in some way more vulnerable version of the Rick Deckard character that he previously brought to life over thirty years ago. Actors such as Ana de Armas, Dave Bautista, Mackenzie Davis, and Sylvia Hoeks are strong in their respective supporting roles too, with performances that compliment the film’s questions about just what it is that defines human behavior. Jared Leto’s acting style, on the other hand, is a bit too theatrical for the film’s purposes (even given the theatrical nature of his character), but doesn’t go fully over the top either.
Although Blade Runner 2049 works as both a self-contained narrative and a continuation of its predecessor, it also leaves some plot threads dangling for a future sequel (or more) to pick up down the line. While the movie does pave the way for another worthwhile installment or more in the Blade Runner franchise, there is reason to wonder if Blade Runner 2049 is too much like its predecessor (itself, a cult hit with a very loyal following, but a cult hit nonetheless) and won’t be able to achieve enough crossover appeal to get a followup, as a result. With that out of the way: Blade Runner 2049 is a great piece of intellectual science-fiction beautifully painted on a large canvas and an example of how to revive/relaunch a beloved property the right way on the big screen. Hardcore fans of the original Blade Runner should by and large be equally taken with the followup (from its visuals and story down to Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch’s score channeling Vangelis’ iconic Blade Runner leitmotifs), and many of them will almost undoubtedly come to rank Villeneuve’s movie as being one of the best sequels ever to boot.
Blade Runner 2049 is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It is 163 minutes long and is Rated R for violence, some sexuality, nudity and language.
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