Cast: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, Robin Wright, Mackenzie Davis, Carla Juri, Lennie James, Dave Bautista, Jared Leto
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Writers: Hampton Fancher, Michael Green
If you were to put together a list of the five most influential science-fiction films of all time, there would not even be a question about including Blade Runner. I’m hard pressed to think of any sci-fi movie from the last three decades that doesn’t owe some kind of debt to Ridley Scott’s dystopian masterpiece. It is the film that redefined the genre, introducing a groundbreaking tone and visual style oft-replicated but never surpassed and exploring existential themes with immense sophistication and profundity. Blade Runner has had thirty-five years to secure its position as a landmark in the history of cinema and it’s still too early to tell whether the sequel will prove to be as monumental. What is clear however is that Blade Runner 2049 is not a pale imitation or a cheap cash grab; it’s the real thing. This is nothing less than a visually stunning picture that takes the same ideas about humanity, reality, and existence, and expands on them thoughtfully, compellingly, and beautifully.
There are details about the plot that I shouldn’t and won’t share here because the reveals are too good to spoil for the viewer. What I can tell you is that the movie takes place in Los Angeles in 2049. The Tyrell Corporation has gone bankrupt since the events of the first film and Replicants are now manufactured by the Wallace Corporation, led by Niander Wallace (Jared Leto). Our protagonist is a Blade Runner called K (Ryan Gosling). He reports to Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright) of the LAPD and lives in a small, plain apartment with his holographic girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas), also a product of the Wallace Corporation. His job is to hunt down and ‘retire’ rogue Replicants, which we see him do in the opening scene with Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista), a rogue Replicant just trying to live a peaceful life as a farmer. It is during this confrontation that he makes a discovery which will launch a mystery that leads him to question everything he knows about himself and the world around him.
To call this film a visual masterpiece is an understatement. Villeneuve, working with frequent collaborator and thirteen-time Academy Award nominated cinematographer Roger Deakins, has constructed a banquet for the eyes. Together they have recreated Ridley Scott and Philip K. Dick’s futuristic world with its polluted skyline, oppressive buildings, and torrents of rain and have used it all to create countless images of supreme beauty and poetry. You could put this film on mute and still enjoy it for the visual splendour that it is, but the ingenuity of the images is how they serve the story, characters, and themes at every turn. Images like K arriving at a new location shrouded by sand and dust and stepping tentatively into the hazy distance, uncertain of what he will find there. Images like our first glimpse of the blind Wallace and his striking white irises, a man who cannot see but who has vision. Images like a giant hologram approaching K and standing before him, a visual reminder of the cost he has had to pay to get to the truth. It is the two artists’ meticulous attention to detail and their profound understanding of the story and its ideas that enable this film to rise far beyond being an empty visual spectacle.
In Blade Runner Harrison Ford delivered what many (including myself) consider to be his greatest performance. Although he does indeed return and is on top form, it is Ryan Gosling who makes this film. Here he plays a man struggling with his own humanity, not unlike Deckard but not exactly like him either. Gosling plays the character similarly to when he did Drive, subdued, stoic, and handsome on the outside but anxious, confused, and vulnerable within. He plays both sides remarkably well and is able to be emotional without being melodramatic, just like Ford thirty-five years before. The other standouts were two actresses whom I had not encountered before: Ana de Armas, who plays K’s artificial sweetheart so affectionately that your heart breaks at the thought of them being unable to consummate their love, and Sylvia Hoeks as Luv, a Replicant enforcer, which she plays with ice-cold steeliness.
The story itself unfolds like a noir mystery, following our protagonist along with every step and taking its time with each development and reveal. With all the pressure and expectation surrounding this film, Villeneuve is to be applauded for having enough confidence in his story, his ability to tell it, and the audience’s ability to follow it, that he never feels compelled to rush things along. He adopts a slow but natural pace and allows events to progress in their own time, never once resorting to cheap, attention-grabbing tricks or throwing in action for the sake of action. The film measures at 163 minutes and I will confess that I did look at my watch once as the film entered the third act, but did so not out of boredom but rather out of a realisation that it had taken me a full two hours to notice the passage of time. For some the plot will drag, and that’s understandable, but the story is so fascinating and the visuals are so spectacular that I suspect the film’s runtime will become less of an issue with repeat viewings.
There is so much more to say and dissect, but first one must watch the film. Blade Runner 2049 is at its heart a mystery and its broader themes cannot be discussed without some reference to what actually happens. I can say that, like the first film, it is as much a mystery in a philosophical sense as it is in a detective sense and so many of the questions it raises are not there to be answered but to be contemplated. Even the mystery surrounding the nature of Deckard’s character is never given a clear answer; it is one that the film sustains, explores, expands upon, and adds layers to, and in the end it is up to the viewer to decide how to interpret it. This is what makes the film such a worthy successor to Blade Runner. It seeks not to solve its mysteries, but to expand on them. It seeks not to replace or improve on Scott’s film, but rather to build on its legacy and continue what it started. It captures the very soul of the sci-fi classic and lives up to its example without mimicking it, giving us two companion pieces that complement and enrich each other.