Whether a worthy follow-up to a cult sci-fi classic or not, one thing is certain: Blade Runner 2049 packs an awful lot into its near 3-hour run. Where the original Blade Runner felt like a snapshot of a story - all rain-drenched dystopia and existential philosophizing - its sequel is a bonafide complex cyberpunk saga. It lays out so many themes to explore, plot twists to unravel and homages to its predecessor to lovingly offer, that one viewing alone simply isn’t enough to take in its full intricacy. Denis Villeneuve’s revival of a much adulated and staunchly guarded IP - one that brought the cyberpunk genre to the mainstream - definitely ticks every single box required to keep its fervent fanbase from justifying their pre-release skepticism. And it also manages to fulfil that one other criterion that made its 1982 original such a sleeper hit - it’s beautifully, paradoxically flawed.
Simply put, this near-3 hour run thrives on contradiction. It broadens the bleak, neon-thru-smog universe that the original brought to an unsuspecting audience 35 years ago - but it doesn’t deepen it. It certainly is just as sparse and contemplative, but without an ounce of the ethereality. Visually and narratively, this film’s world often takes such a startling departure from the hypnotic glow-lit melancholy of the first movie that it feels like an inspired spin-off than a direct successor. And yet, it’s still quintessential Blade Runner. Cyberpunk, neo-noir, call it what you will - Blade Runner 2049 unquestionably has the spirit, and it unquestionably proves itself to be an excellent return. And it also manages such by taking some very big risks - even forcing the viewer to question some of the key plot elements of its groundbreaking forerunner.
Harrison Ford and other faces from the original (Edward James Olmos and one additional surprise) might be back for this ludicrously hyped return, but it’s not for the purpose of nostalgic sentiment. If further sequels are planned, then Blade Runner 2049 is a game changer for the franchise’s narrative. It evolves the themes and philosophy of the first movie, and then completely filps them on their collective heads. What once started back in ‘82 as a mesmerising critique on whether artificially-created life can actually experience, well, life, has now become a full-on commentary of the consequences involved when they do. It’s a commentary that is both captivating and, at points, convincingly moving in its delivery, too - if you don’t mind the fact that part of its expansion is built on a few concepts borrowed from other sci-fi landmarks.
The early steps of this saga’s new direction are at least taken with conventional gumpton. Its main character, K (Ryan Gosling), is a blade runner just like a certain Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) before him. The difference is that he’s a replicant - a Nexus-8 model hired to kill off (or in this world, ‘retire’) the remaining Nexus-6s and 7s who, thanks to the self-awareness of their own limited life expectancy, continue to pose a supposed menace to the people of Los Angeles. It’s a fresh take that is both well-clarified and ideally serves as an early show of the film’s canon-breaking ambitions. There’s no long-winded ambiguity about its main character’s true origins here, and therefore no sense of a following in any well-trodden footsteps.
But even if the focus is different, LA’s attitude towards androids hasn’t changed a bit. His kind may now serve the public good (and, more importantly, have their incentive for rebellion nullified by his model being given an open-ended lifespan), but K still faces daily suspicion and ire from the people he’s sworn to protect. Every successful retirement ends with a return to police headquarters and a ‘baseline test’ - a interrogative procedure forcing K to recite passages of his favourite literature to prove he remains stapled to human ideals. Every return to his apartment after duty results in a ritual of abuse from the dregs loitering around in his apartment block. And just like the rest of his replicant kind, every memory he possesses has merely been implanted into his mind, rather than experienced. On the surface, it adds up for a spiritless existence, something that his police superior, Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright), occasionally reminds him of - going as far to mention his lack of a ‘soul’ during one of their numerous engaging dialogues.
Not further along however does a massive discovery throw K’s existence - as well as given assumptions about Blade Runner’s mythos - completely up in the air. When K retires a Nexus-6 replicant, a low-key farmer by the name of Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista on excellent, if fleeting, form), he finds a burial on Morton’s farmland that could send shockwaves through human society. The dig reveals a container hiding human remains - and when tests are performed, they are proven to belong to a female replicant, with childbirth being the cause of death. The sheer revelation of a replicant capable of pregnancy is both mind-boggling and terrifying to K’s superiors. If replicants can indeed reproduce, there is nothing that separates them from their human masters - or social revolution.
But that’s not the only thing that K uncovers. The base of the burial is a tree, with its trunk marked with a date - ‘6.10.21’. The timestamp, innocuous as it seem, troublingly coincides with a distinct memory from K’s own implanted childhood. While Lieutenant Joshi orders him to destroy all evidence from the site to prevent all-out war between human and replicant, K covertly sets out to determine if there is anything deeper with the link to his own memories - and if the replicant’s child survived. Certainly, the two mysteries end up crossing over each other, as well as other unsolved disappearances - namely that of a certain man who went missing with a certain female replicant, thirty years ago. As the path to the truth extends to finding the long-missing Deckard, K begins to realize the web of secrets he’s stumbled upon; a web that will not only reveal the actual truth about his own existence, but also holds the stability of civilization itself in the balance.
Certain names from the first movie might have been ‘cleverly’ removed from the above as to avoid spoilers, but any avid fans of the franchise will have already twigged who those curious remains belong to. Such massive revelations involving past characters are vital too - they help to remind us that this is still a Blade Runner movie during the moments that the film conjures up something else brave and new. While its predecessor may have elaborated on the possibilities of love between human and replicant, Blade Runner introduces another well-used trope - the love of a computer program. Away from his chaotic, thankless duty on the streets of LA, K’s home life with his girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas), a manufactured holographic AI designed to fully cater for his every whim and desire. In any other sci-fi epic, the irony of an artificially-engineered being romantically engaged with a digital one could form the basis for a snarky joke or two. Blade Runner 2049 treats it with the philosophical weight it deserves. Both K and Joi are aware that they’re just constructs built from the archetypes of human fantasy, but their relationship with each other is both genuine and caring - another hook for the film to hang its reality-questioning drapings upon. Even if they cannot escape the trappings of their own existences, their support for one another is the one ‘human’ thing they do have, and their relationship together serves as an incredibly poignant subplot as the story goes on.
The Tyrell Corporation - the very entity responsible for kicking this whole narrative off - is nowhere to be found, however. Due to a supposed data ‘blackout’ caused by Nexus-6 replicants in 2022 (covered in one of 2049’s short promo films, which we’ll be reviewing here later), they’ve long since collapsed. They’ve since been replaced by the equally enigmatic, equally shadowy Wallace Corporation, a business empire that still has a love for giant steel pyramids and manufacturing replicants. Ultimately its head, the mysterious Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), proves to be the film’s main antagonist. He’s had his sights on creating life-giving replicants for a while, and his manipulation of K, the LAPD and eventually Deckard, guide proceedings toward confrontation after confrontation between the parties involved. Niander himself is quite the biblical figure - all robes and Messiah-like preachings. He’d probably make for a greater corporate mastermind than Joe Turkel did in the first outing as Eldon Tyrell too, if not for the fact that Leto’s stilted delivery makes even himself sound unsure of his own quasi-theological ramblings. It’s a thankful thing that his presence is overshadowed by his dutiful replicant aide, Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), whose brutal, hands-on approach to getting things done is matched only by her ability to guide missile-launching drones while getting her nails filed. Less femme fatale, more femme ferocious - and she makes for an excellent villain to carry the film’s central arc of conflict.
For all the arcs and performances that are on show here - of which so, so many are utterly captivating - Gosling’s stands above the rest. The role of K, an introspective protagonist in an introspective movie, seems to be tailor-made for him. This bleak, illuminated world of flying cars and towering hologram billboards might be enough to pull the viewer in by itself, but it is unquestionably its main character that resides at the center of its event horizon. The brilliant script - written in part by Hampton Fancher, responsible for the original Blade Runner’s screenplay - carries enough thematic gravitas and poetic tragedy for K to become just as much of a vital character to this universe as Deckard ever was. But it’s Gosling’s chemistry with his co-stars - particularly de Armas and Ford, the latter of whom convincingly resumes a role he previously seemed to care so little for - that helps the film achieve its closing - and lasting - emotional impact. It’s a performance for the ages, and even with the likes of Drive under his belt, it might just be the finest that Gosling has ever produced.
Visually, everything is just as impeccable as it ever was - so long as it’s an evening scene. Los Angeles’ dazzling fluorescent skyline, such an essential visage from the first film, is once again here in all its mesmeric glory. But now it has to sit uncomfortably with the grey, lifeless reality of the city’s pale daylight - a foggy backdrop of towering garbage and concrete so harsh, even Judge Dredd could walk the halls of its LAPD without anyone batting an eyelid. The film finally marks the moment that we’re taken out to the dark wilderness that laid beyond those burning refineries of the original film’s opening shot, and it’s fairly disappointing to be shown that, aside from an intriguing excursion to a derelict Las Vegas, it looks just like any other post-apocalyptic wasteland. But with the scenes inside the city itself, the cyberpunk magic revels just like it ever did.
The luxury of vastly-improved special effects in our age also means we get some nice refinements to some long-loved franchise staples. Police skimmers now feel like actual flying vehicles, drifting and diving around the vast L.A landscape as neon-glared logos of company juggernauts drift by - a couple of which might raise an eyebrow or two (Atari might be one thing, but Diageo? 2049 has replicants AND Guinness, yay). L.A’s citizenry still prove a motley ensemble too, every bit as crude as the degenerates of the old movie were. It might all just be a little bit self-indulgent too - after all, this is still Blade Runner, and there’s lots of wistful gazes into space and a yearning synth soundtrack to partake in. And aside from some beautiful use of a certain track from the original’s material during the film’s climax, Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch’s score doesn’t quite achieve the dreamy dysphoria of Vangelis’ from the first movie. It also has a bad habit of degenerating into irritating, noisy blasts during 2049’s more dramatic moments too. But it still does the job, and most importantly, never distracts during the film’s more sedate moments - which, in the true Blade Runner fashion, are still in abundance.
At 2 hours and 45 minutes of length, Blade Runner 2049 certainly does feel awfully sparse in a few moments. Some fans will insist that’s not a negative thing - after all, the original practically made a name for itself on esoteric navel-gazing. They forget though that while that outing clocked in at a running time of 117 minutes, its sequel has almost an entire additional hour to fill. Even with its dizzying amount of plot threads and considerably more explosive action scenes, the film still isn’t able to completely keep itself from dropping into ponderment now and then. It’s a little annoying, too, that 2049 also manages to replicate (pun maybe intended) one of the first movie’s poorer habits - there’s just so much bloody mumbling between the characters. If one decides to watch this movie again to catch all of the references and little details they missed the first time around, chances are they’ll be joined by viewers with different intentions - to try and understand what K, Deckard, Wallace and the rest of their maudlin cyberpunk kin were actually saying.
In the end though, these are but mere gripes about a hypnotic and thoroughly enthralling return for an iconic sci-fi franchise. It may lack the dream-like atmosphere that made the original such a hit, but Blade Runner 2049 breathes new life into a story whose continuation, at one point, seemed like an impossibility. It’s easy to give into the incredible never happening in the world. Even in his engagement with K, Dave Bautista’s character Morton states to him, “You’ve never seen a miracle.” But a masterpiece of a Blade Runner sequel is now in existence. And that alone is proof perhaps of one of the this saga's more prominent messages: reality can never truly be measured.