Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Written by: Hampton Fancher & Michael Green (based on characters from the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick)
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Jared Leto, Sylvia Hoeks, & Robin Wright
I’ve had really mixed feelings about the existence of Blade Runner 2049 in the years leading up to its release. The original Blade Runner is one of my favourite films of all time, a near-perfect sci-fi neo-noir that left itself with an important lingering question key to its thematic weight, and the idea of a sequel seemed like nothing more to me than an unabashed cash-grab that would necessarily derail the power of the original film. At the same time, some of my favourite people were getting on board to the production: Ryan Gosling taking the lead role, Roger Deakins as the director of photography, and the brilliant Denis Villeneuve at the helm. I was so torn between my desire to protest its existence and to see the latest work from these modern masters, the excitement and apprehension converged into quiet anticipation. Thankfully my fears were assuaged, and I was not disappointed with the final product. I wasn’t entirely satisfied either.
Blade Runner 2049 is set thirty years after the end of the original film in Los Angeles, and concerns itself again with “replicants,” extremely humanlike androids with superhuman abilities created as slave labour to help build colonies on other planets. A new blade runner, “K” (Ryan Gosling), is employed by the LAPD to “retire” (read: kill) older replicants on earth that aren’t designed to obey humans, he himself being a more contemporary model replicant. While working a case, K discovers clues to a secret that could create a conflict between humans and replicants, while Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), head of the megacorporation that manufactures replicants, seeks answers to the same question in an effort to revolutionise replicant creation. It’s impossible to set up the plot without a paragraph dense with jargon and lore, but the film does an excellent job of setting it up in a way that’s easy to understand, even more so if you’ve seen the first film (which I can’t recommend enough).
The film holds pretty closely to the tropes of film noir with stark, dramatic lighting, a dark mystery at its centre with a conflicted detective searching for the solution, multiple femme fatales, and plenty of twists to stir the plot. While it doesn’t reinvent the wheel, the writers certainly play to the genre’s strengths, using them to ask questions of the dystopian future and the rich characters crafted within it while tugging us along lightly from one scene to the next. The pacing on this film is absolutely perfect, as Villeneuve almost always stops to let moments play out naturally, keeping the cut rate low and instead allowing and trusting his actors to carry each scene. It’s a slow burn to be sure, but it’s always tense and stimulating, preventing you from feeling its 163-minute runtime.
I’m in love with Blade Runner 2049 as an aesthetic piece. Roger Deakins was born to work on neo-noirs, illuminating the frame with naturalistic light to create full and luscious images. The colour palette is rich but never oversaturated, and he and Villeneuve avoid more common colour combinations in favour of more monochrome frames, blending different shades of orange and brown in one scene and blue with violet in others. It gives each location a sense of place with its own vibrancy while avoiding overstimulation, contributing to the subdued feel of the film. Deakins’ shots rely heavily on tripods and stabilisers while reacting to their environments, and whenever there’s movement there’s never a rush. Deakins has a compelling eye for shape in his frames, and his composition is delightful and stunning across the board. All of this eye candy is complemented by a droning score by Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer, employing dirty synth pads and playing with the aching melodies from the original. It’s hauntingly beautiful and one of my favourite scores since 2012’s Cloud Atlas.
The performances are excellent across the board. I particularly enjoyed Ryan Gosling’s wonderfully understated turn as K. He allows us to feel every barb and bruise as he bears the burden of a discriminatory society without wearing his heart on his sleeve, which makes the moments where he comes out of his shell all the more impactful and invigorating. Robin Wright is cast to her strengths as Lieutenant Joshi, at odds with her own professional authority and hidden lusts, and Sylvia Hoeks is stupendously menacing and difficult to read as Wallace’s replicant lackey “Luv.” I also really enjoyed Harrison Ford’s return as Rick Deckard, making the most of his cranky geezer phase while offering tragic depth and vulnerability where it counts. Kudos to the writers for handling the character of Deckard perfectly, addressing my biggest potential concern with the film that a definitive answer would given as to whether or not Deckard was a replicant by gracefully side stepping the need to answer that question at all.
There were unfortunately some hiccups with the writing that knocked Blade Runner 2049 down a peg or two for me. A plot twist reveal in the third act employs the use of flashbacks within the film to spell everything out as blatantly as possible, showing a lack of faith in the intelligence of the audience to put two and two together while also nullifying any desire to immediately rewatch the film and catch the pieces you missed. On top of that, there’s just a hint of sequel-baiting through some unresolved narrative strands. This is incredibly lazy writing and editing and one of my pet peeves, and it really frustrated me and detracted from my experience with the film.
Most disappointing of all was an emptiness I felt with the film, and it’s hard to put my finger on exactly what it was. Like the first film, the primary idea the film wants audiences to explore is what it means to be human, but for me it just doesn’t present that question in a manner that evokes as much thought and introspection. For all the beauty of the varied landscapes explored within the story, there just isn’t enough life to fill in the spaces opened up by its breadth. It’s less alive, less intimate, more impersonal, and every attempt to remark on humanity or spill forth soliloquies that vainly try to match Rutger Hauer‘s “tears in the rain” don’t feel contrived but certainly fail to penetrate with as much disarming force. Blade Runner 2049 is a gorgeous work of art that needs to be seen on the biggest screen you can find, but it unfortunately fails to entirely live up to the pedigree of its predecessor. But, when I think about it, wasn’t that always going to be the case?