Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 is a visually stunning and emotionally rich sequel that stands equally with the 1982 original
Blade Runner 2049 is an all-out assault on your senses. Famed cinematographer Roger Deakins does some of his best work to date in the film — a statement that could be applied to each one of his films. He douses the familiar grey landscapes of the 1982 original with sweeping amber tones and bright neons that contrast the movie’s darker tone. More importantly, the dazzling visuals coupled with stunning CGI help totally immerse you in the Blade Runner universe. It’s almost overwhelming but also begs to be seen on the biggest screen possible.
With the world already set up beautifully in the 1982 original, Director Denis Villeneuve doesn’t have to do anything but apply a new story to explore the existential themes that Ridley Scott started. However, refreshingly, the movie doesn’t lean on the original. The nods to the original will be enough to stave the appetite of the Blade Runner-purists. But it surely stands on its own similar to the way Aliens and Terminator II build on the original rather than become bogged down by it.
The last four films by Villeneuve have made my best-of-the-year list for their respective years and more likely than not, he’ll be making a return this year as well. As a filmmaker, he’s refined, stylish, and cerebral much like Christopher Nolan. However, unlike early Nolan films, Villeneuve has always been a humanist. So, a story about the meaning of humanity — similar to the story about parenthood and morality in Arrival — is a perfect canvas for him to paint with.
Taking place 30 years after the original, Blade Runner 2049 portrays the world as one that has progressed from the point we last saw it — or better or worse. The oceans have risen, Los Angeles has somehow become even more overpopulated, and San Diego has turned into a literal garbage dump. More importantly, though, Androids have made a return to the planet. The new Nexus 9 model replicants, which are designed by the Wallace Corporation to obey like never before, are legal on the planet due to a limited-lifespan determined by their owner. Some are used to retire older models. They’re still called blade runners. K (Ryan Gosling) is a replicant blade runner — this is not a spoiler, it’s revealed almost immediately — who works for the LAPD under Luitenent Joshi (Robin Wright — perfectly cast here).
Though much of K’s storyline has to do with a plot point that I won’t discuss — the spoiler prevention on this movie was marvelous — a huge interest is placed on his relationship with Joi (Ana de Armas), his holographic girlfriend. Through her, the movie explores a lot of the character motivations that drove the replicants in the original: the desire to be human. As real as she may seem and intimate as their interactions become, there’s always that slight transparency — literally and figuratively — that reminds K that it isn’t all real. But what if it is? That’s the question that this film — and the original — always pondered: do android dream of electric sheep?
That question — it’s also the title of the Phillip K. Dick novel the original was based on — is what makes Blade Runner 2049 a great movie. All great sci-fi ponders some existential question. However, Blade Runner 2049 is hypnotic in its exploration. Some scenes — like one where K has sex with Joi via a hired prostitute similarly to the scene in Her. That Spike Jonze movie is actually an adept comparison to some parts of the movie. Specifically with the scenes between Joi and K. de Armas, like Scarlett Johansson in Her, gives her non-human character the most humanity out anyone else in the movie, mostly with her voice. There is warmth and depth that emulates genuine care for K. It’s a breakout performance.
Like the original, Blade Runner 2049 explores the company that creates the replicants. Niander Wallace (Jared Leto — he gives quite an impressive performance), though, unlike Eldon Tyrell, his aspirations are terrifying. He functions almost like a Frankenstein-like mad scientist with a God-complex that has never been put in check. In two pivotal scenes, Leto essentially gives an extended “evil plan monologue” that would give any Bond villain a run for his money. More terrifying is his replicant assistant Luv (Sylvia Hoeks — her performance harkens back to Rutger Hauer’s in the original) who is tasked with carrying out that plan. But even though the Wallace Corporation is the big villain of the story, the more emotional and human elements are the real foundation of success for the film.
Every year, more and more sequels and reboots have popped up with aspirations for easy money with huge opening weekends. So, it’s incredibly refreshing to see a sequel that is actually trying to challenge its audience. With a nearly three-hour running time, it certainly puts up a fight. However, leaving the theater following the final shots is a euphoric experience. To call Blade Runner 2049 a satisfying experience would be an understatement. It’s the reason we go to movies, to feel something — whether its the rumble of Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch’s score or the soaring emotions when we finally see Harrison Ford‘s Decker back on the screen. It’s an experience from beginning to end. And the end feels like a beginning in the best way possible.