Blade Runner, Ridley Scott’s cult science fiction classic, has a special place in many cinephiles’ hearts. Its grim view of the future and questions about what makes us human have influenced the science fiction genre since its release in 1982. Blade Runner 2049, a follow up thirty five years in the making, has much to live up to.
Not to worry…the film more than meets those expectations.
Blade Runner 2049 is a worthy successor to Scott’s classic. In some ways, the film surpasses the original while also sharing some of its flaws. It’s not a simple rehash; the film expands on the themes from the original. Are replicants, the android humanoids from the first film, simply machines or are they more human than humans? The film examines this idea throughout its labyrinthine mystery in brilliant ways with a visually stunning world as its backdrop. But most importantly, there is a glimmer of genuine emotion in this somber look into the future.
The film’s length and deliberate pace keep this from being a perfect film, but Blade Runner 2049 is a flawed masterpiece that any science fiction fan should see.
Blade Runner 2049 follows Officer K (Ryan Gosling), a blade runner hunting replicants thirty years after the original Blade Runner ended. He discovers a mystery that could rock the balance of power. The journey to solve this mystery becomes increasingly personal for K, and his search for answers may lie with Deckard (Harrison Ford), a blade runner that went missing decades ago.
I am keeping the details vague for both the plot summary and review because I believe this film should be viewed with as little background information as possible. You should only watch the first Blade Runner and then let the experience wash over you.
Both visually and narratively, director Denis Villeneuve and the other filmmakers expand on the broken future introduced in Blade Runner. The film once again asks what makes a human. Is it a soul? Love? These are traits that can’t be quantified, so how do you know if it’s there? These questions are woven throughout K’s journey and the answers are never easy…and they shouldn’t be. Despite a sometimes obvious approach to these answers, the film keeps it simple. Human nature is never easy and every character struggles with it beautifully.
The mystery at the center of the film is equally as compelling. As K discovers more about the earth shattering mystery at the plot’s center, we gladly follow him down the rabbit hole. Every turn feels earned and the final twists are genuinely shocking. However, the film does feel overly long due to its deliberate pace. There are points when the plot seems to meander for no reason at all, and you wish it would move on. The original film struggled with its pacing as well.
2049 is also one of the most visually striking films in recent memory. Villeneuve, legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, and the production team (From the costumers, the set designers, and visual effects artists) come together and bring a crumbling future Los Angeles to life. Nearly every frame oozes with mood and dark atmosphere, adding to the somber tone of the film. That said, there are several mesmerizing shots, almost hypnotic in their beauty.
In terms of the set design, the technology feels genuine to the world of the original film. It is advanced, but has the look and functionality of the original film’s tech. It’s a small touch, but shows just how much the filmmakers hold that film in high regard.
However, 2049’s chief achievement is its subtle emotional core. This is what makes it surpass the original film. I have seen several critics point out a lack of emotion. I feel like they are watching a different film. There is a glimmer of hope forcing its way through the darkness. It is so small that most will probably miss it. But if you look at the characters at the center of the film, it is clear as day.
“I Want to Ask You Some Questions”
Ryan Gosling’s K is the heart of 2049 and provides much of the emotional weight. Maybe it’s a personal connection to the character or my own respect for Gosling as an actor, but K is one of the most compelling characters I have seen in a science fiction film. The character’s backstory (Which will not be spoiled here) is emotionally tragic in so many ways. His story reflects that desire all of us have: To have purpose. Sometimes we live in our own illusions to create self worth and K is no different. His story arc is simple, but beautiful and when it comes to its conclusion, it packs an emotional punch.
Gosling is given a challenging role here. K is cold for nearly the whole film, but Gosling expresses the character’s emotions with simple gestures or looks. At one point, K expresses his attraction to another character with simple eye movements. Normally, his eyes are still and cold…when he meets this character, his eyes dart around, examining the woman. It’s a moment not all will see, but shows just how talented Gosling is at showing emotion subtly.
Harrison Ford’s screen time is actually very limited, but he gives a great performance when he does show up. In terms of story, Deckard’s fate and location since the end of the original film makes perfect sense. The character is a troubled man and the choices he made have taken their toll. He is still that same selfish man we grew to love in the original film, but he has changed just enough to make us care even more for him.
There is a powerful scene that occurs late in the film that is completely heartbreaking because of Ford’s performance. For me, this is impressive because that scene involved an aspect of the original film that I felt did not work. Ford shows just how gifted an actor he can be when he is invested.
The stand outs in the supporting cast are Ana de Armas as Joi and Sylvia Hoeks as Luv. Both play into the themes of emotion in machines. De Armas is given a role that could have been exploitive, but she excels in giving K’s holographic “girl Friday” real “soul.” At the same time, she maintains an aura of ambiguity to the character’s desires.
Hoeks steals nearly every scene she is in. The deadly replicant Luv is very much like her namesake: Volatile, dangerous and emotional. Every time the character is on screen, you can’t help but flinch, scared of what she may do…but you are also drawn to her. Hoeks balances that duality masterfully and just may be the breakout star of the film.
The rest of the cast is impressive. Robin Wright is solid as K’s superior Lieutenant Joshi, though she doesn’t have a whole lot to do. On the other hand, Jared Leto is darkly compelling as Niander Wallace, the creator of the more advanced and legal replicants. The blind character fancies himself a god and is enticingly creepy in all of his scenes.
Blade Runner 2049 is not a perfect film. The pacing will kill a general audience’s attention span and the somber tone will turn others off. But this is a cinephile’s dream. It is a visual feast that should be viewed on the largest screen you can find. There is so much to wrap your head around in the film’s story and characters. More than one viewing is required to truly appreciate this wonderful example of what science fiction should be.
SCORE: 9 OUT OF 10