Let’s get one thing straight, Blade Runner 2049 is superb and stupefying. Dreamlike production design, fiercely thoughtful direction, poetic and often brilliant storytelling, sublime world building and excellent performances across the board all add up to a sequel that fits perfectly into the cinescape that Ridley Scott imagined nearly 30 years ago while carrying its story forward in exciting, imaginative and wholly fulfilling new ways. Expanding on themes of humanity and identity native to Phillip K. Dick’s novella “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep”, Blade Runner 2049 both expands a world wherein humanoid androids and their homosapien masters co-exist while narrowing it down to a small ensemble of meaningful characters, all who have their part to play. This time the focus is K (Ryan Gosling), a LAPD Blade Runner who struggles with his own identity while hunting down and “retiring” outdated android models.
K’s life is spliced – the burden of playing judge, jury and executioner in his professional life weighing heavily upon him while still feeling the need to live up to the duties foisted on him by boss Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright). Outside of work, K seeks a quiet slice of solace with Joi (a breakout spot for an excellent Ana de Armas) in his rundown apartment complex, a love interest that may remind audiences of Scarlet Johannsson’s subtlety beautiful role in Her. Though not the main attraction of Blade Runner 2049, K and Joi’s relationship evolves into a pure expression of caring carried with wonderful complexity; the pounding artificial heart at the film’s center; the one sure thing in a film ripe with uncertainty. A conspiratorial discovery leads K on a collision course with Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), who has been in hiding for 30 years, squirreling away a secret with apocalyptic potential. Ferreting out the truth leads to a journey of self-discovery for K, the many waves and dips along the way a rollercoaster ride of reveals and twists that will not be spoiled here.
In the pole position, Gosling is electrically heartbreaking; his performance a fractured miasma of weariness, doubt, bamboozlement and revelation. K is our guide through the action and though a quiet and calm force, he remains programmed towards violence, even when he wants his pacifistic qualities to take the wheel. Over the course of the film, K becomes an accidental hero of the most fascinating caliber; a kind of cyberpunk cowboy meets neo-noir gumshoe grappling with issues of a scale larger than he can imagine, becoming wrapped up in it all in life-altering ways. The role is steeped in tragedy and Gosling makes it hit home in ways sure to hang with you after retiring from the theater.
Franchise centerpiece Ford comfortably steps right back into the shoes of the gruff-voiced Rick Deckard, the changes manifested in him since last we checked in true to the character we once knew with enough surprising changes inlaid to add new elements of depth and coerce upon him new metaphysical and emotion challenges. Revisiting a definitive role from his past, Ford submitting a sobering performance with unexpected splashes of tenderness.
The more than can be said about the entire cast the better but it’s also worth crediting the supporting players, with each character, no matter how minuscule their screen time, making an indelible impression on the film at large. From Dave Bautista’s Sapper Morton to Mackenzie Davis’ Mariette and Carla Juri’s Dr. Ana Stelline, each character is expertly positioned, not one moment or breathe wasted and the performers help to make these characters flesh and blood, even when they remain fundamentally artificial. The script does a supreme job of concealing true purpose, each thread slowly revealing its importance, with great attention to detail put into each unveiling. For it, the characters shine. Even little pop-ins from the likes of Lennie James and Barkad Abdi remain crucial to coloring in the desperation and disrepair of Blade Runner 2049’s shambled world.
Proving the pen is indeed mightier than the sword, Hampton Fancher and Michael Green champion ideas over dustups, toiling to craft a blockbuster bustling with thoughts and short on skirmishes. Their Russian Nesting Doll of storytelling leans heavily on musing and philosophical treaties, allowing themes of oppression, slavery and revolution to intersect with ideas of destiny and communal unity, while also telling a compelling and well-rounded story in its own right. Any potential offspring of Blade Runner ran the risk of pseudo-intellectualism, making one of 2049’s greatest surprises the fact that Green and Fancher prove more than capable of corralling a girth of legitimately jolting, brain-wracking concepts into one succinct and satisfying screenplay.
At the head of it all, Denis Villenueve, the fast-tracked to prominence maestro-auteur behind Enemy, Sicario and Arrival, conducts the story with careful dedication and unbelievable discipline. Like its predecessor, Blade Runner 2049 rewards patience and Villenueve exploits audience’s thirst for information. In fact, he directly requested critics not spoil a laundry list of character and plot reveals because of the fact that he knows that the mystery is half the fun. Aware that he has an ace in his sleeve in the script, Villenueve plants the pieces Green and Fancher detail carefully, allowing requisite time to take in the scenery, familiarize with the characters and feel the weight of the stakes involved before going full throttle and watching the cards tumble as they may. 2049’s elongated 163 minute runtime and slim ratio of heart-racing sequences has the potential to turn viewers hungry for action off but Villenueve seems to know that true fans of science fiction and the original Blade Runner will always champion smart storytelling and heady philosophizing over dime-a-dozen action sequences and consequently resigns fully to proffer intelligence over glitz and cheap spectacle at every junction.
That’s not to say that Blade Runner 2049 doesn’t command demonstrative spectacle, the entire behind-the-scenes crew is an explosion of talent that manifests itself in majorly impressive ways throughout. Villenueve’s vision displays neon-lit supercities overtaken by invasive and hugely prominent interactive ad campaigns and dust-plowed yesteryear civilizations, all of which lit with an artist performing at his peak by Roger Deakins (Sicario, Skyfall). On the sonic front, the music from Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer squeals – a mash of electrified didgeridoo, roaring hovercar engines and titillating otherworldly organ runs, creating a sonicscape piping hot with searing dread and epochal potential. Production design from Dennis Gassner (The Truman Show, Skyfall) brings to life another world, details plunged into the margins of every shot.
Building on the foundation of a 30-year old film is no easy task. It becomes much harder when the film in question is a certifiably classic if not an outright masterpiece. A few years back when the idea of a Blade Runner sequel was making the rounds on entertainment circuits, I was one of many who turned up my nose, confident that the project would prove a sacrilegious cash grab, busy with snap-edits, lazy writing and stodgy shoot-outs. The result is quite the opposite. In fact Blade Runner 2049 pays so much attention to ducking what could have gone wrong that it encounters snags I never would have imagined – for instance, it can be too cerebral at times, making for long thought-provoking stretches devoid of a blockbuster’s pulse. Call me overly accustomed to ADHD tentpole fare but there are moments of boredom scattered throughout Blade Runner 2049 that trimming a few dozen minutes off the runtime might improve, at least for that initial run. I expect to fully eat my words on a rewatch as Blade Runner 2049 seems destined to be a filmic dish that grows richer and more dense with each consumption, those additional 20-30 of slowly-paced additions likely details I will later cherish.
No matter what your final opinion of the film, whether you find it a modern masterpiece or an intoxicated-on-its-own-fumes chore, Villeneuve has undeniably achieved something grand, making a sequel with insurmountable worth in its own right; one that pays tribute to its ancestor while diverting down newfound interesting avenues. That the man has done so with meticulous attentiveness and a core interest in the underlying philosophical questions of Ridley’s film and Dick’s foremost novella only goes to show how he is, to his very core, the biggest Blade Runner fan of us all.
CONCLUSION: Beautiful and bold with an almost unbelievably satisfying story at its center, ‘Blade Runner 2049’ is that rare excellent sequel; a singular vision that expands on the mythology and ideology of its predecessor, crowded with first-class performances, stunning production elements and cautious, rousing direction from Denis Villeneuve.