Blade Runner: 2049 is an utterly phenomenal film. It is also a very tough nut to crack, and one that most audiences won’t care to.
This is perhaps appropriate, as its predecessor, 1982’s Blade Runner, was very much the same. Though Blade Runner: 2049 has the style, special effects, and budget of a major blockbuster, it’s not a movie for mass audiences. Most movie-goers today don’t even know what Blade Runner is, let alone have actually watched it. Trying to make an esoteric high-concept science-fiction film into a blockbuster is probably not going to pay-off the way Hollywood studio execs want it to. It didn’t for the original Blade Runner, and it might not now.
In most cases, there is a straight line drawn from original film to sequel. But instead of that straight line, picture a circle; that’s the original Blade Runner. Now picture a second, larger circle encompassing the first; that’s Blade Runner: 2049. It is more of a masterful expansion of the core concepts and themes than a direct, linear sequel. And I believe that is one of its greatest strengths.
2016’s Arrival instantly launched into my top-ten, and solidified Denis Villeneuve as one of my favorite directors working today. His work on BR:2049 has only served to further my respect for him and my awe at what he is capable of putting on screen. If you are interested in seeing what Blade Runner would look like if it was visually reinterpreted for audiences in 2017, that’s exactly what Villeneuve accomplished. He took the world Ridley Scott created in the original and brought it into the contemporary, and it is stunning in every way. The noir presence and the urban crush of the sci-fi cityscape are intact, and Villeneuve adds to the world of Blade Runner in surprising, brilliant, and significant ways.
And the characters that inhabit this world are excellently embodied in the cast. Ryan Gosling’s gives a subtle and understated performance as LAPD officer K, one that you cannot help but connect with. This is complimented by Ana de Armas’s heartfelt role as Joi, K’s artificial-intelligence companion. Harrison Ford is not present simply for show and he knows it, as he gives probably his best performance in ten years or more, actually putting Rick Deckard on the screen again. These three are backed-up by a mostly excellent supporting cast, including the LAPD captain played by Robin Wright (who only gets better as time goes by), a small but pivotal role from Dave Bautista, and a stand-out performance from Carla Juri as Ana. There are a couple characters that fall flat, but that isn’t the fault of the acting – I’ll get to that in a minute.
The sound design in BR:2049 is of the highest quality perhaps that I’ve ever heard. And the score, gloriously helmed by the eminent Hans Zimmer, is, in my mind, an instant classic. He took the shimmering threads woven by Vangelis in 1982 and created a gorgeous tapestry at turns darkly pulsing and devastatingly beautiful. I wouldn’t be at all surprised come Oscar time to see both the sound design and score claimed by BR:2049. All that being said, there were a few moments when both the sound and the score bordered on sensory overload, and took me out of the film instead of keeping me in it.
The screenplay by Hampton Fancher (who wrote the original) and Michael Green, as brilliant as it is, is also imperfect. The aforementioned problems with two of the characters – namely Sylvia Hoeks’s replicant Luv and Jared Leto’s tech-corp god Niander Wallace – stem directly from the script. Luv’s motivations seem somewhat inconsistent and ultimately confused. And one gets the sense that Leto’s Wallace was supposed to be the devil at the dark center of the film, but the character collapses under the weight of his own monologuing and philosophizing. Both roles are well-acted, but ultimately fail to be what the story needs them to be, and that’s a shame.
There is also a subplot involving a one-eyed character that is never fully fleshed-out. There are a couple sequences that didn’t quite work – one including a visual overlay of two characters, and another depicting an anachronistic fist-fight that is more style than substance. And as much as I love long movies and rejoiced at discovering that BR:2049 was nearly three hours long, I did feel that length wearing on me by the end, and I think the movie could have benefited from a tighter runtime.
But these flaws do not stop Blade Runner: 2049 from being a brilliant film, merely a perfect one. It is a movie that truly understands its origins, its world, and its themes. It pays homage without ever repeating or violating what came before. Like a symphony, many motifs are revisited, but with variations. There were a few big questions that were left open at the end of the original Blade Runner, and 2049 does a masterful job of addressing those questions without answering them. I cannot adequately say how much I appreciate this. Not all stories need to be tied up in a little bow. A good story should ask a question, and allow the audience to think through the answer.
And those core questions are still there: What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be…something else? What is the relationship between creator and created? If Descartes was right when he said “I think, therefore I am”, what is the difference between authentic humanity and synthetically-created life? And does that difference even matter?
Blade Runner: 2049 is a dramatic and at times poetically tragic tale of discovering who you really are, the meaning of being a living thing, and your true place in the world – both pre-determined and otherwise. With themes of identity and humanity (partially embodied in the A.I. named Joi and the replicant named Luv), the value of life (both your own and those you care for), and self-sacrifice, it is a deeply poignant study of perhaps the only real question: What is the point of all of this?
BR:2049 is not a film that is immediately and viscerally likeable – you will not walk out of the theater smiling and animatedly talking with your friends about how awesome it was. You will more likely walk back to the car in silence, trying to process what you just saw. Like a good piece of literature, the full depth and complexity of the film calls for multiple viewings and deep consideration.
In the end, Blade Runner: 2049 is a brilliant, if flawed, film. Even considering its faults, it is still a better, more worthwhile film than almost anything being made today, a movie brave enough with its ideas to risk audiences not liking them. And that’s a rare and valuable thing. The more I think about it, the more and more I appreciate it; and the more I appreciate it, the more I am falling in love with it. It is not typical block-buster fast food. It is a meal that takes a long time to digest, but in the end it is supremely satisfying.