by Michael Henley
For many filmgoers, Ridley Scott’s 1982 classic Blade Runner didn’t just tell a story, it colonized the imagination. Like Metropolis and the original Star Wars, Blade Runner was a seminal work in the history of visual science fiction, with its blend of groundbreaking special effects, existential themes and film noir affectations. But it also created a world–an intricate vision of dystopian Los Angeles that presaged cyberpunk and predicted the future, both on screen and (here’s a scary truth) in real life. As far as fiction goes, note the lineage between Blade Runner‘s visual aesthetic and the films that followed in its wake: The Matrix, Ghost in the Shell, Akira, Dark City, Gattaca, many of the Batman films. The list goes on. In many ways, Blade Runner is one of the most influential science fiction films ever made.
But was it calling out for a sequel? If the original’s immersive and intimate qualities had the semblance of a perfectly-orchestrated magic trick, a follow up runs every risk of breaking the spell, not to mention perhaps answering that pesky textual question (you know…THAT one) that has delighted and stymied Blade Runner fans for decades.
All the credit then, should go to director Denis Villeneuve and his army of writers and actors and craftsmen, who have together constructed Blade Runner 2049: not just a worthy sequel to the original Blade Runner, but a note-perfect expansion of it that, like all great sequels, works in concert with its predecessor. It’s essentially The Godfather II of sci fi films–it’s such of a piece with the original that the two films inform and strengthen each other. And fans will have sensible arguments for years about which one is better.
And certainly 2049 is a more heartfelt sequel. The original, due in no small part to Ridley Scott’s cold and meticulous direction, gained most of its emotional traction from the plight of Rutger Hauer’s poor Roy Batty (as much as I try, it’s a little tough to care about Harrison Ford’s pointedly callow performance as protagonist Deckerd, and his romance with the replicant Rachel, played by Sean Young, has always felt more like plot mechanics than love).
This one, which moves 30 years past the original, gives us a noir hero named K (Ryan Gosling), who is a dutiful and efficient blade runner for the Los Angeles police department, a job that still tasks cops with the hunting down of enemy “replicants,” (that is, bioengineered humans designed for menial labor, who are gifted with phony memories and are treated like second-class citizens or worse). A newly-manufactured line of replicants created by a millionaire named Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) are docile and subservient, but stray older models are still considered a threat that must be stamped out, and K is especially effective at finding them. There is a good reason for that: K is a replicant.
This is not a spoiler–it’s revealed very early in the film. However I will now move carefully to preserve plot secrets. K lives with a foot in two worlds–respected, up to a point, by his police captain (Robin Wright) but slathered with racism and abuse by citizens and cops alike, while other replicants see him as a traitor to their race. He has a wife at home, Joi (Ana de Ar,as), but she is a hologram of questionable sentience (and clocking her level is one of the fun games the movie asks you to play). In one of the movie’s neatest throwaway lines, a shady replicant prostitute (MacKenzie Davis) goes out of her way to throw a vicious insult towards Joi, and although the jury’s out on whether what she says is racist (since neither of them are technically people), the message is clear: everybody looks down on somebody.
2049‘s world of Los Angeles, a mix of towering skyscrapers and urban sprawl that mingles abject poverty with impossible wealth, has only grown more cold since we last left it. The sky is grayer, the world is darker. There are rumblings of a recent ecological collapse. Sometimes it rains in the city, and sometimes there is an ashen snowfall that covers everything in grime. The pleasure palaces and bars in L.A. have never seemed more pathetic (a great early overhead shot shows distracting neon ads peaking out from the streets of endless rows of grey, impoverished hovels). Outside the metropolis lie either junkyards ruled by bandits or the bronze environs of the former Tyrell building (now Wallace’s empire), where the floors glisten with water and the effect dances across sand-blasted walls, like if Goldfinger went Egyptian. Not to be outdone, a later sequence set in radiation-pummeled Old Las Vegas is so eerie and empty it might as well take place on Mars. Throughout, Roger Deakins’ cinematography is unspeakably good, conjuring awe and dread somehow simultaneously again and again. Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer’s terrific score dances around the original themes by Vangelis but then brings them somewhere more frightening and industrial and elemental.
But beneath it all there is a story here, one of artificial intelligence testing its limitations and breaking some of its shackles, but I’ll refrain from describing who is doing what, and why, and in spite of whom. Let us just say that throughout much of the film’s generous 164-minute length, the filmmakers have the patience to take their time. Villeneuve is fascinated by the story (by Hampton Fancher, who co-wrote the original, and Logan’s Michael Green), but he also is in no hurry to summarize the finer points. There are two hypnotic sequences…well, there are many, but two in particular–one involving an unorthodox love scene between K and Joi, and the other being a visit to the person who creates memories for the replicants. Although they both fulfill plot purposes they also have the temerity to set things aside and firstly be about themselves.
More of the plot I cannot say, although there are roles for Sylvia Hoeks playing a vicious henchman for Wallace, and a substantial part (once he enters) for Ford’s Deckerd as well. What happens, and why, I will leave for you to determine, especially since, as Blade Runner fans have long known, mystery and ambiguity has always been part of the game.
What I can say is that the cast is outstanding. Gosling, who is a master of thousand-yard-stares concealing a slow burn, has a deceptively tricky role that he nails, especially as the mystery he pursues being to have far-reaching existential consequences. His performance is so controlled that when he snaps it has the some of the same impact that the visuals do. De Armas makes a poignant love interest, if those are indeed the right words. Hoeks, as the replicant assassin Luv, is never less than fiercely compelling, the nuances of her broken psyche always hinted, never underlined. And then there is Ford, who has never been better during this late stage of his career. There’s one scene here, late in the telling, that possesses such conviction and pain that it brushes away our memories of recent performances where Ford was practically a replicant himself. And as for Jared Leto, his performance is quietly odd, but the movie has the good sense to know a little of him goes a long way.
In the end there are questions, upholding a long tradition of murky philosophical conundrums, passed down not just by the original film but the source novel authored by Philip K. Dick. If a machine is given the same memories and emotions as a human, is it alive? What is life, anyway, especially in a world that continues to find new ways to devalue it? Does something have to be born to have a soul? (“You’ve been doing just fine without one,” sniffs Wright’s captain to K at one point.) If you are the sum of your experiences, what can you conclude when your experiences are lies? The replicants, with their sufferings of slavery and classism, can stand in for any oppressed people–why does human society always find a way to function on the backs on a demonized class?
Like all great science fiction, Blade Runner 2049 is much more interested in asking questions then providing answers, content at letting the implications linger. What a rare treat, to see big budget science fiction be done with this much intelligence and grandeur. What a movie this is, so filled with big ideas and also lavish spectacle that always serves them. What a relief it is, to answer the one question that all Blade Runner have actually wanted an answer: no, they didn’t screw it up.
Note: the film is available in IMAX, 3D and regular presentations. I’ve seen it twice and, despite some modifications to the framing, I strongly recommend the IMAX experience.