If you know me, you know that I am one of the few people out there who think Ridley Scott’s original Blade Runner (1982) teeters towards the edge of overrated. If it wasn’t for Scott’s visual style and his long lasting influence on science fiction/cyberpunk films, as well as the film’s love letter callbacks to film noir tropes, I think Blade Runner could’ve been lost in the sea of 80s Harrison Ford classics. I’ve seen Blade Runner a number of times now, and while I sit in awe at the imagery every viewing, I can’t deny that I care little about the characters and there are some ambiguous moments that don’t connect for me. When it was announced, in this age of sequels/prequels/reboots/re-franchising that has swept the 2010s, that Scott’s sci-fi noir would be getting a sequel with Harrison Ford reprising his role as Deckard, I was excited and anxious at once: excited because it was also announced that Ryan Gosling would star and Director of Photography Roger Deakins would shoot the movie, but anxious because most blockbuster sequels these days that are trying to rehash a once-acclaimed movie have the intention of starting an all new franchise – such as Jurassic World (2015) or Independence Day: Resurgence (2016). In all fairness, Star Wars is guilty of this too. When I walked out of Blade Runner 2049 (2017), I was pleasantly surprised that I didn’t just get sci-fi action and visual effects for two and a half hours. What I got was an enriching and grounded story with two of my favorite actors and the support of great cinematography and sound.
Blade Runner 2049 takes place in California 30 years after the events of Scott’s first film. Just like in the original, there are Replicants and there are humans. Replicants are artificially created humans with enhanced strength and human characteristics used for slave labor off-world. In the original, Replicants are deemed illegal and law enforcers, known as Blade Runners, are assigned to “retire” them. In the 30 years since, a new breed of Replicants have been created; these live in harmony with humans and some of those Replicants are assigned to “retire” illegal Replicants still out there. Like Harrison Ford in the ’82 original, Ryan Gosling is a Blade Runner for the LAPD, named “K,” who uncovers a conspiracy of some sort that leads him down a trail of bread crumbs and across the paths of some new and familiar faces. That’s about all I’m going to be able to give you for plot details since director Dennis Villenueve has expressed concerns with reviews/critics spoiling plot points. Out of respect for Mr. Villenueve, that’s all the plot I am going to give you.
Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford are two actors I don’t think I have ever disliked in a movie. There’s a reason I have posters of both of these actors in my apartment and it’s because I honestly think they are immortal. Gosling’s “K” is a multi-layered detective who may not have the same drinking problem as Ford’s Deckard, but he isn’t running around shooting Replicants. There’s conflict to “K” and when Deckard is reintroduced to the story, he is essential rather than obligatory. Given Deckard is a relatively one dimensional character in the original, seeing him fleshed out more in this sequel really helps improve his character, as opposed to Ford’s reprisal of Han Solo in which he merely revisits a character already universally loved. At the end of the original Blade Runner, I’m not blown away by Deckard’s character – at the end of 2049, I feel as if this is the character audiences deserved back in 1982. I was apprehensive about Ford’s involvement given the vague implications about whether or not he is a Replicant at the end of the original. I wasn’t sure if I wanted a hard yes/no, and by the end of the film you have IMPLICATIONS (just like the first), but never anything concrete. Take that how you want, I personally enjoyed it. Robin Wright and Dave Baustista have solid performances here, as well, but it is certainly Gosling who carries the movie on his shoulders even if Ford’s involvement takes some of that weight off. But I’ll say it again, this is Gosling’s movie.
If you have seen Arrival (2016), then you know that Villenueve can indeed approach science fiction with a fondness for human emotion and identity. Just like Arrival, Blade Runner 2049 relies heavily on its characters driving the story rather than huge set pieces and jaw-dropping visual effects. That’s not to say that 2049 does not have these in spades. I mean Roger Deakins shot this thing – just about any shot from this movie can be a portrait over your mantle. While the original certainly harkens back to the Humphrey Bogart/Barbara Stanwyck days, with hard-boiled hard-drinking detectives and chain-smoking femme fatales, Villenueve never forgets the roots of Scott’s world, and instead of trying to fit in easter egg after easter egg of light-up umbrellas and origami unicorns, he takes Scott’s 1982 vision of California in 2019 and gives it a 30 year upgrade. Nothing feels forced in Villenueve’s world building, and nothing feels like a cash grab at franchising Blade Runner. In the wrong hands, this sequel could have been a fan film, but Villenueve shows maturity as a director and steers clear of that by making a sequel that, in all honesty, can hold its own without its predecessor.
For anyone looking for more of an action/sci-fi epic that the trailers and TV commercials are marketing, you’re going to find the pacing here to be a slow, SLOW burn. There are probably three legitimate action scenes in the whole film and the remainder is very much an investigative movie – just like the original. The first has pacing issues as well, and if you are a fan of it, then you won’t have an issue with the 2 hour 43 minute runtime. At the end, the labored pacing of the original is more than justified by its everlasting influence on sci-fi film. We won’t know if there will be payoff for 2049 until another 30 years from now, most likely. People don’t realize but in 1982, Blade Runner was not as acclaimed as it is now. It took 15-ish years for it to become what it is now; who’s to say the same will or won’t happen with 2049?
Pacing issues aside, this is some of Roger Deakins’s best work as a cinematographer this late in his career; the sound design and score are outstanding, and Ryan Gosling continues to have my heart. Blade Runner 2049 is not the sequel I was expecting, but the juice was certainly worth the squeeze. It’s more than the “good guys vs. Replicants” of the original, and it engrosses you with neon/noir visuals and a defining question of morality and choice – whether you are human or Replicant.