When I first heard that they were going to make a sequel to Ridley Scott’s sci-fi classic “Blade Runner,” I wondered, “Why the hell would you do that?” The original film, released in 1982, was, by all accounts, a commercial and critical disaster. Its reputation as a critical darling grew over the years, and it is now widely considered to be one of the greatest science fiction films ever made. It’s become an iconic film, and that’s all the more reason why it seemed like such a misguided idea. Thankfully, my worries were misplaced.
Director Denis Villeneuve has steadily made a name for himself over the last few years making tense, emotionally engaging films such as the fantastic crime thriller “Sicario” (2015) and last year’s compelling sci-fi drama “Arrival,” and he’s pulled off another success here with the engrossing “Blade Runner 2049.”
Set 30 years after the original film, “2049” features Ryan Gosling playing a character named K who works for the Los Angeles Police Department as a “blade runner” – someone who tracks down rogue synthetic humans known as replicants and “retires” (kills) them. K also happens to be a replicant, but he’s a newer, more compliant brand. On one of his blade running assignments, K discovers a long-buried secret that potentially has catastrophic consequences for the fate of humanity. K ultimately ends up on a mission to find Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), a former blade runner who has been missing for the last 30 years. To say more would really ruin the fun of letting the picture unfold before you.
The acting is fairly strong across the board. Gosling’s performance is great. He’s always been an actor skilled at expressing emotional vulnerability and a detached stoicism, both traits on full display in this film. Rounding out the characters are Detective K’s tough-as-nails boss, Lt. Joshi (a steely cool Robin Wright), the sinister Niander Wallace (a disquieting and creepy Jared Leto), and K’s digital, live-in girlfriend, Joi (played with winning verve by relative newcomer Ana de Armas).
And, of course, there’s Ford. What can be said about Harrison Ford that hasn’t already been said at this point? He loves to play up his cranky, gruff image on talk show appearances and his latter-day film work and, while I’ve personally grown tired of his shtick (“The Force Awakens” notwithstanding), Ford’s really good here. He’s laconic and reserved but conveys so much pent-up emotion with simple facial gestures.
As good as the performances are, the film is simply a marvel to look at. The production design and special effects are superbly realized. The renowned Roger Deakins (long-time Coen Brothers collaborator, among many other directors) served as cinematographer, and the images are flat-out gorgeous. There’s a smörgåsbord of visually arresting color schemes throughout, from the cloudy, metallic city scape of a futuristic Los Angeles, to an orange fever dream of a radioactive, dilapidate Las Vegas skyline. Even just a simple shot of a trench coat-clad Ryan Gosling walking through a snow-covered street is sublime, like watching a lost Edward Hopper painting come to life.
Despite being nearly three hours, the experience of watching it didn’t feel long, at least not to me. The film takes its time with the characters and doesn’t rush through scenes. Much like the first film, it’s a joy to let the film just consume you with its drearily hypnotic spell, to luxuriate in the masterfully composed visuals. And, much like the original, the film tackles weighty philosophical issues such as whether or not synthetic humans can have souls, what it really means to be human, and the degree to how much memories define one’s humanity.
One thing that’s certain – and it can’t be overstated – is that Villeneuve and company have done something incredible here: they’ve made a sequel that’s worthy to stand alongside the original film. You could probably count on one hand (OK, maybe two hands) the number of sequels that are either on par with the original or even surpass the original. Some that spring immediately to mind are “The Godfather Part II,” “Aliens,” and the original “Dawn of the Dead” (on some days, I’d take all three of those over their predecessors). The best kind of sequels are those that expand upon and enrich the universe of the original film in ways that are stylistically, thematically and emotionally satisfying. “Blade Runner 2049” does that in spades.
“Blade Runner 2049” is a film, like its beloved predecessor, that’ll only grow in stature over time. I’d urge people to see the film at the theater. Don’t wait until it’s on TV. It should be experienced on the biggest screen available to really maximize the enjoyment.
I will say, too, that you probably don’t need to have seen the original “Blade Runner” to enjoy the sequel; the film’s opening text prologue fills viewers in on the events and aftermath of the first film. Having said that, I don’t know why someone would want to see a sequel to a film if they haven’t seen the original. But that’s just me.