The long-delayed sequel to Blade Runner may not be as much of an accomplishment as the original 1982 film, but it is still manages to be a commendable sequel that dazzles the mind and the senses.
It is all too common for an eagerly anticipated film to fail to live up to expectations. The cause of this failure can be a number of things, not limited to; poor quality, conceited artistic choices by the filmmakers, or the fact that the film feels like it diverges from what we had hoped it would be. I’m here to tell you that Blade Runner: 2049 is an interesting case of eagerly-anticipated movie. This is one film that both meets and fails to meet expectations. It ends up being a great movie, but not for the reasons we had hoped it would be.
Let’s start with the approach. From the title, we already knew it would take place 30 years after the original film. We expected that a lot would have changed between 2019 and 2049, and indeed that is true. Lengthy title cards explain to us the events that have changed the world of Blade Runner between the end of the last film and the beginning of this one. They explain a world that has experienced great social and economic upheaval, to the point where replicants are a necessity for the continued existence of humanity, rather than a convenience. What we didn’t expect is a movie that doesn’t really feel like Blade Runner. Instead of Deckard’s detective work unveiling a clue to the future of the human race, 2049’s Agent K is digging in his past. The film spends much of its time looking backwards, rather than forward.
The consistency of 2049 is also in contrast to expectations based on what we saw in Blade Runner. Unlike the original film, 2049 is sparse. Where as Blade Runner is dense, crowded, and claustrophobic, 2049 is open, more serene, and vast. The future of Earth is still plagued by massive sprawling cities and overpopulation, but it isn’t handled in the same way. An excellent example is a hair-raising sequence in which Agent K is flying over LA in his spinner (much like the opening scene of the original film), and the density seems to go on forever. It’s there in the background. The film is less concerned with the human condition than it is concerned with the condition of the species as a whole. In all but a couple of the sequences where Agent K is walking the streets, the sidewalks are crowd-free, a distinct difference between the world of the original film and this one. No one is outside because it is snowing. This is a nod to our contemporary concern of global warming and climate change, but also another reminder of the film’s overbearing message. Humanity is doomed.
For those of you who have not already picked up on it, the main character’s name is taken from his serial number. Like Rick Deckard, Agent K is a Blade Runner, but it is confirmed right from the opening scene that he is in fact a replicant. K is on a mission to retire a final set of older generation replicants. In the decades since the original film, the old style replicants have been outlawed and replaced with ones that will not rebel. Through his investigation he picks up an anomaly, which catches the attention of Niander Wallace, the wealthy prodigy who invented and builds the current crop of replicants, including agent K. For Wallace, this anomaly is a solution to a problem he could not solve. For Agent K, the anomaly sparks an interest in his own origins. To find the answers that he seeks, he must find Rick Deckard in order to learn the truth about what Wallace seeks before it is too late.
From an acting perspective, the film is solid. For those of you who criticize Ryan Gosling’s acting, the filmmakers have finally found a role to address your concerns: a robot. Despite his artificial nature, Gosling is able to gain our sympathy, although he isn’t the highlight of this film. Agent K has a holographic girlfriend played by Ana de Armas, who swoons over him simply because she’s programmed to. Armas does a great job in the role, and is able to add in enough emotion during the first half of the film to make up for the otherwise sterile environment. Harrison Ford’s return as Deckard lives up to expectations, although we don’t get to see much of him. Robin Wright does a good job as K’s superior, bringing a wit and a warmth the the production. Sylvia Hoeks is a standout as a terminator-like replicant who serves as a worthy adversary to Agent K.
Jared Leto is perhaps a bit over the top as Wallace, but I found his performance very intriguing and wanted to see more of it. Despite being one of the only human main characters in the film, his monotonous tone and syncopated speech made him feel more like a robot. He’s really a great character overall, especially in comparison with Tyrell from the first film. Wallace is blind, and there’s some irony in the fact that he has to rely on his robots to survive. He’s also frustrated with his own inabilities to perfect his creations. This is in contrast to Tyrell, who exuded an arrogance regarding his work. In 2049, humans are no longer in control, which impacts the entire movie with a sort of morbid desperation not unlike a horror film. Really the entire film revolves around this concept, which I thought is a spectacular one because it works on so many different levels.
Villeneuve’s direction takes over where his last sci-fi film, Arrival left off. Its smooth, crisp, and paced. The film’s attention-span-testing length can be seen as both a positive and a negative. I took it as a positive, because it affords Villeneuve to take his time and explore the world of Blade Runner at a natural pace. Sure, some of the shots could have been shortened in order to get the runtime down, but this is ultimately an epic sci-fi statement. Those people who were concerned when the trailers showed a lot of action don’t need to be concerned. Much in the same way that the original film moved slowly to allow the ambience of the setting to sink in, this one has a lot to show off.
If anything, the expansiveness of 2049 takes away from the neo noir approach of the first film, although the plot remains similar in approach (at least the first half of the film). Villeneuve’s direction has always been very disciplined and by-the-numbers, which brings a proficiency to the production. That much I expected. I didn’t expect the film to be so adventurous. For those of you that needed further proof that Deakins is one of the best in the business (if not the best), this is your proof. Even if this takes away from what the original Blade Runner was, I was happy to see this because the world of Blade Runner turns out to be a downright fascinating place to explore. The film builds to a climax that may not equal the tears in the rain monologue, but nevertheless gives it a run for its money. It’s almost cinematic perfection in my eyes, achieving something that is disturbing, beautiful, fitting, and poignant all at the same time.
In regards to THAT Deckard question, I think the film handles it well. Providing details here may be spoilers for some, so I’ll revisit the topic in another post. The film’s overall course away from expected sequel territory means that the importance of an answer to that question also shifts. This may be a frustration for fans of the original who were hoping that it would be the focus. Instead, the story from the original film is resolved as a method to move forward to other things (including the possibility of further sequels…). In spite of this, the film still plays homage to the original in as many ways as it can without becoming a distraction. The direction echoes Ridley Scott’s original work with focus on bands of light, but without outright copying it. Characters from the original film reappear at key moments to advance the story, and the soundtrack riffs off of the splendid Vangelis score of the original (but is never quite as memorable).
2049’s biggest fault is the fact that it is not Blade Runner. As a whole, the film is shallower and no where near “game-changer” status like the original. It treads on familiar territory we’ve seen in other films rather than creating something completely different, or continuing in the direction of the first film. Ultimately, I can’t hold this fault against Blade Runner: 2049. It’s a universal challenge for any delayed sequel, especially for one that is taking on a film with such a monumental legacy, three decades removed. It was a known challenge that the filmmakers had to acknowledge before they even began work, and even if the film did not meet our expectations for it in that regard, it succeeds in nearly every other one. In fact, the way the film approached this challenge is part of what makes it so compelling. By veering into a territory just outside of our anticipated expectations, Blade Runner: 2049 finds room to be a compelling and mesmerizing piece of art all on its own, without taking away anything from the original.