by Tyler Jennes
Not many films can claim to have had as vast an influence as that of Blade Runner. In the 35 years since the film’s release, countless forms of media have cited Ridley Scott’s dystopian neo-noir opus as a primary inspiration. This film has deeply affected both filmgoers and filmmakers, this writer included. So, when it was announced that an official Blade Runner sequel was in production, many fans understandably grew anxious. Then came the news that French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve was to helm the film and the wave of relief was almost palpable. Villeneuve has had one of the finest track records in recent memory, with films like Prisoners, Sicario, and Arrival receiving widespread critical and commercial success.But, even for one as accomplished as him, taking on a Blade Runner sequel is an enormous responsibility.
If Blade Runner 2049 were to be compared to another sci-fi sequel, the closest example that comes to mind is Tron: Legacy. Both are films made decades after the original, with gorgeous visuals and a tone that varies ever so slightly from its predecessor. In 2049, we return to the future California, with a barrage of advertisements and seedy morals at every turn. Whereas the original film was a firm neo-noir, this film is better labelled as a general mystery-adventure, with the protagonist discovering an earth-shattering secret as an organization attempts to track him down. So, in basic terms, this film is not just a retread of the first one; rather, it is an entirely new story set in the same universe.
First and foremost, this is a gorgeous movie purely from the visuals alone. Cinematographer Roger Deakins, who previously worked with Villeneuve on Sicario, is allowed to go completely hog-wild in regards to exploring the film’s environment. From the deep cyan tones of the city to the vibrant oranges of the desert, Deakins utilizes a clear color scheme to distinguish between scenes. In crafting a compelling sci-fi story, it’s crucial to build up the world around it. This is what Deakins clearly understands, which is why there are so many extreme wide shots throughout the film;all of which highlight the detailed world that our characters reside in.
But, of course, when it comes to a grandiose sci-fi film, visuals are not the sole element needed. First and foremost, a competent narrative is required. Fortunately for Blade Runner fans, original co-writer Hampton Fancher returned to pen the script for this film, alongside writer Michael Green, who just this year worked on such projects as American Gods and Logan. As a whole, the film fires on all cylinders, giving us an engaging narrative populated by varied and interesting characters. Nearly everyone in the film, regardless of screen-time, manages to leave an impact. All of which adds up to an incredibly satisfying film experience.
Our protagonist, K (Ryan Gosling), is quite honestly, one of the best parts of the movie, in large part due to the acting performance. One of the hardest tasks for an actor to do is play such an emotionally-subdued character, but Gosling manages to overcome this and give not just one of the best performances in the film, but one of the best in his entire career. K fulfills multiple types of roles throughout the narrative, ranging from dutiful officer to unintentional hero, and at no point loses the audience’s attention.
And of course, Harrison Ford returns to the character of Rick Deckard, who, in the first film, was almost the dictionary definition of a flawed protagonist. After over three decades, his situation has not changed all that much; he is still a hard-boiled curmudgeon thrown into the story by forces outside his control. This is the latest in a series of character revivals by Ford, with Indiana Jones and Han Solo rounding out the trifecta of roles he made iconic in decades past. In a contest between his reprisal of Han and Deckard, the latter just edges out on top. It’s clear that Ford wanted to explore more aspects of the character, rather than in Han’s case, with which he just wanted to create a really nice performance bookend.
Then we have the antagonists – the übermensch-like Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), and his volatile enforcer Luv (Sylvia Hoeks). These characters are one of the few issues I have with the film. Ignoring all comparisons to Rutger Hauer’s sublime performance in the first film, Wallace just doesn’t have any payoff to make his character worthwhile. He’s not uninteresting as a character, and Leto does a perfectly fine job playing him, but he simply isn’t in the film enough to make a genuine impact on the audience. Then we have Luv, who manages to be the only character in the film that feels truly two-dimensional. She’s a psychopathic android who’s psychopathic for zero reason whatsoever. There’s a motif of her crying at certain points in the film – again, for zero reason. But this isn’t a huge issue in the grand scheme of the story, as the film isn’t primarily focused on the arcs of the antagonists, but rather, those of the protagonists.
The only other minor issue with the film is the score. After original composer and Sicario and Arrival alum Jóhann Jóhannsson was removed from the film, Benjamin Wallfisch and horn blare-enthusiast Hans Zimmer were brought in to write the music. It’s impossible to avoid comparisons to Vangelis’ groundbreaking original synth score because that’s all Wallfisch and Zimmer try to do. The result is a perfectly adequate score that never goes the extra mile to become an exceptionally memorable aural experience. One of the biggest sins in the film, music-wise, is found in one scene where an iconic track by Vangelis is reused verbatim to replicate the same kind of feeling as the original, to mixed success.
Looking at the film as a whole, these complaints are fairly minor. In essence, Blade Runner 2049 is a treat to watch, both visually and narratively. It rises above the stigma of being just another movie sequel to become a thought-provoking and genuinely fascinating film that deserves every bit of praise it’s been getting. It’s rare to see a sci-fi film that attains such an epic scope, so this is a feature that demands to be seen on as big a screen as humanly possible. In summation, it goes without saying that this film is highly recommended.