Blade Runner 2049 is an astounding achievement. After walking breathlessly out of the cinema I feel like I need to lay all my cards on the table and just come out and say it. A sequel to a cult classic that defined sci-fi films and cinema itself shouldn’t be this good - it couldn’t be this good. It’s impossible, an anomaly as strange and unique as it’s predecessor. Yet, here we are.
Blade Runner 2049 takes place 30 years after the original, bringing us back to the bleak, neon soaked noir hellscape of the original, fiercely evocative of Philip K. Dick’s seminal novel, but we’re not stuck to the confines of bleak California by night. Modern technology and a beefy budget allow the film to show us the city in hazy, smog filled day time, and even take us beyond the city limits to the bone dry wasteland of San Diego, and the orange neon, hazy hellscape of Las Vegas - looking for all intents and purposes like regular Vegas does anyway.
2049 puts us in the synthetic shoes of Officer KD6-3.7 (Ryan Gosling), a Blade Runner like Deckard before him, tasked with hunting down replicants, mainly the last of the discontinued but long lived Nexus 8 models in hiding across the planet. After coming across a Nexus 8 (Dave Bautista) on a protein farm, he discovers a buried box of old ones that lead him on the trial of a discovery that threatens to tear the fragile society of this dystopian earth apart.
In the three decades since we’ve been in this world, much has changed. Earth’s ecosystem has gone the way of the dodo, leaving the world reliant on replicant run protein farms, like the one we find the hulking Bautista tending to, wearing a tiny pair of glasses. The Tyrell Corporation, responsible for the renegade Nexus 8’s from the first flick has been bought out and rebranded as the Wallace Corporation.
Led by Niander Wallace (Jared Leto, in creepy Jesus form) the corporation essentially rules all, sending more advanced replicants to work slave labour on the colonies off earth, and keep the lowly earth underclasses fed with synthetic crap and pacified by sexy holograms.
Many of the themes of the first film are revisited, and the idea of humanity playing god and subjugating their “lesser” creations is writ large. More so than the first film, the replicants of Blade Runner 2049 are docile, and easily identified by a serial number printed on their eyeballs. There’s a curious fixation on eyes once more, tied as windows to the soul. Niander Wallace is blind, and sees with a menagerie of creepy drones. He’s also in many ways, as you’ll see in the film, soulless himself.
While Blade Runner needed the iconic Voight-Kampff machine to tell replicant from human, no such formalities are needed here. Replicants are under no illusions that they are actual human beings and are treated as such, subjugated and hated by the humans they serve.
Director Denis Villeneuve brings us a bold and beautiful film, that’s uncompromisingly uncommercial, slowly paced, languid, and gorgeous throughout every single second of its considerable running time. This is not an action sci-fi blockbuster, devoid of depth and substance. When violence enters the frame, it’s brief and unflinchingly brutal. There are no protracted gun fights, no spectacularly sized finale. Blade Runner 2049 will not set the box office on fire, but in the same way that the original attracted a slow burn of devoted cult followers, this follow up will surely garner praise from that same crowd.
Criticisms are few and far between. While 2049 milks many of the notes and scenes of the original film, it feels more like a desire to join the dots of the universe rather than crassly callback, pay homage, or even telegraph easter eggs for Blade Runner buffs. The sequel tells it’s own story that links to the first in increasingly surprising ways. Gosling is perfect as K, playing it somewhere between his role in Drive and his startling turn in La La Land. It feels as though the role was made for him, his wry, understated charisma a subtle counterpoint to the gruff, noir detective that was Ford as Deckard.
Perhaps the weakest link is Leto as Wallace. He only appears to monologue and be generally a bit of a bastard. He doesn’t share any scenes with Deckard or K, and feels more like he was slotted in because there was space for another villain in the script. His god complex and technologically augmented vision adds an interesting wrinkle to the underlying themes of whether replicants have souls, and what constitutes humanity, but otherwise, he has little reason to be around save for providing exposition and an evil scheme.
Since he’s on the poster, it’s not a spoiler alert to say that Harrison Ford returns as Deckard, the titular Blade Runner from the first film. However, what’s truly surprisingly is the punishment that Villeneuve puts old Ford through. A return to the role should have been easy for him. A quick cameo, a few gruff lines, and then perhaps he could go the way of Han Solo in the seventh Star Wars episode. Instead, we get to see Ford tossed into perhaps the best performance of his entire career, plumbing great emotional depths from an aged Deckard. There’s tears and rain here, for sure, and even a heaping of snow this time around.
It’s hard to not just keep heaping praise on Blade Runner 2049. It’s an astoundingly anti-2017 film, a slow burning, visually gorgeous sci-fi epic that flips a synthetic middle finger to Hollywood and it’s formulaic, cookie cutter big budget extravaganzas. Holding the blackest mirror up to our own world Blade Runner 2049 succeeds in all the ways it’s predecessor did, and then some. It’s a sequel that didn’t need to exist, and now I can’t imagine a world without it. Everyone must see this.