It’s been 35 years since Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner hit theaters, and when it takes this long for a sequel to roll around, a few questions need to be answered. No question is more important than “why?” Yes, we’re in a cultural moment where nearly everything is a sequel, prequel, reboot, or spinoff, but Scott’s dystopian film never organically called for a follow-up the way some films do. It’s a neo-noir thriller with an open ending, but from a character and thematic perspective, Scott neatly sewed up the story. Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), an android hunter known as a “blade runner,” learns that all life has some sort of value. Tired of killing others, he decides to go on the run with his android lover Rachel (Sean Young).
That leaves Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 with a pretty steep hill to climb. The sequel has to live up to the unforgettable visual style of Scott’s film, while simultaneously forging its own identity, and defending its reason for existing in the first place. Turnkey action sequels are fine for comic book movies, but a distinctive classic like Blade Runner demands an entirely different standard.
The good news is that Villeneuve’s film is every bit the original’s equal when it comes to breathtaking visuals and design, and Ryan Gosling is perfectly cast as K, the newest blade runner on the hunt for renegade “skin jobs.” The film ultimately doesn’t have the resonance and pure invention of the original, and over its nearly three-hour run time, that becomes increasingly clear. But it’s certainly not for lack of trying.
Let me start by laying out some ground rules: Warner Bros. has pulled off a real Star Wars: The Force Awakens-style situation with Blade Runner 2049 in terms of marketing revelations. Most of the secrets of this film haven’t even been hinted at in the trailers and ads thus far, and that’s how I’m going to keep this initial review. A movie should have the opportunity to reveal its secrets on its own terms — preferably in the theater — so I won’t be going into any plot details beyond what’s been mentioned in the trailers and the opening title card of the film. After the film comes out, we’ll dive in with more spoiler-heavy pieces, but if you want to read something that won’t impact your theatrical experience, this is the review for you.
As can be inferred from the title, the new Blade Runner takes place 30 years after the original. The Tyrell Corporation, which built the first androids, has come and gone, but a new company, run by a new genius with a god complex, has stepped in to take its place. Niander Wallace (Jared Leto, playing the role like a kind of yogi cult leader) has been able to do what Tyrell never could: he’s created replicants that are happily subservient, and thus allowed to walk freely among humans once again. But there are still renegade units in hiding, and that’s where blade runners like K come in. While “retiring” one old replicant, K stumbles upon a mystery that has the potential to permanently change the way people think about humans and replicants.
It’s impossible to discuss Blade Runner without touching on its aesthetics, and the trailers for this film simply haven’t done it justice. It’s a visual feast of the highest order. It re-creates the familiar rain-soaked grittiness of future Los Angeles, while adding to that palette with an assortment of new looks, locations, and designs. Concept artist Syd Mead, whose work was so elemental in the original film, was one of many artists to collaborate with Villeneuve and production designer Dennis Gassner, and the result is a world that looks like a legitimate extension of the one Ridley Scott envisioned so many years ago. It’s an evolved look, but the movie mostly stays away from that kind of cinematic default: the sleek, Apple Store-esque version of the future. This is a clunky, lived-in world, where even fancy holographic systems still rely on old-fashioned machinery to do their tasks.
Cinematographer Roger Deakins delivers some of the best work of his career, deftly evoking the look of the original while also bringing moments of extreme color and even more extreme contrast to the table. This LA isn’t as smoke-filled as every single location in Scott’s film was, but it delivers its own kind of mood. I had the benefit of seeing the film projected in the high dynamic range Dolby Vision format, and it’s shocking just how much can be done when someone like Deakins is able to use that wider color gamut and increased contrast to sculpt a movie’s imagery. Roger Deakins has been one of the best cinematographers in the world for decades now, yet has somehow remained Oscar-less. If he doesn’t win one for his work in Blade Runner 2049, the Academy Awards should just pack it up and call it a day. The film is that beautiful.
But the depth of the visual world-building doesn’t extend to the story or characters. Blade Runner 2049 starts with a pulpy noir setup that feels tonally perfect, but from there, the film careens from story point to story point without strong connective tissue. Like Deckard before him, K is essentially just a gumshoe, and when the film embraces its noir underpinnings, it’s at its strongest. But other moments only seem to exist to show off cool designs, or present a particularly breathtaking visual. The script from Michael Green (Logan) and Hampton Fancher (returning from the original film) provides plenty of one-off moments for Gosling, Ford, and the rest of the cast, but it ultimately never adds any depth to K or Deckard. They start off more or less as they end up.
And the forces arrayed against them are weak, which hurts the film. Blade Runner 2049 has a real villain problem, and while that’s a pretty broad brush to paint with, it seems appropriate here because the thin line between hero and villain was so vital to the original. In the 1982 film, Deckard starts off as a world-weary detective who doesn’t believe in much other than finishing a job, and damn the bigger picture. But his final prey is Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), a merciless killer android. He’s a character born into a system rigged against him, and he’s fighting for his right to exist. Deckard and Batty’s dance of moral complexity is arguably one of the main reasons the first film has lasted in the cultural memory for so long. The implications of their conflict have fueled the endless debate over whether Deckard is a human or a replicant. That kind of tension and moral conundrum simply doesn’t develop in Blade Runner 2049, because the film’s villain is so uninspiring. (He’s such a generic, stock character that there’s even an evil henchman running around doing evil-henchman things.) Past a certain point, the central conflict starts to feel frustratingly ordinary.
Villeneuve has certainly made a contemplative film. In movies like Sicario and Arrival, he demonstrated a real ability to find moments of quiet insight and emotion, even in the most extreme settings. He’s able to do that here as well. His intentions with the film are often quite evident: he’s interested in agency, and the way free will can define our humanity, whether we were born or built. But his ideas never completely take hold. His movie, despite its beauty, often makes the audience all too aware that it’s two hours and 44 minutes long.
Despite its flaws, one thing about Blade Runner 2049 is most welcome: it is trying to be about something. It is trying to be deep, rich, and complex. We’ve grown so used to lowest-common-denominator blockbuster cinema that it’s almost shocking to watch a big science fiction movie, featuring these kinds of stars, swinging for the fences in this way. It’s hard not to be impressed by, and a bit grateful for, the ambition and care evident in every frame.
Whether it matches Ridley Scott’s original is almost irrelevant. No movie can truly live up to 35 years of expectations, and it will take another 35 years before we definitively know whether Villeneuve’s film will have the same kind of impact as the original. (Though I’m extremely confident in saying it won’t.) But going back to that question of why a sequel to Blade Runner should exist, perhaps it’s not about riffing on the original film’s themes, or trying to match it. Perhaps the best reason for it to exist is to just remind us that we should expect more from our big movies. It helps us recall a time when even epic films could be challenging, and forces us to think a little deeper than what we’ve grown used to. I’d rather watch a movie that tries to do that and comes up short than one that never tries at all.