OnScreen Review: 'Blade Runner 2049'

Ken Jones

1982’s Blade Runner is a film that defined the sci-fi genre for a generation and beyond; it’s one of the foundational texts of the genre, so to speak, particularly for the look of dystopian futures. Along with Alien, also directed by Ridley Scott, it was a hugely influential film on the films that followed it. A sequel has been rumored and discussed for years, and it finally arrives in the form of Blade Runner 2049.Director Denis Villeneuve, one of the best directors working today, takes the reins from Ridley Scott, who served as executive producer.

Ryan Gosling stars as K, a police detective known as a blade runner. Blade runners hunt down and eliminate replicants, bioengineered androids that are used for off-world labor and in limited capacity on Earth. Whereas for years it was hotly debated by fans whether Ford’s Deckard was or was not himself a replicant, that questioned is answered very early on with Gosling’s K. K is hunting down rogue replicants that are part of an underground freedom movement. After an encounter with one of these replicants (Dave Bautista) at a remote farm, his survey of the location yields an unmarked grave. The remains reveal a potentially world-changing revelation that K’s chief, Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright), decides is too dangerous for the public to know. Attempting to eliminate all traces of the evidence before it gets out, K’s efforts draw the attention of the Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), the man who took over the Tyrell Corporation when it went bankrupt in 2022. The major creator of replicants now, he has reached a ceiling in his production capacity and believes that K’s discovery could greatly increase his output. Wallace sends his assistant, Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), to monitor K’s movements in hopes of leading to a hidden secret, one that may lie with Rick Deckard (Ford), who completely disappeared 30 years ago.

This film is set 30 years after the events in Blade Runner, where Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard was the blade runner hunting down replicants that were on Earth illegally. Ridley’s Scott’s 1982 dystopian view of 2019 Los Angeles is replicated well by Villeneuve and his team here, making this film look and feel very much like the one established previously and aged 30 years. The city is even more expansive and still full of larger-than-life advertising, but the urban decay is also slightly more pronounced and the glimpses we get outside the city show arid landscapes, abandoned cities, and vast areas assigned for trash disposal.

The sequel also expands on the original with the incorporation of new technology, even exploring how the implanted memories that replicants have are created. One of the most effective creations of the film, though, is the character of Joi (Ana de Armas). Joi is K’s holographic girlfriend. Initially, she exists only in his apartment, able to move around based on a sensor in the ceiling, but a minor upgrade device allows K to carry her with him. In a lot of ways, it reminded me of Scarlett Johansson’s Samantha in Her. There’s even a surrogate love scene with a prostitute played by Mackenzie Davis that resembles a scene in Her. As a character, Joi is a pleasant surprise, not at all what I was expecting based on the promotional material for the film, and de Armas gives what could be a breakout performance.

Blade Runner 2049 continues the story in new and interesting ways, providing some insight, at least for me, as to some of the aspects of the original film that always perplexed me. While I am a fan of the original, I’ve always been more taken with the visual and technical achievements of the film and found some of the story elements to be too impenetrable and opaque. Villeneuve’s sequel is far more accessible, relatable, and decipherable. There is still room for ambiguity and not every question raised is neatly answered, but things feel more defined overall than in Ridley Scott’sBlade Runner.

The original film took place entirely in the city, but this film branches out beyond Los Angeles, with beautiful visuals brought to life by the cinematography of Roger Deakins. By now, practically everyone is beating the drum that Deakins is the best cinematographer working who has yet to win an Oscar. His frequent collaborations with the Coen Brothers and his previous work with Villeneuve on Prisoners, Sicario, and Arrival have garnered nominations, but have not gotten him over the hump. The cinematography of Blade Runner 2049 is one of the standout aspects of a stellar overall film. It’s difficult to create a sequel 30 years later, it’s even harder to recreate an iconic visual style and bring something to it to make it your own, but Deakins does it. He is working with a rich color palette. The city landscape is drenched in neon and eternal rain and darkness. The farm from the opening of the film is shrouded with fog. Most impressive, though, is when K ventures into an abandoned Las Vegas, which looks like what most people would imagine Mars looks like; everything enveloped in a rusty,orange hue. Deakins should absolutely be the prohibitive favorite for an Oscar this year.

Part of the appeal of futuristic sci-fi is that it envisions a future that is at least slightly plausible based on the reality of the current world. Philip K. Dick’s stories, one of which Blade Runner is adapted from (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?), do that better than most, which is why so many of his stories have been adapted into films. Blade Runner 2049 expands on the themes and questions raised by the original film in unique ways. The rapid expansion of humanity’s scientific capabilities and technological expansion makes bioethics an increasingly relevant topic of discussion. You don’t have to squint too hard to see a potential future that involves androids of some kind, nor is it too hard to see the objections that some people would have to it, the appeal it would have to others, and the societal fissures that could emerge along those fault lines.

Gosling’s K is at the center of all of this; the good soldier who begins to question his orders when his job becomes more personal than it’s been before. He goes on a Pinocchio-like journey through this film that questions whether replicants have souls and what it means for them to be “more human than human.” He’s also treated like a punching bag, bleeding profusely from at least three separate fights. The story eventually ties back to being about Deckard and his fate, and it’s an interesting role reversal for Harrison Ford to be in, as the hunter from the first film who has now become the hunted and in need of rescuing, but the film belongs to Gosling. He has such a placid and naturally reserved presence on screen that suits the character well, which makes it all the more effective when he struggles to maintain his calm and loses his cool.

Speaking of losing one’s cool, Sylvia Hoeks is deceptively menacing as Luv, Wallace’s right-hand woman. She is his muscle, essentially, and they add a nice little touch of her shedding a tear every time she does something violent or villainous, almost as if she abhors her programming but is helpless to do anything about it. It adds to the layers of questions surrounding these replicants and how in control of themselves some of them are.

Unfortunately, getting into too many of the layers of this film would give away too much important information. The less known one knows going into it the better. Blade Runner 2049 is visually immaculate and narratively rich. The score, by Hans Zimmer, enhances the film rather than overwhelming it, taking its cues from the original by Vangelis. Also, at 163 minutes, it is expertly paced;there are no moments that drag, much like a Tarantino or Nolan film. Villeneuve has already made several impressive films prior to this one, but Blade Runner 2049 is a great director making the leap to big budget filmmaking and showing that he belongs on the biggest stage making the biggest, boldest movies. That’s exciting.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars