Review: Blade Runner 2049
Hollywood has always had a habit of resurrecting old ideas and remaking the classic stories of its past. In a landscape of reboots and reimaginings it's rare that audiences get a sequel to a highly regarded work, and it's even more rare that they're as successful as Denis Villeneuve's Blade Runner 2049. A sequel that's as well realized and packed with ideas as Ridley Scott's 1982 classic, astounding in its ambition and success, this is a picture that will be analyzed for years to come.
It's been 30 years since Blade Runner Rick Deckard did a man's job and things have changed. The once powerful Tyrell Corporation is no more, a casualty of laws outlawing all older models of Replicants, with a new conglomerate taking the reigns of synthetic production. The Wallace Corporation, run by the villainous Niander Wallace, played by Jared Leto, is now the sole producer of Replicants, used as slave labor on earth's old-world colonies. A man with a vision for humanity's dominance of the galaxy, he'll stop at nothing to achieve it. More outwardly evil than Joe Turkell’s Tyrell ever was, Leto brings an almost demonic presence that's both menacing and overbearing (in a good way) at times, it's a performance that's more than welcome after his embarrassing turn as the Joker in last summer's Suicide Squad. His main weapon, a Replicant named Luv, played with a vicious tenacity by Dutch actress Sylvia Hoeks, is a force to be reckoned with, shown as an assassin version of the Rachel character, made famous by Sean Young in the original. Here is a rich man shaping the future, with the power to silence any who would attempt to stop him.
Ryan Gosling plays Officer K, a Blade Runner that gets caught up in a conspiracy involving the immediate aftermath of the original film. Much like Deckard, he's not exactly comfortable in his work and just wants a nice meal and a drink after a day's work. These are provided for him by the enchanting Joi, his A.I. holographic companion played by Ana de Armas. Armas is a vision here, embodying Joi with a caring and supportive nature that K desperately needs in his day to day life. Gosling, whose performance recalls his work in Only God Forgives and Drive, is as much about what he does say as what he internalizes. He's one of the more expressive actors of his generation and in Blade Runner 2049 he carries the proceedings with aplomb. A man out of time, constantly badgered by other members of the LAPD, K makes a great cypher for the audience, as we learn along with him and start to realize what everything means.
This brings us to Harrison Ford, returning to a role, much like with The Force Awakens, that he had left behind decades ago. When we first meet Deckard, hidden away in a secret hideout with only a dog for company, he's clearly not the Deckard fans latched onto over the years. This is a man who thought, much like we did, that his Blade Running days were over, reluctant to get back in the saddle as it were. What could've been a lazy, phoned in performance, done for an easy paycheck, is revealed to be some of Ford's strongest work in years. The emotional depth and heartbreak on display is gutwrenching at times, leading to a connection and the reasons behind his actions that not only make sense, but hit hard in a way I wasn't prepared for. Placed in a supporting role, Ford shines with a feeling of sadness and loss, especially in one pivotal scene towards the final act, that cements Deckard as one of the more layered characters he's portrayed.
On a mere technical level, 2049 is astounding, with cinematographer Roger Deakins having a veritable field day here. Colors pop and his occasional use of deep focus is something to behold. At nearly 70 years old, it seems that perhaps this feature is the one he's been working towards his entire career; crisp and clean, his work here is gorgeous to say the least. Going in, it was expected that Blade Runner 2049 would be an immaculate looking picture, but I doubt that anyone thought it would look anywhere near this perfect. The production design is very much Blade Runner as well, building upon the original's now classic look and updating it. Still an overcrowded cityscape, Los Angeles is even more oppressive this time around, with a sharp look that stands toe to toe with what was on display in 1982. Another highpoint is the score by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch (A Cure for Wellness). Taking inspiration from the original Blade Runner’s legendary Vangelis score without outright being a cover, it's at times a booming piece of music but always appropriate and never overbearing. Of course certain cues are lifted but never without merit, as they serve a purpose and add to the recurring themes throughout.
As for Villeneuve, with this film, along with the Oscar nominated Arrival from last year, has quickly become one of the premier science fiction directors in the game. The ideas and choices he brings to the table are both off-kilter but surprisingly welcome, as sci-fi is a genre has always been about the questions and ideas that it supposes. Replicants truly are “More Human Than Human” in this picture, and assuredly so, propelling the story forward from frame one. Another masterstroke of 2049 is the screenplay by Hampton Fancher, returning to the world he helped craft with his work on the original Blade Runner. Taking scenes and ideas from his original script from all those years ago leads to a great many Easter eggs for longtime fans and Blade Runner obsessives. Anyone who's seen Dangerous Days, the epic documentary on the Ridley Scott classic, will know Fancher is eccentric to say the least and his screenplay here is full of his unique vision. Fans of the original, no matter which of the many cuts they prefer, will find a lot to love here.
Both classic and modern, Blade Runner 2049 is a rousing success. Taking the core mystery aesthetic of the original and adapting it for a new generation, it's one of the best sequels to come along in decades. With a cast and crew doing career best work, there's a lot to love and very little to disappoint or earn disdain. A film I approached with trepidation more than anything else, 2049 is better than it has any right to be. One of the rare sequels that reaches for the lofty heights of its predecessor and manages to match it at many turns.