We never needed a sequel to Blade Runner. Ridley Scott’s 1982 opus is the greatest sci-fi film of all time; a deceptively dense, genre-bending miracle of a film. The ambiguity of its ending, as well as the nature of its protagonist – the aspects most likely to spawn a follow-up – have been folded into its lasting legacy, and any attempt to elaborate, explore, or expand could surely never live up to our collective speculations. But, here we are, in 2017, and we have a sequel to Blade Runner. We don’t need it, but I’m (mostly) glad we have it.
It’s been over thirty years since Blade Runner‘s initial release, and Blade Runner 2049 is set a further thirty years in the future. Replicants (bio-engineered androids used as labour), after being outlawed following a series of violent rebellions, are back in vogue. This is thanks to industrialist Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), who bought the bankrupt Tyrell Corporation (original manufacturer of replicants) and created a safer, more obedient product.
Some older models, those with a pesky penchant for self-determination, are still at large, and that’s where blade runners come in. Blade runners are police officers tasked with hunting and “retiring” (a cruelly polite way of saying executing) rogue replicants. One such blade runner is K (Ryan Gosling). K is one of the new replicants himself, and he knows it. He has no compunction about executing his fellow replicants; it’s simply not in his programming. When asked by Dave Bautista’s fugitive farmer how he feels about killing his own kind, K replies, “My kind don’t run.”
2049’s early scenes – in fact, the whole first half of the film – are a slow burn (at 163 minutes, a very slow burn). There is a central mystery, as K discovers an intriguing and possibly earth-shattering development in replicant biology (Robin Wright’s police lieutenant tells him, “This could break the world.”). But it is interwoven with world building. Or perhaps world extending would be a better phrase. The world of Blade Runner was already broken in 2019; in 2049 it has limped forward a few steps, but hasn’t managed to get anywhere. Atari, PanAm, and the USSR are still around; the promised lands of the off-world colonies are still ubiquitously advertised.
Wallace Industries has revitalised this society to a small degree. The new, more subservient replicants are everywhere: as blade runners, farmers, pleasurers. Everywhere, too, is Joi, a virtual, holographic girlfriend (think Her’s Samantha personified by Ana de Armas). Her three-dimensional billboards loom over the city like Blade Runner’s geisha given flesh. Despite these new features, however, the world is still broken.
Broken but breathtaking. 2049 is photographed by Roger Deakins, the closest we have to a cinematography superstar. This is a film of meticulous framing, of sharply delineated shadows, of meaningfully merged reflections. When was the last time science fiction looked this good? 1982, probably. Back then, Ridley Scott and Jordan Cronenweth wrote the cyberpunk visual dictionary.
Now, Deakins and Denis Villeneuve have updated and expanded it. The city is still a rain-soaked gunmetal grey, shot through with flashes of gaudy neon. This is contrasted with the warm woods of Wallace’s headquarters. K’s investigation takes him outside the city, to the brackish brown remains of San Diego, now a vast landfill, then to the dusty red ruins of Las Vegas, where holograms of Elvis and Liberace perform for audiences who have long since checked out. These locations, their designs and colours, tell us more than ten pages of exposition ever could.
Come the third act, and things begin to unravel, if only slightly. The script, by Hampton Fancher (who co-wrote the original) and Michael Green (who co-wrote Alien: Covenant, but don’t hold that against him), having taken it so slow for so long, feels the need to stumble into an ungainly sprint to the finish line, leaving a number of significant plot threads flapping loose. It’s strange, but not entirely surprising. So much about Blade Runner 2049 – the cinematography, the editing, the pacing – has that sense of a film made thirty or forty years ago; but the ending, with its obvious thirst for a follow-up, has the definite hallmark of 21st century franchise-making.
2049 might lose its way somewhat, but it never loses us. This is largely thanks to performances worthy of a Blade Runner film. Ana de Armas’ Joi is a dexterous collage, as her programming flits between 1950s homemaker, armchair intellectual, and suave urbanite. Jared Leto’s Wallace is darkly eccentric, always gazing to some unseen future rather than the present in front of him. Harrison Ford (whose appearance here doesn’t really count as a spoiler, splashed as it is across the trailers and posters) shows us that there’s life in the old dog yet. And, of course, there’s Ryan Gosling. As anyone familiar with his stoic, inscrutable turns in Drive and Only God Forgives will know, Gosling was born to play a replicant. K is calm, determined, and compliant, with only a perfunctory emotional life, which we see slowly, tentatively, sometimes painfully bloom. Gosling holds this film together. 2049 is Villeneuve and Deakins’ film behind the camera; in front of the camera, it’s Gosling’s.
Villeneuve’s Arrival, last year’s best film, was a thoughtful and inventive sci-fi masterpiece, and with 2049 he has proven that it wasn’t just a one off. There are satisfying, clever twists on classic Blade Runner iconography: carved wood for origami; Nabokov for Milton; snow for rain. It is clear that Villeneuve has the deepest respect for Scott’s film. It is also clear that he has the courage to take his film in new directions, explore different ideas, and not just rehash what has come before. Both the original and the sequel are about memory and identity. But, while Blade Runner also explored emotion and how it is intrinsically tied to humanity, 2049, while keeping emotion as a central theme, also explores the idea of legacy; how legacy is another part of the puzzle that is humanity, and how anything that strives to be human (or, indeed, more human than human) must be able to exert some control over that legacy. Like its predecessor, 2049‘s themes are entwined with its plot, not presented outright but there for us to search and pick out and examine.
There is more to pick out and examine here. Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer’s score, which incorporates Vangelis’ iconic soundtrack without trying to replicate it. How Villeneuve explores the enigma that is Deckard while retaining the ambiguity that has kept fans arguing for three decades. The astounding production design, which makes Scott’s Alien: Covenant look like the work of an amateur. Blade Runner 2049, like the original, is a film that will reward repeat viewings, that will continue to offer up new interpretations, new avenues of discussion, or just new sights at which to marvel.
2049 only just fumbles the landing, and is otherwise a spectacular and meditative film, a thoughtful arthouse sci-fi masquerading as a $200 million blockbuster. Blade Runner never needed a sequel, and, up until this week, I would have told you that I didn’t want one. Blade Runner 2049 is the sequel I never knew I wanted.