"I had your job once - I was good at it."
"Things were simpler then..."
In Los Angeles in the year 2049, a young blade runner (Ryan Gosling) discovers a long-buried secret that leads him on a mystery that may unlock the secret of his past as well as impact the future of mankind.
Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner was released 35 years ago and is one of the most beloved sci-fi films of all time. Blending the classic style of film noir with a futuristic aesthetic, it has garnered praise from fans of all ages since its release. It’s understandable, because of that, that a late issue sequel (three decades after the original) would be approached with some trepidation. Being a massive fan of the original myself, I went into the film with my expectations in check, viewing it with more excitement as the new film from Denis Villeneuve than a sequel to a beloved classic. That being said, I’m happy to report that Blade Runner 2049 is not only a wonderfully constructed, thought provoking and highly entertaining film but also a worthy sequel that will not only meet fans expectations, but hopefully exceed them.
Much like the first, Blade Runner 2049 is a film that deals with lofty themes that are often explored in science fiction. It asks the question what it means to be human, and by that, explores whether artificial intelligence can truly become more than just machine and, in fact, more human than human. Essentially, if machines think and feel, do they have a soul? (…do androids dream of electric sheep?) These are the main thematic elements that are dealt with in the original film, however here Villeneuve has made them somewhat clearer, bringing them very much to the forefront and doing away with much of the noir elements that drove Scott’s film.
It’s a more philosophical film that takes its time to delve deep into the themes it’s discussing. It’s not a genre bending noir piece like the original, it’s not an action film or a thriller. It’s a truly thought provoking science fiction film that deals with lofty ideas and treats them seriously.
It’s not the traditional type of sequel you see these days, it doesn’t just rehash the original film or serve as a soft reboot. Instead it expands upon the lore that was established in the first and aims to build on it, exploring the same themes and intentions and, in some cases, elevating them. It’s light on the action (despite what the trailer tries to convince you of) and heavy on the head fucks. It’s a film that aims to make you think and discuss, which is the point of good science fiction.
2049, much like the original, explores its themes through character study. Placing its protagonist deep in a moral quandary surrounding the issue, helping them serve as a perfect gateway for the audience who are also grappling with these ideas. By doing this, the audience explores what these notions mean to them personally while following alongside the hero in the same struggle. It’s classic Joseph Campbell storytelling, connecting the audience to the hero’s journey but having the conflict comes from within.
The tone of the film is perfectly handled by Villeneuve, who has made himself the master of both science fiction and existential crisis/moral dilemmas storytelling. He takes his time with the film but nothing seems belaboured. Everything serves a purpose and nothing is forced. The nearly three hour run time will seem like a chore for some, especially people who aren’t fans of the genre, but it moves along at a brisk pace, humming with activity and constantly keeping you engaged.
It’s very much a Denis Villeneuve film and NOT a Ridley Scott film. It thankfully doesn’t take the route that Scott has been taking with his sequels, feeling the need to unnecessarily explain origins and complicate the narrative. Screenwriter Hampton Fancher (who wrote the first film back in ’82), along with Michael Green, has constructed a narrative that gives the minimal setup required to reacquainted audiences with the universe and then quickly moves on to expand and explore with new characters, settings and stories.
They’ve constructed a narrative that has its characters deal with their problems through discussion and investigation rather than throwing them into a fight and having them use their fists. It’s a welcome change for modern mainstream cinema, putting the action on the backburner and instead focusing on the characters and their emotion journeys.
The visuals were what truly made the first film so memorable. The cluttered, steam and rain filled retro-future inspired countless imitations, all inferior to Jordan Cronenweth’s striking imagery. Legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins had rather large shoes to fill, but has outdone himself once again. The visuals shift and adjust with the settings, utilising a myriad of colour palates to reflect upon and propel the narrative. His use of colour makes the simple act of seeing a leaf on a tree almost make you gasp. It’s a feast for the eyes and a film that merits countless repeat viewing for the cinematography alone.
Gosling is great as always in the lead role, continuing to crush it as the strong, silent type. With this role he has taken the stereotype he cultivated with films like Drive and perfected it. His stoic stare cuts through the screen, making his brief moments of fervour all the more impactful. Returning to one of his most iconic roles, Ford actually manages to channel Deckard again. Thankfully it’s not just Harrison Ford playing some version of Harrison Ford like we got in The Force Awakens. That similar wide-eyed confusion that would creep across Deckard’s face thirty years ago is still present to this day and Ford manages to command the screen with a soft melancholy that grabs the audiences whenever he’s on screen.
The surprise among the cast was Ana de Armas, who delivers a subtle and heart warming performance as Joi, Gosling’s “girlfriend”. Her portrayal injects a surprising amount of heart and emotion that only helps solidifies the exploration of humanity on display in the film. The only weak link among the cast is Jared Leto who delivers a performance that is more suited to a schlocky sci-fi film. Chewing the scenery like a soft-spoken Bond villain, his character just seems out of place for the type of world that 2049 is presenting.
Blade Runner 2049 is not only a worthy sequel to its beloved predecessor, it’s also one of the best films of the year. It treats its audience with respect and doesn’t pander with cheap action or easy plot devices. It’s a thoughtful examination of heavy themes, constructed by one of the truly great filmmakers working today. It’s a film that will please fans of the genre, as well as the original film, and leave you pondering its questions long after the credits role.
8.5 out of 10.
Reviewed by Chris Swan.