Director Denis Villeneuve had some big shoes to fill when he stepped in to direct Blade Runner 2049. To most, following up one of the most influential science-fiction films with a sequel thirty-five years later would be a fool’s gambit. There were countless ways this could go wrong and hilariously few ways to go right. Somehow, Villeneuve managed to defy all expectations and deliver a sequel that surpasses the original classic in almost every way.
Now, I should probably get this out of the way sooner rather than later: I’m not the biggest fan of Blade Runner. I appreciate the undeniable influence Ridley Scott’s 1982 film has left on science fiction genre. The film’s art design and special effects were revolutionary, performances were all fantastic, and its dreamlike music was absolutely sublime. And even to this day, it’s thematic richness is still relevant. But there is one unfortunate aspect (aside from its highly problematic gender politics) which held everything else back: the fact that it was astoundingly boring, with a meandering plot which did little to engage. Fortunately, this is where Blade Runner 2049 truly shines.
For fear of spoiling anyone’s enjoyment of the long-awaited sequel, I’m going to give as little away about the plot as I can. Ryan Gosling plays Agent K, a titular Blade Runner, hunters of rogue replicants. After unearthing something peculiar after a supposedly typical job, K begins an investigation that eventually leads him to uncover a secret that changes everything we understand about the Blade Runner universe. Harrison Ford’s Deckard makes a cameo appearance at some point.
That’s about all the details I’ll give you. What I will say is that 2049’s central plot is miles more compelling than its predecessor. It’s a little more straightforward and traditionally structured than the original’s melancholy aimlessness. What’s remarkable about 2049 is how perfectly it serves as a companion piece to the original film. 2049 doesn’t feel extraneous. Of course, it helps that the script is co-written by Hampton Fancher, the man behind the original Blade Runner.
The events which transpire over the course of the film feels like the natural progression of the story, seamlessly deepening and enriching the universe. It’s also genuinely surprising at points. Just when you think you’re beginning to understand plot’s inner workings, it throws you a narrative curveball, recontextualizes everything that came before. Even events which transpired in the first film. 2049 deftly walks a tightrope in respecting the original source material while providing a new light in which to view it in.
Villeneuve expands and explores many of the same themes as the original Blade Runner while updating them with a modern lens. 2049 wrestles with the concept of humanity and what exactly that entails, creationism, godhood, and objectification of women. These were all present in its predecessor, but 2049 manages to tackle them in a fresh way. This is primarily due to the inclusion of Agent K. While the characters are similar on the surface, world-weary and cynical detectives who frequently engage in moody silences, Ryan Gosling’s K feels infinitely more interesting and engaging than Ford’s Deckard ever did. He’s a more dynamic character as well, undergoing a much more dramatic character arc. K’s struggle with his own humanity is riveting, exemplified by Gosling’s detached and reserved performance.
The performances are pretty stellar across the board. Ana de Armas is one of the film’s standouts as Joi. Her character is in a relationship of sorts with K, and the dynamic between the two is as beautiful and interesting as it is tragic. Much to my own chagrin, Jared Leto is actually fantastic in this as Niander Wallace. He harbors something of a god-complex, and Leto brings an otherworldliness to him. Used quite sparingly, his presence is felt looming throughout the film.
Like its predecessor, 2049 is nothing short of a visual masterwork. It meticulously recreates the world of the original film and presents it just as beautifully. The film is This marks the third collaboration between Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins. It proves to be their best yet, as it resulted in one of the most gorgeously impressionistic films of the twenty-first century. If this doesn’t win Deakins his cinematography Oscar, I don’t know what will.
The one major aspect that fails to live up to the legacy of the original is its soundtrack. Don’t get me wrong, Hans Zimmer’s score to 2049 is good. Great, even. But when helped to Vangelis’ score to the original Blade Runner, it pales in comparison. At times, Vangelis‘ score felt like the true star of the film, eliciting more emotion and atmosphere than anything else. Now, Vangelis‘ score is one of the all-time greats, so it’s hard to hold this against 2049. I feel Zimmer was just too safe (and dare I say boring) for 2049. I’m curious as to how it would compare to a score by Jóhann Jóhannsson. Jóhannsson is another frequent collaborator of Villeneuve and was set to score this as well before unceremoniously leaving the project. Oh well.
Like the original, I suspect Blade Runner 2049 will be a film we debate and dissect for years to come. The film is an instant classic, a masterclass of the science fiction genre. Not only did Denis Villeneuve achieve the colossal task of crafting a sequel which lives legacy of the original film, he did something many thought impossible. He made a sequel which surpassed Blade Runner. Make no mistake, Blade Runner 2049 is an absolute masterpiece of filmmaking.