As if having a sequel to the landmark 1982 science-fiction-noir tale Blade Runner wasn’t strange enough 35 years later, in order to even see the new film, Blade Runner 2049, reviewing press was asked through a statement from director Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Prisoners, Sicario) to not reveal a great number of fairly significant plot points. And while I’m certainly willing to play along (I’m not exactly a spoiler-heavy writer anyway), some of these asks are a bit too heavy handed and wouldn’t change anyone’s thoughts on the film if you knew them ahead of seeing it. I certainly live by the code that the less you know going into any film, the more likely you are to enjoy it (ironic coming from a critic, I know), and that’s doubly true for this film, which picks things up 30 years after Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) made his way through the misty, smog-filled mean streets of future Los Angeles looking for sentient human-looking androids known as replicants.
In Blade Runner 2049, the company that made the original defective replicants has gone bust, only to be purchased and repurposed by industrialist Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), an eccentric man who can pretty much do anything he wants because he invented a new kind of farming that saved the earth from starvation. He has overseen the creation of a new breed of replicant that can’t disobey (which doesn’t mean they can’t think for themselves when no one is around to give them orders).
However, it isn’t these new-generation replicants that are the focus of the story at hand. A new blade runner (LAPD officers who track down older-generation replicants and “retire” them) named K (Ryan Gosling) uncovers evidence that at least one older-model replicant achieved something that should be impossible, and the hunt begins by both K and Wallace’s army of replicant soldiers (led by a truly terrifying character named Luv, played by Sylvia Hoeks) for proof of what one person calls “a miracle.”
Written by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green, and executive produced by original director Ridley Scott, Blade Runner 2049 is tantamount to K’s Odyssey, as the blade runner goes from one fascinating location to another, picking up the pieces to this near-religious event. He seeks emotional and professional advice from those closest to him, including his commanding officer (Robin Wright, Wonder Woman and “House of Cards”) and his lady friend Joi (Ana de Armas, Knock Knock and War Dogs), as a way of fortifying himself before taking the deep plunge into the surreal world of replicants.
The most enjoyable part of the movie is that with each new place K visits, we’re treated to another breathtaking location that director of photography Roger Deakins (still no Oscar, by the way) and production designer Dennis Gassner can play within and dazzle us with their version of a futuristic office building or a sand-blasting, irradiated version of Las Vegas or a simple structure where memories are created, literally. These are not simply sleek visions of the future; this is a world that has been battered to the brink of destruction and somehow survived.
I also love that the filmmakers have not course corrected what the future will look like based on what technology is available today or what the planet looks like currently. This is 30 years in the future of the first film, so there are still neon logos of companies that don’t exist in our reality (Atari, Pan Am), at least not as prominently as they do in this version of the future. The flying cars and telecommunication methods are upgraded from the original film, but no one has anything resembling smart phones. It’s a wise decision, and one that makes it easier for those of us who remember the first film fondly to snap right back into that world.
K’s journey takes him to some fascinating places, including a child labor camp/orphanage run by Mister Cotton (Lennie James), which may have some significance in K’s history; a facility where replicant memories are created (the idea being that, by giving them memories, it makes them more human) by a free-spirited doctor (Carla Juri, Morris in America); and of course, a rundown Vegas nightclub where Deckard is now living in hiding.
One of the film’s elements I’ve been asked not to discuss is the direct connections to the original, but Ford’s presence in Blade Runner 2049 make it clear that this sequel doesn’t avoid it. But it also doesn’t lean too heavily on characters or imagery from the first chapter as to be distracting or feel like a nostalgia trip. You’ve seen from the trailers that this is clearly the same Los Angeles, but the filmmakers do an admirable job creating unique storylines and settings, while still paying tribute to the groundwork of Blade Runner. These things are always a balancing act, and Villeneuve and his team make this work to perfection.
Blade Runner 2049 is a who’s who of great actors, even in the smallest roles. Keep your eyes peeled for David Dastmalchian (Ant-Man), Dave Bautista (Guardians of the Galaxy), the great Israeli actress Hiam Abbass, and Mackenzie Davis (“Halt and Catch Fire”). As for Ford, it’s nice to see him play someone so completely wracked with paranoia and vulnerability that he can barely function. And (minor spoiler alert) while it takes nearly two hours (the running time is around 165 minutes) to even bring him into the film, we’re not sitting on edge, waiting for him to show up. Honestly, they could have made this film without him and, with a few adjustments, I would have liked the film just as much. But having him involved brings the two films together in a way that, though it isn’t necessary, still feels right.
This isn’t like Ridley Scott’s recent Alien movies, in which he tries to link all the pieces together in a single story. The past certainly informs the present in Blade Runner 2049, but I was just as curious and drawn in by K’s story on its own terms. This is a film that fills the screen with breathtaking visuals that are worthy of repeat viewings, presents ideas that will have you contemplating big-picture concepts for days after you see it, and provides a stage for stellar performances from Gosling on down, all of whom capture a tone that manages to be both new and familiar. When can I line up to see it again?