‘BLADE RUNNER 2049’ Restores Sci-Fi to Magnificent Glory
During Blade Runner 2049’s sensational climax, a knife fight in the blistering rain, something remarkable came over me: I began to cry. Not for the movie’s characters, fleshed out and lived in; nor for its scope and grandeur, unparalleled in modern movies; but because the legacy of Blade Runner, one of the most storied in all of cult cinema, had been pulled from the scrapyard and back to shimmering life.
The film isn’t just unforgettable science fiction, although it’s certainly that as well; it’s a formal challenge to filmmakers far and near to dream bigger, mine deeper, and dare further. Yes, it’s a sequel, but only in the manner of films like Toy Story 3 or The Godfather Part II — it studies a classic with care and follows all lingering questions deep into uncharted dramatic waters.
Thirty years after 1982’s Blade Runner, our planet is even more expired than we remember. Off-World colonies sustain the rich and privileged far removed from the ecologically-barren spaces of future Los Angeles, where average citizens live like termites in a rotting tree. Were it not for Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), the stranded population would be long dead, but as the opening text explains, he pioneered synthetic farming, essentially saving the world — whatever that means in a future this dark.
We open on Officer K, visiting a protein farm in the film’s opening scene. He enters the home of a replicant, (Dave Bautista), an artificial human designed for slave labor. In conversation with him, we discover K himself is also a replicant. His target asks how it feels to hunt his own kind; K says that his kind doesn’t run away. K is a blade runner, an agent responsible for tracking down older, less obedient replicants who have scattered the world to prevent being “retired.”
When he’s alone and free from human prejudice (the words “F*** off Skinner” are scrawled across his front door), K mirrors the life of an average human man: he earns a living, rents an apartment, cooks himself dinner, and even has a significant other, a sentient hologram named Joi (Ana de Armas). She’s the most overtly human character in the film, and yet she’s not real. Then again, neither is K. Perhaps that’s what they see in each other: in a world that considers them little beyond slaves and appliances, here are two people looking for new ways to feel real and free.
All that is wiped clean by a groundbreaking case in which the LAPD discover the remains of replicant who has given birth. At first they don’t believe it — how is that technologically possible? The answer is left to our imagination, with K instead tasked with finding the replicant child and retiring it before its identity can provoke worldwide civil unrest.
When director Ridley Scott, who helmed the original, announced that he was handing the reigns to another filmmaker, my mind skipped straight to doubt and anxiety. Seeing what Denis Villeneuve accomplishes in his place, however, makes me wonder if it could have worked any other way. Rather than being a slave to the first film, the director works closely with cinematographer Roger Deakins to push Ridley Scott’s foundation through the filter of time, creating something rich in Villeneuve’s own vision of the future without ever feeling aesthetically out-of-step with the original.
This is thanks also to Hampton Fancher and co-writer Michael Green, who should receive the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay; it won’t happen, but it ought to. Their work here winds speculative sci-fi around the structure of a Carol Reed noir, patiently dolling out the layers of its plot while thrusting its characters toward unanswerable questions of identity.
Consider a scene in which Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright), K’s superior, asks him to recall a childhood memory. He doesn’t see the point, as all his memories are manufactured implants; no matter how clearly he remembers them, they’ll never truly be his. In a telling move, Joshi asks to be told anyway.
That the scene’s primary objective is to deploy a key plot point, K’s memory, is almost invisible. The same goes for all such story mechanisms, hidden within open questions that reveal the muddle and shadings of the world’s moral center. Is Joshi searching for the ghost in K’s machine? Why? Because it helps her control K? Or perhaps because in a time when humans and machines are indistinguishable, even she is losing sight of the difference? What separates her from the things she employs and hunts?
That uncertainty was the beating heart of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, and it’s what makes the sequel such a success. Like good science, no question is answered without raising at least two more. For example, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), the blade runner from the original film, is an integral part of the story, especially near the third act. How he comes into play, I won’t reveal here, but know that his enigma— and fans will know what that means — is only deepened, with the script revealing enough to make the questions richer without ever giving the audience more than they asked for.
A role like K demands a delicate triple-balance: he must seem cold enough for a machine, warm enough for a human, and ambiguous enough never to be one without the other. That’s a wire walk for most actors, but Ryan Gosling isn’t most actors. As K, he delivers a clipped charisma reminiscent of late screen legend Jason Robards, perfect for a replicant’s expressionless doubt. All of that falls away in an extraordinary scene set inside a replicant memory laboratory, and through Gosling’s frightening command, we finally understand what it means to be “more human than human.”
Even more incendiary is Sylvia Hoeks in the role of Luv, a replicant built to serve Niander Wallace; he calls her, “…the best angel of all.” She is as top-of-the-line as a machine can be, but in light of a replicant that can procreate, she suddenly seems incomplete. Hoeks doesn’t express that feeling as much as she coldly embodies it. Her character is cunning, ruthless, and ultimately rather broken. If she can’t be as real as Wallace wants, maybe she can settle for being the best fake. But is that enough?
It almost goes without saying that the score falls somewhat short of Vangelis’s original; to call that a weakness would be curmudgeonly. What composers Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfish have managed is to give a rusty surface to the sonic textures of the original, leaving sounds that feel both fresh and decrepit: coarse warbles, touches of sweet synthesizer, and bass that rumbles like an earthquake, none of which ever feel overwhelming or intrusive.
I’ve seen many complaints about the film’s business-like pace and epic length. I’m not sure what they were expecting. Part of what makes its narrative juggle so graceful is the time it takes in keeping it all balanced. It’s rare that a film so massive has the confidence to soak in its world and people, eschewing the Hollywood timer and allowing the plot to be driven only when enough emotions come to boil. Yes, it could be shorter, but so could Seven Samurai. The question is, why would you want it to be?
I wish I was more familiar with the writing of Philip K Dick, but something tells me Blade Runner 2049 would leave him gleaming. I never read his novel, upon which the original Blade Runner was based, but the intelligence of its author lives on in the ideas it inspires here. What a refreshing thing to find in a big-budget spectacle. In thundering sound and blinding color, it reminds the world what science fiction can be at its purest: a canvas for curious minds to dream from the stars up and ever outward, all in desperate search of nothing less than ourselves. This is my favorite film of the year.
Spencer Moleda is a freelance writer, script supervisor, and motion picture researcher residing in Los Angeles, California. His experience ranges from reviewing movies to providing creative guidance to fledgling film projects. You can reach him at: [email protected]