Sequels, it’s fair to say, are not easy propositions. When the movie you’re trying to follow up is considered an undeniable classic of its genre, the whole project has to be a daunting project. An thirty-year gap can’t exactly help, either.
Fortunately, Blade Runner 2049 has some serious pedigree behind the scenes to help. Ridley Scott vacates the director’s chair this time out, preferring to serve as a producer, leaving the seat open for Denis Villeneuve, who’s been making a bit of a name for himself lately with such critically acclaimed movies as Sicario and Arrival. Original movie scriptwriter Hampton Fancher returns, this time paired with Logan writer Michael Green. Legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins takes on director of photography duties and visual futurist Syd Mead, whose designs made the original so striking, returns to update the world that he visualised for a new era. And prolific composers Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch get to channel their best Vangelis to follow up one of the classic movie scores. Oh, and Harrison Ford’s back, too. But you knew that.
Normally at this point I’d discuss the storyline a little bit, but it would almost seem wrong to do so to any great degree, because whatever you thought the story was going to be based on the trailers, that’s not it. Which is a pleasant change, to be honest. It focuses primarily on Blade Runner KD6-3.7, a Nexus-9 replicant, several generations on from the Nexus-6s seen in the original. With older model replicants outlawed due to their potential for rebellion, K, as he’s generally known, is a hunter of his own kind, something that he takes no particular pleasure in. The movie opens as he locates a rogue Nexus-8 living on a protein farm outside the city, but what he finds there will take him on a quest that will have him questioning the nature of his very existence.
The original Blade Runner is, by modern standards, an unconventional movie. It’s quite philosophical, asking questions about the nature of humanity and the value of life. There’s surprisingly little action for a movie about a police officer hunting down rogue replicants and what there is is quick and brutal. It would be understandable, given the commercial concerns inherent in being a studio executive, if the sequel chose to veer much closer to a standard action movie dynamic, so it’s to the credit of all concerned that Blade Runner 2049 is very much a worthy companion piece to its forerunner. K’s investigation takes time, both the straightforward police work and the philosophical quandaries that it leads him to, leading to a slow pace. Also like the original, the movie doesn’t wrap things up neatly, with many plot threads unresolved. While this is no doubt at least in part with a potential sequel in mind, it also reinforces the point that, really, the questions of memory, identity and humanity that are posed by the film do not have simple answers.
I have to admit that I don’t really get Ryan Gosling. He’s been serviceable enough in the stuff I’ve seen him do, but I’ve not really rated his performances, as a rule. Here, though, his stoic and rather understated style (I’m diplomatically avoiding the word “wooden” here) fits the character of K extremely well and he performs admirably in the lead role as an entity searching for an impossible truth. Harrison Ford is on formidable form as the older Rick Deckard and is given some real meat to work with. Deckard’s life has not been a particularly happy one since the events of the original movie, and Ford capably shows every last iota of pain on his face.
The supporting cast generally give strong performances. Robin Wright is great as K’s hard-drinking superior in the police department, neatly juxtaposing her distrust of replicants with her respect for K’s skills. Ana de Armas is terrific as Joi, K’s holographic companion / girlfriend. She’s by far the nicest character in the movie and the strange romance, such as it is, between her and K is oddly touching. Dutch actress Sylvia Hoeks is appropriately menacing as the Terminator-like Luv, primary henchman to the movie’s main villain, corporate head, and creator of the new generations of replicant, Niander Wallace. Unfortunately, Jared Leto as Wallace is something of a weak link. In a movie where most performances are layered with subtlety, Leto sets out to chew the scenery with a series of monologues that, to be fair, are well written, effectively showing off the character’s god complex. As per usual, Leto went full method in embracing the character (Wallace is blind, and Leto had contacts to completely cut off his vision), but, also as usual, the net effect is that all you can really see is Jared Leto trying really hard.
Visually, the movie is jaw-droppingly spectacular – honestly, I can’t see there being a better looking movie this year. The dystopian Los Angeles is just as striking as before, if even more run down than previously – there are hints throughout about catastrophic events that took place between the movies. The huge adverts, now holographic in nature, flying cars and monolithic buildings are all present and correct and look amazing. Unlike its predecessor, Blade Runner 2049 moves outside Los Angeles, spending time in the farmlands surrounding the city and paying visits to San Diego, now basically a massive junkyard, and a deserted and near-derelict Las Vegas. Each environment is very different, but all are remarkably rendered and lit to beautiful effect. Crucially, despite their obvious differences, all still feel like they’re part of the same battered and bruised world as the characters move between them. Even in a Hollywood where great effects and attractive vistas are the norm, Blade Runner 2049 stands out and that’s a huge tribute to all concerned. It sounds great, too, with Zimmer and Wallfisch doing a great job of creating a soundtrack that fits well with its predecessor.
Following up Blade Runner was always going to be a difficult task. Fortunately, the team behind Blade Runner 2049 have proved to be more than up to the task, producing a movie that fits beautifully with its forerunner and can stand beside it without feeling like a poor relation. In a nutshell, it’s a triumph.