Note: Per the requests of Warner Bros. and Denis Villeneuve, this review will not discuss the majority of the basic set-up of Blade Runner 2049.
First things first: it seems important to acknowledge that for me, and likely many of those reading this, Blade Runner, Ridley Scott’s 1982 science-fiction neo-noir is one of the crowning cinematic accomplishments of the latter half of the 20th century. This point is more salient than for the average sequel, given the relatively mammoth amount of time between the original and the sequel, the rightfully towering status of the first movie, and the debt, narratively and topographically, that this successor owes to its forerunner.
And to their credit, Denis Villeneuve and his collaborators only rarely feint towards slavish imitation of the original; certain scenes come off as echoes and evocations rather than simple copies – for example, a postmortem scan of bones corresponding to the photograph analysis in the original. Even though star Harrison Ford (albeit in a significantly less central role), scribe Hampton Fancher (subject of the magnificent documentary Escapes, which is a more enjoyable and insightful experience all things considered) and director Ridley Scott (in an executive producer role) all return, the contributions from all involved feel fairly fresh and distinctly modern.
Unfortunately and ironically, that modern feel is one of the main issues with Blade Runner 2049. For all its innovation and stunning technical achievement, Blade Runner never sacrificed and was indeed greatly enhanced by its tactility, its feeling for a fully lived-in world. This movie does have the benefit of having the original’s version of future Los Angeles in most viewers’ minds, but there is an unmistakeable slickness at play here.
The viewer is less immersed (as in the original) than teased by the surrounding world, which manifests itself at the edges of the narrative – a brothel populated by replicants here, a set of vending machines with ready-made food there – rather than feeling essential to the plot. Compounding this problem is, surprisingly, Roger Deakins’ cinematography, which looks very nice and well-suited to the environment but never suggests much beneath the already slightly vacuous surfaces. Much of this problem can be attributed to the use of digital, which except in the right hands lacks the grit of film and feels ill-suited to the world of Blade Runner, but his expressivity found in films by, say, the Coen brothers is largely absent.
Readers may have noticed that until now I have avoided discussing the actual meat of the narrative. Much of this is in an effort to abide by the restrictions as enumerated at the top of this page, which includes some basic facts of identity and motivation revealed early that any self-respecting appraisal of the narrative would be loath to leave out. But in a way the narrative, save one genuinely surprising reveal late in the movie, unfolds exactly as one would expect it. The pleasures of Blade Runner 2049 are primarily in the generally strong, occasionally stunning execution of something just above the average blockbuster.
Less meditative and less visceral (despite the greater use of viscera) than the original, it comes off more as (appropriately) a hybrid. The performances are thankfully and uniformly excellent, especially Ryan Gosling as the central protagonist K (a blade runner in the vein of Ford’s Deckard from the original), who manages to turn his strong and silent shells from Refn films into someone filled with no small amount of dynamic range even in the quietest moments, and Villeneuve genuinely knows how to direct the action and dialogue, but it is all in service of a greater cultural impact. And while this film will likely not achieve anywhere near the original’s importance, it is an admirable, albeit flawed effort nevertheless, with a curious majesty all its own.