When the original Blade Runner was released in the summer of 1982, it did respectable business at the box office. It wasn’t a smash like Star Wars, but it wasn’t a complete disaster, either. Mostly, it left a lot of people (critics and general moviegoers alike) scratching their heads. This slow paced, philosophical movie was sold as an action/adventure. The production design was meticulous, with dazzling special effects that still look great 35 years later. As critics began praising the movie after repeated viewings, Blade Runner also found a sizable cult following through home video release (a relatively new phenomenon itself at the time).
But the real lasting impact of the movie is the effect it’s had on other filmmakers. It spawned a new categorization of sci-fi, called Future Noir, that has been imitated again and again. The authentic, grimy dystopian aesthetic that Blade Runner perfected is de rigueur for any sci-fi release that’s come after it. The elevation of the sci-fi genre – in movies, at least – to serious subject matter, instead of something for kids or thrill-seekers, is also in large part due to this movie.
Director Denis Villeneuve, a filmmaker who has listed Blade Runner as a major influence on his own work, is imagining this intoxicating world anew in the sequel, Blade Runner 2049. The question is, since its predecessor’s vision is now the rule rather than the exception, will it have the same impact as the original?
That might seem like an unfair question. Surely, any movie would crumble under the weight of that much expectation. This is a sequel, however, and both the filmmakers and the marketing team are trading on the legacy of Blade Runner. Hampton Fancher, who, with David Peoples, adapted the first movie’s screenplay from Philip K. Dick’s novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, is back. This time he shares credit with Michael Green on 2049’s screenplay. The star of the original, Harrison Ford, is also back as Rick Deckard. Then there’s 2049’s look and sound. The visual design and aural landscape of this movie are both heavily indebted to the original.
That’s probably the most enjoyable thing about 2049. As someone who appreciates Blade Runner immensely, I marveled at Villeneuve’s painstaking efforts at recreating the world that director Ridley Scott conjured in the original. There’s a fidelity in 2049 to Scott’s work that is awe inspiring. Composers Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch reference and build upon Vangelis’ ethereal synthesizer score. They use a full orchestra in addition to synth elements to engulf us in the unique soundscape that Vangelis created. Like the movie as a whole, it’s a beautifully realized return to familiar ground. But at the same time, Zimmer and Wallfisch never surprised me with something like Tales of the Future, the best track from Vangelis’ Blade Runner score.
2049’s story, unlike the first film, never dares to defy convention. Part of the magic of Blade Runner is its refusal to conform to a standard structure. In that film, Rick Deckard must hunt four replicants (bioengineered humans) who have returned to earth illegally from an off-world colony. The existential explorations of both the human and synthetic characters in between the thin plot give the movie it’s lasting impact.
2049, by contrast, is nothing but plot. It focuses on K, a newer model replicant who is also a blade runner, detectives for the LAPD tasked with “retiring” (killing) older replicant models. The new replicants have been programmed to obey their human masters completely. They now exist as servants or slaves, with no possibility of pursuing their own desires, as the older models were prone to do. After he retires a replicant who’s long been in hiding, K discovers a literal buried secret. The revelation he unearths threatens to disrupt the entire order that, however tenuous, holds society back from chaos. Replicants have never been able to reproduce, but evidence of one that died in childbirth causes concern. K’s superior officer, Lt. Joshi, fears that if the public learns of this replicant offspring, it would start a panic that might lead to war. Joshi orders K to find the child and retire it.
Along the way, several factions and subplots tangle this web of a detective story. There’s a replicant resistance movement fighting for their freedom from oppression. There’s Niander Wallace, the head of the new corporation that manufactures replicants. He bought the shattered pieces of the Tyrell Corporation, the first company to make replicants, after it went out of business due to a short-lived prohibition on the slave labor. Wallace can’t make replicants fast enough to satisfy demand. He has nefarious incentive to beat K in finding the first replicant ever born, not made. Then there’s K himself. He has questions about his own past, and how me might be connected to this potentially society-changing discovery.
K is also involved with a hologram named Joi, a product of Wallace’s company. Joi has all the emotions of a real person, but no tangible body to go with it. Ryan Gosling plays K, and Ana de Armas is Joi. The two actors share a palpable emotional connection, giving weight to the film. That’s undercut in the love scene, however, when Joi “syncs” with a prostitute in order that the two lovers can share a physical experience. It’s nowhere near as deplorable as what is effectively a rape scene between Deckard and Rachel in the original Blade Runner (the only thing that mars that movie, and a scene that is completely indefensible). The trippy ménage à trios is total male fantasy wish fulfillment. Not only does K get the girl, but he gets to experience her as a whore, too.
There are moments in 2049 that aspire to the more ponderous mood that dominates Blade Runner. One is the test that K must undergo to ensure he is near his psychological baseline whenever he returns from the field. It’s a strange ritual that we as the audience have no conceivable reference point with which to orient ourselves. How it works is left unexplained, which gives us the opportunity to let our imaginations go where they will.
Because of the sheer volume of plot that 2049 tries to incorporate, that’s an experience that is disappointingly rare. We never get the chance to imagine attack ships off the shoulder of Orion, or what C-beams glittering in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate might look like. Because of that lack of wonder and awe, 2049 ultimately pales in comparison to the imaginative world of the original.
Why it got 3.5 stars:
- I've been assigning star ratings for a little over two years. Blade Runner 2049 is the first movie that's really made me reckon with how a half-star difference can mark a total change in how I feel about a movie. On the whole, I liked Blade Runner 2049. I realize my review might not give that impression. When I write about movies, when I really take the time to mull over what worked for me, what didn't, and what the movie did to me, certain things bubble to the surface of my mind. It just so happened that the things bubbling up while writing about 2049 skewed more negative, even though I can recommend it because of the overall mood and its beautiful cinematic vision. That recommendation comes with a lot of caveats, but it is a recommend. If you need a shorthand, anything I've rated 3 stars or less is a "wouldn't recommend." That leaves 3.5, 4, 4.5, and 5 stars as being movies that I would tell most people to see.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- All of the above said, the day after I saw 2049, Rachel asked me what I thought. My response was a flippant thumbs down gesture. I think my expectations for the sequel to Blade Runner (which is completely unfair to the movie) had a lot to do with my initial response. Luckily, I had five full days to process and reflect on it before I wrote about it. That's one of the most fulfilling things for me when it comes to writing about movies.
- Robin Wright plays Lt. Joshi. Her matter-of-factness in being the woman who is responsible for keeping society from crumbling (any more than it already has) is impressive.
Up Next at The Forgetful Film Critic:
- Sean Baker turned in a critical hit with 2015's Tangerine, aka "the movie shot on an iPhone." His follow up is The Florida Project, and it's already getting awards season buzz.