To make a sequel to such an influential movie like Ridley Scott’sBlade Runner is to automatically invite scrutiny and controversy, especially with how fragmented our discourse is about that film. I’ve always had a pet belief that the 1982 masterpiece is mostly held together in the heads of the devotees, that no matter the cut or the version which you’re first exposed to or that you’ve most recently experienced, the film itself is designed to be a hodgepodge of cuts, of half-remembered reveries (even if you have one memorized from start to finish) and nightmares. This is where we get a lot of the “dream logic” critiques, as human memory itself is fallible and well suited to the kind of ephemera that the first film excels in.
As such, Blade Runner 2049, directed by French-Canadian master Denis Villeneuve and shot by master cinematographer Roger Deakins (who will undoubtedly win his long-deserved Oscar for his astonishing work here), seeks to engage and converse with the first film in a number of ways: It’s a referenda on its most base and silly fan theories and controversies, it’s a discussion of the noir genre and its evolution over the course of the interceding years, and it’s an utterly gorgeous film that’s about as worthy as a successor to predecessor as any sequel could be. In short, it’s an impossibly composed work of art, and deserves to be experienced by anyone with a passing interest in the first film or who enjoys, you know, nice things.
Critics were asked by Villeneuve, as told to my (mostly press) audience in a brief statement before the screening, to preserve as much of the plot’s details as we could, and I feel alright honoring this request (though I wonder why they’d even both having a press screening in the first place if they’re that concerned about secrecy). So here follows as bare bones a synopsis as possible: K (Ryan Gosling) is a LAPD blade runner tasked with disposing of the Nexus-8 model replicants whose open-ended lifespans proved to be a bug and not a feature. On a routine mission outside of the city limits, he discovers something that bothers him, and once he tells his superior (Robin Wright) about it, it bothers her, too. Cue the “war” dialogue that you’ve heard in the previews, though I can guarantee you that you don’t know what “breaks the world” here. He goes on a quest to get to the bottom of his discovery, running afoul of the Wallace Corporation, run by Niander Wallace (Jared Leto, who’s barely in the damn movie so please God spare me your bullshit people) and eventually finding his way to Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) who might hold the key to solving all of this.
So yeah, that’s as far as I’m going on specifics, but I’ll be publishing a piece later on after you’ve had a chance to see it this weekend that’ll go in further depth and deconstructs the film on a bit more of a thematic level than I can here.
Whereas Scott was directly influenced by the German expressionist origins of film noir in crafting the original movie (Lang’s cityscapes in Metropolis being a chief inspiration for the fiery brutalist nightmare of 2017 Los Angeles), Villeneuve draws from the sprawling California neo-noirs of the late-’60s and early-’70s like Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, where the color palettes shifted away from grayscale and began to complicate their subject matter and the vistas changed with them. This informs the pacing as well — you’re liable to see someone refer to 2049 as “Ryan Gosling Walks to His Spinner: The Movie” and they wouldn’t necessarily be wrong — but it gives us time to soak in the lovely environments and the sound design and luxuriate in their pleasures, and time to sink ourselves in the predicaments of our characters, which works wonders when the twists begin to hit later on in the film. The only element that’s truly missing from the bounty of sight and sound we’ve been given is a score worth its while: Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch can’t compare to Vangelis, honestly, and while it shouldn’t be held to the same impossible standard that that iconic soundtrack is, there has to have been a better answer to this problem than the Nolan-esque blare that’s sure to shake bits of the ceiling at any screening. It’s the only thing about 2049 that isn’t at least equivalent to the original.
Continuing on with the meta-noir criticism that I’m hurling at Villeneuve’s feet, he cast the best possible actor for the lead role here. Long criticized by dumb people for his wooden action acting in films like Drive, Gosling’s ultimately a perfect choice for someone meant to straddle the uncanny valley, who’s meant to steadily deceive audience members about their humanity. There’s a bitter chill about him that Villeneuve exploits well, much like the kind that he found buried in Jake Gyllenhaal in Prisoners and modern masterpiece Enemy, but he embodies the role with enough soul in order to make things compelling. He plays well off of Ford, who’s doing the same old Gruff MacGruff shit that he’s been doing since the turn of the century, but it suits him better here perhaps due to his isolation and misanthropy in the film itself. There’s a fascinating bond between the two of them that I can’t write about here, but it evolves and changes over the third act, which is when Ford really shows up in the plot and makes things happen. The rest of the cast does well enough, though they’re only given the chance to make slight impressions; it’s Gosling’s show, and he captivates.
The visuals are a dramatically interesting update on the first Blade Runner and reflects an organic shift in both technology and culture, one not unlike ours has over the 30-odd years since the original. Though there are still flybys of darkened imposing buildings and their garish and intruding advertisements, which elicit sort of a sublime terror in an audience outside of the cramped clustered hellscapes of the modern city, we get glimpses of other environments, each with their own color grading. That can be directly attributed to Deakins’ work behind the camera, as the man’s never met a blue/orange contrasting color palette he didn’t like, but it’s oddly effective here — an expansion of the liminal spaces of its blackened predecessor, in which we’re exposed to such odd and significant places like Las Vegas and San Diego. The former offers what might be the greatest delight to the viewer; even if it’s deserted orange casino lobbies and crumbling statues have been with the audience since the first teaser, the imagery still holds an impossible power. Yes, it’s different than what you remember the original film being like. To put it mildly, Villeneuve didn’t even attempt at capturing the same sort of atmosphere with his film, and perhaps that’s the only way that you can effectively do a sequel to a work as grounded in a sense of place as the original Blade Runner. To capture that particular lightning in a bottle, you’d need twenty years, several different cuts and a fanbase devoted to argument and adulation.
It’s true that any and all arguments about directorial indulgence with regards to 2049 run very thin when compared to the legacy of the first film: After all, this is a movie that took five cuts in order to congeal into something worthy of the respect of its director, so I feel alright in saying that Villeneuve and company should employ the space and time in which to tell their story right. I’m thankful that they have been, especially with what they’re able to do with the runtime — they nearly completely dissect every single fan theory and/or criticism that’s held water in the past decades with regards to the original, and it’s a bizarrely composed tribute to how poorly your average dork would be when it comes to screenwriting. It is not a retread, rather a rebuke and resurrection of the actual text itself. It’s a remarkable achievement for Villeneuve, who simply had to make a movie that didn’t suck in order to draw in raves, and who spent millions of studio dollars and hours of my life grappling with an indecipherable and iconic work of art. Blade Runner 2049 is nothing if not brave, and though your mileage may vary with its pacing and thematic content, it is the best possible outcome, and the best Ridley Scott-related sequel to appear in theaters this year.
A second viewing, now knowing the plot, will help me determine whether or not it’s as good as the original, so watch out for a longer piece on Monday that’ll dive deeper into the themes and the plot specifics that I couldn’t here.
Featured image via Warner Bros/Alcon Entertainment. Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus.