Some sequels replicate the experience of the original films exactly. With Jaws 2 or Halloween II as examples, they provide more of the same, but they stay in the same lane. Other sequels like Aliens, The Empire Strikes Back and Back to the Future Part II push the boundaries of the originals in all kinds of new directions and actually surpass them for most fans. Blade Runner ranks as an iconic sci-fi masterpiece in visuals, story and overall experience. It would be foolhardy to actually set out to surpass that classic. Fortunately, the filmmakers decided to create their own experience in that same universe with appropriate nods to the original. Blade Runner 2049 successfully dives head first into this still far-off dystopian future and offers its own memorable characters, technology, visuals and jaw-dropping sequences.
The talent behind this massive project includes director Denis Villeneuve and writers Hampton Fancher and Michael Green. Villeneuve has a number of major movies on his résumé, but two of them inform Blade Runner 2049 more than the others. 2011’s Incendies dealt with issues of family and identity in a heart-wrenching drama that leaves you emotionally drained. Although I actually found 2016’s Arrival to be at times tiring and boring despite my admiration for the performance of lead actress Amy Adams, the film’s inventive visuals and treatment of otherworldly subject matter could almost be considered a prep class for Blade Runner 2049. Fancher cowrote the original Blade Runner, and Green most recently cowrote Logan, probably the best non-X-Men X-Men movie. These writers deliver a plot that takes what we know from the first film and expands upon it in all directions like an explosion reaching outward. Under a request from Villeneuve at the screening and our own site policy never to spoil movies or ruin the experiences, I’m left with little to say about the story. Quite simply, Los Angeles blade runner K (Ryan Gosling) uncovers a mystery while hunting down a replicant (synthetic being), which is what blade runners do, and follows the leads from that mystery to revelations that have serious implications for K and everything that he knows.
In genres like sci-fi and horror, the acting sometimes suffers against overwhelming special effects, scares and gore. Blade Runner 2049 impresses from the start because of its superior acting all around, even in the small roles. Gosling keeps rising in experience and skill with the years, so he’s completely believable here as a blade runner. With so many stunt sequences in addition to the dramatic scenes, Gosling steps up to the challenge and only briefly touches a piano here, unlike his role as a jazz pianist in La La Land. Harrison Ford reprises his role as O.G. blade runner Rick Deckard, and as with Star Wars: The Force Awakens, he amusingly chews up the scenery as a grizzled version of the original character. Light-years away from Drax in the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, Dave Bautista proves here as a simple farmer that he’s ready to make the same kind of evolution from wrestling to serious acting as The Rock did in emphasizing himself as Dwayne Johnson. Look for minor roles from Lennie James of The Walking Dead and Barkhad Abdi of Captain Phillips who make the most of their screen time. Much is made of Jared Leto’s method acting, and his scenes as blind replicant maker Niander Wallace resonate because of the gravitas with which he infuses this character.
More resounding than the male leads are the collection of actresses and their across-the-board impressive acting. Who says that there aren’t strong roles for women in Hollywood? Robin Wright plays K’s stern boss Lieutenant Joshi and shares screen time with both Gosling and Sylvia Hoeks as Wallace’s number two named Luv. Hoeks mostly appeared in films in her native Netherlands, but this memorable role will see her star rise. As much as Hoeks and Wright cover the steely side of acting, Ana de Armas showers K with emotion and happiness as his personal assistant. Her presence by K’s side throughout the story grounds the film. Let’s not forget Mackenzie Davis and Carla Juri as minor characters with major impact because of the actresses. Sure, there are implications of “pleasure” replicants and red light districts in this version of Los Angeles, but the excellent work by the actresses goes beyond such simple characterizations that might exist in the hands of other filmmakers.
The importance of the visuals in Blade Runner 2049 will make you happy that you can sit back and take it all in. The original Blade Runner had its own look and feel from the video ads projected onto buildings and the constant rain. This sequel establishes its own visual dictionary with shots that are simultaneously expansive and intimate like K flying over barren landscapes in his police vehicle and wavelike reflections on the wall of Wallace’s offices. Locations like a massive junkyard or factory are visually exciting, and my favorite outdoor scenes in a yellowish haze will probably stick with you for days courtesy of cinematographer Roger Deakins. Holograms appear throughout the film in the streets and indoors at various scales, and they are a testament to what we can do in movies today. The digital effects advance exponentially every year to the point where I can’t tell right now what are props live on set or made in a computer. For a film like Blade Runner 2049, that kind of digital artistry supports the suspension of disbelief.
New technology introduced as everyday tools was a hallmark of the original film, and there are certainly some new gadgets and gizmos here to be discovered. Unlike a lot of the “future” as presented in 1982 that still hasn’t become real, K’s advanced drone could actually be something from our reality. Computer systems and eye scanners will give techies plenty to talk about. Encountering the technology that’s incidental to the plot makes it as enjoyable as transporters for the Star Trek universe and lightsabers in the Star Wars films. The soundtrack by Vangelis established the mood for Blade Runner more than any other single element. Similarly, musicians Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer infuse the soundtrack with otherworldly music and loud sound effects that cause the same response. I need to see, uh, hear this movie again in the theater with the best sound system in my area. Few movies demand that from me. Even the minor sound effects like the familiar theme that plays when Joi arrives to greet K are as important as the sweeping score that’s most prominent in outdoor or flying scenes.
I didn’t expect to have this reaction to a sequel in a cinematic business full of sequels, remakes and adaptations. This is a long movie, so be prepared to turn off the outside world and go along on the exceptional journey charted by the filmmakers. You won’t be sorry. Blade Runner introduced replicants and gave us a character who hunted them down. This movie goes far beyond that simple approach with a compelling plot that explores the lawlessness of replicants and so much more. Blade Runner 2049 takes another wide-open peek into an alternate future that certainly ranks alongside its predecessor in cinematic impact.