When I saw the original Blade Runner about a year ago, I had high expectations. My fellow film fanatics worshipped it as a hallmark of the sci-fi genre. They raved about the unique visual style, the storytelling, and the big, existential questions it asked. I was ready to be amazed.
But I wasn’t amazed. “That’s it?” I asked after watching it. I found the story unremarkable, the protagonist unlikable, and God was it slow. Blade Runner clocks in at just under 2 hours, but it feels far longer than that. On top of that, Vangelis’s music is VERY ‘80s, and the more inventive elements are undercut by Harrison Ford’s unnecessary narration. I was expecting a mind-blowing, genre-defining masterpiece. The grand yet depressing visual style is unique, as is the premise—special detectives called blade runners hunt down android slaves gone rogue in a dark, dystopian version of Los Angeles—but despite these intriguing qualities, it just didn’t deliver for me.
That is, at the time. In reading analyses and retrospective reviews of Blade Runner since my initial viewing, I have come to appreciate subtle touches that make the film much more impressive and creative than I first thought. The problem is that those elements are just too subtle. I did not understand the implication that Ford’s Rick Deckard, the protagonist and titular blade runner, might be an android himself. In addition, the questions regarding the rights of synthetic beings and love between man and android are not clearly emphasized enough to make much of an impact on most viewers.
Admittedly, I don’t search too hard for movies’ themes or subliminal messages while I’m watching them. But I’m not the only one who didn’t love Blade Runner immediately after watching it; it bombed at the box office upon its release in 1982, and only in the decades since has it garnered critical acclaim and a devoted fan base. Blade Runner is a movie that only becomes great over time. It requires thorough analysis to appreciate.
I was aware of these hidden virtues by the time Blade Runner 2049 was announced. The long awaited sequel was to be directed by Denis Villeneuve, so I was immediately excited. Villeneuve helmed two of the best films in recent years, Sicario and Arrival, both of which stand out due to their haunting, atmospheric tones and simple construction. I knew Villeneuve would be perfect for the job. My expectations were even higher than they were for the original.
This time, I was not disappointed. 2049 is stunning.
Blade Runner 2049 is set 30 years after the first, in the same dystopian version of Los Angeles. This time around, Ryan Gosling steps into the protagonist’s shoes as Officer K, a blade runner tasked with finding and executing escaped android slaves, known in this film as replicants. I was surprised to find that Gosling gives one of the best performances of his career here, playing K with a swirl of quiet stoicism and fragility that perfectly fits the jarring identity crisis that defines his character arc.
That identity crisis is central to what makes Blade Runner 2049 so special: the story. I found myself infinitely more invested in the characters and progression of this film than those of its predecessor. The film begins with K confronting an escaped replicant named Sapper Morton (Guardians of the Galaxy’s Dave Bautista) at an artificial farm shrouded in thick white mist. K kills Morton after he resists arrest, but not before Morton reveals to the audience that K, too, is a replicant.
K proceeds to explore the farm and makes an interesting discovery: the bones of a woman buried under the soil. Upon inspection, LAPD analysts reveal that Morton did not kill her; she died in childbirth. But their next discovery is far more intriguing—and dangerous; the bones belonged to a replicant. That a replicant was able to bear a child, once thought impossible, is the revelation that drives the story forward and keeps you on the edge of your seat the whole way through.
Officer K’s LAPD commander, known as Madam, is deeply troubled by this. Her reaction and ensuing machinations provide 2049’s big, existential questions, without which no Blade Runner film would be complete. Madam orders K to find and eliminate any evidence of the replicant pregnancy or the resulting child, for she believes humanity would fall if it were revealed that replicants could reproduce. Robin Wright, captivating as ever, gives Madam an aura of gravity that convinces you of just how disastrous this revelation could be to human dominion and, by association, also demonstrates the fragility of the boundaries between human and android. It’s hard not to see 2049 as a loose metaphor for race relations considering it explores a particular group attempting to dominate another by spreading ideologies that continue to be proven false.
2049 does a better job emphasizing these philosophical elements than its predecessor, but it also crafts a more personal story. As K digs deeper into the mystery surrounding the replicant pregnancy, both he and the audience begin to wonder if he is the child for whom he is searching, or if he is simply meant to think so. Eventually, the emotional cracks begin to show through.
Also surprisingly touching is Harrison Ford’s return as Rick Deckard. While his screen time is limited, he is far more sympathetic than in the original, and his interactions with K and other potential relatives (as well as the unexpected return of a certain character from the original) rise to near-tearjerker status in some points.
The rest of 2049’s supporting cast is phenomenal as well. The robot-girlfriend trope seems a bit unimaginative considering Her came out in 2013, but Ana de Armas plays said girlfriend with such depth that it remains an interesting dynamic. Sylvia Hoeks is beyond intimidating as the primary antagonist’s deadly right-hand woman, bodyguard, and assassin.
Speaking of the antagonist, let’s talk about Jared Leto. He gets so much hate these days, and I frankly can’t understand it. Leto plays Niander Wallace, the inventor who reinvigorated the replicant business following the revolt from the last movie and wants to figure out how to create fertile replicants, which brings him into conflict with K and Deckard. Several reviews I read criticized Leto as the one weak leak in a chain of otherwise stellar performances, but I beg to differ. Despite barely being in the movie, Leto is so sinister and spectral as Wallace; he makes you shiver with gleeful dread.
There are some weak points in this movie. While I appreciate the fact that director Denis Villeneuve explores new parts of Blade Runner’s bleak world, he neglects to spend time on the grimy, neon streets of Los Angeles that made the original so artistically unique; too much of 2049 takes place in settings that feel not nearly as lived-in as those that Ridley Scott crafted in 1982. That said, 2049 is still a visual marvel. Roger Deakins’s cinematography is stunning, though I was expecting a bit more color, and the visual effects are some of the best I’ve ever seen.
Blade Runner 2049 is a masterpiece. It helps if you’re into science fiction and/or artistic films, especially since it’s so long, but the story has enough twists and turns to keep most viewers from getting bored.