In my mind, the original Blade Runner was a cinematic lightning-in-a-bottle that emphatically did not call for a sequel, so when Blade Runner 2049 was announced I felt rather sceptical about the idea. I can’t say I’ve been entirely converted, but I can definitely say that Denis Villeneuve’s film is worth watching on the big screen for the spellbinding visuals alone, and if Roger Deakins doesn’t win the Best Cinematography Oscar for his work here they can just disband the whole Academy Award thing.
The sequel is set 30 years after Harrison Ford’s Deckard fell in love with Rachel the replicant, and now there’s a new blade runner walking in his footsteps, a replicant called K (Ryan Gosling). K is an advanced model that’s supposed to be unerringly subservient and compliant, and his job is to hunt down and “retire” the old-school Nexus 8 models who are still around. K lives in a crappy Los Angeles apartment with his girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas), a holographic artificial intelligence that’s basically an even more futuristic version of Samantha from Her. He does his violent work without qualms, until the discoveries made during his most recent assignment lead him to question his memories and his very nature. It’s impossible to dip the toe into the story any more than this without getting spoilery, suffice to say that at the centre of it all is something that K’s latest target can only describe as a “miracle”.
I’ve already given praise to the film’s visual splendour, and it’s really hard to overstate just how grand, exquisite and astounding this twilight world of the future is. Practically every frame in the movie begs to be turned into a beautiful desktop image. It’s impossible to divorce the original Blade Runner from its iconic production design, and the sequel does an incredible job of not just evoking Ridley Scott’s dystopian metropolis with its mix of high-tech and corrosion, but also stepping outside to serve up some new eye-popping imagery (in particular, the eerie glowing radioactive wastelands visited in the second half of the film). If there’s any criticism I can level at the visuals, it’s that the environment of Blade Runner 2049 doesn’t feel as properly lived-in as the original film. It’s hard to pin down why, but even with all the grime and dirt there’s something sterile and sanitised about the locations.
Thematically, however, the movie feels thinner than its predecessor and seems to suffer from the common affliction of the modern blockbusters, where a film toys with a number of themes and ideas without making any of them truly resonate. Blade Runner’s “what it means to be human” is not the most original idea in science fiction, but it’s powerfully communicated and still packs a punch even 35 years on. By comparison, the themes of the sequel feel more scattered and some of the story revelations that aim to explain the events of the original end up working against them. There’s one particular retcon that bizarrely violates the theme of free will the sequel is playing with which I’m simply going to ignore whenever I rewatch Scott’s movie.
In terms of characters, while I found Gosling’s K a compelling protagonist and enjoyed Harrison Ford’s return as Deckard (it’s a pleasure to see him firing on all cylinders here and in The Force Awakens after years of indifferent performances), the film suffered from the absence of a worthy villain. Not everyone can be Roy Batty level of memorable, but Sylvia Hoeks‘ Luv, who is clearly meant to be the film’s active, brutal antagonist, is just not particularly interesting, with motivations that are vague at best. While Jared Leto’s creepy Niander Wallace, the new corporate overlord, does little more than deliver exposition that sounds like Wachowskis at their most ponderous and self-important. K’s holographic girlfriend seems to be in the movie to provide him with a humanising love interest, but she never feels truly essential to his character arc. There’s something fascinating about this relationship between two different artificial life forms with a clear power hierarchy, but again, the film is just too scattered to say anything coherent and meaningful about it.
On top of this, Blade Runner 2049 is slooooooooow. I’ve nothing against sedately paced films, but 2049 is often slow in a way that feels alienating, making me acutely aware of every passing second, something I never felt while watching the original. There were many times when I appreciated the film’s willingness to bask and linger in its settings, but in others the glacial pace made the experience feel like a chore. Overall, I’m glad I watched the movie, but I didn’t think it was a modern masterpiece many claimed it to be, and while he can sure make a stunning-looking film I’m still not sold on Villeneuve’s storytelling skills.