Article by: Josh Bradley
One of the most fascinating aspects of Ridley Scott’s original Blade Runner (1982) — and, I think, one of the reasons the movie has endured — is its exploration of what it means to be human. If replicants (bioengineered androids virtually identical to humans created for slave labor in off-earth colonization) have a consciousness and awareness and emotions and can experience things and react to them like a person — immortalized by Roy Batty’s dying speech in the first film — then what difference does it make if they were built and not born?
In the first act of Denis Villeneuve’s long-awaited sequel, Blade Runner 2049 (2017), Robin Wright’s Lt. Joshi of the LAPD tells K (Ryan Gosling) that “the world is built on a wall that separates kind. Tell either side there’s no wall, you bought a war.” It’s a very loaded statement, first admitting that society’s stability depends on the continued distinction of human and replicant and then immediately conceding that such a distinction is tenuous. In a lot of ways, it gets to the heart of the central conflict in both films: humanity’s insistence that we’re on a plane above our creations and our dire need to control them.
The plot of Blade Runner 2049 concerns a discovery made by K, a blade runner (a cop tasked with hunting down and “retiring” rogue Replicants), that threatens to further dismantle — or even bring down entirely — that wall separating human and replicant. I won’t say what the discovery is, but suffice to say it deepens both the mythology and philosophical quandaries set forth by the original movie without retroactively ruining any part of it with its revisionism, and it’s difficult to overstate how impressive that is. Other characters in the movie, including the enigmatic, blind creator of the latest models of replicants, Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), have their own agendas regarding K’s discovery, leaving K to race Wallace’s replicant hench(wo)man, Luv (a creepy and marvelous Sylvia Hoeks), to find answers to the questions raised by it.
That vague (lack of) plot description will have to suffice, as the filmmakers have made clear their preference for audiences to go in to the movie with little knowledge of what’s to come. And while I’ve always been skeptical of an overly spoilerphobic culture, I find myself agreeing in this case. One of my few gripes with the movie upon first viewing is that it never really delivered the third-act punch that it felt like it was building to; I felt a lack of show-stopping moments. The more I think about it now, the more I think that the reveal of Deckard (Harrison Ford) — who’s featured heavily in the marketing despite not appearing until well past the movie’s midpoint — would’ve served as that moment had it not been revealed in marketing.
But it’s a small gripe, as everything else works so remarkably well. It might well be the most beautifully shot big-budget studio film I’ve ever seen. The lighting, the unfathomable production design (such an essential element of the original, completely outdone with the sequel), the movement, the framing, the depth of field. Cinematographer Roger Deakins has pulled out all the stops and is essentially daring the Academy to give his overdue first Oscar to anyone else. If Blade Runner 2049 doesn’t win Academy Awards for both Cinematography and Production Design, then I can’t wait to see what beats it.
Villeneuve, Deakins, and production designer Dennis Gassner create a beautiful dystopian world — feeling both like an alien planet but simultaneously nihilistically familiar — and with a runtime north of 2 hours 40 minutes, they take their time navigating it. But they earn it. The script by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green patiently unfolds the mystery and gives the bigger moments space to land. And any detours from the main mystery — including K’s romance with an AI named Joi that’s more than reminiscent of Spike Jonze’s Her (2013) — only serve to further blur the definition of humanity and expand on the themes of the main storyline, to say nothing of illuminating the nature of our main character, how he sees himself, and how he fits into the world around him. Miraculously, the pacing is far better than the original — which, despite being 45 minutes shorter, has more problems with dull patches than 2049 — and the resolution is miraculously satisfying, even with 35 years of anticipation.
The performances serve the characters admirably — Gosling is perfectly brooding and controlled; Hoeks is perfectly terrifying and formidable; Leto is perfectly pretentious and long-winded; and Harrison Ford is perfectly Harrison Ford. A standout is Ana de Armas’ performance as K’s hologram love interest, Joi. Credit to the visual effects team for creating an impossibly realistic hologram girl, but more credit to de Armas for the bubbliness and vulnerability that truly bring her to life.
And “life” is really the topic at hand as the credits roll, what the movie leaves you to ponder as the lights come up. As much as the question of who is or isn’t a replicant has been discussed by film lovers for decades, the movie reframes and recontextualizes the question: does it even matter? While it may not have the singular climactic moment of the “Tears in rain” speech, its ending similarly concerns what is lost and what we pass on when our impossibly limited time on this earth is over — human or replicant.
Blade Runner 2049 (2017) is yet another home run for director Denis Villeneuve and one of the finest sequels I’ve ever seen. It understands what made its predecessor great and used that understanding to earn a place right beside it — if not ahead of it.