Creating a sequel to one of cinema’s most beloved and influential films must have felt like an impossible task. Where does one even start? A team consisting of Denis Villeneuve, Ryan Gosling, Roger Deakins and Hans Zimmer is as good a place as any. In a culture where everything seems to get a sequel, reboot or spin-off, Blade Runner 2049 was a follow up many thought the future redefining original didn’t need. In the end, it was the sequel Blade Runner deserved.
As the world has caught up with the 2019 set original, Blade Runner 2049 picks things up three decades later. Ryan Gosling plays the seemingly emotionless Blade Runner known simply as K. We are introduced to him as he pays a visit to protein farmer and replicant Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista). For anyone unaware, replicants are bioengineered beings that are virtually identical to adult humans. After a short but entertaining brawl, K ruthlessly “retires” Sapper. K himself is a replicant and the act of essentially murdering one of his own doesn’t seem to affect him. He has no issue in obeying human commands, even if most treat him as an outcast and derogatorily refer to him as “skin-job”. K undergoes regular baseline tests to ensure he isn’t malfunctioning, like the older models he is tasked with eliminating, and to begin with everything checks out as satisfactory. That is until a collection of bones is discovered, buried outside Sapper’s house. The bones show all the hallmarks of childbirth. After careful analysis they also reveal something unfathomable.
They are the bones of a replicant.
The original Blade Runner initiated many questions and debates about what it means to be human. Blade Runner 2049 takes this a step further when reproduction is added into the mix. What is the meaning of life? A common answer to this question is procreation. As Lieutenant Joshi (K’s superior, played by Robin Wright) says, if this gets out it breaks the world. You’ve got a war. There is no wall, no us and them. An intense fear of change descends.
K is tasked with finding the replicant who was born and retiring him or her to keep the secret under wraps. Not so easy when his actions could effectively change the future of the world as he knows it. Plus, he has never had to retire something that was born. And as he states,
“To be born is to have a soul.”
The fact that K doesn’t seem to be accepted at work or on the streets of LA adds to his dilemma. It becomes clear he longs for more. The bond he has with the artificial intelligence known as Joi (Ana De Armas) demonstrates this. There is emotional depth to their relationship, with a likeness to the one we saw in Spike Jonze’s 2013 hit Her. At the end of the day though, Joi is nothing more than a holographic AI.
Whereas Blade Runner was mainly set in the rundown slums of a dystopian Los Angeles, Blade Runner 2049 expands its horizons. We get the rain-soaked grittiness of future LA but we’re also treated to mesmeric aerial camera pans across vast bodies of water, colossal junkyards and landfills, and most strikingly a post-nuclear Las Vegas. Roger Deakins won an academy award in 2018 for his cinematography. The orange hues of the post-apocalyptic Vegas are worthy of that award alone. Tangerine radioactive smog gives the area an unforgettable personality and adds to what is already a visually arresting film.
Denis Villeneuve has previously demonstrated an ability to convey moments of deep thought and reflection in intense situations. Think Incendies and Arrival, where there is more to the story than you first think. Blade Runner 2049 is no exception. He almost manipulates us to think about the more profound elements of his story. Emotions are muddied as we experience events through the eyes of K. The eyes of a replicant. Minute details reveal emotion without blatantly telling us what to think about human vs replicant, master vs follower, born vs built. He has a certain degree of respect for his audience’s intellect and this is as apparent as ever here. Even with Ridley Scott as an executive producer, it’s unmistakably a Villeneuve film.
As the story progresses a number of characters and complications arise, including Niander Wallace who has taken over the infamous Tyrell corporation. Played by a sinister Jared Leto, Niander becomes obsessed with the possibility of replicant reproduction, regardless of the moral implications. When he states we have lost our stomach for slaves, you get an indication of the God complex he is suffering from. While this doesn’t come close to matching the deft grey area dynamic of the original’s antagonist, Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty, it works in its own way. K needs to find the replicant child before the evil mega-corporation can, but at the same time he begins to question his own purpose. He has some doubts about the legitimacy of his history. Flashbacks and memories continually surface and this all leads to a hunt for the lead character of the original film, Deckard, who has imposed self-isolation in the Vegas ruins.
What we are left with is a deep, complex plot with various themes to mull over. Is it acceptable to eradicate something because you personally consider it a threat? Who is to say that the world wouldn’t change for the better if replicants could reproduce. If they are classed as inferior does that mean they shouldn’t be allowed the opportunity to reproduce? The main reason they are seen as less than human is because they rely on mankind to survive. If they can now reproduce, that changes. Replicants are already human in more or less every way that matters. Perhaps it could even be seen as the next stage of evolution. Of course, it’s only natural for Lieutenant Joshi to be fearful. Years of enslavement would almost definitely lead to an uprising of some sort, but whose fault would that be? Even if the replicant child is not a hero capable of leading a revolution, the inspiration drawn from their existence alone is what matters. On the other hand, Niander Wallace epitomises the evil in humanity. Yes, he has saved the world from starvation, colonised worlds and reintroduced replicants to society. He also refers to his creations as his children but at the same time treats them as nothing more than a commodity. One that he is willing to erase if they malfunction. He certainly doesn’t recognise their humanity and at the same time lacks this quality himself. Evil is in control but for the replicants there is hope. And sometimes hope can be the most powerful commodity of all.
Because of all this, Blade Runner 2049 is a film that benefits from multiple viewings. With great action set pieces, the aforementioned visuals, and a throbbing Zimmer/Wallfisch score, that’s not an issue. Some will be put off with a runtime of 2 hours 44 minutes and a slow-burning pace, but for me it’s a pleasure to revisit. The original has been recut many times since its initial release but Blade Runner 2049 got things spot on the first time around. Which makes it all the more disappointing that, like its predecessor, it wasn’t a box office success
As far as the acting goes, Ryan Gosling’s performance lives up to his own impossibly high standards. He plays Officer K with a poise that is not quite human, yet at the same time he garners more empathy than many of the human characters. The returning Harrison Ford delivers his best performance in years and it’s clear he hasn’t returned just to pick up a paycheck. We may not get any definitive answer to the “replicant or not” debate, but the older, grizzlier Deckard is a joy to watch. Even Jared Leto shows he has no problem embodying a memorable villain after his heavily criticised portrayal of The Joker in Suicide Squad.
As the story concludes we get answers, but we’re also left with plenty to think about. Villeneuve and company managed to pull off the impossible. Even with a blockbuster budget and lofty production values, there is much more to this film than stunning visuals and an A-list cast. It forges its own identity while still harkening back to fond memories of the original. Importantly, it never feels like a cash grab. If Blade Runner is considered by many as one of the greatest films of all time, Blade Runner 2049 might just be in the conversation for the greatest sequel.