Let’s cut to the chase and tackle the item of most immediate concern: for a 35-years-later sequel to an entrenched classic, Blade Runner 2049 does a remarkable job of not pissing on the legacy of the original. So much so, in fact, that one is willing to overlook the film’s occasional missteps because it so coherently expands on and honors the original work aesthetically and, more significantly, thematically. It’s a little disheartening that that comes as something of a surprise; I want to be optimistic about the current cultural fondness for nostalgia (since I enjoy a lot of the product thereof) but it’s still hard to escape the law of diminishing returns. Like Mad Max: Fury Road before it, this film does–and does so with a greater burden of continuity. So cheers to Denis Villeneuve and screenwriters Hampton Fancher & Michael Green for that.
It helps that the two films are very different, although not at first glance. The Los Angeles of 2049 is still a barren wasteland, no longer belching fire but radiating out from dead-insectile towers like a massive necropolis. The violent overlap of languages and cultures is still there, more intense than ever; the advertisements are no longer confined to animated billboards, becoming hallucinatory holographic giants dancing in the street. But where the first film was hot, sweaty, and claustrophobic, shuttered away in noir shadow from brilliant light just outside, the sequel is cold and expansive, suffused with haze that implies vast, empty spaces between the interlinked cells of civilization.
The story and world similarly opens out, as both films use the premise–manufactured human-like beings called “replicants” exist, but how human are they really?–to comment on the anxiety of their times. The original film was a question mark; it slowly pulled the rug out from under the audience’s basic assumptions until it was unclear whether Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford, reprising the role in this film), a “blade runner” tasked with hunting down rogue replicants, was himself artificial. Or, for that matter, what the implications would be either way for the larger powers that drive the chess game of a plot. But such ideas are passé now. Modern, technologically and socially jaded audiences start from a place of unstable identity and distrust of narrative. So in response, Blade Runner 2049 is an exclamation point. We know our current blade runner, nicknamed K from the first digit of his serial number (and an excellent use of Ryan Gosling’s penchant for looking full of suppressed turmoil; see also: Drive) is a replicant. This plot is less interested in undermining the human (read: normalized) perspective than in following the perspective of the marginalized as they build an identity and a capacity for empathy that resists the exploitation that surrounds them. I want to delve my teeth more into that, to try and unpack some of the film’s images and ideas more thoroughly, but to say more would be doing a disservice to a story that takes its time to unfold. So perhaps the less said the better, for now.
I mentioned missteps and there are some, the time spent unfolding being one. At 163 minutes, it’s nearly an hour longer than the (longest version of the) original film and lacks some of the tightness that is belied by that film’s often deliberate pace (which, in fairness, does vary a bit from cut to cut). Some scenes linger on a little long, there is a hackneyed moment here or there, it’s a little hard to hear Jared Leto talk through the scenery in his mouth, but honestly none of it ends up mattering that much. The experience is immersive and compelling in a way that seems like it mostly respects its audience and the moments that are uncomfortable seem to work toward the greater goal. Throw in some interesting international casting, beautiful camerawork by the always reliable Roger Deakins, and a score from Hans Zimmer & Benjamin Wallfisch that updates Vangelis’s operatic synths and you have a pretty attractive package.
I’m leery of bestowing classic status on new things. But in even saying so I’ve tipped my hand, haven’t I? In any case, it’s hard to picture this being a film that’s easily forgotten, left in the wake of the disposable-culture machine. Because it’s not a cynical plundering of a beloved memory as much as a contemporary and thoughtful response; that’s what the film is about, narratively and per se. Admittedly, I’m not as rabid a fan of the original as some–Roger Ebert, in reviewing Blade Runner: The Final Cut in 2007, said that he for a long time admired it “at arms length,” which echoes my feelings–but from that vantage, I can’t really imagine a better sequel to it than this one.