Blade Runner 2049: The Rare Sequel Almost Equal to its Predecessor
We’re less than two years away from the dystopian nightmare envisioned by Ridley Scott more than three decades ago, a bankrupt future controlled by corporate capitalism, strained by over-population, and ruined by runaway environmental degradation. That future, if it arrives, won’t arrive in the near future. For the moment, however, we can still relegate Blade Runner to the realm of possible, speculative futures, an evergreen cautionary tale, a morality play in the form of a neon-lit, rain-drenched, darkness-shrouded neo-noir, the sum total of Scott’s fertile, febrile imagination — not to mention his art direction background — and Hampton Fancher and David Webb People’s loose adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s seminal, 1968 science-fiction novel, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” Despite its standard-setting genre influence, however, Blade Runner remains a cult film with a devoted, vocal following, a one-time commercial and critical failure with little to recommend it for a sequel, especially a big-budget, risk-filled sequel like the auteurist-driven Denis Villeneuve’s (Arrival, Sicario, Enemy, Prisoners, Incendies) Blade Runner 2049.
But to Villeneuve’s credit — or rather his producing partners who gave him and his screenwriting team, a returning Fancher and Michael Green (American Gods, Logan) — Blade Runner 2049 might just be the most expensive, European-influenced art film ever made. Villeneuve double downs on Scott’s attenuated, deliberate pacing, filling Blade Runner 2049 with multiple characters and multiple storylines, allowing them to unfold at a purposeful, unhurried pace. The characters and storylines diverge and converge repeatedly, often with elaborately staged, rousing action sequences, but never by sacrificing character, mood, and subtext. Villeneuve, however, doesn’t forego scale, scope, or spectacle (quite the contrary). Instead, he takes Scott’s précis, melding substance and style into an organic whole, and expands and elaborates on it, extrapolating a believable, persuasive future from Scott’s 1982 vision and our present-day reality, connecting climate change run amok, democracy-free corporate capitalism, and permanent economic recession or depression to Blade Runner’s future.
In the future of Blade Runner 2049, blade runners, like the title character, Officer K (Ryan Gosling, delivering a now familiar, if not entirely unwelcome, passive, recessive performance), still hunt runaway replicants, “retiring” them regardless of whether they pose a hazard or threat, but the newer models, the Nexus-8’s, no longer share their predecessors limited life-spans. What they do share, however, with their predecessors is a will to live, a will to live their lives peacefully and productively, but K, far more dutiful than Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), a one-time blade runner who disappeared 30 years earlier, has little compunction about his role or function in a deeply divided, economically stratified society. He embraces the social, cultural, and political order out of the same instincts that compel replicants to runaway in the first place. When he finishes a job, he’s put through a rigorous exam to determine his mental and emotional stability. He also listens passively as his boss, Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright), gives him (and us) a lecture on the need to maintain the status quo. At home, a beautiful woman, Joi (Ana de Armas), greets him happily, except she’s not real. She’s a holographic projection of a seemingly sentient, self-aware A.I. and full-time homemaker.
K’s relationship with Joi roughly parallels Deckard’s relationship with Rachel (Sean Young), the replicant who becomes Deckard’s romantic partner when he decides to leave blade running behind. Where we only saw the beginnings of Deckard and Rachel’s relationship, K and Joi’s relationship resembles that of a long-married, cynical-free marriage (with obvious limitations and questions about Joi’s nature — she’s programmed as a pleasure model and romanticized partner — and the depth of her self-awareness and capacity for independent thought or personal agency). In Blade Runner 2049, the Wallace Corporation, owned and operated by Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), a blind, self-styled seer-prophet with a God-complex and the corporate coffers to turn said God-Complex into world-altering reality, has replaced the defunct Tyrell Corporation, purchasing and absorbing the remains of the late Tyrell’s company in bankruptcy, including his Nexus-related patents. The parallels, echoes, and correspondences between the two films, however, are rarely heavy-handed and never meant purely as fan service. Individually and collectively, they create emotional, thematic, and narrative resonances that deepen the immersive, experiential nature of Villeneuve’s project.
On a surface level, K’s quest (K, apparently, as in Kafka, Kafkaesque, and the search for individual identity in a mechanistic, bureaucratic society), first on the direct orders of his superiors in the LAPD, later on his own initiative, to find the answers hidden inside a long-buried crate on the property of a retired replicant, drives the narrative, taking K to multiple locations inside and outside the sprawling, congested environs of Los Angeles. Wallace, however, wants those answers too, sending his executive assistant, personal bodyguard, and Terminator-inspired assassin, Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), to follow K as he attempts to unearth the answer to the existential question the self-exiled Deckard, hiding in the ruins of a long-abandoned, sand- and dune-covered Las Vegas, may have. K’s quest, however, becomes a bit of a trudge, the result of Villeneuve’s conscious decision to adopt an open-world approach to storytelling in the Blade Runner universe, expanding Scott’s penchant for effects-driven fly-bys of cities and landscapes as far as an overly generous effects budget would allow. Villeneuve deliberately lingers on the cluttered, detritus-filled, effects-driven environments, a mix of the old world and the new (the former representing a near crippling nostalgia for an irretrievable past) that defined the Blade Runner aesthetic 35 years ago.
For all of its superb, shock-and-awe-generating visuals — aided by oft-nominated master cinematographer Roger Deakin’s (Sicario, Prisoners, Skyfall, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) singular eye for composition — Blade Runner 2049 often feels like Villeneuve, lured by the promise of revisiting a world created by a visionary filmmaker, not only wanted to put his own, auteurist stamp on said world, creating a continuation of a standalone, sequel-adverse film that “fits” on a narrative, thematic, and visual level, but found himself seduced like so many fans over the decades by the pure power of Scott’s world-building and simply couldn’t leave. Just because Villeneuve temporarily lost his ability to refine and edit his vision into a creative, emotionally satisfying whole, however, doesn’t mean we have to go along for Villeneuve’s two-hour, forty-four minute ride — or if we do go along for the ride with Villeneuve, reluctantly.