Synthetic human “replicants” are designed for slave labor, but after repeated uprisings, their production is banned. By 2049, Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) has circumvented the ban by creating a new series of (supposedly) completely obedient replicants. One of them, “K” (Ryan Gosling), works as an LAPD “blade runner” tasked with hunting down and “retiring” older models. But when K discovers evidence that replicants are capable of reproducing, his loyalties are tested. His commanding officer (Robin Wright) wants the evidence destroyed to prevent a civil war, Wallace wants to harness the reproductive abilities for his own purposes, and K wants to find out the truth.
Though it’s hard to fathom given its outsized influence, the original Blade Runner was not a well-received film when released thirty five years ago. This can be chalked up to a combination of studio interference (including a terrible voiceover and altered ending) and being ahead of its time. In contrast, 2017’s much-anticipated sequel has received both more creative liberty (as the nearly three-hour run time attests) and more immediate praise despite being, in many ways, a lesser film.
It should be noted, however, that “lesser” does not equate to “bad,” especially when given such an iconic measuring stick. For instance, 2049 is one of the more visually impressive films of recent memory, surpassing even the original. It retains the dark, crowded, neon-infused cityscapes and adds to it an exploration of the ruined world around Los Angeles. San Diego is a ruinous garbage dump, Las Vegas is a golden irradiated desert, and elsewhere, snow falls like ashes. Hans Zimmer’s score evokes the futuristic tones Vangelis used in the original film but with the tension ratcheted up at key moments of discovery (Zimmer has proved to be a master of this).
Though original director Ridley Scott gave up his chair for a producer’s role, his replacement, Denis Villenueve (known for Prisoners and Sicario) has proven himself more than capable. 2049 is a tightly controlled film that doesn’t feel its length due to an absence of lags and clutter. Returning screenwriter Hampton Fancher penned a script that makes a few of its turns predictable while still allowing for some misdirection and suspense (The emergence of a certain group toward the end is a blatant sequel hook but ultimately a forgivable one).
On the other side of the camera, Gosling gives a credible performance as the competent yet conflicted K, Sylvia Hoeks radiates unstable menace as Wallace’s enforcer Luv, and despite having far less screentime this go-around, a returning Harrison Ford gives arguable a better performance as Deckard, the now ex-blade runner touched by loss. In smaller roles, Leto gives another singularly creepy performance as Wallace, a ghoulish blind visionary while Dave Bautista continues to expand his acting range as a haggard yet still formidable replicant ex-combat medic-turned-farmer. The only character to really strike a false note was Joi, K’s holographic A.I. girlfriend, but that had less to do with Ana de Armas’s wide-eyed benevolence than it did with the way the character was written. Though she frames it has her own evolution/actualization, Joi’s role throughout the film is to continue to support K in various capacities, a rather sexist take on becoming more real.
Despite the richness of the scenery and (most) performances, 2049 lacks the depth and complexity that it deserves. The original film trafficked in moral ambiguity: Deckard was not a noble or particularly competent hero, rogue replicant Roy Batty had a conscience and a reasonable goal (survival) despite his violent tendencies, and replicant creator Dr. Tyrell, for all of his amorality, was an avuncular presence. In contrast, K is both more effective and more heroic, Luv is loyal yet psychopathic, and Wallace is an overtly sinister and megalomaniac. Beyond lacking complex characterization, 2049 also feels thematically underdone. The original asked some very pointed questions about what it means to be human; here, we’re entreated to explorations of “real” vs. “created,” but perhaps because so many conversations have taken place in the past thirty five years, it doesn’t feel nearly as profound.
Blade Runner 2049 is an aesthetically dazzling film with strong performances to match the high production values. However, it frustratingly never digs as deeply as it needs to.