Despite not being a fan of the original Blade Runner, I completely acknowledge its importance to science fiction film making. It’s undoubtedly a seminal work in the genre. Blade Runner 2049 surpasses it on every level. It is the rare sequel to a seemingly standalone film that takes everything good about the film and enhance its predecessor while simultaneously telling a better directed, better written, better acted, and visually superior installment. Blade Runner 2049 isn’t just another Denis Villenueve masterpiece; it’s arguably the best film of 2017.
Blade Runner 2049 contains plenty of nods to its predecessor, and to understand and experience the full impact of the story, you need to see Blade Runner, but it almost stands on its own. It doesn’t make any attempt to ape Ridley Scott’s film. It doesn’t need to. It exists in that same world (which it establishes with an opening coda), but just as 35 years have passed since the release of the original film, 30 years have passed since the events in Blade Runner (it was set in 2019, this in Los Angeles in 2049). Think of all that’s happened in the last 30 years and how much the world has changed. That kind of similar leap has happened in the gap between the films.
I am going to make this a spoiler-free review (as much as possible), so I’m going to be very light on plot other than to say that Blade Runner 2049 has at its core a much better story as it unravels than the original film did. Pacing is one of my biggest issues with the original film, and Blade Runner 2049 is a whopping 164 minutes long, but the difference is that despite the similar deliberate pace of the films, I never felt bored for a second. That kind of audience capture is a Denis Villenueve’s specialty and he is, in my opinion, at this point in his career, a much better director than Scott was when he made Blade Runner in 1982. Villeneuve has to be considered one of the five best directors in Hollywood, and he has shown such a flair for science fiction between Arrival and this picture that I hope he goes ahead with his plans to tackle Frank Herbert’s Dune next. I don’t think any other director working today can do it justice. I’ve grown into a huge fan of Villenueve’s (you can read my reviews his Prisoners or Sicario or Arrival by clicking on the link).
The world of 2049 and its technology is as much a character in the film as any of the actors (more on the ensemble next). Like the best films, the F/X serve the story and you really don’t spend a huge amount of time thinking about how many are in every shot of the film, but the art direction and cinematography combine with the effects to produce what I call a postcard film. You can pause any second of Blade Runner 2049 and have a shot worthy of being your desktop wallpaper. Direction brings all these elements together, but each separately are worthy of special mention.
The marketing makes this movie seem like it’s a Ryan Gosling/Harrison Ford team-up. It’s not. This is Ryan Gosling’s film with a lot of small, but stellar character roles in it by Ford, Robin Wright, Mackenzie Davis, Dave Bautista, and two actresses that I think this film will serve as a breakout film for: Sylvia Hoeks and Ana de Armas. Ford’s role in the film is much smaller than you would believe going into the film, but he’s absolutely fantastic. Deckard is one of his signature characters, and Blade Runner 2049 lends him depth and Ford seems to really relish the chance to step back into his shoes. Jared Leto is also great in a very small supporting role that the marketing hyped. If I have any complaint about the film it is his character didn’t seem to get enough screen time to be fully fleshed out, but his motivations were made pretty clear through his proxy (Hoeks). Ryan Gosling carries this film from open to close and creates a character in K that is every bit as iconic as Ford’s Deckard. It’s a role that could have come off as wooden with a lesser actor, but Gosling gives a nuanced performance that shows he’s continuing to elevate his game.
The best science fiction uses exotic settings and devices to ask very basic, very fundamental questions that explore human nature. What makes us human? What’s a soul? What constitutes life? Will technology ennoble us as a species or will it enable us to repeat our worst sins on a grander scale? Blade Runner 2049 explores all of these concepts while providing spectacular visuals, action set pieces, and cinematic excitement. If there’s a fundamental flaw with this movie, I can’t see it, but you can bet I’ll be back at the theater soon to experience it again.