Few movies have divided and engaged audiences quite like the original Blade Runner. Not only are there multiple versions of the film with slightly different conclusions, but it essentially created the entire cyber-punk landscape that still exists today. Denis Villeneuve, riding high after Arrival which took audiences by storm last year, takes a step into Los Angeles’ dark future with Blade Runner 2049, a stunning, thought-provoking new chapter for the “franchise.” Set 30 years after the original, the movie feels like a modern sci-fi classic perfectly crafted for audiences craving a mature story.
Unfortunately, in the case of Blade Runner 2049 there’s no way to talk about the plot without spoiling it in some way. With that in mind, it’s even hard to discuss the characters and how long each of them appear because that in itself dips into spoiler territory. What I can say is that Harrison Ford delivers the stand out performance as he returns to the role of Rick Deckard. He seems more at home and happier to return to the Blade Runner universe than he did in either Star Wars: The Force Awakens or Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and that directly translates to a genuine, emotional performance from the 75 year-old thespian. Robin Wright, on the other hand, seems like she’s phoning in her performance as Lt. Joshi. Hot off her performance as General Antiope in Wonder Woman and Clare Underwood in House of Cards, it seems like Wright is now simply being typecast as the aggressive woman willing to do whatever it takes. It’s not that she’s bad in the role, it just feels like she’s going through the motions instead of giving audiences something new with her performance. And Jared Leto… well he just keeps on doing his Jared Leto thing.
Thematically, the movie is very much so a follow-up to the first one. As the relationship between replicants and humans becomes more complicated, conversations about what freedom and humanity truly mean move to the forefront of the film. Hidden underneath a detective story — because what is Blade Runner if not a classic noir film set in an unorthodox setting — is a movie filled with heart as these characters explore what it takes to survive and thrive in 2049.
The world and consequences are bigger but the story is more personal. Ryan Gosling, as the lead character Officer K, does a great job grounding the whole movie in his quiet, thoughtful performance. Gosling — who has said multiple times he doesn’t want to work on a superhero project — seemed right at home in the sci-fi epic driving speeders and chasing after bad guys. Whether we are watching K sit in his small apartment or walk through a rain soaked, neon-infused alleyway, his soft introspection serves as a perfect contrast to the encroaching world of the future.
To create such an impressive world, Villenueve knew he had to tap the best. Roger Deakins has turned in some stunning cinematography over the years in films like No Country for Old Men and Prisoners, but Blade Runner 2049 may be his most impressive work yet. Science-fiction projects don’t tend to fare too well during award season, but if anyone deserves a golden trophy this year, it’s Deakens. Whether we’re zipping through tight city streets or exploring vast, open areas, Deakins knows how to frame everything for maximum effect. A big boost to his work is the fact that the movie relies heavily on real sets and physical props — even utilizing miniatures — instead of digital effects to generate its dystopian look. In addition to excellent framing, his use of dim lights and fog gives the world a lived in feeling. Some of the shots are so beautiful and masterfully crafted that it’s hard to describe them as anything but breathtaking. In fact, pause the movie at any moment and I’d frame the still image to mount the sucker on my wall. The whole film is that beautiful.
To match the world’s beautiful, muffled look, the film has an extremely layered sound design. Like the original Blade Runner, 2049 leans heavily on reverb to generate a dream like effect within scenes. While the score doesn’t match the highs of Vangelis’ synthesizer-infused original, Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch do a solid job of creating tension and guiding viewers through the world with their work. For reasons that still haven’t been disclosed, Jóhann Jóhannsson, who collaborated with Villeneuve on Prisoners, Sicario and Arrival, walked off the project in early September and all of his work was replaced with pieces composed by Zimmer and Wallfisch. The music was enjoyable and never detracted from a scene — in fact, there are a lot of great, silent moments, but it never felt like it was baked into the movie quite like Vangelis’ original did. There’s no way of knowing whether or not Jóhannsson could have delivered something inspiring enough to match the original, but it is rather telling that he decided to walk off the film with less than a month before its release.
At the end of the day, Villeneuve and company succeed in creating a great sci-fi movie. It stands as a solid sequel to the original, but it also works as a great piece of work on its own. The neon-infused gritty streets of Los Angeles look beautiful on the big screen and it’s a movie I’ve been thinking about almost non-stop since first seeing it. This is a great way to continue (and hopefully cap) a beloved story, but I don’t want to visit the Los Angeles of 2069 anytime soon. Instead, I’m excited that Villeneuve, a work horse who’s had five films hit theaters since 2013, is sticking with his sci-fi kick. After a bit of a well-deserved break, he’ll start work bringing the Frank Herbert classic Dune to the big screen. And for all of you who have seen the trailers for Blade Runner 2049, you know that this movie does a great job dealing with shades or orange and desert settings, so hopefully Villeneuve will bring the same level of craftsmanship and dedication to his next project.