Let me just put it out there. Unlike Fred’s glowing recommendation of the influential Ridley Scott film, Blade Runner, I for one, am not a fan of it, regardless of which cut it is. Which is why I was so surprised that I loved Denis Villeneuve’s 2017 sequel, Blade Runner 2049. The sequel came out over thirty years after the release of the original and many could argue that there was no need for this movie to even exist after such a long time period. But 2049 does the unexpected: it tells a wholly original story that expands on the lore of the original while being engaging, visually striking and thought-provoking all at once.
Unlike the original film, the sequel isn’t based on any preexisting piece of literature. Blade Runner 2049 takes place 30 years after the events of the original film. Instead of Harrison Ford’s Deckard, our protagonist this time around is Officer K, who is, make no mistake about it, a Replicant. Where Deckard’s identity remains shrouded in mystery, this sequel wastes no time in informing us that our blade runner isn’t human. He’s cold, calculating and ruthless, but is also a curious individual and is driven by the need to solve questions. While working on a case at the beginning of the film, K stumbles upon a clue: the remains of a replicant with evidence of a C-section, which drops the bombshell that artificially created androids can reproduce and create life. This is quite the scandal and K is tasked with finding this child and “retiring” it in order to preserve the natural order.
This is probably the best-looking science fiction film made as of the time of this writing. Lovingly filmed by Villeneuve and his cinematographer, the legendary Roger Deakins (who finally won his first Oscar due to 2049), the movie pulsates with colour and light. Neon oozes through the dreary, raining backdrop, and vibrant shots of orange, pink and blue pierce through the mundane. I think that’s one of the more visually striking things that separates this movie from its rainy predecessor. Not only the use of colour but the framing in general.
One of my favourite shots is where K is walking through the smoke at night in the city. There are just so many iconic shots and locales, whether it be K in the Nevada desert, shots of futuristic Los Angeles or even the interior of the Wallace Corporation. What I like about the latter is that the exterior of the Wallace Corporation is this huge, dreary and uninspired building that almost looks like a temple, but on the inside, it’s full of colour and space. What’s more, is that the film utilized miniatures in conjunction with convincing CGI to bring the future to life. The interiors feel massive, dwarfing the actors inside, making you and them feel small and insignificant.
Despite being made decades after the original, the sequel connects very well with the original film while also doing an excellent job of being a standalone feature. You don’t have to have seen the original film to appreciate this one, but if you have, you’ll likely appreciate certain story beats much more, especially when it comes to the return of Deckard and his implications are on the greater story. Going back to the cinematography for a sec, the sequel does a great job in respecting the visual aesthetic of the original movie as well but finds a way to build upon that foundation and give us something new at the same time. Despite taking place in a dystopian, cyberpunk future, a lot of the tech in this world is still analogue. There are no holographic maps or phone calls, despite holograms being a thing, which grounds the movie in its established world, and most of the tech feels clunky, akin to an old VCR player.
There isn’t much action in this movie, but when it does show up, Villeneuve uses expert framing and choreography to make everything seem brutal and effective. K is a crack shot, and the gunfire from his weapon thunders through each scene. Being an android, he’s strong enough to go toe-to-toe with someone like Dave Bautista, who shows up in the film’s opening scene. Likewise, the fight between Deckard and K in the Las Vegas showroom, with the stage-lights flashing around, showcases that violence isn’t always the focal point of an action scene when you can stage it to be as visually stunning a this (and bring Elvis back to life for a few moments).
Speaking of Deckard, he plays an integral part in the story despite only showing up three-quarters of the way through the story (and getting second billing). The protagonist from the first film has been in hiding out for decades and is the father of the missing child. We know Rachel (Sean Young, brought back to life via hauntingly convincing CGI) is an android, but Deckard’s humanity is still in question here, with the scripts making some implications, but never revealing the secret. It’s up to you, the audience, to come to your own conclusion.
There’s an interesting selection of subthemes and stories permeating throughout the film as well. Wallace, played by Jared Leto, is the successor of the Tyrell Corporation from the first film and is the largest manufacturer of replicants on the planet. Despite being in only a few scenes, Wallace comes off as genuinely creepy. He clearly has a God-complex and speaks as if he were some sort of soft-spoken pastor seen on TV. He actively wants to learn the secret of replicant reproduction as it will give him an edge to his plan for interstellar colonization. His argument is that anything great made in history was made on the backs of slave labour and that in order to go forward, a similar philosophy must be observed. So he makes replicants, as many as he can afford, in order to achieve the next great thing. So replicants don’t have it easy; they’re either treated as slaves (manual labour or prostitution) or as hunters for those replicants who disobey their programming, the rogue replicants. Many people in this world, whether it be slaves, women, replicants or otherwise, have it rough and the movie showcases how soul-sapping and dreary life can be below the ivory towers. Wallace, and Tyrell before him, create replicants to be slaves, but despite the programming, some replicants break free of their bonds. But what does society have for a replicant who has free will?
Women (who are often persecuted in this reality), are so important all of a sudden because replicants may be able to give birth. This has different meanings to different people, as it can either change the way society looks at replicants, perhaps terminating the blade runner program altogether as androids may, in fact, be dreaming, or as a means to increase the number of slaves in the name of conquest. But unfortunately, it isn’t the women who are making these choices, it’s powerful men. The movie isn’t condoning any of this, but rather, condemning it, with Villeneuve even saying:
“Blade Runner is not about tomorrow; it’s about today. And I’m sorry, but the world is not kind on women. […] The first Blade Runner is the biggest dystopian statement of the last half-century. I did the follow-up to that, so yes, it’s a dystopian vision of today. Which magnifies all the faults.”
Clocking in at 163 minutes, 2049 isn’t exactly a short movie, nor does it move at a lightning-quick pace like a Marvel movie. That said, despite some slower parts in the middle and towards the end, I found the pacing ultimately superior to that of the original film, which I ultimately regard as dull and slow, despite being a visual marvel. A key part of that is the relationship between Deckard and Rachael. In this film, we see a much more unique (and less forced) relationship between K and Joi (Knives Out’s Ana de Armas). What’s interesting here is that both these characters aren’t “alive” in the traditional sense. He’s a replicant, she’s an A.I., but they both have the capacity to feel emotions such as love. Does this make them any less human? They care for each other-at least, the Joi that K purchased for himself does, and he feels happy with her, despite her being nothing more than some codes and holographic imagery. It makes for a much more interesting and unique tale than the frankly stalkerish attempt at romance in the original film.
Part of the marketing campaign for the movie was unique and interesting as well. Instead of relying solely on trailers and posters, the movie actually released three prequel films online, two being directed by Ridley Scott’s son, Luke, and one, an anime, directed by Cowboy Bebop’s Shinichirō Watanabe. They’re not essential for the enjoyment of the main feature, but offer tidbits of insight, character motivations and world-building that make it enjoyable to watch. I personally enjoy 2036 and Black Out 2022 the most, and you can find all three on YouTube and on the Bluray. Here’s the first of the three shorts.
Just like the original film, however, 2049 was a box office failure. The movie was a critical success and Villeneuve would go on to say that the movie was “the most expensive art-house movie in cinema history,” which may explain why audiences didn’t rush out to see it. It’s a slow burn and lengthy movie that many only saw as a sequel to an obscure cult classic, which likely deterred a lot of moviegoers, despite the big budget and impressive leading cast. This was the case for the original film too and it’s considered a classic in most critical circles now. While sales of the physical media for 2049 have been excellent, time will tell if the sequel will be as revered as the original is now. Personally, however, I think the themes, storytelling, acting and striking visuals place this one above the original.
But now that you’ve read both of our opinions, let us know which Blade Runner is your favourite in the comments or on social media. Likewise, if you enjoy cyberpunk-themed movies (and are getting excited for Cyberpunk 2077), why not read our review of Alita: Battle Angel.