“They do not know what pain is yet. They will learn.” ~ Wallace
“I always told you. You’re special. Your history isn’t over yet. There’s still a page left.” ~ Joi
“There is an order to things. That is what we do here. We keep order.” ~ Joshi
“What do you want?” ~ Deckard
“I want to ask you some questions.” ~ K
How does one follow up Blade Runner? The 1982 dystopian science fiction film gave us a dark vision of 2019, of a bleak world in decay where the only hope for a future was off world colonies, and where artificial life forms called Replicants were created as slave labour- until they became a problem. The film has been hailed as one of the greatest films of its genre, especially the director’s cut version of it, proving to be hugely influential in films that have followed. What is on its face a police procedural and film noir entry about a cop hunting dangerous beings becomes a deeply philosophical study on what it means to truly be alive, to have a soul. Plus it has a compelling storyline and lead actor (Harrison Ford) that keeps drawing the viewer in every single time it’s watched. Blade Runner 2049 returns to that dark world, stepping thirty years ahead in its timeline and bringing us right back into its despair, intrigues, and questions.
Officer K (Ryan Gosling) is a new blade runner for the Los Angeles Police Department in a world that’s gone even deeper into decay. As has been the case for those of his rank before him, his job is to hunt and put down rogue Replicants who have become a problem. Replicants are still produced decades after the events of the original film courtesy of the successor to the original film’s tycoon, this time by an ethically deprived entrepreneur, Niander Wallace (Jared Leto). K works under a supervising officer, Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright), and makes discoveries that threaten the status quo of the world, in a quest that leads him to a former blade runner who’s been missing for thirty years: Rick Deckard (Ford).
The idea of a follow up to Blade Runner goes back years, with various ideas tossed about as to where to take it. In this case, taking years to get it right was a good thing. Ridley Scott, who had directed the original, was on board as an executive producer, and Hampton Fancher, who had co-written the original, returned to write the script with Michael Green. The story captures the nihilistic tone of the original: a future where things are exceedingly bleak, where life and freedom are things that matter little in the face of profit and opportunity, and where the world is falling apart even more than before. It’s written as something of a police procedural like its predecessor: a cop following a trail taking him down some unexpected paths, and like its predecessor, moves into profound questions about science and ethics. If Star Trek presents a future of optimism, the Blade Runner mythos is one of overwhelming despair, mingled with the instinct to keep moving forward despite that despair. The script captures that quality throughout, successfully carrying on with the history of this alternate timeline in a way that makes sense.
Denis Villeneuve came on board as director for this, a wise choice as it turns out. The Canadian director got his start with French language shorts and movies before coming to wider attention internationally with films like Prisoners and Arrival. His previous work established him well in both character studies and stories asking big questions, particularly with Arrival, which shares the sci-fi genre this one features. Villeneuve brings us back into the world of the Blade Runner, the dark, rainy, noir future that is unsettling much of the time, recapturing Scott’s tone from the original. One of the things that made Blade Runner resonate so strongly has been its way of foreseeing things to come. Sure, we don’t have flying cars or artificial life yet, but video conferencing, wall to wall advertising, a mish-mash of cultures, and environmental calamity as we’ve seen in that original film certainly can be seen in our world today. And Villeneuve steps right in and brings that right back to life. We feel fully immersed in a dying, toxic future where the world has gone terribly wrong.
Part of that is visual effects; CGI for instance de-ages a character from the original film to look like they originally did, while special effects evoke the bleak Earth in a time when everything has gone out of balance, as well as the technology of that time period. Part of that is also in the style of the director, who proves quite adept at the ferocity of a fight scene and just as capable of building suspense or the quiet moments between characters. He strikes just the right balance between a film noir/ sci fi epic movie and the humanity that is still so central to the story. Villeneuve has a bright future ahead of him, and this bleak tale is an exceptional addition to his resume.
Two faces from the original film return for brief appearances. Edward James Olmos reprises his enigmatic role as Gaff, a colleague of Deckard back in the day. He’s aged in the decades since, but remains as cryptic as ever. Sean Young, who played the Replicant Rachael in the original, returns as well, playing the character in a roundabout way, as well as a clone. CGI is used to effectively make her look as young as she did in the first movie, something that wouldn’t have been possible ten years ago.
Dave Bautista appears as Sapper Morton, a Replicant who’s gone rogue and whose presence really sets the blade runner off on his quest. Bautista brings a tough physical presence to the role, which can be expected, and his own sense of ethics. Sylvia Loeks is just as tough in her role as Luv, a Replicant enforcer who proves to be tenacious and ruthless, assigned by her benefactor to carry out his orders. Her role is an interesting contrast to Rutger Hauer’s Roy in the original film; where Roy is brutal and vicious, he still ultimately shows humanity, something that seems to elude Luv.
K has two women in his life, in different ways, and they add to the enigmatic tone of the film. Joi (Ana de Armas) is a holographic companion who accompanies him, appearing in different ways through projectors and providing him with sympathy and a voice of reason, something the actress conveys throughout. Her physical counterpart is a Replicant named Mariette, played by Mackenzie Davis, being the physical surrogate Joi can’t be, while having secrets and agendas of her own. Part of what makes K work as a character is the dynamic he has in turn with each. Another woman, pivotal to the plot, is a scientist, Ana Stelline, played by Carla Juri. She’s a memory designer for Replicants, and the actress plays her as sympathetic but cryptic, and for good reason.
Jared Leto takes the role of Wallace, a tycoon who manufactures Replicants as his predecessor, Tyrell, did in the first film. The actor has an eclectic resume, last appearing as the Joker in Suicide Squad. Here, like Tyrell before him, he is a man devoid of ethics, more concerned with his own wealth, ego, and advancement, a sociopath entirely without conscience. Others may do his bidding, but Wallace is the real evil here, and Leto makes him chilling.
Caught in the middle of all of this, and in a role she makes the most of, is Robin Wright as Lieutenant Joshi. She’s a superior officer to K, and while that position might make her seem authoritative at times, she does possess a conscience and sense of ethics, and follows them. She’s loyal to her officers too, and has earned their loyalty in return. Wright conveys the character with the sort of resolve that you’d expect, less world weary than her counterpart in the original film.
Ryan Gosling is surprising in the role of K. I say that because this is the first time I’ve seen him in anything that I liked. I despised The Notebook, which I would argue constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, but let’s be fair- that’s more or less because Nicholas Sparks adaptations are cruel and unusual punishment. And I didn’t like The Ides Of March, which felt like a misfire, but that’s more the material. As for La La Land? I will never see it, because I’d rather crawl through broken glass than watch a musical. So watching him play K was seeing him with fresh eyes. There’s less of a world weariness in the character than we saw with Deckard in the original film, though he lives doing the job in a world that has only gotten worse. K finds himself confronting a mystery that calls into question what he knows about the world, and the actor invests the character with a sense of curiousity in how he responds to that. He gives the character gravity and weight, and K is our point of view character as he negotiates his way through the bleakness that is his world.
Harrison Ford reprises one of his iconic roles as Deckard, only appearing in the second half of the movie, though his presence hangs over things before we see him. Deckard is years older, with his cynicism still there, still mixed with principles he didn’t know he had. He’s suffered losses, is wary of strangers (and for good reason), but even after all this time is not someone you want to provoke. Ford’s performance feels like he’s been living in the character’s skin this whole time and we’ve just missed thirty years of his life- Ford knows the character, and brings him back to life effortlessly. There are questions raised, but left to the interpretation of the viewer, about Deckard, and Ford plays to that, but also invests resolve and integrity in the character.
Blade Runner 2049 picks up in a dark future that carries on the Blade Runner continuity in the right way. It’s probably not possible to match or top the original- that film is a masterpiece. And yet this film stands out very well on its own and succeeds. It is imaginative, thought provoking, eerie, impressive, and a visual wonder. The story poses difficult questions and moral dilemmas in ways that are profound. Its cast is well chosen, each actor investing strongly in their performances, bringing to life this dark world and its disparate agendas. Its director proves to impress once again and shows that he is the sort of talent to keep an eye on. And the film is a worthy successor to what has come before.