If the movie Blade Runner (and author William Gibson) is the godfather of cyberpunk then Blade Runner 2049 is the love child born from that inspiration. Since 2049 is a sequel to a cult classic I don’t blame anyone for thinking it was a terrible idea. If you fall into that mindset I highly suggest you rethink your opinion. 2049 is probably one of the best sequels ever created and is a prime example of the student innovating, respecting, preserving, and in some cases even surpassing its predecessor.When I finish watching a new film I quickly start discussing it, breaking out my full analysis. When 2049’s credits rolled I was silent because I still needed time to process everything.
The sequel is set 30 years after the first film and follows young officer K (Ryan Gosling) on his day to day grind in a futuristic Los Angeles. As a blade runner K hunts down rogue replicants, realistic androids identical to humans, and executes them when they rebel against their creators. When K stumbles onto long hidden secrets that could throw society out of balance he is forced to seek out retired blade runner Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) for answers, who has been missing for 30 years.
Gosling brings a stoic and stern exterior to officer K, delivering well on the burnt out cop role and invoking a masterwork version of his earlier performances from Drive and Only God Forgives. Unlike those two past films the few times Gosling does betray any emotions it’s jarring and effective, hitting you like a hammer for some of the most memorable scenes. Ford is back again reviving another old character from one of his most treasured classics (Indiana Jones and Han Solo previously), which seems to be a trend now. Unlike his other characters though Ford’s return to playing Deckard seems more in tune with the story instead of just playing to fan service. Ford is at the top of his game here and feels natural in the long takes. Despite being in the film for only for a third of its running time this is probably some of his best acting in years.
Ana De Armas plays Joi who is K’s girlfriend and only real confidant. De Armas brings an interesting take on humanity and vulnerability, especially in her chemistry with Gosling. Robin Wright plays Lieutenant Joshi, K’s no-nonsense commanding officer and channels her presence with authority (though it’s a bit more subtle compared to her role in Wonder Woman.) Jared Leto plays Neander Wallace, an immoral corporate tycoon with a dark agenda. For this role Leto is his crazy usual self, method acting and all. Arguably the most standout performance came from newcomer Sylvia Hoeks. Hoeks plays Luv, villainous second in command to Wallace and K’s foil throughout the story. Hoeks manages to take over every scene she is in, even with some of the other big actors in the film. Whether it’s casual callousness, quiet brutality, or emotion complexity Hoeks is wonderful to watch.
Of course following in the footsteps of the original film we are often treated to long shots of interesting visuals. We get the full variety here: dilapidated buildings, crowded streets, spacious corporate offices, sprawling urban landscapes and lots of neon light. On the surface, and at least for fans of the original, we are getting more of the same. But while that style and fan service is still there we actually get much more. We get explore more of Los Angeles and its neighboring areas, ranging from foggy farmlands, snowy streets, desolate deserts, junkyard shanty towns and watery mechanical embankments. This film expands so much more of the universe than the first film with just its newer locations alone. Ever shot has a story to tell, expanding the lore and the analyses that are sure to follow.
Then we have the music of the film. Hans Zimmer does his own take on the blade runner world, bringing his signature minimalist style into the fold. What we get is a score that is moody and serviceable, but is significantly weaker than the first film’s score. Nothing against Zimmer because he did a fantastic job but the original, made by Vangelis, was way more bold and iconic. There is a sense that Zimmer was playing it safe with the score and while that’s not a bad thing it was certainly a missed opportunity. I commend Zimmer for taking his own direction and not needlessly ripping of Vangelis. There is exactly one song remixed from the original and it was the perfect song to choose, but I won’t spoil it here.
For fans of the original convincing them to see this film wasn’t that hard (unless you’re a purist that hates sequels). For everyone else it seems a bit tougher if the film’s poor box officer performance has anything to say. Understandably while Blade Runner is a cult classic with a devoted following it’s not that well known among the masses. For the average movie goer a nearly three hour sci-fi epic that is more slow paced and hard thinking doesn’t seem like a worthy time investment. But I want to tell you if you’re at least curious about this film you should give it a try. A Blade Runner film is something you’re not supposed to get completely on the first viewing. It’s beautiful, haunting, and you may not know how you feel afterwards. But it’s worth every minute.
Unfortunately potential newcomers to the series face another issue: do you need to watch the first film to understand this one. I will say if you have never seen the original film you’ll be able to understand this one just fine; 2049’s story can stand on its own. However many of the small details will confuse some viewers if they are coming in fresh. I don’t see this as a huge problem though. Because this film is meant to be watched multiple times I see this as an opportunity to explore the universe further. With that said I recommend newcomers see the 2049 first before going back to the original. The original film is very difficult to watch because of its slow and uneven pacing. I personally don’t mind but the average viewer in today’s movie standards will care more. 2049 is much more accessible.
If you happen to be a person who is into getting prepped for this film, but don’t have the patience to deal with the original, I have a solution. As part of 2049’s marketing campaign three short films were released set in the Blade Runner universe to hype the film. These three films act as a self-contained prequel that builds context for this universe. The films are called Blade Runner Black Out 2022, 2036: Nexus Dawn, and 2048: Nowhere to Run. All three of these films can be found easily on YouTube and will help newcomers get a sense of the universe. These films are also short (two of them are five minutes, one of them is twelve minutes) which is an easier investment than a whole other film.
Blade Runner 2049 is the sequel nobody asked for and I don’t blame anyone for thinking it’s a terrible idea. But I’m glad director Denis Villeneuve decided to take on this challenge because he literally did what I thought nobody could do. Villeneuve not only crafted a modern masterpiece but a truly fresh interpretation that is very much his own. I never once felt that this film was trying to cheaply rehash the past and that is the one thing as a movie fan I appreciate the most. It’s sad that this film isn’t doing better in the theaters; it seems like it is destined for cult classic status just like the first one. But 2049 is much more than just a box office failure. It’s a rare diamond in a sea of uninspired cash cows.