Director: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Jared Leto, Robin Wright, Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, Dave Bautista and Edward James Olmos
Running Time: 2 Hrs, 43 Mins
I have a confession to make that may cost me my nerd card. I was never that into the original Blade Runner. I didn’t see it for the first time until I was a teenager when I wasn’t nearly smart enough to appreciate its nuance and subtlety. It’s only been as an adult that I could respect how well it was crafted, but I always regretted not being able to truly appreciate it the first time around. As a result I wasn’t quite sure what to expect of Blade Runner 2049.
Well, what I got was a science fiction masterpiece for a new generation.
Its thirty years after the events of the original Blade Runner. Tyrell Industries, the corporation that first created Replicants (synthetic humans) went bankrupt following the replicant uprisings, only to be bought by industrialist Niander Wallace (Jared Leto). Wallace redesigned the Replicants to be obedient slaves and used them to successfully continue humanity’s colonization of the stars (not a bad idea, since the Earth’s environment is systematically failing and synthetic farming is the only thing keeping humanity from starving to death).
“K” (Ryan Gosling) isn’t only one of the new, complacent Replicants, he’s also a Blade Runner tasked with hunting down and “retiring” older models. But during a routine retiring, K stumbles upon a mystery that threatens to bring humanity’s entire global order crashing down. As he begins to unravel the mystery further, he begins he finds himself unearthing long dead ghosts and suspects that he may play a pivotal role in whatever is yet to come.
Don’t think of Blade Runner 2049 as a sequel to Blade Runner, rather consider it an extension of the original. The truth is 2049 shares an unusual symbiotic relationship with its thirty-five year old predecessor. The original acts as a foundation for the story, and while seeing the 1982 Blade Runner (or having more than a passing knowledge of it at the very least) is definitely recommended before seeing 2049, this new move is able to forge its own identity while respecting the first.
This isn’t an action movie. While there are definitely some action beats, Blade Runner 2049 is all about story. It allows the plot to slowly and organically unravel, deliberately pacing the story instead of rushing it. And while the third act stumbles a little, the reveal makes perfect, poetic sense given the time the story is allowed to build up to and develop it.
Blade Runner 2049 basically is science fiction in its purest form. This isn’t meant to diminish sci-fi movies that take different approaches, but Blade Runner’s strength is not only the story it tells-rich in theme and allegory-but the way it tells it. It isn’t just the pitch perfect pacing, but also the subtle layers it uses. Whether it’s convincingly building a crowded, post consumer world where brand names still reign supreme even while the world fails, where the lonely search for warmth in the cold embrace of illusions or where “K” and other Replicants face passive (and occasionally aggressive) prejudice with matter-of-fact acceptance, Blade Runner builds a bleak, desperate landscape that feels genuine while successfully delivering its messages with subtlety instead of volume.
The performances are yet another arrow Blade Runner has in its quiver. Reynolds does a more than efficient job as “K,” a futuristic Pinnochio tasked with hunting and killing his own kind who isn’t even sure he wants to be a real boy. Following her turn in Wonder Woman, Robin Wright offers another steely performance as police Lt. Joshi and Sylvia Hoeks kick ass and takes names as Luv, Niander Wallace’s right hand and avenging angel (if Hoeks doesn’t find herself in an action movie or two after this, it would be a crime). But the real performance to watch here is Jared Leto as industrial magnate Niander Wallace.
Leto is only in a few scenes as Wallce, and yet somehow his presence manages to cast a shadow over the entire story. Wallace is a brilliant philosopher with a merciless soul and delusions of divinity. He speaks of the necessity of slaves for human advancement, of the brutality necessary to conquer the future and the disposability of the Replicants he creates by the millions with a touch of sincere yet charismatic tenderness. He considers himself on the brink of godhood, yet somehow manages to seem devoid of ego. It is a fascinating examination of character and Leto pulls it off perfectly. Wallace seems like the kind of guy who would genuinely console you over the death of a puppy before committing genocide with the same dispassion. And Leto brings him to life with a quiet, efficient dignity and it’s a shame we couldn’t see more of Leto exploring a creature of such dangerous yet quiet contradictions.
Director Denis Villeneuve deserves plenty of credit for controlling the speed of the movie, resisting the temptation to fill it with explosions and allowing it to gallup forward recklessly. He coaxes some fine performances out of his actors and allows the film to nourish it’s own nuance and even a narrative pretension when necessary. It reminds me of last year’s Arrival (which he also directed). Arrival was my favourite science fiction movie of 2016, but Blade Runner is able to surpass it based on sheer scope and scale.
While the action scenes are spread pretty far apart, the violence is intense and intimately disturbing. Yet in counterbalance, Blade Runner’s sexuality is cold and sterile (although it does include perhaps the most unique love scene in movie history).
Blade Runner 2049 succeeds in capturing the spirit of the original Blade Runner, while neither creating it’s own tempered voice. It’s a very stylized, smart science fiction movie, which may work against it in much the same way I think those qualities worked against War For The Planet of The Apes last summer. Audiences looking to be overwhelmed by loud special effects and riveting action are going to be disappointed. But fans of the original movie, tasteful story telling and sophisticated science fiction should be quite pleased.