Written by Shawn Eastridge
I was a senior in high school the first time I saw Blade Runner. I’d received the bare bones Director’s Cut DVD as a Christmas present from a friend (This was before 2007’s robust Final Cut release) and I’d caught an awful cold that left me exhausted and somewhat delusional.
For some reason, I thought this was the appropriate state of mind to watch this dark, disturbing and cerebral film.
For two hours I sat there and watched Ridley Scott’s visual masterpiece, totally zonked and fading in and out of consciousness. Blade Runner is a tough enough pill to swallow when you’re not suffering from a massive head cold, and in this neurotic state of mind, I had no clue what to make of it. It’s a reaction not all that dissimilar from that of audiences back in 1982 when the film was first released.
But in the years since, film fans and critics have re-examined Blade Runner and come around to its groundbreaking and influential style, going so far as to call it a cinematic classic. It’s a film that gets better and better each time you watch it. I can attest to this personally. While my first viewing was less than satisfactory, I discovered a lot more to love the second time around. By my third viewing, I’d determined it was one of my all-time favorites.
I bring up this story because my experience watching Blade Runner 2049, the 35-years-later sequel, was very similar to my experience watching the original for the first time, minus the outright dislike.
Like its predecessor, Blade Runner 2049 isn’t interested in playing nice with the audience. Its methodical pacing (almost too methodical at times), limited emotional connection and lack of action sequences seem tailor-made to defy audience expectation and test the attention spans of those accustomed to the standard 21st century blockbuster. Its plotting is clunky and scattered, pointing in every which direction like a compass unable to locate Magnetic North. It doesn’t cover any visual or thematic territory that the original hadn’t already touched, and at 163 minutes it’s way too long.
And yet, despite these shortcomings, It is an undeniably fascinating viewing experience and one of the more intriguing and unconventional blockbuster releases of the 21st century. Director Denis Villeneuve has churned out some of the best films released in this past decade (Prisoners, Sicario, Arrival), but this is a crowning achievement of another sort. He’s managed to take a sequel no one thought they wanted and produced a singular vision that is both worthy of its predecessor’s legacy whilst impressively carving out a niche all its own. Even if it misses the mark in some respects, that’s still an extraordinary accomplishment.
Without getting too buried in the details, I’ll give you a very basic plot rundown (if you’d rather go in completely blind, you’ll want to skip the next couple paragraphs):
Ryan Gosling is ‘K,’ a Blade Runner tasked with bringing in or ‘retiring’ older Nexus models that have gone into hiding. During one of his assignments, K comes across information that could significantly alter the course of the future for humans and replicants alike. I don’t think it’s a spoiler for anyone who’s seen one of the film’s amazing trailers or posters to also inform you that Harrison Ford’s Deckerd character will show up at some point and play a role in these proceedings. Exactly how he gets involved and what the extent of his involvement is, well, I’ll leave that to you to discover.
Part of what made the original Blade Runner so powerful was its ambiguity. It asked many questions but provided few answers. You may or may not appreciate Blade Runner 2049's answering some of those lingering questions, but in the process it asks and answers even more along similar lines: the nature of humanity, love and what it means to have a soul. It’s intriguing for sure and there's plenty of ambiguity left over, but would have been far more powerful had some of the answers been a little less explicitly stated.
The film also suffers from a wealth of subplots, as if Villeneuve and screenwriters Hampton Fancher and Michael Green couldn’t decide what to focus on. Some of the best storylines are frustratingly underdeveloped, especially the one involving Tyrell stand-in Niander Wallace. (Here’s something I never thought I’d say: I wanted more Jared Leto in this movie. It’s one of the film’s most intriguing performances)
One of the more successful subplots involves love interest Joi, wonderfully portrayed by Ana De Armas. K’s relationship with Joi anchors the film with a sorely needed emotional connection.
As with the original film, Blade Runner 2049’s strongest aspects are its visuals and sound design. Ridley Scott and Jordan Cronenweth’s visual work in Blade Runner resulted in what is arguably the best-looking film ever made. That’s quite the standard to live up to, but if anyone would be up to the task, it’s legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins.
And boy oh boy, is he ever.
In a career spent crafting some of the most striking visuals in recent cinema history, Deakins has gone above and beyond here, delivering some of his best work. The visual effects mesh beautifully with his aesthetic and production design, resulting in one of the most fully-realized and believable worlds since...well...Blade Runner. Maybe the movie gods will finally see fit to gift this incredible talent with the Academy Award that has so unfairly eluded him for his entire career.
Likewise, Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch’s haunting score, paired with the incredible sound design, provides a bleak, otherworldly backdrop that unsettles and captivates in equal measure. I can’t wait to pick up a copy for myself.
Ryan Gosling’s performance as K is another of the film’s highlight. Gosling is, like Deakins and Zimmer, a master of his craft. He has played everything from charmers (La La Land, Crazy Stupid Love) to cold-blooded hitmen (Drive) and even creepy boyfriends with impressive depression beards (The Notebook...did I really need to name it?). Here he’s tasked with taking a relatively blank slate character and making us empathize with him, and he does so with such effortless finesse, you want to kiss the man.
Er...did I say ‘kiss?’ I meant to say…uh…Well...no...actually, on second thought, I did mean to say ‘kiss.’ (Call me, Ryan)
And Harrison Ford...I don’t want to say too much for fear I might give something away, but I was really impressed with his work here. I was afraid he might phone it in, but as with his reprisal of Han Solo in The Force Awakens, Ford gives his all, delivering an emotionally complex and touching performance.
Blade Runner 2049 is such an unconventional effort in this modern age of blockbuster cinema, I’m genuinely amazed Warner Bros. allowed it to be released as is. I have to extend major kudos to the studio for standing behind what is sure to be a divisive product. But despite its heady nature and methodical (sometimes to a fault) pacing, there is plenty here to engage and captivate patient, thoughtful audiences. I sincerely hope it makes a profit; we need more of this brave and challenging brand of mainstream filmmaking.
And much like my experience with the original Blade Runner, I have a feeling I could grow to appreciate this sequel more and more as time goes by. Whether I’d go so far as to someday call it one of my favorite films? Eh, that’s less likely. But who knows? Stranger things have happened.
...like a good Blade Runner sequel.