Discussing Blade Runner 2049 in any kind of detail requires spoilers, so be forewarned, this entire review is lathered in spoilers. Want a spoiler-free reaction to the movie? Then I shall tell you this is a great movie with beautiful visuals and thoughtful ideas. If you want to hear me get more in-depth then that, then read on but BEWARE OF SPOILERS
Hollywood loves making remakes or sequels to older movies, this is just as much an eternal fact of life as the fact that pugs are cute. If we’re being honest, the majority of these updates range from being middling to outright bad as it becomes readily apparent when watching them that the sole reason they exist is to wring some more money out of a recognizable name. But that’s not always the case as seen by Creed or Mad Max: Fury Road, movies that went in bold new directions and actually had stories to tell and weren’t just an exercise in brand extensions. Thankfully, Blade Runner 2049 is another sequel to an older movie that’s actually a successful feature in its own right rather than just being a pointless cash-grab.
For Blade Runner 2049, the plot takes place 30 years after the original Blade Runner. Replacing the original movies lead character Deckard (Harrison Ford) as a protagonist is K (Ryan Gosling) a synthetically created human known as a Replicant that’s tasked with hunting down older and less obedient Replicant models. It’s a grisly job, but somebody’s got to do it, right? On a routine assignment, though, K discovers the skeleton of a Replicant woman, Rachael (Sean Young), that indicates this woman gave birth to a child, something that’s never occurred before with a Replicant. This revelation does not sit well with K’s superior, Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright) who worries that this event getting out will unleash chaos on the established societal order wherein Replicants are submissive to humans and she orders K to hunt down and kill the Replicant’s offspring
It seems like a normal job for K, but, well, K is feeling mighty conflicted about his task. You see, a date etched into a tree near where the skeleton is found just so happens to be the same date etched into a childhood heirloom (a wooden horse toy) of his. This leads K to suspect he may be the child of this Replicant, meaning the very people he works for would likely kill him in an instant if they found this out. Of course, K isn’t the only one on the hunt for the child of this Replicant as Replicant extraordinaire Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) has ordered his henchman Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) to track down and kill this replicant offspring.
If the first Blade Runner from 1982 was an exploration of a human being discovering the humanity and nuance existing in beings he thought were just empty machines he could dispatch for an easy paycheck, Blade Runner 2049 is all about a guy devoid of humanity searching for something, anything, that’ll make him human. His primary way of accomplishing this in his day-to-day life is by making heavy use of a hologram girlfriend named Joi (Ane De Adams), with whom he tries to engage in stereotypical lover chatter (they ask each other how their days are for instance). It’s apparent K is mimicking what he see’s as typical human behavior, but there’s a falseness to it. No matter how many days he’s done this routine, it just still registers as inorganic.
This sequence is easily one of the most effective in all of Blade Runner 2049, with that moment of Joi standing in the rain being particularly emotionally powerful, as it depicts two individuals who are so close and yet so far in their attempts to adhere to the conventional definition of what it means to be “human”. From there, K gets a renewed sense of hope for achieving something resembling humanity when he realizes he could be a figure of tantamount historical importance being that he believes he’s first ever organism birthed from a Replicant. This sends him on the events that make up the majority of act two as K travels around the wasteland world of Blade Runner searching for clues only to come up with more and more problems. Even finally meeting Deckard only brings up more questions and problems for him.
After all of these struggles, K is rewarded not with a chance to finally prove himself as a Chosen One of sorts but rather is told by the leader of a Replicant rebellion that he is, in fact, not the offspring of Rachael. K’s hopes of finding a higher purpose that could give him the wholeness he’d so desired has just been shattered but through meeting these rebellious Replicants, he does get the chance to fully embrace one of the defining aspects of humanity which is putting others before yourself. As K stands in the glowing light of a Joi advertisement and prepares to rescue Deckard, a mission he’ll sacrifice himself for if need be, K has finally realized the very basis of humanity lies in what we do for others. Acts of selflessness are, as Dave Bautista’s character in this movie might put it, “a miracle”.
Of course, these Replicants, by way of putting their lives on the lines to upset the social order and help bring freedom to their brethren, are displaying considerably more humanity than all but one of the humans (Deckard being the sole exception) K encounters in his journey. Hampton Fancher and Michael Green’s screenplay populates K’ search for answers with all sorts of low-life humans (including one played by Barkhad Abdi, whose presence in any movie makes me happy) who run the gamut from sleazy to outright wicked and they all come with boisterous personalities and distinctive costumes that make them seem like they all wandered away from a grim version of a Luc Besson space opera.
All of these characters inhabit a world lovingly shot by cinematographer Roger Deakins. The basic visual aesthetic of the world of Blade Runner was already incredibly gorgeous, so handing such a realm to a masterful visualist like Roger Deakins was bound to result in something visually engrossing and the final product doesn’t disappoint. The city-set sequences are radiant in the way they utilize these pervasive bright neon lights while the numerous dreary environments (like a garbage wasteland that doubles as an orphanage) have this realistically haunting quality to them. Simply put, Blade Runner 2049 is beautiful to look at, it’s great that all of its compelling ruminations on what it means to be human get to exist in such a gorgeously realized package.
This now marks the second year in a row, after last years Arrival, that Denis Villeneuve has directed a thoughtful and visually masterful science-fiction tale (though, for those curious, I would say this Blade Runner sequel isn’t as good as Arrival, though few things are). Hopefully Villeneuve’s winning streak keeps on going in his future directorial efforts because Blade Runner 2049 is yet another winner from this superb filmmaker. I had my concerns on whether or not this follow-up could serve as a proper extension of the original film, but I need not have worried since Blade Runner 2049 is not only a lovely Blade Runner sequel, it’s also just a terrific piece of science-fiction storytelling.