Prior to the release of Ridley Scott’s 1982 cult classic film “Blade Runner,” science fiction in film and television was vastly different than it is today.
Most science fiction in film during the ’60s and ’70s was like “Star Trek” or “The Jetsons” — it had a lighter tone with an optimistic view of the future and the direction that humanity was headed. Then “Blade Runner” came out and, despite a lackluster box-office reception, revolutionized what people have come to expect from modern science fiction, exploring the gray moral themes of artificial intelligence and how the existence of AI impacts what it means to be human.
Cut to 30 years later and “Blade Runner 2049” hits theaters without Ridley Scott directing but instead with Denis Villeneuve (“Arrival,” “Sicario”) at the helm. The film’s opening slate is a direct homage to that of the original, explaining that in the year 2049 there are androids, known as Replicants, who exist on Earth to be slaves but they have begun to revolt. As a result, there are special enforcement officers known as Blade Runners in charge of hunting down the Replicants and “retiring.”
The story picks up 30 years after the conclusion of the first film, in the year 2049. “K” (Ryan Gosling) is introduced as the protagonist and titular Blade Runner, who is himself a Replicant. He works for the Los Angeles Police Department and is hunting a runaway Replicant during the opening sequence of the film. During his hunt he uncovers a great secret that could upset the balance between the Replicants and humans and must find the key to that secret and eliminate it before Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), the CEO of the Replicant production company, can. He does so with the help of his holographic girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas) and ex-Blade Runner Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) who was the protagonist of the first film.
From the very first shot of the film, Villeneuve’s presence is made known. This film takes after the slow-moving pace but intense tones of his previous films with a slowly growing tension that culminates in a stunning and cathartic ending, after which the viewer looks down and realizes their knuckles have turned completely white. To some this is great but to others it may be a struggle to stay invested in the story.
The story and film take themselves at their own slow plodding pace and if the viewer is invested then it pays off, but it can turn out boring if the viewer isn’t engaged. Luckily, in this instance Villeneuve was able to develop a gripping and enticing film. Though, he didn’t accomplish this alone. It wouldn’t have been possible without the mesmerizingly haunting score by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch.
Zimmer and Wallfisch capture the dark and bleak tone of the film in their music which might be blaring thunderous synth accompanied by a choir one moment and come down to a quiet and eerie electronic melody that serves to build tension the next.
The tone of intensity and eeriness is vital to the film but it differs from that of the first, which was a classic noir film set in the future. Its plot and themes were simpler and more straightforward but it took many tropes from the classic noir style of filmmaking and tried to apply them to this desolate futuristic landscape. There were stark contrasts of dark and light and certain shots were framed in ways reminiscent of that early style.
“Blade Runner 2049” breaks away from this style, which could have been a potential misstep in its role as a sequel, but turned out to only showcase maturation of the narrative and tone. Despite this new style, this film manages to be absolutely stunning. Acclaimed cinematographer Roger Deakins (“The Shawshank Redemption,” “Skyfall”) outdoes himself with his use of lighting and color. His style differs greatly from that of Jordan Cronenweth’s in the original, but manages to take on a life of its own and add a great deal of depth and beauty to the visuals.
For example, there are long sweeping shots through the industrialized and futuristic Los Angeles that consists of mostly a variety of dark shades of gray punctuated occasionally by a bright neon light or advertisement that feels unnatural and artificial. Most of the first half of the film features these dark and monotone colors until K leaves Los Angeles to go and meet Deckard in Las Vegas and his world figuratively and visually changes. All of a sudden there are bright and vibrant colors that fill the entire screen, making the image look almost as though it were its own living being. There are bursts of blue and orange that complement and contrast with one another and beautifully show the conflict happening on screen in a symbolically visual way.
The quality of “Blade Runner 2049” also relies heavily upon its characters and their story. Where the original had a straightforward plot, there is a lot more to unpack and analyze in the sequel. Hampton Fancher returns from the original film, this time with Michael Green, to pen the screenplay.
The dialogue and story of the film are gripping and clever throughout. There are small instances of humor here and there but it is different from say “Guardians of the Galaxy” or “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” where the humor plays a larger role. It takes itself more seriously and while focusing less on adventure it spends more time on world building and moral queries about artificial intelligence.
The script itself is strong and compelling but it’s brought to life by excellent performances from the entire cast. Both Gosling and Ford had fantastic performances. They both conveyed a wide range of emotions in a reserved but convincing way. It was also nice to see Dave Bautista getting more opportunities in serious roles and Robin Wright was fantastic as LAPD Lieutenant Joshi. Leto’s antagonist, Niander Wallace, was an interesting opposition but felt slightly underdeveloped and lacked an interesting motivation while Leto’s performance felt hollow.
My disappointment in Leto was offset by my pleasant surprise in de Armas who played K’s holographic girlfriend. Their relationship was one of the most interesting aspects of the movie as it explored the dynamic of a relationship between two AIs and what it means to feel those emotions when they aren’t actually real.
Overall, it was a slow but deliberate movie that may end up boring some people but is a beautiful masterclass in filmmaking that is worth the almost three-hour run time. “Blade Runner 2049” will go down in history as a sci-fi classic and a model for what a sequel or soft-reboot should be.