Not many films sci-fi films can truly attest to having the legacy that Blade Runner has accumulated in the 35 years since its release. Loosely based on Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the film told a contemplative tale of a future police officer tasked with terminating artificial humans known as replicants, and it drew as equally from film noir as it did science-fiction.
Directed by Ridley Scott (fresh off his success from Alien), the film hit theaters in the summer of 1982. It wasn’t initially met with great critical acclaim, and it actually underperformed at the box office. Over time, however, its importance became more lucid, as its influence could be felt in countless films from Paul Verhoeven’s sci-fi roller-coaster Total Recall (also a Dick adaptation) to the beautiful anime classic Ghost in the Shell.
It’s often considered one of the greatest sci-fi films of all time by critics, as well as one of the truly great films of the 1980s (perhaps in no small part because a generation raised on Star Wars was liable to adhere to an edgier sci-fi film starring Harrison Ford as they grew up). Of even more distinction, Blade Runner has even been released in different versions over the years, with perhaps even more acclaim than the original (despite the film’s recognition, Ridley Scott’s preferred cut didn’t see release until a decade ago).
In other words, Blade Runner’s presence hasn’t really left the cinematic atmosphere for the last three decades, but it still is nigh unbelievable to think a sequel has now finally arrived. It certainly was a long-gestating project, with sources saying that attempts at a sequel had begun as early as 1999. The project, however, finally began to reach its current incarnation around 2014 when Ridley Scott said he would be producing (not directing) the film.
Shortly thereafter, Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Sicario, Arrival) was confirmed as director, with Ryan Gosling starring. With all the buildup and the considerable talent attached to the project, needless to say, there were high expectations to be had, especially for fans of the original. Ultimately, Blade Runner 2049 is a success and definitely worth seeing, although it does have some flaws that keep it from reaching full potential.
Set 30 years after the original film, Blade Runner 2049 paints an even more dystopian picture. The Tyrell Corporation of the first film has collapsed, leading to economic ruin the world over. But a new replicant manufacturer known as the Wallace Corporation has replaced it. The replicants that it creates have tended to be more loyal than earlier models (so far), yet they also seem to possess more potency for free will.
The film finds its protagonist in K (Ryan Gosling)—a replicant tasked with hunting down earlier-model replicants for the LAPD—who comes across a startling discovery. His last mission has unearthed the corpse of a replicant that appears to have given birth to a child, and his superiors immediately instruct him to find the offspring and terminate it. Of course, K’s mission to find this child uproots a far larger conspiracy as well as a connection to the first film’s Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford).
It’s certainly an interesting story, and it carries the potential to expand on the first film’s themes of what it means to be human. The strongest card of Blade Runner 2049, however, lies in its aesthetic choices. Right from the very first shot, it becomes clear that the film truly understands the visual appeal of its predecessor. The sets, room décor, mechanical designs, and lighting all harken back to the original, albeit in a way that corresponds to the digital age. In fact, some of my favorite scenes in the film took place right in K’s single-apartment home, as everything from his furniture to his kitchen supplies carried the retrofitted future aesthetic that made the original have such a timeless quality to it.
Denis Villeneuve proves once again that he’s one of the best mainstream Hollywood directors. Since the French-Canadian director made his mainstream debut with Prisoners back in 2013, he has succeeded in releasing a new movie each year to great critical acclaim (including last year’s Arrival, which was nominated for best picture). For Blade Runner 2049, he showcases many of his previously established strengths (subtlety mounting tension, using genre tropes in unique ways) without compromising Ridley Scott’s vision. Fans of the original will certainly recognize musical choices as well as quite a few scenes from this movie that call back to hallmarks from the original (i.e., the elongated photograph investigation in the original). There are also refreshingly new scenarios, such as scenes where K. visits a memory construction center or engages with a replicant surrogate to make love to his digitalized partner (a bit similar to Spike Jonze’s Her, admittedly).
That said, some of these elements aren’t effectively developed, and the film’s weakest component is its script. Written by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green (the former being a co-writer of the original Blade Runner, with the latter having more recent projects like Logan and Green Lantern under his belt), the screenplay never falters at capturing the spirit of the original film, but it just can’t match its tautness.
The original Blade Runner certainly had an epic scope to it, but it had a more concise running length that made it appear as if the film had little if any wasted space. Blade Runner 2049, however, is just 16 minutes south of three hours, and its deliberate pace is more evident. While there’s certainly no ridicule to be had about a sci-fi film going at a less-than-rapid flow (as the best of the genre have proven to be as adept at being thematically rich as they are thrillingly escapist), Blade Runner 2049 just doesn’t amount to anything greatly exponential. Plot points are revealed and abandoned, and the action sequences tend to be merely shootouts that can’t compare to the imaginative sequences of recent sci-fi like Looper. Also, the film’s climax just doesn’t hold a candle to the original Blade Runner, which featured perhaps the most poetic character send-off in all of sci-fi cinema.
Casting-wise, Blade Runner 2049 is also a bit of a mixed bag. Ryan Gosling sticks to his archetype of playing a monotone hunk, which goes well for a replicant. Still, seeing that the film is also trying to show that the character is seeking his humanity, it would have gone a long way for us to see some more nuanced and subdued reactions from him—or maybe even a scene that showed an unexpectedly strong emotional response that would have made sense in the film’s context.
Jared Leto, on the other hand, proves to be rather intoxicating is his role as the Wallace Corporation’s figurehead, and his scenes are the closest the film comes towards getting transgressive. Harrison Ford also does a good job in returning to the role of Rick Deckard—perhaps even better than his return as Han Solo in The Force Awakens—and proves to have good chemistry with Gosling too (as well as perhaps the film’s most satisfying action scene). Perhaps the film would have been augmented had Villeneuve considered expanding their roles and even cutting some of Gosling’s scenes.
Blade Runner 2049 stands in the shadow of a superior predecessor, and it’s a second-tier Denis Villeneuve, but it’s still the kind of intelligent sci-fi film that too few studios are willing to make. Denis Villeneuve and Ridley Scott have both expressed interest in making another sequel if the film does well (although the film has only made around $85 million out of a projected $150-185 million budget so far), and if they found ways to expand on some of this movie's more intriguing plot trajectories, it could definitely be worthwhile.
Regardless of if this happens or not, Blade Runner 2049 will certainly appease the anticipant, and it stands as a solid—if imperfect—sequel to one of the greatest sci-fi films of all time.
Peter Foy is an avid reader and movie buff, constantly in need to engage his already massive pop-culture lexicon.