Blade Runner (1982) didn’t need a sequel. A previous post on this very blog was dedicated to that subject. However, if you absolutely positively have to have a sequel for a film which doesn’t require one, then pray to the movie gods that the sequel is as good as Blade Runner 2049. After all, Alien (1979) didn’t need a sequel. Neither did The Terminator (1984), The Godfather (1972) or Max Max (1979). Alien went from horror to war (to worse). The Terminator went from low budget pessimism to big budget optimism. The Godfather created multi-generational parallel stories. And Mad Max just got bigger, better, faster and Tina Turner! Each of these franchises may serve as a lesson in the dangers of letting the story carry on for too long, but they all have one thing in common – a second film which respects and builds on the premise of the original, creating something just as good if not better.
Blade Runner 2049 is receiving critical and public acclaim and deservedly so. It is a visually stunning and emotional detective story which takes its time in the telling and respects the intelligence of the audience. It is difficult to discuss the story without offering spoilers. It builds on the world created by the first Blade Runner and some familiar characters reappear. The inclusion of Harrison Ford, for example, is no simple celebrity cameo. It is organic and vital to the plot. However, this is a stand-alone story, which can be appreciated on its own merits whether you’ve seen the original or not. The focus is on K, the character played by Ryan Gosling – it is his emotional journey of discovery which the audience follows. The world is seen through his eyes and it is his resolution that we seek. Contrary to what some reviewers have suggested the story does make sense but it is not spoon-fed to us in the tradition of Transformers or the Marvel movies. The twists and turns of the story are expressed with minimal dialogue and believable interactions, which are all based on the theme of identity and self-worth.
The world of Blade Runner 2049 is realised in spectacular fashion. Denis Villeneuve previously created other visually stunning movies in the form of Sicario (2015) and Arrival (2016). But where Sicario had a disappointing plot with a meaningless twist and Arrival had a story so simplistic it felt like a rejected Star Trek episode, Blade Runner 2049 has interesting character arcs set in a world so detailed it is almost epic. A perfect blend of director and subject matter. Virtually any single frame in the movie could be paused and framed as an artistic science fiction landscape. What Villeneuve does well, however, is not just making the movie look spectacular, but using the imagery to tell the story. One of the most striking and constant visual themes in the movie is the way in which characters are (sometimes literally) dwarfed by the world around them. Buildings, corporations, advertising and the weather all seem to crush the characters down and pull them in while at every turn the characters themselves fight to be more than who they are.
The original Blade Runner was created in a pre-CGI world where the very idea of cyberpunk was in its infancy. Blade Runner 2049 exists in a world where we no longer “believe” or care if a “man can fly”. We are now bored of that. That the film seems so gritty and real, like a place you could reach out and touch, is a testament to how well the special effects are done. Compare it to other movies which exist in a dystopian metropolis: Judge Dredd (1995) and Total Recall (2012) for example. This film makes them look laughable. Okay granted, Dredd (2012) did an awful lot with a much smaller budget, but think of this year’s Ghost in the Shell with Scarlett Johansson. Alongside Blade Runner 2049, both are cyberpunk and both are big budget Hollywood productions. Blade Runner 2049 makes Ghost in the Shell look like a kid’s film! People who made Ghost in the Shell, if by chance you are reading this, THIS is how it’s done!! More important than the look of the world is the character’s reaction to it. In a film where most of the cast play artificially created humans, the emotional reality of the Blade Runner 2049 universe rests on the acting prowess of Ryan Gosling, Sylvia Hoeks, Ana de Armas and Mackenzie Davis.
Blade Runner 2049 might almost be described as retro-science fiction in that it uses old technology, outdated clothing styles and dated speech patterns. Almost like an alternative reality rather than a future world. You could also view it as a post-apocalyptic movie in the vein of Dredd or Mad Max: Fury Road (2016). There are call backs to classic science fiction literature, particularly Philip K. Dick and William Gibson, like the implanted technology from Neuromancer (1984) or the virtual relationship from Idoru (1996). Some of the technology appears improvised, almost like steampunk. The recent reimagined Battlestar Galactica (BSG) was heavily influenced by the original Blade Runner. You can in turn, see how the themes explored in BSG have fed back into this story. There are also similar themes to HBO’s Westworld. What does it mean to be alive? What does it mean to be human? While the main story follows its path to the conclusion, fascinating details flash by, which suggest the history and complexity of the world being depicted. The details never drown out the characters, and this is very much a character driven story. It is gratifying to see science fiction on the big screen grow and mature in this way.
There are imperfections of course. The film does take its time and not everyone will agree that a two hour and forty-five minute running time is required. They are of course wrong. Jared Leto gives another truly bizarre performance, as if he is channelling Marlon Brando from the end of Apocalypse Now (1979). Arguably though, that is just what his role required. Anyway if it pisses you off go and watch Fight Club (1999) and you’ll be fine. Another previous post on this blog discussed the missed opportunity to create a genuinely grown-up movie franchise when Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003) underperformed at the box office. Here again we have the opportunity to support a grown-up, big budget movie franchise which respects the intelligence of the audience and uses the medium to ask interesting questions or tell interesting stories. Go see it and see it on a big screen. See it on an IMAX screen. Hell, see it projected onto the Moon if you can. You won’t be disappointed. And if you are, you’re probably a Replicant.