Right alongside the live action Akira that Warner Bros. has constantly threatened to make off and on over the years, one of the possible pop culture disasters I had personally dreaded the most was a potential sequel/reboot of Blade Runner. Ridley Scott’s nihilistic 1982 cyberpunk odyssey was, of course, misunderstood and under-appreciated upon initial release but had since become one of the most indelible and influential films of all time, to the point where it’s sort of sacred text amongst certain circles of fandom, and a follow up could only dilute that purity by having its mythos tinkered with in any way.
As the stars began to align (like tears…. in rain) for what would eventually become Blade Runner 2049, an auteur hand began to shape the production. With Scott taking on a producer role, Arrival director Denis Villeneuve was given the reigns with arthouse hunk Ryan Gosling in the lead as a blade running replicant with seemingly no clear aspirations towards humanity, who stumbles upon the possibility that replicants may have once been able to (and could still possibly) reproduce, leading him down a rabbit hole of corporate deception, police conspiracy and a simmering underground replicant uprising that all leads to Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard..
There’s a tone that the original Blade Runner has, a kind of post apocalyptic nihilism, a sort of overwhelming, heartbroken hopelessness in the face of lost humanity on both a micro and macro scale. The 1982 film adopted that tone from Philip K. Dick’s original works more so than it actually adapted any specific plot lines, and Blade Runner 2049’s greatest achievement is recreating that specific tone absolutely flawlessly from its first frame. The strong silence perfected by Gosling in Drive plays into this beautifully, as his initial detachment from his job, his kind, his whole world really, only makes his ultimate investment in the way said world may irrevocably change due to his uncovering of its darkest secret all the more reverent to our own tenuous grip on mortality. It’s like Children of Men in reverse.
Similarly somber and subdued performances abound, with newcomer Sylvia Hoeks’ the most impressive and affecting, her almost Terminator-esque relentlessness chilling in its efficiency. The right hand of Jared Leto’s Niander Wallace, who has taken over the Tyrell Corporation since the events of the first film, Hoeks’ “Luv”, aside from the central conspiracy at large, is the film’s chief antagonist (given that Leto’s surprisingly subtle and effective appearance here is little more than a cameo) and though she is very good, both in concept and execution, she falls short of Rutger Hauer’s immortal Roy Batty. That sort of menace and charm, that “Magneto” quality of understandable, sympathetic villainy is lacking here, though given that the replicants here find themselves wholly on the side of the angels this time out, it’s not surprising, just an interesting dichotomy of the original film missing here, and one of 2049’s very few shortcomings.
As for Harrison Ford, he’s fine. Nobody was clamoring for the return of Rick Deckard like they were for Han Solo, and Ford (who, like Leto, only appears in a few scenes despite his high profile in the film’s marketing) smartly plays things close to his chest in a performance that, again, succeeds due to its somber, subtle nature. This is a sad goddamned world that these characters inhabit, and Deckard is sorely lacking a Chewbacca to keep him company. Ford’s outpost in a nuclear war ravaged Las Vegas may be amongst the film’s most striking, though just like its forebear, 2049 has no lack of arresting visuals, including the horrifying tenement building where Gosling’s “K” resides (shades of the high school from Akira) and the futuristic farming hideout of Dave Bautista’s character.
The Vegas setting, though, presented another problem for me. As Ford and Gosling fight through a long abandoned hotel they trigger holographic versions of Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley, firmly placing these events in our future and not in one of Dick’s random, otherworldly alternate realities. The settings of the first film represented a completely alien hellscape, as did many of Dick’s novels published throughout the 60’s and 70’s, and the small connection to our real life in 2049 took me out of the film just a little. But again, it’s a minor nitpick, and one that may play more succinctly into Villeneuve’s tapestry of detachment and artificiality upon repeated viewings.
It’s economy of ideas may be it’s only ultimate downfall, especially in the eyes of the uninitiated, (subplots about Lennie James’ child labor camp and the sad, doomed romance of K and his holographic girlfriend felt just a tad like filler) but when so many of those ideas are so good it’s hard to find fault with the few that don’t exactly work. With eye popping, shot-in-IMAX visuals, pitch perfect performances, a plot that in no way invalidates the impact of the original and it’s own thought provoking message about the very nature of existence itself, Blade Runner 2049 succeeds as a belated sequel perhaps even more so than The Force Awakens, not simply being content with a redress of the franchise’s greatest hits but blazing it’s own trail of brooding, difficult science fiction to be assessed and reassessed by audiences for decades to come.