I feel conflicted. On the one hand, I’m a bit annoyed that the best sci-fi movie, and indeed, the best movie since Mad Max: Fury Road is yet another sequel. On the other hand, Blade Runner 2049 is so good that it doesn’t really matter. Indeed it’s something almost of a necessary evil here, in that there’s no way a big budget sci-fi flick this challenging would have gotten greenlit unless it already belonged to an IP that could conceivably be bankable in this age of overindulgent nostalgia.
This wasn’t a movie I had been anticipating with any real fervor. The original Blade Runner is primarily known for how it looks. The trouble is that its dystopic, cyberpunk noir visuals have come to define some 90% of sci-fi visuals in the ensuing decades, which made the idea of a sequel seem superfluous: a facsimile of the original’s style simply wouldn’t stand out, and the story and characters themselves don’t have the iconicness that something like Star Wars does.
Blade Runner 2049’s response to this is genius: it takes the Blade Runner aesthetic and pushes it to its formal extremes, to the point where it feels unfamiliar and alien again, to the point where it becomes downright Kubrickean in its indifference towards the audience, to the point where you have to maybe pop in a David Lynch film to find something more stylistically aggressive. This, for me, is what leads me to place it above the original, in that I am kinda fascinated when movies push themselves like this, and that it feels more cohesive than the original, which always suffered from feeling a bit like the individual elements didn’t quite add up.
Anyhow, the original Blade Runner took place in the distant future of 2019, where the earth has become an industrial hellscape and people with the means to do so have already left it for alien pastures. Artificially engineered humans, known as replicants, are used for slave labour due to their strong physique. Blade Runners are cops who hunt down and kill rogue replicants.
(Sony was secretive about the plot of 2049 to the point of a silly embargo and everything, but I can’t imagine anyone enjoying the movie for the plot alone. I guess don’t read on if you don’t want to know what happens in the first 20 minutes or so?)
The events of the original resulted in Blade Runner Deckard (Harrison Ford) going AWOL with a replicant he had fallen in love with. In 2049 we find out that the world has somehow become even more of an industrial hellscape. Our protagonist this time around is K (Ryan Gosling), a Blade Runner who is also a replicant. In the course of an investigation he discovers evidence that a replicant has succeeded in having a baby. Fearful that this revelation could provoke an uprising, his superiors task K with tracking down and killing the child. Meanwhile, the sinister Wallace Corporation (the current manufacturer of replicants) wants to get the child in order to harness replicant reproduction as a new means of mass production.
Again, 2049 is too deliberate and spare to work as a thriller, but I nevertheless think that the plot and characters are better this time around. It’s tightly constructed and features just enough hints, misdirections and red herrings to give it intrigue and mystery. And, for lack of a better word, K is a more human character than Deckard; he has a more cohesive and satisfying arc, perhaps the most satisfying antihero arc in recent memory, in his struggle to come to grips with his own personhood and to find moral purpose in a world that treats him like a tool. It helps that we get to spend more time knowing him, and his situation unfolds in a more provocative manner than the “is Deckard a replicant?” teasing of the original. Paradoxically, this is heightened by the acting, which across the board has a coldness and lack of affect rarely seen outside of Kubrick films; the effect is one where the genuinely human moments become all the more poignant. Thus it feels more emotionally potent and less abstract when the movie launches off into philosophical ponderousness about identity, memory and what it means to be human.
And indeed this is a ponderous movie in a manner that far surpasses the languidly paced original. This is, in the best possible sense, a two hour movie stretched out to nearly three hours, using the plot as a vehicle for immersing the audience in its world. Scenes are pulled to extreme lengths for painterly effect. The visuals have similarly been pushed to extremes, with the baroqueness of the original reaching the borders of surrealism. At times, the visuals seem to completely overtake logic, as in the Wallace Corporation scenes, which seem to suggest a cavernous dreamscape more than anything resembling a corporate HQ. The score has also been changed to fit: although its as synth-heavy as the original’s Vangelis compositions, its familiar twinkly soundscape has been replaced by much more gutteral, dissonant sounds that jab out at you. I could imagine a much leaner cut that still functions fine as a story, but without all the time you’re given to soak everything in, I feel that the movie’s impact would be quite less.
It’s a far more viscerally unsettling ride than the original, but also, as I’ve suggested, a more human and hopeful movie than the original. It reminded me on a couple of occasions of Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun in its attempt at finding a semblance of grace in even the darkest and most decadent world.
Blade Runner 2049 not a movie that tries to make you like it; you have to be willing to meet its particular aesthetic ambitions. In that regard it’s probably the most difficult (for whatever that word’s worth) big-budget American sci-fi movie since 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s not as groundbreaking as 2001, or even as groundbreaking as the original, but it’s great art, and it takes science fiction seriously as a genre capable of great art, which is something rare to see on the big screen.