dir. Denis Villeneuve
reviewed by Dakota Drobnicki
When the original Blade Runner opened in 1982, it was saddled with narration from Harrison Ford, awkwardly shoved in to explain the obvious to the more “casual” (too polite of a term?) filmgoers coming in. This attempt to make Blade Runner more palatable to a wider audience was ultimately for naught when it grossed nearly $34 million against a $28 million budget — certainly not E.T. or Wrath of Khan numbers.
Over time, and with assistance from a couple director’s cuts that would reshape it closer to Ridley Scott’s original vision, it became the highly influential cult classic it is now. Along with its dystopian contemporaries Brazil and Nineteen Eighty-Four, their dreary and epic visuals and musings on humanity would push dystopian science fiction into a deeper and more grandiose direction than Star Wars and Mad Max had been. Think of classics in its wake like The Fifth Element or Ghost In The Shell and look at the parallels in visual design or in philosophical subtext.
Not writing this review until Sunday, as opposed to the Friday night I saw Blade Runner‘s long-awaited sequel here, allowed me to watch its box office performance over its opening weekend. While it has thankfully topped the box office this weekend, this sequel has a higher hurdle to jump over: a budget hovering around $170 million, not $30 million.
Enough about numbers for now, though… how’s the movie? Well…
K (Ryan Gosling) is a Replicant LAPD officer on his “blade runner” beat when he discovers the bones of another Replicant at the farm of an older Nexus 8 model he just “retired”. Those who know the original will quickly understand the importance of who the bones belong to, but I refuse to divulge who it is here. This Replicant had given birth to a child whose mere existence could inspire a revolution among other disenfranchised Replicants.
K is tasked by his lieutenant to find and retire the child in the name of keeping order, while new Tyrell Corp. head Neander Wallace (Jared Leto) keeps an eye on him, hoping to use the child to bolster replicant production to new heights. Ultimately, K runs into and teams up with a weary Deckard (Harrison Ford) from the original film, which would be a massive spoiler if Ford wasn’t plastered all over the film’s marketing materials.
The best place I can start the actual review portion of this article is by telling you that I cried twice while watching it, which is not an easy feat for me in a theater. While I’m not sure if tears were Denis Villeneuve or Ridley Scott’s intended reaction, they were the product of a deep emotional investment into the film, not “lol im crying cuz this movie’s so bad”.
This 163-minute film is filled with subplots, the most interesting of which to me was the one involving K’s hologram wife Joi (Ana de Armas). Through the first half of the movie, K’s mission statement at home is to make Joi as real as he can, such as gifting her an “emanator” which finally allows her to wander freely with him outside of his apartment. It leads to a sex scene which, while incredibly moving, is easily the strangest sex scene I’ve laid eyes on since the wonderfully bizarre spirit-on-corpse fornication in Seeding of a Ghost.
The first time I cried was when this subplot had to end. I wouldn’t have been moved to tears if the chemistry between Gosling and de Armas wasn’t perfect, and if their struggle to make Joi “real” hadn’t been the emotional crux the first half of the film is built around. For what it’s worth, the second time I cried was at the ending, but I would rather not divulge any details about that.
The biggest strength of the original Blade Runner is its eye-popping visual design, especially in its beautiful, miniature-laden establishing shots and grimy city streets that set a widely copied template for dark, gritty dystopian worlds to follow. In Blade Runner 2049, it keeps true to the original’s dichotomous visual beauty while expanding on it in mind-blowing ways.
For one, the color palette is far more diverse than the dark blue coating the original sticks to (pushing a sickeningly “modernized” teal if you watch the 2007 “Final Cut”, which is the one I revisited before seeing this). Deep oranges that permeate Las Vegas, shades of gold that set an all-too-fitting background for Wallace’s sinister doings, stark whites and grays in the farm of Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista) the film opens on and the snowy day where it closes.
Second off, the movie is coated in mesmerizing digital effects work which doesn’t feel too far removed from the original– after all, that movie used plenty of optical effects, which were the equivalent of the original’s time. If there’s any recent sci-fi movie I’d easily compare its CGI to, it’d be the pretty-good-but-not-amazing Ghost In The Shell reboot that dropped earlier this year. That movie was very pretty and had more interesting visual effects work than your typical tentpole film, but this movie has all that and a much smarter approach to back it up.
What are the weaker points to this movie? Are there any? If I had to single any particular element out, it’d be Jared Leto’s performance as Wallace. Either his character or his performance lacks the more defined qualities that K, Deckard, Joi, his own henchwoman Luv, and even less prominent supporting roles like K’s lieutenant carry throughout the movie.
Also, there’s a scene that brings back a particular character from the original (and de-ages them to look like it’s 1982 again) that feels a bit cheap and unnecessary to drive the story forward. Won’t say who it is, but if you see it soon, see if you feel the same way. These complaints are minor and don’t detract much from the engrossing experience around them.
In short, I would call this the greatest sequel that has dropped in years. Moreso than Guardians 2, The Raid 2, Creed, even The Dark Knight and I’m saying that with full confidence and gusto. For the uninitiated, you’d be best off watching the original first, but its absolute necessity is arguable. I would even be hard-pressed to consider whether I prefer the original or this film, but for now I’m actually swinging towards this one.
I know I would love for it to become a smash success that makes $600-700 mil worldwide, but in the coming weeks it’ll have The Foreigner, Happy Death Day, Boo! A Madea Halloween 2 and Jigsaw to compete with, not to mention Thor: Ragnarok next month. Unless word of mouth sweeps it up or China saves it from flopping, it may be doomed to the same fate as the original.
Regardless of what it takes in, I hope that it, too, will define what makes great science fiction, and that it’ll also set a new example for how great a sequel can be.