Very mild spoilers ahead.
When Tron came out in 1982 - Hang with me here. I'm going somewhere with this - it was groundbreaking. And love it or, y'know, don't, you still had to admit it was revolutionary. By the time the credits rolled, you knew the game had changed, and probably forever. Which is why Tron: Legacy, its much-maligned 2010 followup was, well, kinda doomed right out the gate. I mean, how exactly do you follow something like that? Let me put it another way. What did the neanderthal who invented the wheel do for an encore?
This has been happening a lot lately. Alien remains to this day one of the greatest entries in the "Never Go into Space" genre, so really, how was Prometheus going to live up to that? That kind of burden is daunting, and we've recently witnessed production after production collapse under the weight of their vastly superior predecessors.
Anyone who knows me will tell you my three favorite sequels are The Godfather, Part II, The Empire Strikes Back, and the supremely badass Phantasm II: Wrath of the Tall Man. These films understand how it's done, and adhered to a kind of structured playbook that served as a guide while still leaving the filmmakers enough creative freedom to further explore the worlds we'd already fallen in love with. It's a pretty simple formula that consists of the following rules:
1. Further develop the story and characters we know and the world they inhabit.
2. Up the stakes accordingly but do not succumb to the temptations of excess.
3. Do not betray the narrative of the previous film.
So when I started seeing trailers for Blade Runner 2049, a sequel which would be pulling into port at a somewhat astonishing 35 years after its forerunner, I was skeptical.
Loosely based on Philip K. Dick's 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Ridley Scott's original 1982 sci-fi masterwork was a grim, morally ambiguous neo-noir, and easily one of the most borrowed-from movies released in recent history. Set in a dirty, rainy, overpopulated, neon-illumined 2019 Los Angeles that was simultaneously gargantuan and claustrophobic, it boasted a compelling protagonist in Harrison Ford's Rick Deckard, its antagonists were sympathetic and relatable, and their world felt tangible, lived-in, and wholly believable, which is impressive when you consider that nothing is more difficult storytelling-wise than attempting to accurately predict the future.
Blade Runner 2049 follows the playbook to breathtaking effect. Helmed by Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Prisoners) and written by Michael Green (Logan, Alien: Covenant) and Hampton Fancher, who served as Screenwriter for the Blade Runner: Final Cut, this new installment is set thirty years in the future's future, in a sprawling yet instantly recognizable Los Angeles where we find all the pieces we already know firmly in place. The rain hasn't let up, the neon still runs through the city's streets like electric veins, the digital advertisements loom larger and more ever-present than ever before, and while this L.A. doesn't seem quite as densely populated as its predecessor, it is no less inhospitable. The movie has squalor in spades.
Ryan Gosling (at his emotionally conservative best) plays K, a Blade Runner with the LAPD tasked with hunting down and "retiring" older model Replicants who've gone rogue. A Replicant himself, the movie wastes no time in showing us his desires. He resides in a pristine cubicle with Joi, a kind of live-in, holographic girlfriend, a little Eden all his own at the heart of a filthy, graffiti-strewn and overcrowded apartment building where he endures racist taunts from the other tenants, presumably every day. He doesn't love his job despite being exceptional at it; he yearns to be special in a world where, by their own admission, no one is. His actions are measured, deliberate, and he displays an introspection that is quite human. He stands in the rain, lets snowflakes melt in his palm, and literally stops to smell the roses.
Robin Wright plays Joshi, K's hard-drinking police lieutenant, whose scant screen time is well used, particularly when it addresses her abject terror that the world she thought she knew may be on the brink of total collapse. In a movie entirely about lonely people, she feels the loneliest. Ana de Armas' Joi mirrors that isolation. As K's virtual mate, she is as emotionally invested in him as her programming will allow, but even she feels at arm's length. Jared Leto puts in a fair to middling performance as Niander Wallace, this movie's Eldon Tyrell and current God-incarnate. As blind as his precursor, which is no accident I'm certain, he is more soulless than any Replicant, as detached and unfeeling as we sometimes secretly fear God may truly be.
Carla Juri plays Ana Stelline, whom I'll speak of here only long enough to say she has my favorite scene in the film, a brilliant and sad moment that builds magnificently on the world's rich history, adding layer upon layer to an already impressive mythology. My favorite new character, though, is easily Luv, played with passionate yet reserved calculation by Sylvia Hoeks. She gives a marvelous powder keg of a performance; her every second on screen is like watching a fuse burn shorter.
I would be remiss if I didn't take a moment to talk about Harrison Ford, who has managed to create a new kind of career for himself, one composed almost entirely of playing ancient, I daresay decrepit, versions of his younger characters, and while his return as Rick Deckard was more thematically and narratively satisfying than his reprises as Indiana Jones and Han Solo (sorry), I couldn't help but wish they'd had a stunt person stand in for some of his action sequences. His age is starting to show, which is perfect for the character, but a little hard to swallow when I'm expected to believe he's punching out shredded government super-killers half his age. That aside, he returns to the role with the weariness of a man burdened by too many secrets, of one whose life was never in his control, a concept that has always been at the core of the Blade Runner mythos.
And this brings us to the downside. The film is gorgeously shot; the world is as crushingly bleak and hopelessly human as ever. Like its forebear, it assaults you with a kind of grotesque beauty that mesmerizes even as it nauseates. But I find myself troubled by its representation of women and people of color. This is, regrettably, something I can almost expect to write about with every movie I watch. First, there are only two Black characters, and neither of them are what I'd necessarily call decent people. Now, don't misunderstand. You can have Black people in your movie that aren't upstanding citizens. They don't all have to be Captain America. But when there are only two, and neither of them are positive portrayals, that's when you have a problem.
The film has several female characters, each with their own intriguing arcs and jaw-dropping reveals, but I question why there is no male equivalent to K's holographic girlfriend, and why prostitutes are only ever female in this universe. In the previous Blade Runner, Zhora and Pris were combat and pleasure model Replicants, respectively, which is not my gripe. My complaint is, why are there no male pleasure models designed for female humans? Why are there no advertisements for male Joi's, virtual live-in mates for women? Why is this particular technological advancement always one-sided? Why are women never allowed to seek pleasure on their own terms, especially in a society where this is clearly, overtly condoned?
We're well past the point where these concerns should really be addressed, especially in the realm of science fiction where I'm meant to believe that we've advanced light years as a civilization. In these far-flung, futuristic worlds, such ideas strike me as egregiously outdated. I challenge Hollywood to do more. I know they can!
So, was Blade Runner 2049 a success for me? Yes. Absolutely! I'm still mentally unpacking all of the philosophical implications. It possibly poses more questions than it answers, but that is not to its detriment. In fact, it's exactly the sort of film that merits repeat viewings. See it, allow yourself to be immersed in its narrative, and let it work its considerable magic on you. It is so very ambitious in both its visuals and its musings on identity, isolation, memory, and the definition of what it means to be human, if there even is one. It is thoroughly fulfilling, and more satisfying on a thematic level than I could have hoped. The world of Blade Runner was always so grand. The realization that 2049 was able to expand on, deepen, and enrich that same world without sacrificing anything from the original is its own kind of miracle.
My Rating: 4.5 out of 5