“Blade Runner” was a sci-fi behemoth. Certainly, the movie has some uncomfortable moments and questionable demographic representations — all of the extras are Asian, yet no primary character is — but these shortcomings aren’t enough to delegitimize the masterpiece’s artistic triumphs. Even after three decades of filmmakers trying to replicate its intricacies, nothing has matched the visual creativity of Ridley Scott’s (“Alien: Covenant”) 1982 classic.
But this high praise doesn’t automatically warrant a sequel. The movie’s ending, ambiguous enough to keep us nerds debating for literal decades, doesn’t beg to be resolved in a follow-up. Replicating “Blade Runner” is a task too daunting for anyone, even Scott himself, to tackle — except for Denis Villeneuve (“Arrival”).
No other director could better guarantee that a “Blade Runner” sequel won’t horrifically disappoint. The French-Canadian visionary is on Hollywood’s hottest winning streaks, following the critical and popular adoration of “Sicario” and “Arrival,” two riveting and cinematographically stunning movies. With “Blade Runner 2049,” the streak not only stays alive, but intensifies.
“Blade Runner 2049” is set 30 years from the original and follows a similar plot. Hunting replicants is once again the main objective, but this with added complications. Agent “K” (Ryan Gosling, “La La Land”) is in charge of “retiring” — code for killing — replicants, or fake humans created by the Tyrell Corporation. But after finding suspicious objects, his job gets more difficult. Describing the rest of the plot is arduous, not only because it’s complex, but because every detail revealed is a mini-spoiler. Scott and the movie’s producers cracked down on leaking any information before the release, which now makes sense. The whole movie leads you in one direction only to drag you back scenes later. And though you might get lost in the second act, it all wraps up neatly in the end.
Ryan Gosling’s performance as K is much like Harrison Ford’s (“Star Wars: The Force Awakens”) in the original — he balances a macho bravado with gaping vulnerabilities just like Ford’s Deckard. K struggles the entire movie with coping with his identity and his past. He lives an isolated life only to be accompanied by his AI girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas, “War Dogs”). Without ever wandering into overtly highbrow territory, “Blade Runner” trudges through the nuances of existential dread and isolation. Much bleaker than the original — which is saying quite a bit — “Blade Runner 2049” is one of the darker dystopian tales in recent memory, and certainly of the blockbuster sci-fi genre.
At the forefront of loneliness and isolation is K’s pseudo-relationship with Joi. He returns from work, not to a real human, but to an AI imaginary girlfriend programmed to make him feel loved. In this regard, “Blade Runner 2049” definitely steals a bit from “Her,” but calling this theft isn’t valid. Joi isn’t quite as developed as Samantha, the AI from “Her.” However, the movie’s lazy one-dimension depiction of Joi is a social commentary in and of itself. This AI projection is manufactured to fit the stereotypical feminine roles in a masculine-dominated society: She’s a homemaker, a manic pixie dream girl and a cheerleader all at once. In this regard, the sequel definitely has a greater social conscience that its predecessor.
De Arma’s performance as Joi was likely the most difficult to execute, yet the most rewarding. Complemented by stunning CGI that glitches between accurate projections and stuttering malfunctions, her performance transcends Joi from being just another robot-type to a character we genuinely care about.
Villeneuve’s direction and Roger Deakins’s (“Skyfall”) cinematography are a match made in heaven. Incorporating the visual elements of the original while staying entirely authentic, the duo delivers breathtaking shots of dystopian Los Angeles. “Blade Runner 2049,” in simpler terms, is one of the best shot movies of all time. It’s hypnotic, expansive, elaborate and gorgeous. Deakins, throughout his long and Oscar-less career, has made Earth look like a different planet. He can take a typical landscape, and with his signature lighting and wide angle lenses, portray it as if it were some uncharted land. “Blade Runner 2049” is no exception. Los Angeles in 2049 will probably not be the sunshine-deprived, billboard-laden metropolis as seen in the movie, but Scott and Deakins’s world is one of the most detailed ever.
Die-hard fans will likely disagree, but “Blade Runner 2049” is unnecessarily longwinded. Clocking in at 163 minutes, it risks deterring viewers who either haven’t seen the original, or have and found it somewhat slow. Still, it’s about as good of a sequel as we could ever dream of, one that begs to be seen on the big screen.
Recent reboots of successful franchises, like “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “The Force Awakens,” have been instant classics in and of themselves. Suffice to say, we can expect many more of these to come.