I feel like “being perplexed by Blade Runner” is a rite of passage for most cinephiles.
It often comes into your life too early, buoyed by your enjoyment for the more accessible films of its star and its director. It sits uncomfortably, asking you to understand that it will not pick a genre and it will not make it easy for you. I spent many years liking Blade Runner without really fully understanding why or how, which makes it a particularly interesting choice for a belated sequel.
Part of the appeal of Blade Runner is its dogged refusal to “world-build,” to use a more contemporary term. Its universe is rich and complex and yet the film does so little hand-holding that the viewer is left more or less on their own. It’s not necessarily a difficult film to follow, but it asks you to connect the dots yourself.
Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 therefore steps into a world that’s already been built, but it hardly feels like the same one. Pollution has worsened considerably since the events of the first film; many major cities are deserted, separated by arid plains dotted with expansive landfills. The “old” kind of replicant has been outlawed, replaced by a more pliable and manipulable version that’s an even more seamless “version” of a human being. Ryan Gosling’s K, like Deckard (Harrison Ford) before him, is a Blade Runner — a law enforcement officer tasked with tracking down these discontinued replicants and “retiring” them.
It’s obvious from the first few minutes that Villeneuve was the perfect choice for this iteration of Blade Runner. Where Ridley Scott’s vision of the dystopian future was a greasy, rain-soaked noir landscape, Villeneuve’s has turned into a grey, foggy abstraction, less post-apocalyptic and more pre-historic in its barrenness. The Japanese Times Square aesthetic of the first one remains, but this time it’s covered in a cloud of filth and misery. Cinematographer Roger Deakins has done great work with Villeneuve in the past, but this might be some of his best work ever. As obvious as the parallel may be, Deakins manages to make literal piles of garbage look gorgeous.
It’s also obvious from the get-go that Blade Runner 2049 falls very much in line thematically with the themes that Villeneuve has been exploring throughout his career: the hereditary nature of violence, the complexities of parenthood (both biological and improvised) and the slippery nature of identity. It also exhibits the thing that I like the least about Villeneuve’s films: a frigid humanity that makes the film’s emotional reaches ring significantly more hollow than its thematic or narratives ones. It’s difficult to talk about exactly what I mean by that as the studio has published pretty strict guidelines on what they consider spoilers — and spoilers compose both what I think is the weakest aspect of the film and what I think is the best.
The other question remains: is Blade Runner 2049 really a better film than the original? They’re certainly concerned with a lot of the same things, and (very, very vague spoiler alert) ultimately, 2049 does wind up touching on and expanding ideas from the first film in a direct way. It’s the rare sequel that seems entirely dependant on its relationship with the original without really feeling like it’s going over the same territory. Granted, neither of these movies are particularly affecting emotional experiences, but this one reaches further that Scott’s original ever did.
Suffice to say that Blade Runner 2049 is a visual marvel, a moody arthouse essay pitched at blockbuster volume in a way that few blockbusters are ever allowed to be. Studios don’t often fork over a franchise like Blade Runner and expect a personal vision to come out of it, but that’s exactly what Blade Runner 2049 is. As someone who found the last act of Arrival to be strangely cold and unaffecting, I’m probably in the minority when I say that Villeneuve’s films don’t connect with me emotionally — so take that as you want. Blade Runner 2049 is a Denis Villeneuve film through-and-through. ■
Blade Runner 2049 opens in theatres on Friday, Oct. 6.