Blade Runner 2049: our spoiler-free review
It’s been 35 years since Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner hit theaters, and when it takes this long for a sequel to roll around, a few questions need to be answered. No question is more important than “why?” Yes, we’re in a cultural moment where nearly everything is a sequel, prequel, reboot, or spinoff, but Scott’s dystopian film never organically called for a follow-up the way some films do. It’s a neo-noir thriller with an open ending, but from a character and thematic perspective, Scott neatly sewed up the story. Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), an android hunter known as a “blade runner,” learns that all life has some sort of value. Tired of killing others, he decides to go on the run with his android lover Rachel (Sean Young).
That leaves Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 with a pretty steep hill to climb. The sequel has to live up to the unforgettable visual style of Scott’s film, while simultaneously forging its own identity, and defending its reason for existing in the first place. Turnkey action sequels are fine for comic book movies, but a distinctive classic like Blade Runnerdemands an entirely different standard.
The good news is that Villeneuve’s film is every bit the original’s equal when it comes to breathtaking visuals and design, and Ryan Gosling is perfectly cast as K, the newest blade runner on the hunt for renegade “skin jobs.” The film ultimately doesn’t have the resonance and pure invention of the original, and over its nearly three-hour run time, that becomes increasingly clear. But it’s certainly not for lack of trying.
Let me start by laying out some ground rules: Warner Bros. has pulled off a real Star Wars: The Force Awakens-style situation with Blade Runner 2049 in terms of marketing revelations. Most of the secrets of this film haven’t even been hinted at in the trailers and ads thus far, and that’s how I’m going to keep this initial review. A movie should have the opportunity to reveal its secrets on its own terms — preferably in the theater — so I won’t be going into any plot details beyond what’s been mentioned in the trailers and the opening title card of the film. After the film comes out, we’ll dive in with more spoiler-heavy pieces, but if you want to read something that won’t impact your theatrical experience, this is the review for you.
As can be inferred from the title, the new Blade Runner takes place 30 years after the original. The Tyrell Corporation, which built the first androids, has come and gone, but a new company, run by a new genius with a god complex, has stepped in to take its place. Niander Wallace (Jared Leto, playing the role like a kind of yogi cult leader) has been able to do what Tyrell never could: he’s created replicants that are happily subservient, and thus allowed to walk freely among humans once again. But there are still renegade units in hiding, and that’s where blade runners like K come in. While “retiring” one old replicant, K stumbles upon a mystery that has the potential to permanently change the way people think about humans and replicants.
It’s impossible to discuss Blade Runner without touching on its aesthetics, and the trailers for this film simply haven’t done it justice. It’s a visual feast of the highest order. It re-creates the familiar rain-soaked grittiness of future Los Angeles, while adding to that palette with an assortment of new looks, locations, and designs. Concept artist Syd Mead, whose work was so elemental in the original film, was one of many artists to collaborate with Villeneuve and production designer Dennis Gassner, and the result is a world that looks like a legitimate extension of the one Ridley Scott envisioned so many years ago. It’s an evolved look, but the movie mostly stays away from that kind of cinematic default: the sleek, Apple Store-esque version of the future. This is a clunky, lived-in world, where even fancy holographic systems still rely on old-fashioned machinery to do their tasks.