In an age where Hollywood seems hell-bent on remaking, rebooting and sequelizing nearly every property with a recognizable name, Denis Villeneuve’s stunning Blade Runner 2049 sets a new precedent for the proper way to breathe life back into a decades-old franchise. An engaging and multi-layered detective story with a long list of secrets and surprises, set against the backdrop of a decaying metropolis bathed in fog and neon, this is the Chinatown of science fiction movies – and thanks to the masterful work of cinematographer Roger Deakins, it’s the most gorgeous film of the year.
It’s been thirty years since the events of the original film, where Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) made a living by “retiring” replicants (incredibly lifelike androids) that had gone rogue. There aren’t many of the Nexus 8 models floating around anymore, but the last few are begin doggedly pursued by Officer K (Ryan Gosling), who tracks a particularly elusive android named Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista) to an isolated farm in the desolate area outside Los Angeles. Morton accuses the young blade runner of being a heartless killer, one who can’t understand the plight of the Nexus series because he’s never “seen a miracle.”
The nature of that miracle becomes the central mystery in Blade Runner 2049, as K is charged not only with getting to the truth of the matter, but safeguarding a potentially world-changing revelation that could permanently upset the delicate balance between humans and replicants. “The world is built on a wall that separates kind,” his superior officer (Robin Wright) tells him, while pouring a much-needed drink. “Tell either side there’s no wall, and you’ve bought a war… or a slaughter.” But K isn’t the only person seeking answers: mysterious tech mogul Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), creator of the advanced Nexus 9 series (not to mention a synthetic protein that almost singlehandedly rescued a starving populace from the brink of extinction), is also on the trail of this secret.
To reveal any more would be to wade into spoiler territory – and indeed, the studio provided an explicit list of details not to be mentioned in reviews – so I’ll tread lightly from here on out. That K eventually crosses paths with an aging Deckard should come as no surprise, since Harrison Ford is prominently featured in Blade Runner 2049‘s marketing, but the circumstances behind the meeting aren’t what I expected, nor was I prepared for Deckard not to show up until nearly two hours into the film. Ford’s contribution is certainly crucial to the story, and much of the emotional heavy lifting belongs to him, but it would be inaccurate to describe his role as anything other than a supporting one – make no mistake, this is K’s journey, through and through.
And what a journey: Gosling delivers some of the best work of his career, channeling his stoic wheelman from Drive while layering a rawness and a vulnerability that we’ve seldom seen. This isn’t a scenario where Gosling can rely on his charm to skate by – the world of Blade Runner 2049 isn’t a place for the witticisms and wisecracks that have defined some of his other roles. This dystopian Los Angeles is dirty, crowded and constantly besieged by rainfall, and Gosling’s performance feels like a natural product of that environment. But there’s also a tenderness just below the surface, which comes to life during his scenes with live-in love interest Joi (Ana de Armas), easily the film’s most endearing character.
Not only have Villeneuve and Deakins expertly captured the aesthetic of the original film, they’ve also managed to expand the scope of the sequel beyond the boundaries of Los Angeles, providing several opportunities to change up the scenery. Of particular note is an irradiated version of Las Vegas, an orange-hued wasteland full of crumbling casinos and deteriorating monuments to an excessive lifestyle that has long since disappeared from the world. Even familiar elements like the dimly lit alleyways and trash-lined street corners of the city look incredible, and Blade Runner 2049 may finally result in a long-overdue Oscar for Deakins, an accolade that has remained almost offensively elusive.
At 163 minutes, Villeneuve’s film may test the patience of some viewers, but it’s arguably paced much better than its predecessor despite being 45 minutes longer. With the exception of some grandiose establishing shots, there’s little in the way of extraneous footage that could be trimmed out here – nearly everything serves the narrative in some way or another. The narrative itself is more coherent than that of the previous film, while still exploring many of the same themes and retaining a bit of the same ambiguity, which will no doubt spark a whole new series of questions. In short, Blade Runner 2049 is not only a worthy sequel, it’s a superior one, an achievement made all the more impressive by the 35-year gap since the original.