I’m just going to go out an say it. “Blade Runner” is overrated. The Ridley Scott-directed film from 1982 is stunning visually, but like many Scott films, it’s an exercise in style over substance.
If you get past the futuristic neon noir esthetic and intoxicating score from Vangelis, the story inside this world is rather hollow. If this is supposed to be about what makes us human, then the one human character has to be compelling. I’m all for ambiguity in storytelling, but Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is about as one-note as it gets.
“Blade Runner” should have been 30 minutes longer to flesh out Deckard and any other semblance of a supporting character. “Blade Runner 2049” does everything the original did so well and expands upon the universe.
It’s been 30 years since the events of the first film and a new blade runner, LAPD Officer K (Ryan Gosling), hunts older replicant models known as the Nexus 8 line due to their ability to evolve and turn on humans. I guess they didn’t learn from their Nexus 6 days.
While on yet another routine mission, K quite literally unearths a secret that could affect what remains of society in 2049.
Much like Scott’s original, “Blade Runner 2049” is a masterclass in storytelling in terms of visuals and sound. Cinematographer Roger Deakins once again delivers mind-blowing photography. Despite taking place more than 30 years in the future, his framing in the film establishes a world that is not only stark and distant, but beautiful and relatable. It’s a fascinating juxtaposition.
Areal shots of Los Angeles with homes and buildings seemingly stacked on top of one another reveal beautiful symmetry and yet a frightening depiction of what the world might look like in the not too distant future.
But then there are also gorgeous shots including K walking through a desolate and dusty Las Vegas following some kind of nuclear fallout or baron farmland with a single dead tree. The world feels both sleek and tactile which is a more realistic portrayal of what the future could look like.
The sound design is equally terrific. Composers Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch refreshingly hold back on the electronic synthesizer sound you might expect (We are in an ’80s revival) and instead create a haunting piece of music that jolts you every time you hear it. As if some giant creature is walking in the distance, the score will suddenly be heard so bombastically and abruptly that it literally shakes the frame. I’ve never seen that before. You can hear hints of Vangelis’ original score, but it’s subtle.
But we know going in that this film will look and sound incredible. How is the story? Director Denis Villeneuve, who has yet to make a bad film, expands the Blade Runner world while also telling an intimate story. There are major themes explored including slavery and over-population, but Villeneuve and the writers also manage to craft an interesting plot surrounding K and Deckard and whether or not they’re connected in some way.
The first half of the film focuses on the idea of being born vs being made. An early scene involving Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), the head of a major corporation who breads replicants, shows a Nexus 8 being created. Wallace marvels at how far they’ve come, but sees the imperfections he needs to correct. It’s a scene that is both fascinating and terrifying and one of many early scenes that would have made the original more well-rounded.
But the question of what it means to have a soul is seen through the eyes of the mysterious K. The film rides on his shoulders.
After seeing the film, you realize and fully appreciate the performance Gosling is giving. He can be funny and charming in movies like “Crazy, Stupid, Love,” The Nice Guys” and “La La Land,” but he can also be cerebral in something like “Drive.” This performance is more of the latter and he’s captivating as always.
There are also note-worthy performances from Ford, Robin Wright and Sylvia Hoeks as Luv, an advanced replicant. Her performance in particular was memorable and menacing. And shout out to Dave Bautista who is a revelation in an early scene.
Within the first 10 minutes, a major plot point is revealed. At first I thought it was Villeneuve just laying all the cards on the table up front. You would certainly lose some ambiguity, but at least the audience wouldn’t be distracted throughout the film. But this reveal sort of blinds you into thinking one thing when really there’s something entirely different at play. Much like he did in “Arrival,” Villeneuve tricks us in a satisfying way that demands multiple viewings.
The second half becomes more of a mystery procedural as K investigates what he uncovered at the beginning and follows the breadcrumbs.
I’m not really going to delve too much into the story, but as for detractors, the film relies heavily on a subplot that was by far the weakest element of the original. I understand the filmmakers needed to create a through-line between both films, but the direction they choose is sort of undermined due to its lack of development in the original.
But Villeneuve has crafted a compelling sci-fi film that is both expansive in scope and intricate in plot. It might not have been necessary to make a sequel to a 35-year-old film and it was certainly risky considering how beloved the original is, but “Blade Runner 2049” is certainly worth seeing on the big screen thanks to the sheer awe of it. On a technical level, this is a masterpiece. The story, while flawed, is an improvement over the original making “Blade Runner 2049” one of the better sequels in recent memory.