If there’s a classic science fiction movie that absolutely doesn’t need a sequel, it’s Blade Runner.
After all, how could a second film improve on the original’s depiction Los Angeles? Even if the real L.A. seems unlikely to acquire quite as many flying cars and giant neon billboards by 2019, Blade Runner‘s city still sets the standard for seedy science fictional metropolises.
More importantly, the first story ends on a perfect note of uncertainty (at least in Ridley Scott’s director’s cut, as well as his subsequent “final cut”). What could a sequel do, except ruin that ambiguity?
And yet Blade Runner 2049 manages to avoid the obvious pitfalls. Its plot, like Blade Runner‘s, feels gratifyingly self-contained, with no transparent attempts to set up a series of sequels or spinoffs. Nor does it go out of its way to address the lingering mysteries from the first film — if something was ambiguous at the end of Blade Runner, it’s probably still ambiguous at the end of 2049.
One question that writers Hampton Fancher (who co-wrote the original film) and Michael Green do seem to have closed the book on is whether the replicants — the humanoid robots hunted by the blade runners of the title — should be considered human.
In Blade Runner, there are suggestions — like the glint in a replicant’s eyes, or the fact that they can’t pass a Voigt-Kampff empathy test — that there’s something fundamentally different about about a replicant. What settles the matter, ultimately, is Rutger Hauer’s performance as the replicant Roy Baty. Baty can be violent and cruel, but his humor, his anger, and finally his compassion make him seem more alive, more human than anyone else in the film.
In Blade Runner 2049, characters still make references to replicants’ inferiority (in one conversation, a replicant is told that he doesn’t have a soul), but it’s become even more obvious that this is nothing more than a lie — a necessary fiction to continue their enslavement by “real” humans.
As for the world the replicants and their masters inhabit, director Denis Villeneuve doesn’t try to top Blade Runner‘s cityscape. While the Los Angeles of 2049 remains dark, rainy and gloomily beautiful, it seems essentially unchanged from Scott’s depiction of 2019.
Villeneuve’s imagination seems more inspired by the task of creating a world beyond the city limits. While this world was mentioned but never seen in Blade Runner, the new film gives us a landscape that’s been blighted by further environmental catastrophes and is now largely abandoned. With its enormous, beautiful ruins, Blade Runner 2049 actually feels closer than its predecessor to the source material, Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
I haven’t mentioned the story or characters yet, partly because Warner Brothers was particularly insistent that reviewers not spoil anything. But I can say that Ryan Gosling plays K, a blade runner whose investigation leads him to Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard, who’s been in hiding since the events of the first film.
Gosling is fine as our new protagonist, delivering something like the same mix of quiet competence and emotional distance that we saw in Drive, except this time punctuated by explosions of rage. Ford, meanwhile, isn’t all that far from the grumpy old man that we saw when he returned to Star Wars —but as in The Force Awakens, he’s also given moments to show real emotion, and he takes full advantage of them.
It’s a slow, quiet story, with plenty of time (163 minutes) for you appreciate the visuals. Maybe it’s a little too quiet. I’m always on-board for a sad, beautiful science fiction movie, but I don’t think there’s moment in the new Blade Runner that’s as memorable as the final confrontation between Deckard and Baty.
In the end, I found that I admired the movie more than I was moved by it. (That’s also how I felt about Villeneuve’s previous film, Arrival). Blade Runner 2049 didn’t quite convince me that Blade Runner truly needed a sequel, and I suspect that it won’t match the singular impact and influence of its predecessor.
Still: It’s a thoughtful, well-made science fiction movie, and that’s well worth the price of admission.