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Blade Runner 2049 is the rare sequel we should cherish

The cerebral, poignant Blade Runner 2049 honors and cultivates its predecessor in terms of ground-breaking ideas and stylistic storytelling.

Now 35 years old, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner has proved its staying power and startlingly correct prognostication. In 2007, the adept sci-fi director released his Final Cut to put forth the film’s definitive version, which has been spawning many analyses and theories from cinephiles ever since. Considering its status as an influential monument of filmmaking, no writers or directors should meddle with Rick Deckard and his futuristic world of Replicants unless they have something weighty, respectful, and sublime to say. To continue such a complex story, existentialist examination matters as much as the neo-noir mood and revolutionary innovations for the cyberpunk genre.

Last year, Blade Runner 2049 was announced to be directed by Denis Villeneuve (Enemy, Sicario, Arrival) and shot by his frequent collaborator/cinephile-favorite Roger Deakins. With this dream team and an impressive cast, the sequel looks like an exception to the Hollywood trend of franchising the classics. But does it live up to Blade Runner and continue such a legacy?

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2049’s production team has made a wise move and released three prequel shorts, which detail the events leading to this situation. The most notable addition after 30 years since Deckard met Roy Batty is that a new type of Replicants has launched humankind into a new era: these synthetic androids are more subservient. Seen in 2036: Nexus Dawn, technologist Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) has established his dominance over world powers via his invention of the docile Nexus-9 model after the technologically disastrous bombing in Blade Runner Black Out 2022. In 2049 Los Angeles, where Atari and Pan-Am are still going strong, Replicants have become more of a benefit than a hazard.

For the hazardous ones (mainly long-lived Nexus-8 fugitives), there are still Blade Runners—like our lead character KD6-3.7 (Ryan Gosling), known as K—to retire them. We follow his upgraded Spinner, with a drone assisting him in errands, to a protein farm. Here, K has to kill Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista), a rebellious Nexus-8 seen in 2048: Nowhere to Run. Today might have been another day at work, but K’s discovery outside Morton’s house threatens to tear apart the social fabric, sending its ripples throughout corners of this world.

To review 2049, it’s best to leave out most of the plot, which has enough meat to supply its 243-minute run time. It has many plot twists, and there’s one that will alter your perspective at the early minutes. Like Deckard, K has a clouded background, and we will backtrack this Blade Runner’s past through the central mystery involving older Replicants, humanity’s delusion of superiority, and the profound power of memories.

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With some of the best films in recent years, Villeneuve has proved his strength in applying visual language to depict the dehumanizing process under strains of mind-boggling mystery. For this intellectual sci-fi installment, the Canadian director imbues its indifferent world with a cold veneer that repels cheap sentimentality. Pressed against this background are confounded characters on their relentless quests for the truth. Emotional pressure weighs on everyone’s mental capacity, creating a self-sustained string of tension. Treading between awe-inspiring implications of sudden violence and idealized poetry, this patient rhythm respects the material.

All of the characters are well cast, and the leading man Gosling always delivers his role. From delusional simpleton and rootless biker to self-entitled hero and aspiring musician, the misunderstood heartthrob communicates, through his eyes and lips, what words can’t. Perfect for the role—and not just because he resembles the young Deckard, Gosling embodies his character with aloofness that draws us closer and steadfastness that convinces us to pay attention to K’s yearning and enthusiasm. Ana de Armas (Knock Knock) plays Joi, a virtual companion available for lonely people. Exuberant and trustworthy, Joi articulates many shades of affection, raising one of the most profound ideas in 2049 about the nature of emotions. Coming from the misogynistic mass production, she defies her artificiality and evolves along with the touching relationship. In this challenging role, de Armas expresses the exact level of sweet delight to actualize Joi’s heart-warming devotion in an enigmatic manner. In between life-threatening moments and readings of Vladimir Nabokov’s "Pale Fire" (while Sinatra’s “Summer Wind” plays in the background), K and Joi’s relationship rises above their disparity—although a threesome scene already raises debate among fans of Spike Jonze’s Her.

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After his controversial incarnation of The Joker, Leto continues to be divisive. His line delivery is dispassionate, but his presence as Wallace provides the opposition to what humanity means. At the top of the world and calling his creations ”angels,” the disengaged tycoon indulges in his God complex and is fixated on the idea that slavery is the only means to his end—for humankind to expand throughout the universe. His blindness speaks for itself, adding to the thematic expressions of eyes in Blade Runner mythos. However, the irresistible surprise is Sylvia Hoeks (The Best Offer) as the Replicant Luv, Wallace’s right-hand woman. Hoeks’ performance of a ruthless underling explodes during questionable acts but also conveys moral complexity, flickering in occasional tears.

Of course, Harrison Ford returns with more enthusiasm than in other recent movies of his iconic characters (Indiana Jones and Star Wars). Looking at Deckard holding his good ol' blaster is a satisfying payoff, and this tormented fugitive receives honorable development for his arc in the first film. While a world-weary Bautista shows his serious chops, Robin Wright (House of Cards) makes the most out of her underwritten role as K’s boss, and Carla Juri (Wetlands) rounds up the supporting cast with her emotionally devastating portrayal of a sequestered memory-maker.

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Blade Runner co-writer Hampton Fancher returns to pen the story, and Michael Green (American Gods, Logan) polishes the dialogue. Though an animated TV series might work with the power struggle between human and Replicant, this sprawling script doesn’t try to set up a franchise. Its visceral experience ruminates on philosophical questions about human exceptionalism, consciousness in manufactured beings, and personal identity next to its association with the physical form. In addition, new revelations harken back to the original with compelling speculations that make fans want to re-watch it for the 82nd time.

No one can or should overlook 2049’s production design—an element that takes up half of the quality of any sci-fi movies. Say goodbye to the wistful vibe of 2019 L.A. because the city of angels is now more chilly and colorful than ever, expanded and updated to a different socio-political status. In the same tradition of its predecessor's opening, the movie leaves its audiences in awe with establishing shots over a humongous protein farm during a drab day before returning to the smog-filled megatropolis of Los Angeles. Interior and exterior designs stay faithful to the original architecture as CGI wraps around miniatures. It’s such a pleasure to see practical effects remain critical during film production to create giant buildings, sterile offices, erotic statues, advertising boards, and a nostalgia-evoking dance hall. While still taking place mostly under cityscapes by visual futurist Syd Mead, 2049 reaches out to more locales, from a San Diego scrapyard to the dusty Las Vegas (the latter is personally designed by Mead). These settings become the background for many memorable action sequences—an unexpected bombardment from the sky and a showstopping climax accompanied by immersive sound design. When K visits Wallace, the prototypical Replicants in the hall might remind you of Prometheus’ Engineers.

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30 years into the future, most of the analog machinery doesn’t evolve too much into the digital territory. Paying homage to the “Enhance” scene, 2049 has its innovative technologies woven into the themes. One of them is an authentification test, repetitive and jarring enough to heighten the oppressive sense of alienation. Meanwhile, the costume department keeps the streets more vibrant as ever, with minimalistic uniforms, bearskin hats, modernized coats from fake leather and fur, and, of course, that see-through plastic coat worn by Zhora in the original.

In Villeneuve and Deakins' shared vision, flying cars and giant holograms aren't mere spectacles; these images and their emotional significance hit us hard. As usual, Deakins accents on deep depth of field, even with layers of facial shadows. The legendary cinematographer has fun with practical lighting as the spotlights and neon lights are critical parts of cyberpunk aesthetics. His exquisite focus and framing insert indifferent subtlety into the environment and spiff up various set decoration with vivid colors and dirt-mixed snow.

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Shooting on digital emphasizes the sterile, lifeless dystopian, where people are scattered after many wars and strifes before having to hold onto corporate power and morally depraved pleasure. The rich, Caucasian one percent sit at the top; the multicultural masses walk their murky streets with neon-umbrellas under heavy rain at the bottom. Consumerism is at its highest, Asian food becomes even more popular, and women are perversely commoditized into forms of entertainment.

This world is supposed to be lifeless, empty, removed, what have you. Similar to Kubrick’s mature works (especially Barry Lyndon and 2001: A Space Odyssey), emotional distance stimulates and extracts feelings from viewers, who contemplate and self-reflect on awe, empathy, disdain, and despair in certain settings—this particular case is a dystopian future. Despite the lack of visible intimacy, scenes vary from heady to endearing and even heart-wrenching.

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My only problem with the movie is its loud, though underwhelming, score by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch, but the timely use of Vangelis’ “Tears In Rain” redeems this sin. I believe 2049, in good time, will surpass its original classic (because the sequel is honorably built upon what the original achieved). For now, this cerebral, poignant movie already honors and cultivates Blade Runner in terms of ground-breaking ideas and stylistic storytelling.