Just like Ridley Scott’s original classic, “Blade Runner 2049” requires multiple viewings in order to truly soak it up. That being said, it’s a wonder I wrote this after only one viewing. On top of that, director Denis Villeneuve has asked critics to be extremely tight-lipped about the plot, restricting me to vague description and interpretation. Though there’s much to divulge about story specifics, there’s even more to say about how it makes one feel, which is one of the greater compliments I can pay to Villeneuve’s new film. One does not simply see “Blade Runner 2049,” one feels it; every frame, every sound, and every silence. And since it invites repeat viewings, new feelings will surely arise upon further exploration. Fans of the first “Blade Runner” should no longer doubt its status as one of the best films of the year, but I sincerely believe that they should also consider it a significant improvement over its cherished predecessor.
Not since “Mad Max: Fury Road” has mainstream cinema witnessed a decades-late sequel that makes every other sequel nowadays look so infantile. The only difference between the post-apocalyptic actioner and this heady sci-fi think piece is that the latter had the challenge of succeeding what is regarded as one of the greatest films ever made. Villeneuve, along with screenwriters Michael Green (“Logan”) and Hampton Fancher (co-writer of the original), has crafted something almost unthinkable in the eyes of a franchise-hungry Hollywood. Not an ounce of nostalgia or any intertextual wink to what came before can be found. “2049” presents a true evolution of every element from before, and then builds upon them, resulting in a richer, more complex creation that will no doubt inspire decades’ worth of conversation and scholarly work. It makes the first one look like a mere prologue.
Once again, there isn’t much I can say about the plot, but you’d be better off not knowing anything other than the myriad of narrative possibilities that arise from the end of the first “Blade Runner.” Unlike Scott’s film, “2049” carries its subtextual meaning in more than just pristine imagery and world-building. There’s a deeper story to follow, plugging viewers into a thrilling mystery that provokes emotional intrigue far more than the exquisite cat-and-mouse machinations of the original. We follow LAPD Officer K (Ryan Gosling), a blade runner tasked with “retiring” refugee replicants - bioengineered humans. Upon retiring one, K uncovers a potentially earth-shattering secret that leads him to question his own past. Gosling is perfectly comfortable in the role, having played his fair share of lonely badasses over the past few years, but he sells the bruised identity of K in a manner that defies description. It’s one of his best performances.
Much of “2049” defies concrete description, especially after only one viewing. The initial experience of it is a little more impressionistic than one might be prepared for, radiating that same unclassifiable strangeness that Scott’s film had. Darling cinematographer (and Academy Award bridesmaid) Roger Deakins has a field day replicating this atmosphere, and 2049 Los Angeles makes his job almost too easy. 30 years after Roy Batty lamented about tears in the rain, structures have becomes so oppressive that, from a bird’s eye view, light runs through the cracks like lava. The city is vast, compact, and yet strangely quiet. The sun, moon and stars no longer illuminate what is below them. They serve only to turn the clouds from black to grey. Such is the way of nature, beaten down and stepped on by technological innovation, that the characters are often silhouetted, reduced to pieces on a board that silently cry out for both individuality and connection.
K’s investigation through this monstrous future eventually leads him to Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), a former blade runner who disappeared with replicant sweetheart Rachael (Sean Young). Ford hasn’t been this good in a long time. Similar to his reprisal of Han Solo in “Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens,” he has to communicate 30 years worth of anguish and heartbreak, but his performance here is far more vulnerable and fine-tuned than the estranged father role he played two years ago. When he’s onscreen with Gosling, it becomes clear that they’re cut from the same cloth of leading men, but the dynamics of their interplay suggests two different styles of acting. They’re absolutely staggering together.
I can’t really say much more without gushing about a few more elements, so I’ll be as brief as possible. The rest of the cast is excellent, with Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, Dave Bautista, and Jared Leto as the standouts. Composer Benjamin Wallfisch continues his hot streak of scoring some of the year’s most engaging films, including “A Cure For Wellness,” “Annabelle: Creation,” and “It: Chapter One.” His collaboration with the esteemed Hans Zimmer on this film works in tandem with its evolutionary ambitions extremely well. The airy, synth-led dreaminess of Vangelis’ music in the first film is transformed into thunderous wails and zooming buzzes that seem to echo from the city’s massive structures and flying vehicles. Will I dream of electric booms for the next few weeks? You bet.
Villeneuve and his film (arguably his best to date) stand tall with the giants of cinema. His touch is the convergence of influences old and new, namely the wide-eyed wonder of Spielberg, the rousing ambition of Nolan, and the sublime methodology of Kubrick. Whatever the future of cinema holds in store, his voice will echo throughout it. I’m tempted to call the film a masterpiece, but the word is so often tossed around that I’m further compelled to say that it might just defy the meaning of the word. Like the original, it amounts to so much more than the sum of its parts that its imperfections, of which there are a few, cannot combat the overwhelming sense of astonishment and stupefaction that is, above all else, real. “Blade Runner 2049” is as real a movie can be, which is why it is one for the ages, and the imaginations of every soul on this planet.