There’s something that feels ironically punctual when experiencing “Blade Runner 2049,” 35 years after the debut of the iconic and innovative original continues to influence pop culture in ways we’ve become accustomed to by now.
Maybe it’s the fact that the long-gestating sequel was always waiting, in spirit, for Denis Villeneuve, like he was some long-awaited prophet whose destiny it was to accomplish the impossible on multiple levels (and accomplish, he has).
It could just be that we’re a little over a year away from when the events of Ridley Scott’s film take place – a bleak, dystopian take on impoverished 2019 Los Angeles that in many ways mirrors the personality some parts of the country have taken on: Desolate and deadly.
Now, in “2049,” that personalization is magnified. Replicants are still being hunted down, albeit now by their own kind. A bankrupt Tyrell Corporation has been acquired by a new company with unknown intentions. The environment’s pessimistic personality has evolved to a much darker characterization; one with cruel intentions.
And there’s a mystery to be solved, one with implications both far-reaching and personal. That “Blade Runner 2049” understands this from the first moments foreshadows its success as a visually hypnotic two-and-a-half hours of movie grandeur, and a sequel that magnificently builds on the intrigue and world of the 1982 original.
A large part of Villeneuve’s sensory kaleidoscope of a film follows K, the blade runner who – after a violent run-in with a skin-tone Dave Bautista who seems much bigger here than he ever did in “Guardians of the Galaxy” – begins to unpack clues to some larger revelations that come down the road. It isn’t necessarily the start of a full-blown war that Robin Wright endlessly alludes to in the trailers for “2049,” but early on the audience understands that the scope of what K is uncovering is far bigger than anything Decker discovered while hunting down a rogue group of Replicants back in 2019 LA.
To back up the intrigue of these revelations, “2049” goes all in to portray the world that would be affected by them. The range of environments that visual maestro Roger Deakins guides us through makes it seem like the entirety of “Blade Runner” happened within a few city blocks.
Here, we go to desolate countrysides, post-apocalyptic wastelands, scorched Chernobyls, geometrically astute corporations that pass more for deformed Rubik’s cubes than your typical techie offices (get with the game, Apple).
And of course, with the incessant and increasingly annoying BRAAAHM BRAAAAHMS of a Hans Zimmer score as a fellow passenger, the camera swoops, stalks and glides through morally bankrupt and constantly overcast Los Angeles (does this place ever see any sun?). With skyscraper-sized virtual ads and a stench of overpopulation, being on the street level with K is like traversing through an Alice in Wonderland of the “Black Mirror” variety.
It’s an atmosphere that is downright intoxicating in its futuristic dreariness, and a world that – from a technical level – provided me with a more memorable sense of awe than James Cameron’s “Avatar.”
It’s an environment that, like K, is grasping onto a sense of what it means to be human, and grappling with how being human has changed over the previous 30 years.
There’s much world-building here that also isn’t visually driven, but rather motivated by expanding on the lore that we now realize was only teased in the 1982 “Blade Runner.” Things have happened since then that, even though they are only referenced in bites, it’s clear they were earth-shattering. The mythos of Replicants themselves are front and center, as is their increasingly blurred distinction
The mythos of Replicants themselves are front and center, as is their increasingly blurred distinction from humans, leading to big questions about the state of humanity, and even its value going forward.
Who known if Phillip K. Dick ever asked the questions that “2049” poses, but the evolution of the franchise’s curiousity over the past three decades shows how important those questions are.
Not all of them are answered, however, and they shouldn’t be. Superfans of the 1982 film should also be consoled that even The Big Question surrounding Harrison Ford’s Deckard isn’t answered concretely. It’s a testament to the story and Villeneuve’s direction that it doesn’t have to be answered for us to know that, after learning what we learn, this world is in for more than it has ever bargained for.
But “2049” smartly puts those global implications aside as a subplot. It knows that it shouldn’t concern itself with such things. Even Jared Leto’s mysterious Niander Wallace doesn’t get a ton of screentime. Villeneuve is reminding us that, even after 35 years, the story of “Blade Runner” is still primarily the story of one blade runner in particular – Deckard.
Contrasting his and K’s journey and discoveries against their broader consequences, and against the more massive world their story takes place in, is the smartest thing Villeneuve could have done with this sequel, even if certain elements of the plot are too dense and far-reaching to take in at the first viewing. They’re not in any race against a world-ending clock — although a magnificently scary Sylvia Hoeks is hot on their heels — but the drama certainly reaches a crescendo all the same.
The magnetic build-up to those discoveries will be seen as more of a trudge by some, but for me, the film’s nearly three hours of running time flew by. It isn’t an action romp as the marketing may suggest but, like the original film, a very deliberate piece of filmmaking grandeur that confirms Denis Villeneuve as the most exciting director working today.
It’s bold and it’s tense, a kinetic dream of a film that is as technically entrancing as it is thought-provoking. That this film – that not many were asking for – was made when it was is an achievement, but experiencing it breathe with purpose is a bit of a miracle. It’s an intersection of mesmerizing world-building and engaging story that sets the template moving forward for not only contemporary sci-fi, but sequels of any genre.
In an age of seemingly needless reboot announcements and even more underwhelming execution, maybe that’s 2049’s most punctual message of all.
“Blade Runner” is rated R for violence, some sexuality, nudity and language
Starring: Harrison Ford, Ryan Gosling, Ana de Armas, Dave Bautista
Directed by Denis Villeneuve