The original Blade Runner is held up by many as the gold standard of dystopian existential science fiction films. It asks questions about the nature of humanity and what it means to truly live while at the same time painting a picture of a world that seems to have broken under the weight of more people being alive than ever before. It’s an acknowledged masterpiece –even if it took a decade or two and two different directors cuts to get to that status– and that’s a lot to live up to.
And I’m here to tell you that it does. I’m also here to tell you that you should probably go into it as cold as possible, so maybe bookmark this and come back to it after you’ve seen the film to see if you agree with me. I’m not going to say any major spoilers but regardless, this is your warning.
It has been 30 years since Deckard disappeared with Rachael and the world of Blade Runner went even more to shit. A blackout erased records and set technology back and a food shortage has depopulated the world. Tyrell has gone out of business and the Wallace Corporation has bought up the remnants of their tech and engineered not only a source of food to keep humanity alive, but also new replicants that are both longer lived and more subservient.
Older models are still around though, and have rebelled in the past. Enter Officer K (Ryan Gosling), one of the new model replicants and a Blade Runner tasked with hunting down and retiring said older models. What I just wrote might seem like a major deal but we find this out in the first few minutes and it illustrates one of the bigger differences between this film and the original. Blade Runner is all about subtext. Almost everything interesting happens there, rather than in what’s actually going on. Blade Runner 2049 is all about the text. Whatever is happening is pretty much directly related to the things you should be thinking about and as a result we’re in the know about most of the things that the original kept from us right from the get go.
This isn’t a complaint, it’s just an illustration of the differences. Also, if you wanted a clear answer as to whether Deckard is a replicant you should know that this movie doesn’t have that for you and actually make that even less clear than it was before.
Speaking of Deckard, Harrison Ford is fantastic in this movie. He does more acting in this movie than I think he’s done in the last decade and it’s nice to see him back in a big way. Ryan Gosling continues his streak of great performances as K, giving maybe his best since dramatic performance since Drive. Even Jared Leto, despite his reputation lately, does some really solid work in this, reminding me why he won that Oscar a few years back.
The performances that really stand out to me though are the three main women. Robin Wright’s Lt. Joshi could have been a nothing character, only around for exposition, but she commands the screen every time she is on it and imbues the character with some real personality. Sylvia Hoeks could be written off as basically playing a Terminator, but if you pay attention to her performance as Luv she’s doing some great, subtle work in the background. Luv follows orders without question but pay attention to the way she interacts with humans and with replicants and you will see what I mean.
The big, welcome surprise to me was Ana de Armas though. If there is any justice in the world this will be her star-making performance. She has shown up in a few films as the hot girl for the male character to fawn over, but as K’s holographic assistant Joi she gives a stellar performance embodying many of the films main themes. Pay attention to this woman, she is going places.
Back to the plot, while investigating and retiring an older model K stumbles onto a conspiracy that involves Deckard and Rachael, Jared Leto’s blind father of new replicants Niander Wallace, the nature of humanity, and whether replicants are real people or not. You’ll probably be able to guess a lot of what is to come if you pay attention but perhaps the biggest similarity to Blade Runner is that I don’t think that matters. 2049 might be a more straightforward story but as with the original it is ultimately the journey that matters and that journey is great.
So here it is: Blade Runner 2049 is a pretty perfect companion piece to Blade Runner. It expands on the themes and questions of the original while establishing its own, it’s probably the most gorgeously shot film of the year with some of the most impressive effects I have seen ever, and everyone involved brings their A game. What more could you want?