My biggest concern with Blade Runner 2049 is that the creators would use it as an opportunity to remake the first film with a bigger budget rather than delve deeper into the fascinating world that the first film created. Think Tron: Legacy. That was a sequel to a beloved ’80s sci-fi classic that looked great but ultimately was a narrative mess that left me with far more questions than answers.
Blade Runner 2049 avoids this trap by doing what a great sequel should do – using the original as a springboard for new ideas. Yes, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is back but he’s not the protagonist of the film. 2049 also does not repeat the same things of what it means to be human as the first film. The new characters make that question almost irrelevant. Instead, the new Blade Runner asks the next logical question. What will it be like when humanity is replaced?
Before the release of the film, director Dennis Villeneuve kept a tight lid on the plot. It does help if you know as little as possible, but it’s also impossible to properly discuss the film without at least revealing some of the major plot points.
It’s thirty years after the events of the first Runner and Officer K (Ryan Gosling) has been tasked with hunting a replicant named Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista), who works as a “protein farmer.” (This job involves harvesting grubs for people to eat.) K is obviously a replicant himself and is harassed by other LAPD officers for being a “skin job.” K manages to “retire” Sapper, but discovers a box buried under a dead tree on his property. The box contains the skeletal remains of a woman who died in childbirth – a woman who also turns out to be a replicant.
Take one guess as to who that is.
K is tasked with hunting down the child of the replicant, while the Wallace Corporation (which bought the bankrupt Tyrell Corporation) sends out a replicant assassin named Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) to find the child and bring it back to their headquarters alive. Along the way, K comes to believe he is the mysterious child and tries to find out just what happened to his mother and father.
I’ll start where the filmmakers want to start. When the first film was released, everyone loved the visual design but criticized the story. I know some people who will do the same here. The film is long, but I never felt bored and I cannot identify scenes that I would remove. Even the long driving sequences tell us a lot about this new world. For one, Blade Runner 2049 subtly builds on a future from the alternate timeline of the first film. There are references to Pan Am and the Soviet Union still being in existence in this future. We see advertisements everywhere but rarely see anyone purchase anything. We see humanity going through the same things that we’re fighting today, including the use of children in sweatshops. And there are throwaway jokes about a giant blackout that caused the erasure of most records. I laughed when I heard someone talking about how his mother still regrets losing all of his baby photos in the blackout, but then I realized that something very similar can happen to us. Those are the sort of moments that lesser films ignore. Yet those are what create the film’s world.
So Blade Runner 2049 looks great, but I already knew that would be the case before I purchased my ticket. What I cared about was the story behind those visuals. I was impressed that 2049 acknowledged what the existence of replicants meant to the world. It was something hinted at in the first film – the replicants were perfect beings that humanity was frightened of. Here, we see replicants living out domestic lives and blending into human society perfectly. There’s no discussion about who is a human and who is a replicant because it’s irrelevant. What matters more are character’s actions and how they build their own lives.
Considering the film is about childbirth, 2049 is much more sexually charged than the original. The most interesting subplot in the film involves the romance between K and his holographic girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas). She’s a sort of Siri like hologram that lives in K’s flat and is excited when K brings home a new device that means she can travel with him. My personal favorite scene in the film has Joi hiring a “pleasure model” replicant so that she and K can finally consummate their relationship. It was a tender moment of devotion, but then I had to take a step back and realize that this was something that wasn’t happening to real people.
And the film anticipated my realization. K eventually sees an advertisement of a giant holographic Joi teasing him and potential other clients about how she can fulfill their desires. It gives K pause. Does Joi really “love” him? What is their relationship? What does it mean to have a product replace genuine humanity? It makes it more complicated because K himself isn’t human.
The film is also not obsessed with the actions of its predecessor. Harrison Ford doesn’t appear until well into the second act and by that time it’s clear that what’s happening is outside Deckard’s control. There are only two other characters from the original that make an appearance and there’s no reference to replicants being any sort of threat like they were in the first film. 2049 is looking to create its own impact.
So it focuses on the new characters. Ryan Gosling is great as K, a replicant who seems comfortable with the fact that he was designed solely to take orders from the police. (“I wasn’t aware that was an option,” K says after he’s asked if he wants to turn down an assignment.) Yet he also wants more in his existence and seems excited when he finds out he may be the most important being in this new future. I frequently forgot Gosling’s character was meant to be a replicant. He plays the noir cop trope perfectly. But, playing a trope involves a level of artificiality. K has the same desires that all of us have. He wants to matter in a world that treats everyone like a burden. Gosling makes the film work. He’s perfect as the fake human who still wants something more in life.
The only weakness the new Blade Runner has is in Jared Leto. As Wallace, he’s become the replacement for Tyrell and the character would, on its surface, is meant to parody the younger innovators who are challenging the status quo (like Mark Zuckerberg) but also have no control over their own creations (also like Zuckerberg). Leto, however, plays the character like some sort of bored god. He’s not a threatening villain or even an interesting character. He shows up occasionally to deliver his lines like he’s reciting monologues from Richard III in a high school classroom and somehow imply that he’s behind the whole conflict of the film. He just leaves me with more questions than answers. Why, exactly, does he want replicants to replace humans? Does he think that they’ll select him as their leader? What are his feelings about the modern world? He was the only element of the film that left me with more questions than answers. I’d also like to remind Jared Leto that acting does not mean blinding yourself with contact lenses. It means connecting your character with your audience. Still, his character didn’t ruin the film. Luv made a great antagonist in her own right.
Blade Runner 2049 is one of the biggest surprises of the year. It had every reason to crash and burn. But it’s not only a worthy sequel to the original classic, it’s every bit as good the original. Villenueve was not satisfied in recreating the same themes and tension that existed in the previous film. He updates the Blade Runner story so that it resonates even more with a world that is very close to living in the world of the first movie. Now that we’ve decided we no longer care about real experiences and virtual experiences, we have to decide what our experiences mean. Blade Runner 2049 forces us to confront that new reality.