Director Denis Villeneuve had quite a task: how do you take one of the best, most influential sci-fi films of all time, and make an effective follow-up 35 years later? Truth be told, Villeneuve pulls it off. Blade Runner 2049 is in many ways the perfect sequel. It continues the philosophical pursuit of Blade Runner, maintaining its bleak futuristic tone, while also exploring an original, poignant aesthetic with new characters and ideas.
From the opening shot to the closing scene, Blade Runner 2049 is a masterpiece of visual cinema, due in no small part to cinematographer Roger Deakins’ use of varied colour; from the striking bright colours of a vast eye, the pink neon glow of a hologram, to the bleak orange of an irradiated wasteland. Combined with Villeneuve’s shots of great vistas and intense close-ups (paying homage to Ridley Scott’s work on the first film), Blade Runner 2049 is one of the year’s richest viewing experiences. Sadly we never quite re-enter the darkly romantic, smoky dystopia that defined the first film; instead the ‘world’ of Blade Runner is handsomely expanded to showcase bleak grey fields, or the stunning angular set of Wallace’s lab. The production design is so richly detailed that Ryan Gosling likened being on set to being “in a fully functioning universe”.
One of the film’s major strengths is in its cast, who are not only convincing but wholly engaging in their acting. Ryan Gosling is his usual stoic self, effortlessly assuming the role of the determined Officer K, wonderfully contrasted with the passionate ‘Joi’, as played by Ana de Armas. Harrison Ford’s return is one of the film’s highlights, which does far more than bring a little nostalgia; we do not feel we are watching Harrison, rather an aged and half-transformed Rick Deckard in this dark new world. The sheer talent of the supporting cast, from the terrifying character ‘Luv’ to Jared Leto’s disturbing portrayal of Niander Wallace, makes for a film that, much like the original Blade Runner, feels firmly rooted in a rich range of characters.
Considering how many films have taken after the revolutionary style of the original Blade Runner, making a film that truly feels in the same vein is a feat in of itself. Blade Runner 2049 is saturated with homages to its predecessor: the opening of an eye, a theme that runs throughout the film; the musical work of Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch (who recently collaborated with great success for the score of Dunkirk) is a visceral, beautiful testament to Vangelis’ 1982 soundtrack, even using his ‘Tears in Rain’ score for one of the film’s scenes. However, beyond the music or the re-appearance of Harrison Ford, what makes the film truly feel like Blade Runner is its philosophy, and the old and new questions that are raised: how do we know what is truly real? “I know what’s real”, both K and Deckard tell themselves in the film. What is love between a replicant and a hologram? And perhaps the central question that pervades both films – can AI truly feel? Questions that are even more pertinent today than they were in 1982.
That said, aspects of Blade Runner still exceed the sequel. Despite its age, the original remains a more intense viewing experience. What made it so unique was its film-noir tone superimposed onto a fictional future, where every scene was set in the rainy night – a tone Blade Runner 2049 is forced to sacrifice. The original film is also a masterclass in the creation of tension – the incredible suspense that Ridley Scott was able to create, in Deckard’s exploration of J. F. Sebastian’s house, or in the build-up to the finale, is still largely unsurpassed today. Villeneuve’s directing is still effective, creating a degree of suspense and a superb climax, but it is still in Blade Runner’s shadow in terms of sustained tension.
Overall, for what could have so easily been a disappointment, Blade Runner 2049 is a great sequel to a great film. Perhaps this film’s true legacy, and ultimate tribute to Blade Runner, is in the way it makes the viewer think and question, long after the credits have run.