It’s not every day a media screening is preceded with a personal message from its director, asking critics not to reveal the film’s key plot points. We all know we must do our best to avoid passing on spoilers, as much as we can. A specific request like this is an odd one. But after viewing Blade Runner 2049, it’s not hard to see why it’s being asked of us.
Every audience member needs to head into this movie as cold as possible on details, so as to fully enjoy the masterful way director Denis Villeneuve has crafted this film, and the path it takes in revealing its structure. As such, I will follow instructions, mostly because I respect Villeneuve too damn much not to.
So what can be said about this film’s plot? Let’s stick to what’s been unveiled with trailers and such. Blade Runner 2049 takes place thirty years after the events of its seminal 80s sci-fi classic predecessor, Blade Runner. Blade runners are still in existence, and still on the hunt for rogue Nexus-8 replicants, aka the race of outlawed genetically-created slaves, who enacted a failed uprising, and now must be exterminated for good.
Our protagonist blade runner this time is LAPD officer K (Ryan Gosling, better than ever), who unearths a long-buried secret while on a mission to “retire” replicant Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista). This discovery leads him on a quest to uncover an epic mystery, and the ramifications its answers could have on the very future of human (and replicant) existence. It will also lead him to find Rick Deckard (a wonderfully haggard Harrison Ford), the former blade runner who vanished 30 years ago, who may just be the key to the entire mystery.
Keeping a close eye on K’s mission are his LAPD boss, Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright) and the mysterious Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), head of the Wallace Corporation and creator of a new breed of completely compliant replicants, known as the Nexus-9. Wallace, a blind man, dispatches his trusted assistant, Luv (a scene-stealing Sylvia Hoeks) to be his eyes and ears on what K begins to uncover.
If this all sounds decidedly vague, I’ve met the request laid upon this critic by the esteemed Denis Villeneuve. With Blade Runner 2049, Villeneuve cements his name as the most exciting and talented director working today. His resume was already impressive, what with Arrival, Sicario, and Prisoners carrying his name. But his work here is a new level of achievement for someone who has already achieved so much, and it’s some sort of cinematic miracle that he’s pulled it off.
With a flair for slow-burn storytelling, Villeneuve doesn’t play in the usual confines of blockbuster filmmaking. And he’s in no rush here either. He crafts this film with the utmost suspense that draws out slowly over its epic running time. That may frustrate some viewers, but it works so perfectly with the dystopian settings of this film. And, much like his other works, the pay-off is always completely worth it. The man knows what he’s doing, so you best just sit back and let him take you there, in his own signature pace.
Sequels that arrive decades later rarely work. Too much time passes. Too little consideration is given to the original. Or too much consideration is given, and the sequel just repeats what was already done. But it takes a director like Villeneuve to truly understand how to craft something 30 years later, and have it succeed perfectly.
Blade Runner 2049 pays homage to its predecessor by building on its themes, its ideas, and its setting. There’s nods to the original, dotted throughout, and, of course, the return of a few familiar faces. Its fan-service is spot on. But it takes everything we love about the original to even higher heights, and only seeks to compliment what already exists. Villeneuve never tries to replace or reboot. Only ever expand. His genuine love of the original always shines through, and that’s precisely what was needed here.
In doing so, the film also manages to stand firmly on its own two feet as an independent piece of cinema – a genuine rarity for sequels. While I am a firm believer one should never need to see the original to enjoy the sequel, seeing Blade Runner will naturally enrich your viewing here. But it is not essential. At all. With no prior knowledge, the sequel makes perfect sense, and fills in the gaps where necessary. For a complex sci-fi saga, that’s a remarkable achievement.
With films like Arrival and Sicario, Villeneuve showcases his deft skill at enacting sublime performances from his actors, even if the Academy didn’t think so (yes, I’m still mad at that Amy Adams snub). He does it again here, with Gosling giving perhaps his best performance to date. There’s such emotional vulnerability to K that is remarkable to watch. Likewise with the damaged and broken performance Ford brings to Deckard. But it’s with his supporting players that Villeneuve really shines, with star-making turns from Hoeks and Ana de Armas, as K’s holographic lover, Joi, who I wish I could say more about, but won’t. Sci-fi often focuses on the visual, and fails to spotlight the performances, but not so here.
You will hear this a lot about this film, and I feel like I’ve been saying it a lot this year, but Blade Runner 2049 is visually stunning, more so than anything else we’ve been gifted with in 2017. It is genuinely a piece of cinematic art, filled with dozens of instantly-iconic shots. It’s the kind of visual cinema that reminds you why you fell in love with film in the first place. It’s genuinely breathtaking.
To call Roger Deakins’ cinematography masterful is an understatement. There just aren’t enough words to summarise his work properly. The film is truly gorgeous, thanks to his genius photography. For all its dark, futuristic elements, there’s a decidedly striking amount of nature imagery as well. It all mixes to create such a juxtaposition of visuals that are mesmerising for the eyes. Production designer Dennis Gassner gives Deakins such stunning locations and scenery to film, and the two work perfectly together. Deakins work is a triumph of the highest order, and if he doesn’t finally win an Oscar, after 13 (!) nominations, I will revolt.
In saying all of this, this may not be a film for everyone. It’s not a typical blockbuster, despite its epic marketing and A-list cast members. It’s more akin to an arthouse blockbuster, even if that sounds like an oxymoron. Yes, of course there are some great action sequences to provide some juicy entertainment, but they’re not every 10 minutes. And when a film runs for 164 minutes, there will likely be many who find it far too long. If you’re not a fan of slow-burn storytelling, consider yourself warned.
But if you love the original, and love truly breathtaking cinema, this is absolutely the film for you. You will love every glorious moment of this masterpiece. And that is the only word for this film – a masterpiece. A stone-cold masterpiece.
Blade Runner 2049 honours the past, but, ultimately, transcends it to become one of the greatest sequels of all time, one of the best sci-fi films ever made, and, perhaps, the year’s best film.