How do you make a sequel to the paradoxically most widely celebrated cult classic of all time? How do you continue a story that, after 35 years, still isn’t universally understood and has been cut into four conspicuously-different mainstream versions?
This should not be possible. I sat through the credits and probably half the film in gob-smacked awe. Not since Aliens have I seen a sequel so effectively recapture the magic of the original classic and redirect its energy with such profound emotional heft that the result stands alone while feeling, in every way, like a necessary improvement upon the original?
Make no mistake; from at least a mechanical perspective Blade Runner 2049 is a better film than its predecessor. Even with diminished returns from the unbeatable novelty of Ridley Scott’s original, Villeneuve’s elegant beat-by-beat storytelling chops makes him the perfect great modern filmmaker to tackle such a project. The original Blade Runner, even in its final and greatest cut, insists too strongly upon itself and conceals the impact of its direct events a bit too strongly for any reasonable audience’s digestion.
That was, of course, central to the idea of Blade Runner as a visual construct to begin with. The world is soaked, grimy, overcrowded, polluted, and populated by drones (and I’m referring to the humans) yet somehow also rich and idyllic. The future was not one where mankind struggled to adjust to the idea of replicants, but one where replicants have already been enslaved, and, after the bloody mutiny, strictly segregated. It’s an undefined, materially and sexually nihilistic fabric – a perfect setting for an ethics drama about employing violence to keep order. Apart from Roy Batty and Gaff, characters spent the film in pain from their visceral and emotional confusion. To experience the film is to dream of this future with them and try to make sense of humanity within it.
Blade Runner was not so much a narrative as it is an ambiguous illustration with some of the most fascinating cinematic essence ever conceived and aggressively realized. Not everyone will, or even can, be onboard with that.
The sequel has fixed this and then some. You could go into it with only a vague idea of the original and you’re still almost sure to come out of it delighted. But if that’s you, then you might also need the three prequel shorts director Denis Villeneuve had made (2036: Nexus Dawn, 2048: Nowhere to Run, and Black Out 2022 (anime)) to showcase character introductions and key events in the 30-year timespan between the films. I normally dislike doing this much canonical homework before a movie, but they’re even more fun to look back on after finishing the film.
To honor Villeneuve’s request that critics don’t spoil 2049, all I’m going to provide here is the context leading up to it. Three years after Deckard (Harrison Ford) and Rachael (Sean Young) escaped persecution, a group of rogue replicants detonated a nuke above the atmosphere, causing a worldwide blackout. That led to the complete prohibition of all replicant production, ending the Tyrell Corporation. The blackout and lack of slave labor created a decade of global famine until a blind entrepreneur named Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) created a synthetic protein farming system that saved it. Wallace then bought all remaining assets of the Tyrell Corporation, and, in 2036, introduced a new series of unshakably loyal replicants. By 2049, all new replicants are integrated into society, and all old nexus models are presumed rogue and thus “retired” by the LAPD’s blade runners.
2049 begins with a blade runner named K (Ryan Gosling) hunting one of such old nexus models. K has no delusions about not being a replicant, but his continuing investigations into the replicant freedom movement lead him to dark intrigues, spoilers, more spoilers, and eventually Deckard himself. Meanwhile, Wallace, to satisfy his starry ideals, needs more replicants than he has the capacity to create. And it may very well be the case that the key to his success is directly tied to the fruits of K’s detective work.
Family and creation are the key themes of 2049, as Villeneuve expands the story of the original while also inverting it. K does Deckard’s detective work, but he is very much not Deckard. His journey is inward, as the story and setting take for granted that replicants are functionally human in every sense except in terms of their emotional balance. His imbalance is exacerbated by his individuality, both in his her inspired sexual relationship with his personal A.I. Joi (Ana de Armas), and in his familial curiosity. Wallace, meanwhile, experiments with replicants as Tyrell did in the original, and is even a more on-the-nose version of him in terms of representing blind devotion to a grand vision. But he doesn’t have Tyrell’s eccentric fascination with his designs or schemes because none of it is enough for him. And while you can definitely see some twists coming, like in the original you’re too swept up by the enveloping atmosphere to care.
2049 doesn’t just capture the spirit original with dazzling imagery sure to take your breath away and enrich the imaginations of the next generation of future filmmakers just as Ridley Scott did a generation ago. It also reflects cinema’s evolution since then with an action-heavy narrative in an environment that feels like Equilibrium without the preaching head (how’s that for irony?) and Children of Men without the pretension. Villeneuve has found in the original Blade Runner the perfect vehicle for a universal humane experience. 2049 isn’t just one of the year’s best films. It is a spectacular achievement on the ultimate genre canvas.
With no hyperbole or reservation, Blade Runner 2049 is The Godfather Part II of science fiction. Go see it in IMAX, and then go see it again.