TL; DR(eview) - There is no denying that Blade Runner 2049 is a deliberately slow character-driven mystery. So if you go in expecting fast-paced action you’ll be disappointed. But I appreciated the extra time just living in this world for a few hours as it is one of the most beautiful - albeit often dark and grimy - film worlds I can remember.
I’ve never sat down and watched the original Blade Runner in any of its multiple incarnations. I’m a student of pop culture to know the general gist: Harrison Ford plays Deckard, a titular Blade Runner (re: bounty hunter) tasked with tracking down “replicants” (re: genetically created humanoids), with the ongoing open-ended question of the film being whether or not Deckard is, himself, a replicant. And Rutger Hauer infamously wrote his death monologue featuring the iconic line “All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.” But that’s about all I knew before heading into Blade Runner 2049.
An opening title card efficiently fills in the history between the two films. Since the original film, advancements in replicant technology have created a need breed of replicants.that obey their creators more diligently. The role of the blade runner has passed on to certain replicants in order to retire older models. Ryan Gosling plays one such blade runner: agent KD9-3.7, “K” for short. In doing his job, he stumbles upon a hidden secret that could revolutionize the relationship between humans and replicants. Following this thread gets him caught up in a story that is much larger, but also potentially more personal, than he could have ever imagined.
I won’t delve further into the story because unwinding that thread, and the twists and turns therein, provided some great moments in the telling of this story and I wouldn’t want to spoil it. So instead, the remainder of this review will focus on the characters and visuals (while still keeping this spoiler-free).
Ryan Gosling’s “K” is tailor-made for the actor, echoing subtle performances like his turn as the Driver in Drive. As a replicant blade runner for the LAPD, he remains largely stoic but there’s always something deeper lurking beneath his eyes. We get to see K most at ease when he’s with his AI companion Joi (Ana de Armas). There is a seeming fondness and love between the two characters but it’s left somewhat ambiguous as to whether Joi really has feelings for K or if she has just been programmed to feed his desires. The relationship between this two characters is equal parts touching and unsettling throughout the course of the film as the audience ponders any numbers of questions about the ethics and morality inherent in such a relationship.
Throughout his investigation, K meets Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), the primary replicant serving interplanetary magnate Niander Wallace (Jared Leto). Wallace has effectively acquired the Tyrell corporation (which developed the replicants of yore) and iterated and grown the company to unspeakable heights. Portrayed as a tortured artist of sorts who finds himself unable to keep up with the demand for new replicants, he is eager to discover the subject of K’s investigation and sets his trusted Luv to work in pursuit of answers. The juxtaposition of the relationship between K and Joi and Wallace and Luv is a wonderful examination of the power dynamics in the world of the film. Where there is warmth between the former pairing, the latter is cold and utilitarian.
Harrison Ford returns here as Deckard, a man who has been living in self-imposed exile for some time. Here’s where I must admit I can’t adequately identify how this performance stacks up to his character in the original. This Deckard has seemingly been hardened in his perhaps decades of isolation, but he may have always kept to himself in his former life as a blade runner. He has found a cause though and we get to see that this cause has been a driving factor for the decisions he has made, for better or worse.
Perhaps my favorite element of Blade Runner 2049 was its design. The original Blade Runner is often credited for inspiring so many of the dystopian science fiction worlds that came after it so I was a little concerned I’d be walking into something that felt familiar (even if this sequel fell within the lineage that originated so much of what we think of when we think of cyberpunk science fiction). But Denis Villaneuve puts so much care into the look of every frame that I found the beauty oozing off the screen.
Attending my screening at a nearby Alamo Drafthouse, the pre-show entertainment included a series of Villaneuve’s scenes cut together called “Denis Villaneuve Through Glass” and highlighted many instances where he has used glass doors or windows as a framing device for the scene (i.e. looking into a scene through a window, looking out at the environment through a windshield, etc.). With this in mind I found myself acutely aware of these types of shots displayed before me and they are often delightfully profound. In some cases, we the audience are instilled with a little bit of extra voyeurism as a result. In one critical scene two characters are discussing key information separated by glass and I found myself mesmerized by the magnitude of the information almost symbolically shattering the glass to bring them together, even if the physical barrier remained intact.
Another prominent design element is the use of color and weather throughout. Many of the shots in futuristic Los Angeles are dark and dreary in the rain. Not only does this immediately invoke the iconic imagery from the first film mentioned above, but it plays incredible well against the bright neon aesthetic scattered around these scenes. It’s almost as if to say, the real world has gone to shit so humanity has tried to bring whatever light it can back into the darkness, even if it’s in the form of gaudy holographic advertisements.
One key location we spend a lot of time outside of LA is the Wallace headquarters. Constructed using obscene amounts of wood (the rarity of which is highlighted in the film), these headquarters suggest both exorbitant wealth, but also a desire for the natural world that no longer seems to exist. The architecture in this locale is coupled with pools of water. Using these pools, Villaneuve has a field day playing with rippling light and shadow as characters often present their core tenants in a never-ending cycle of light and darkness.
Lastly, a trip to this alternate reality’s version of Las Vegas plays with an entirely new color palette, as well as a never-settling dust storm. The sequences here mix the film’s most direct touchstones to a world we can recognize as our own (it wouldn’t be Vegas without The King) but also an architecture that feels equal parts foreign and yet the natural evolution of Sin City.
As I continue to think about the film, I am dumbfounded by the imagery and themes presented. I should probably point out that the film very much leans into these character and design moments over fast-paced action set pieces so I can fully appreciate where people are coming from when they say they were bored by the film. But for me, it was a feast for the sense and I so very much appreciated that it gave me so much time to take it all in, that I was mesmerized through the films nearly three-hour runtime.
Blade Runner 2049 is one of the most visually stunning films I’ve seen in years and might be a frontrunner for my favorite film of the year.