It’s difficult to determine whether or not Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) really needed a sequel, or even if modern audiences wanted one, yet it is simple enough to say that Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 is worthy of sharing the title of its cult-classic predecessor. The synth-heavy soundscapes and neon-glowing advertisements of Blade Runner‘s futuristic Los Angeles are back, though most of the events this time take place above the fog-obscured streets. Thirty years later, not only has humanity not solved its replicant problem, but society seems to have merged into a completely unidentifiable state, as the Wallace Corporation, following in the Tyrell Corporations footsteps, continue to issue advanced versions of highly adaptable replicants into it. While the original’s cult status basks in its moral and thematic ambiguities, 2049 makes itself clear from the start; its main character, Officer K (Ryan Gosling), who we follow throughout, is a replicant.
K, a new model replicant, takes the place of Rick Deckard as the new blade runner for the LAPD ever since Deckard’s strange disappearance years ago. His assignment is also nearly the same as Deckard’s was: eliminate expired replicants. However, after his initial assignment is completed, K comes across a new plot which threatens the existence of both humans and replicants. Throughout the nearly three-hour running time, 2049 follows a much more plot-focused investigation than the original. It’s necessary, too, that it’s plot is at the forefront of the humanizing debate concerning the capabilities of replicants, since it might be difficult to make a more character-focused film when you’re protagonist is, identifiably from the start, one of them.
In following K throughout his investigation, 2049 adopts a much colder, emotionally distant tone until much later, making viewers feel the appropriate tone of not only the characters, but the world of the film as well. Since the original took place, hints at a “blackout” are dropped, suggesting that the tragic status of mankind has reached a point where everyone might be dangerous, and to find anything “human” about the world would be difficult. Ryan Gosling’s K comes home to a hologram wife, with little to no illusion that she might be a real person. Her artifice is obvious, and Villeneuve, as a result, raises questions about what being “human” really consists of. Is it biological, emotional, philosophical or some combination of these various elements? And does having any of these qualities make us special? This is the conflict K faces throughout, and if science-fiction is a genre where questions concerning human disaster are filtered through, 2049 closely trails such questions as if it were blade runner chasing a replicant.
Blade Runner 2049 somehow manages to keep its lengthy, investigative plot interesting despite its purposefully detached tone. Villeneuve refrains from imposing emotional preferences or answers, and the script smartly presents its contemplative questions. The presentation of the film’s inquisitive plot is also helped along by Roger Deakins’ profoundly realized cinematography and pulsing soundtrack composed by Hans Zimmer with Benjamin Wallfisch. It’s respectably a more quiet directorial effort on Villeneuve’s part as it lies alongside the visual and audible weight and power of Deakins and Zimmer/Wallfisch’s contributions.
However, this doesn’t mean that Villeneuve’s directorial voice is any less powerful as a result. He finds a valuable balance in expressing the voice of the script and its characters along with the atmosphere found in each unique location. The major performers in the film, consisting of Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Jared Leto, and Robin Wright, just to name a few, each retain a sense of coolness that the film exhibits so well while also delivering on heightened dramatic moments, which is sparsely and necessarily rare. Thus, when these dramatic sequences do occur, they’re successfully intense, surprising, and well performed.
Sometimes, though, there is a sense that the film feels a little too precisely engineered for its own good, as if it were made by a replicant. There are moments when the ambiguity generated by the original, which helped enhance it to its beloved cult status, feels hollow and simply added for the sake of referencing the original. For example, the question of whether or not Rick Deckard is actually a replicant is brought up, yet in a superficial way that doesn’t add any new layers of intrigue and mystery. Answering such a question would the wrong choice too, but 2049 simply feels, at times, intimidated by aspects of its predecessor, afraid to touch on them for fear of tarnishing its legacy.
The film also shares a common flaw with the original in its superficial treatment of female characters. Sure, there’s an argument to be had about the depiction of K’s hologram wife, Joi, and the standard gender role she occupies, though I would argue that her role more-so represents the unfortunate nature of a futuristic society only appearing futuristic on the surface, and hasn’t advanced from antiquated gender ideals. Instead, the other female characters of the film only seem to serve a specifically engineered role. Despite Rachel’s human characteristics from the original, the female replicant employee in 2049, Luv, fills the superficial role as an action villain. Other female characters, including a prostitute who crosses paths with K, simply exist for plot reasons, and only toward the end do we get a small, unsatisfactory glimpse into a potentially deeper feminine aspect of the story before it quickly enters its finale. Though, alternatively, the film’s larger question regarding individuality and whether or not genders even matter, can be aimed in a similar way to the male characters as well, especially K. None of them have real names, as they’re only identified by concepts (love, joy) or letters and numbers.
Given the film’s distanced tone, however, Blade Runner 2049 still presents a fascinating plot that explores exciting sci-fi themes worthy of the Blade Runner name, along with the cinematic presentation to accompany it. While it doesn’t fully delve into the possibilities provoked by its most fascinating questions, it nonetheless delivers a transportive cinematic spectacle. It’s also an open invitation for contemplative discussion on topics concerning the flawed nature of humanity in a world where “being human” is, literally, a more complicated affair. When K listens to Frank Sinatra in his own apartment and later again at Deckard’s, we, like him, think about what it truly means to be a stranger in the night.