A sequel to Ridley Scott’s sci-fi opus Blade Runner long seemed impossible. It appeared to be perfectly self-contained and has since been considered an untouchable classic, two ingredients that make for a tumultuous fandom. Blade Runner 2049, however, pushes back against both pillars and uncovers a fascinating, beautiful, and knowing story that ultimately is as nihilistic as it is hopeful.
As the title suggests, the film takes place 30 years after the original film in the year 2049. A lot has happened in those three short decades wherein the manufacture of replicants has been banned only to be jumpstarted again by Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) and the Wallace Corporation, the spiritual successor to the Tyrell Corporation. As it stands, those new replicants are used as blade runners to continue to hunt down the older rogue Tyrell models.
This is where K (Ryan Gosling) enters, a blade runner for the Los Angeles Police Department and one of Wallace’s new and flawlessly compliant Nexus-9 model replicants. While hunting after a replicant turned rather innocuous farmer (a terrifically dramatic and emotional Dave Bautista), K uncovers a seemingly unremarkable box buried under a tree. The box, however, contains something impossible: the remains of a female Nexus-7 that died during childbirth.
In this brief but potent setup, the brains of this movie are already on display. It knows it can’t pull the same trick as before with the endless and heated debate of whether Deckard (Harrison Ford) is a replicant or human, so it instead opens with the blatant exposition of K’s status. This opens up the story for far more expressive threads at K’s hands.
Granted, some of these end up going nowhere or end up listless. The culturally sanctioned physical and emotional abuse of known replicants is as casual as it is aggressive, which we glean from K’s daily life, but the film doesn’t explore it much beyond using it to amplify the isolation of his relationship with his holographic girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas), another product of the Wallace Corporation. This does, however, find some purchase in the story as Joi’s worth to K operates independent of her worth to others and offers up a potential answer to the origin of the soul.
The most noticeable miss is that this is not a neo-noir film, despite how much it looks like one and how much the marketing would like you to believe it. The moral ambiguity is largely lacking, let alone the missing staple inversion from the authority/fugitive relationship. But it also shouldn’t come across as neo-noir because the core of its story isn’t one; it’s a ponderous psychological question about freedom and purpose.
After sifting through a dozen layers of themes and conversations about souls and memories, the movie can be distilled into a single line: “born, not made.” As many have pointed out, it’s a deliberate reference to Christian theology just as are the names Joi and Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), the latter of which is Niander’s replicant enforcer sent to do an incredible amount of dirt throughout the film. Through this lens, the entire 163 minutes becomes a fascinating examination of challenge, the simple but—at times—impossible act of saying no when someone tells you to say yes.
It’s an exceptionally affecting determination as we see a deluge of facets of this predicament. Utility created by need, utility manufactured by utility, need proposed by utility. A revue of characters and ancillary threads march through the proscenium to exemplify this notion of breaking the world. Is it more important that you are created to accomplish a task or that a goal is created for you to chase?
Admittedly, there is a bit of murkiness in these waters. In a lot of these cases, they are the equivalent of an argument made by reference rather than by explanation. It’s an imploration for you to look at understand rather than to take you by the eyeball to look at the fundamental propositions. Some of them are crystal clear such as with Joi and K and other times it’s ambiguous to the point of confusion like with Niander and Luv.
It is, however, no small feat and something completely worth noting that it has all this and a substantial amount of referential developments (some fan service, some not) and auteurial arcs and it doesn’t crumble. All three culminate, for example, in Mariette (Mackenzie Davis). She is a red light district worker whose resemblance to Daryl Hannah’s Pris Stratton of the original movie is not insignificant as her thematic role carries much of the same heft, but she also propels forward K and Joi’s relationship while touching on elements of director Denis Villeneuve’s previous film Arrival‘s grand depiction of predestination (and shades of Her‘s loving love).
It all comes to a remarkably satisfying conclusion as well with perhaps the greatest conceptual and nihilistic slap in the face in film this year. It comes to bear a breathlessly taut and exhilarating climax with an avalanche of revelation, not least of which include one that—without spoiling anything (read this if you want a terrific examination of that)—is a painful but freeing realization that everyone has at some point in their life, let alone when you are the actual protagonist of a movie.
A great deal of the effectivity of it all is simply how good the film looks and sounds. While the soundtrack doesn’t approach the evergreen original’s by Vangelis, the sound design is impeccable. The entire climax we just talked about? Driven almost entirely by sound design. And then there’s cinematographer Roger Deakins’ continued and almost absurd excellence, crafting an entire film of shots that will undoubtedly earn him another Oscar nomination (and hopefully, finally, a win). They’re shots dripping with beauty while imbued with meaning.
Of course, the performances are a part of the potency. Gosling continues to show that it takes skill to be the affecting kind of empty that K requires, contrasting wonderfully with the impeccably gruff and more exposed Deckard from Ford. De Armas also has a superb showing as she hides and shows Joi’s desire to break free from her constraints in equal measure. Hell, even Leto’s cartoonishly maniacal Niander is pitch-perfect in this ethereal, perverse world.
With all the good the film does, however, it doesn’t stop it from being a ridiculously large pill to swallow. You have to carry your own baggage into it from the 1982 original while wading through a seemingly interminable runtime full of themes upon themes that don’t fully play out. But the parts that work are tremendous and form an experience you aren’t likely to find again for years to come, if ever. Blade Runner 2049 is good movie that is making a hell of an argument that it’s a great one.
Final Score: 9 out of 10