Blade Runner 2049 is a better movie than its predecessor, Blade Runner.
Which should not suggest it is more groundbreaking than the 1982 Ridley Scott film or will have the same lasting impact. Nonetheless, it a better made film with a more thought-out story which amplifies themes from the original picture and Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?; the novel upon which all of this is based. It also advances the concept with a new and startling idea: androids may dream of electric sheep, but they also need electric soulmates to get through the day.
Ryan Reynolds stars as LAPD officer K. Assigned to the Blade Runner unit, he is almost immediately revealed as a Replicant. In the thirty years between films, the Tyrell Corp Nexus-8 model Replicants staged a coup of sorts, leading to the destruction of most digital data. After the “blackout,” Replicants were outlawed and Tyrell went out of business. Shortly thereafter, the environment collapsed completely and Wallace Corporation stepped in with a way to create mass amounts of cultured protein: avoiding a worldwide famine. Wallace used the profits from avoiding that catastrophe to purchase Tyrell and overturn the prohibition of Replicants; starting a new series of completely loyal artificial people. K is among that group.
I mention all of this up front as the state of play is essential to 2049‘s plot: K’s investigation into one of the remaining Nexus-8 models and the discovery of bones near his home somewhere north of Los Angeles. The bones turn out to be those of Rachel (Sean Young), the Nexus-7 Tyrell fashioned after his own niece in the original film. A post-mortem reveals Rachel died in childbirth, leading K’s lieutenant (Robin Wright) to order a complete erasure of the incident, lest word get out that Tyrell devised a way to let Replicants breed.
It is a fascinating idea which almost gets lost in the gravity of Blade Runner 2049. Directed by Arrival‘s Denis Villeneuve from a script by original Blade Runner screenwriter Hampton Fancher and Michael Green, the film is overwhelming in the best sense of the word. It attacks you, almost from its first moment, with a lot of visual information. And like its predecessor, it rarely slows down to let you process much of it. Not that 2049 is fast paced. It wouldn’t be a Blade Runner film if it was. Instead, Villeneuve finds a pace which allows the viewer to live in his idea of the Blade Runner future 30 years later while explaining the bare minimum. Or at least, it may feel that way upon initial viewing. On repeat screenings, thanks to its release on home video, I found most of the interesting ideas are clearly delineated in dialogue. They’re just hard to parse the first time through because the film is such a showcase of production design and the photography of cinematographer Roger Deakins.
Which leads to an aside…
Blade Runner 2049 is the better movie in terms of storytelling, character development and other narrative aspects I gravitate toward. But to judge which is better based on the photography is impossible. Jordan Cronenweth, director of photography on Blade Runner, was a master of his craft in the days when film was an analog medium of light and chemicals. Deakins is also a master of lighting, composition and modern camera trickery, but does his magic in a digital age. Working in what we can now call the Blade Runner milieu, they are equally matched in terms of quality. And fans of film are richer for having the opportunity to see both of these master craftsmen working in the same world.
At the same time, the film invites these sorts of comparisons. Its inciting incident is the discovery of the previous film’s bones. And while it is sad to see Rachel cast aside so easily — especially when consider the how she is mostly an object in the original film — it sets up the intriguing throughline of the film. As K continues his investigation, he follows the trail of Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) and his last case. But Fancher, Green and Villeneuve gives us a very different look at those events and the world thanks to knowing that K is a Replicant from the get go.
While it is fun to debate Deckard’s status as a human, it is clear Fancher always meant for him to be a mortal man. And 2049 operates from that assumption even as it plays with the ambiguity Scott infused into the topic over decades of interviews and new cuts of the film. But the film wastes little time with that question as K is presented with two other fascinating ambiguities: his possible relationship to Deckard and the apparent sentience of his companion app, Joi (Anna de Armas).
A constant presence throughout the film, Joi is a Wallace Corp companion hologram that we’re told repeatedly through billboards is “everything you want to see, everything you want to hear.” But she is so convincing in that primary function that both K and we as viewers often forget she is more artificial than even a Replicant. Part of this is de Armas’s performance. She’s great. But additionally, Joi is the perfect fantasy companion (at least for a sci-fi loving hetero male); lacking any substance — in a literal sense — while aiding her male partner to achieve his goals. There even comes a moment where she points outthinks K and defeats the Wallace Corp tracking function within herself; seemingly countermanding her own programming and revealing a glimpse of free will. Then we are reminded in a heartbreaking moment that Joi was always everything we wanted to see and everything we wanted to hear. Were any of her actions an indication that she grew beyond that simple mandate?
It’s an ambiguity I find much more interesting at this point that whether or not Deckard is a Replicant.
But that’s one of the ways Blade Runner 2049 builds on the original film. Joi is presented as product for Replicants. The first film’s issue of empathy is seemingly solved by the creation of a companion program designed to give Replicants — well, male Replicants anyway — a level of intimacy they desire despite being engineered people who should not need such things. It’s a damned brilliant concept and, for me, the real point of the film. I think it’s Villeneuve’s as well. Once Deckard takes Joi’s place as K’s companion, the film takes on more of an action/adventure tone. In fact, its two action set pieces occur during this part of the film, when K inadvertently helps Wallace’s assistant Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) capture Deckard. Later, he fights her on the edge of the Pacific Ocean to save Deckard from a painful interrogation in orbit.
Curiously, this is the weakest element of the film as it feels like a setup for a more action oriented third film. But K’s story, the real meat here, is particular satisfying and something I can never call the original Blade Runner: superb.
Also, I’ve just barely scratched the surface with the film’s ideas. Luv herself is such a strange and wonderful character; a Replicant devoted to Wallace (Jared Leto) while burdened with human emotions she does not understand. Then there’s Wallace himself, who could easily be a Nexus-8. His desire to breed Replicants instead of grow them definitely leads in that direction. Or Mackenzie Davis’s Mariette, a pleasure model Replicant who may be part of a nascent uprising. I may have to come back to this film on the regular as there’s so much to unpack.
Blade Runner 2049 comes to Blu-ray with a handful of Behind-the-Scenes featurettes and the three prologue films Villeneuve commissioned as part of the advertising campaign. The shorts are downright gorgeous in high-def (as is the film itself), but the featurettes seem half-hearted. Of course, that could be an unfair comparison as Blade Runner has one of the best BTS documentaries ever produced, Dangerous Days, on its Blu-ray release. At the same time, the relative sparseness of bonus content suggests a more expansive Ultimate Edition style release to come. Blade Runner 2049 was decades in development and you would think there would be some interesting stories from those days; to say nothing of a closer look at how Villeneuve, Deakins and the crew brought the Blade Runner world to life for a second time. Nonetheless, the main attraction here is the film itself, which is a marvel to watch in 1080p.
Blade Runner 2049 is available on Blu-ray, DVD and streaming platforms now.