When it comes to long-awaited sequels, it’s fair to say that the weight of expectation is fairly heavy, especially when you’re following up a beloved cult classic that had no apparent need for a sequel.
Still, it has been shown before, that in the right hands, a long-gestating successor can be just as successful as the original. Take, for example, Mary Poppins Returns a few years ago, few expected that film to find the same charming wit and whimsy as the original, but nonetheless it did, despite its predecessors reputation; and that is, in all likelihood, the only time Marry Poppins and Blade Runner will be described in anything approaching a similar context.
While not quite as long-awaited as the aforementioned Disney sequel (MPR came well over 50 years after the original, this came after a 35 year gap) it was in extremely capable hands.
Not only did this film have to contend with following a beloved original, it also had the job of finding a replacement for an all-time great director, as Ridley Scott was only present in an executive producers role, and in his place was a director steadily building an incredible reputation: Denis Villeneuve, whose past works included tense thrillers like Prisoners and Sicario, as well as the modern sci-fi classic Arrival (he is also in the directors chair for the forthcoming Dune adaptation).
Employing a similar storyline time leap as was present between the sequels in real life, Blade Runner 2049 sees LAPD Blade Runner ‘K’ (Ryan Gosling) hunting down older models of ‘Replicants’ in the time since the original, businessman Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) has produced a new line of more subservient Replicants, but K soon uncovers a mystery that leads everyone to further question the true differences between man and machine.
Fears of this being a cash-in sequel are well-and-truly put to bed within the first hour of the film, as it delves into a new mystery in an expanded world from what we saw before, with much of the atmosphere that made the original great, but given an extra dose of energy by its performances and utilisation of modern technology.
It manages to maintain true to the original, all while maintaining its own identity and visual themes, both paying homage to, and expanding on, the 1982 original.
I especially liked the way it delves into human-replicant coexistence, both subtly and blatant. It draws a neat parallel between this world, and the real world, in terms of relations between races, that, given the current climate, has only become more prescient.
It also takes the central intrigue at the heart of the original and flips it around, creating a whole new layer of story to unpack, as K works to get to the heart of the all-encompassing question hanging over the film.
Despite all the film’s greatness, it is very difficult to review in too much depth. My usual rule-of-thumb is to not discuss and plot points or moments not featured in the trailer, and this is difficult, as the trailer does not give much away; sometimes I give myself more leeway with older films, but 2049 is only three years old, which means there is likely to be many people who haven’t yet seen it (especially given that it was somewhat disappointing at the box office)￼.
So without wanting to give away the key plot points, it may leave the review sounding a bit vague, as I try and circumnavigate the sizeable elephant in the room, but I will try and remain as succinct as I can.
Putting the story to one side and focusing on other things for a while, the film is incredibly well-paced, especially given that it runs over two-and-a-half hours, it feels like a 100 minute movie, as the story moves along at just the right pace to properly space out the intrigue, while not letting the film feel like its flagging in the slightest. This was one of the issues I had with the original, was that parts of it felt like it was pushing its ‘slow-burn’ to its very limit, so I’m happy to report that isn’t the case here.
Also impressive is how the world the film inhabits is enhanced with the wonders of modern technology; there is a marvellous mix of practical cinematography and computerised effects on display here, the peak of which for me is a tender love scene between our protagonist and his holographic girlfriend, it really brings the wonders of a science fiction world to life before our eyes.
Yet, despite this, it also utilises some of the best cinematography I’ve seen in a sci-fi film. This is the film that won legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins his long-overdue Oscar (he’s since added to his collection, just this past year) and for good reason. The camera work and use of film as a storytelling device is jaw-dropping, making the desolate environments still feel alive through the wonder of film alone.
It’s also a film that mixes things up thematically. It takes what works from the original, and adds in a few more touches to make it still feel fresh. There are moments of body horror, the action is used sparingly, but explosively, and there are moments that make the tension and threat level feel like something out of a nerve-shattering thriller, it’s a perfect mix of everything that makes these subsequent genres work, all tied up in a neat little package, only enhanced by the absorbing narrative, and gorgeous visuals.
I haven’t even got around to the acting yet, and I’m almost 1,000 words in, that goes to show how much I had to talk about with this film, I even made notes, which is a rare occurrence for me, such was my determination to not miss anything.
The acting is noteworthy too, however, for a supremely talented and well-rounded cast. It did not get hung-up on the usual trappings of focusing heavily on the last characters, instead developing a new set of characters, and contextually linking them to the older characters in subtle ways, that leave you guessing, and constantly wrong-foot you, right up until the final reveal, where it all comes together so gracefully, making you feel glad that you were wrong in your personal predictions. It’s a really triumphant pulling of the rug from under the audiences feet, leading them to think one thing, while hiding the truth right in front of their eyes.
Anyway, forgive my side-tracking, the cast is lead by the always wonderful Ryan Gosling, whose ability to act with his face alone is rivalled only by Tom Hardy, but while Hardy relies on this ability, Gosling has considerably more strings to his bow. He goes through a character arc that sees him go from cold and standoffish, to the warm, beating heart of the narrative, a true reflection of the ongoing message of what separates man from machine.
Harrison Ford is also very good, actually getting to utilise his acting talent for once, rather than just simply turning up and being Harrison Ford. His character is significantly more worn-down and battered than cool and charismatic, and his performance reflects this.
I was also impressed by Jared Leto’s performance as the eerily unsettling head of the Wallace corporation, he sees precious little screen time, but manages to make use of the time he does have to really set your nerves on edge with his chilling delivery, which is occasionally reminiscent of Roy Batty in its coldness.
All of these things combine to produce that very rare thing: the worthy sequel. One that uses the lessons learned from the last film and expands them, and the world it occupies, and for that reason, I’m prepared to that that I preferred this film to the original. Of course, it wouldn’t exist without it, but its pacing is slightly better, and given the advances in technology, it can do more of what I feel the original wanted to do but couldn’t.
All at once it manages to be tense, emotional, atmospheric, and, ironically for a film about replicants, human. It taps into raw, human instincts of belonging and prejudice so elegantly that you wouldn’t notice they were there if you weren’t looking for them. It’s an immensely satisfying triumph that will make any film-going audience happy, no matter what their opinions on the original.