Since its release in 1982, Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” has claimed a reputation as a notoriously philosophical sci-fi enigma, open to infinite interpretations — from that of the studio, to that of the director, to those of the audience. Despite its many readings, “Blade Runner,” a groundbreaking venture in stylistic and thought-provoking cinematic storytelling, is universally considered one of the most influential science fiction films ever made.
The massive legacy of the original makes it a tough act to follow. But in the hands of director Denis Villeneuve (“Sicario,” “Arrival”), its sequel, the mesmerizing “Blade Runner 2049,” effectively expands upon the original universe while crafting a gripping new narrative. Despite its slow start, “Blade Runner 2049” matches the strengths of its predecessor with its riveting performances and stunning visuals to become its own modern science-fiction masterpiece.
“Blade Runner 2049” picks up 30 years after the events of the original film in a bleak and stony Los Angeles that blurs the lines between humanity and technological artifice. Officer K (Ryan Gosling) is a police officer turned blade runner, a trained assassin who seeks out older versions of replicants — a species of bioengineered androids — and kills them.
K simply progresses through life’s austerities with little complaint. He follows through on tasks assigned by his no-nonsense boss, Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright), regardless of their brutality, before coming home at the end of each night to his companion Joi (Ana de Armas) — a holographic artificial intelligence application.
The film cautiously examines K’s behavior, focusing on his actions but never fully revealing his thoughts, so as to promote the film’s ambiguity. K exists as a guide, a constant lens through which we can observe the universe’s nuances and complexity. Gosling is brilliantly cast as the icy, perceptive lead; with a calculated performance, he effectively and poignantly conveys K’s transition from a passive laborer to an active agent determined to find answers.
“2049” isn’t structured around a clear-cut narrative. Rather, it takes a handful of themes — identity, community and existentialism — and illuminates them in a slow unraveling of the film’s events. Slow, to a fault.
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At 2 hours and 43 minutes, “2049” feels overlong and overambitious. “Blade Runner” tackled similar intricate themes in a much shorter runtime, with plenty of silent moments to allow big ideas to settle in with the audience. Silence in “2049” feels more exhausting than intellectual, and the film sacrifices an engaging pace for an early emphasis on visual symbolism.
The film eventually hits its stride in its second act, when we are reintroduced to original “Blade Runner” protagonist Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford). K finds him hidden in an old, abandoned casino, surrounded by holographic musicians and bottles of whiskey. There’s a stark contrast in the protagonists’ personalities: one, a composed, hard-working officer, and the other, a cynical old rebel. Their altercation infuses the film with brief but refreshing dry comedic relief.
Ultimately, any problems with plot or pacing seem trivial for a film as experiential as “Blade Runner 2049.” Because above all, “2049” is a visual masterpiece, one that relies on captivating set design and cinematography to relay the magnitude of its universe and its underlying messages.
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Villeneuve, a visionary in the use of color, sound and space to construct a film’s atmosphere, ensures that “2049” is every bit as revolutionary as its predecessor in drawing its audience into its unique world — one devastated by its own technological abundance, much bleaker and far less vibrant than that of its prequel. Every frame of the film is meticulously composed, and legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins manages to let the camera linger on an empty room in the film’s quiet moments while capturing the skylines and structures of the colossal dystopian landscape.
“Blade Runner 2049” gradually crescendos from dark, quiet dystopian drama to an epic sci-fi phenomenon, and it provides a captivating experience for audiences along the way. Besides being an intense theatrical experience, it’s a cinematically and intellectually satisfying science-fiction achievement, leaving its viewers with plenty to ponder long after the credits stop rolling.