When a movie becomes, in the span of years and decades, a veritable cult classic and a definitive example of its genre, the talk of creating a sequel to it can come off as both superfluous and exploitative of that hard-earned reputation. This is doubly so when the film’s narrative screenplay is functionally standalone and complete. But where there’s a will, there’s a determination to make a “part 2” happen, and so it was that “Blade Runner 2049,” a story sequel to the 1982 Warner Bros. Film “Blade Runner,” was painstakingly produced into reality.
The first film, directed by Ridley Scott and starring Harrison Ford, was sub-par at the box office when it was originally released, only to build a stellar reputation to eventually be hailed as one of the (if not THE) most iconic science fiction movie ever filmed. It was so genre-defining that certain elements of the work would eventually migrate to general sci-fi writing as mainstream terms and ideas.
“Blade Runner” had been for all intents and purposes a loose adaptation of the 1968 novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” by acclaimed sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick. The author himself even had the honor and pleasure of getting to read the film script (original by Hampton Fancher and revamped by David Peoples) and see a special-effects reel test. He was very much enthused by the narrative and visuals (though he would die four months before the complete film was released).
That alone would be so much pressure on anybody trying to develop a continuation, despite so many of the old main crew reuniting for the effort. Ridley Scott, despite his greater experience now with epic films and franchises, has relegated directorial duties for “Blade Runner 2049” to French-Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve. Fancher also returns as screenwriter with help from Michael Green. The result is an incredible visual extravaganza that not only syncs with the aesthetic and themes of the 1982 movie but also builds up on its franchise mythos in a dynamic way.
While “2049” can pretty much stand on its own plot-wise, there are certainly enough threads connecting between the film and its predecessor to set the stage that is the world the characters live in. The first “Blade Runner” establishes how mankind has begun moving from a polluted and ecologically damaged Earth to multiple off-world space colonies. This was achieved by the introduction of “replicants,” artificially-engineered human beings of superior strength and durability, developed by the Tyrell Corporation as labor for off-world and high-risk environments.
But replicants, being made humanlike, can also learn to feel. Tired of being used as disposable workers, the off-world replicants started a rebellion, even travelling to Earth and hiding among humans (the rebellion made the planet ban active replicants on the surface) to either further the revolution or just cause havoc. Police departments then send special agents – the titular Blade Runners like Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard – to hunt down replicants and “retire” them, permanently.
The events of the first film took place in the then-far future of 2019 (ha-ha). Fast forward to 2049 and there have been some changes. The bankrupted Tyrell Corporation is now a subsidiary to Wallace Corporation, and is producing a new generation of replicants that are fully obedient to humans without question or complaint. Blade Runners still work to find and retire earlier-generation replicants.
Here is where LAPD agent K (Ryan Gosling) comes in, Spoiler-alert: he is himself a current-model replicant who is technically hunting his own kind. His is a meh existence, going from one mission to the next (with empathy baseline tests in between to ensure he remains unfeeling in doing his task). His only meaningful interaction is at his apartment with an honest-to-goodness VR girlfriend program named Joi (Ana de Arms). In the course of doing his duty, K stumbles into a buried secret that has the potential to break the uneasy balance of human-replicant relations in 2049.
This is a secret that K’s LAPD boss Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright) wants destroyed. It is a secret that the weirdly inhuman master of Wallace Corp. (Jared Leto) wants to improve his “products” with, and has thus deployed his replicant secretary/hit-girl Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) to find. And this secret is something that the still-ongoing replicant rebellion uses as a rallying point to establish itself as becoming more human than human, sort of. And clues tied to that secret point to the long-missing ex-Blade Runner Rick Deckard, who disappeared with his replicant love interest at the end of the first movie.
Like its predecessor, and in turn much like the source novel, “Blade Runner 2049” relishes in the questioning of what is real or not. K during the film suffers an existential crisis where he is conflicted by how his stock of implanted artificial memories turns out to be real. Joi plays the critical role of emotional support for the replicant Blade Runner in this trying time, but are her reactions and decisions just part of her programming to be “all her [owner] wants her to be,” or is she growing beyond her set patterns? The plot is a deconstructive detective noir yarn set in a grim future where the nature of humanity and being a person is being called into question, and it is alternately exhilarating and touching, and heartbreaking.
“2049” runs at a rather lengthy 2½ hours. It can get tedious like that except for the visuals establishing the setting that the story happens in. Future Los Angeles has changed little from the 1982 original. It’s still that cyberpunk urban labyrinth with plenty of holographic ads showcasing some products and companies that were big in the (real-time) 80s that have since become footnotes. Atari and Pan-Am Airlines are still major brands in that timeline for instance.
One major plus in the production of the movie is the decision not to over-rely on green screens and CGI, instead utilizing practical special effects like scale models for the spinners (flying cars) and the cityscapes, or matte paintings for some backgrounds. A viewer can easily immerse himself in such future locations like tower-filled LA, a San Diego landfill and a post-nuclear fallout Las Vegas. The set designs and the color palettes were unreal yet so real, and a major delight to see. That can only be achieved thanks to the collaborative experience between director Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins.
Completing the audio-visual package of “Blade Runner 2049” is a great musical score courtesy of Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch. They have taken certain cues from the original techno soundtrack of the first film by Vangelis, but updated it to give some illusion of passing three decades of time marching on. The loud percussive instrumentation at key scenes of the film was highly inspired; the most recent movie I have experienced that was with “Dunkirk” a few months back. And like “Dunkirk,” “2049” is a film that will look at its absolute best on the biggest cinema screens possible.
While it’s a bit premature to say that this movie can equal or even surpass the original “Blade Runner,” it can’t be denied that “2049” is a solid feature that can hold its own weight as a sci-fi film. While initial box office returns would have it that the sequel is having the same performance problems as its predecessor, one can hope that at more people can come to see this film and realize just what a potential cinematic treasure it can possibly be.
“Blade Runner 2049” charts its own path while keeping coherent links with its original, as demonstrated by the soundtrack retaining one key piece of background music from 1982 that plays out during a major dramatic moment. It plays out in the sequel towards the end, and it is glorious just as the film is in my opinion.
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