The decision to revisit a classic movie is always a risky move, especially when said classic is a dense sci-fi movie that was never popular when it was first released, has several cuts of the film with wildly different meanings making it even harder for the average filmgoer to jump int, and has developed a cult following made up mainly on sci-fi-loving cinephiles. Needless to say, there were many ways for Blade Runner 2049 to go wrong and it would be surprising enough if the movie wasn’t a total disaster. That it is one of the best movies of the year is nothing short of miraculous.
Now before I get any further, I should give a prerequisite warning for this review. The filmmakers and studio have been extremely reticent about movie critics revealing anything about the movie spoiler-wise (I humbly consider myself critic-adjacent). Of one character they asked that she only be described as such: “We meet many striking characters over the course of the film, and she is one of them.” I am obviously not going to be that vague with the review because (a) I am not a professional reviewer and (b) the movie has been out almost a month. I’m not going to venture into any real spoiler territory either, but if you don’t want even basic elements like plot and character descriptions revealed to you stop reading now, just trust me when I say that this movie is excellent, and go watch the movie. I’ll see you later.
The movie is set thirty years after blade runner Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) and Rachael go on the run from their would-be killers. In the intervening years much has changed in the world as replicants have gone from hunted and unwelcome androids to little more than indentured servants while the role of “blade runner” has been retained only for the hunting of older replicant models. This is the role that K (Ryan Gosling) who is a new and modern replicant now occupies the role of blade runner, effectively becoming a Benedict Arnold to his own kind.
After completing his latest assignment, he comes across a mysterious box whose contents I shall not divulge here. But needless to say that like Pandora’s box its discovery and further implications threaten the relationship between humans and their subservient replicants. As his supervisor Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright) exclaims, “This could break the world.” And so with the balance of the world at stake, K is sent out to bury the truth and eliminate all connections with this great revelation in just another further betrayal of his kind for the benefit of humanity.
In the original movie the plot and its central mystery just served as a backdrop to ruminate on what it meant to be human while it engrossed us in a fully realized and atmospheric world. And it is a relief to say that this is still the case with Blade Runner 2049. Of course this shouldn’t be a surprise as the sequel is helmed by Denis Villeneuve whose most recent work Arrival established himself as not just a master of hard science fiction but as one of the most exciting directors working today. His firm resistance against turning Blade Runner 2049 into a action blockbuster extravaganza will perhaps irk those looking for populist escapist fare, but that instinct provides us with one of the greatest science fiction movies in this century and arguably the best movie of the year so far.
At close to three hours in length, the movie is daunting to get through. And unlike the bloated superhero movies that encroach similar movie runtimes, the plot is quite austere. Instead what creates the enormous runtime of this movie is the very methodical pace of this movie. The movie takes its time as it broaches heady topics on the nature of humanity in an increasingly intelligent and self-sufficient technological world, giving you more than enough space not only to process what is going on in the story but also to start contemplating the potentially troubling existential questions it raises. It is the rare long movie that completely earns its runtime, and still made me it could have been a little longer.
It also expands and fills out this imagined future world without explaining away its mysteries, letting us breathe its acrid air and taste its grime. This is accomplished not just in the screenplay, but thanks to the phenomenal work by the production design team and the cinematography by Roger Deakin, who should earn some recognition come award season. So much of what makes this movie work is that our eyes are almost always at a ground level, where we can see the dirt and ugliness of this dystopian society, but also be struck by its immensity and austere beauty. This coupled with an viscerally immersive soundrtack help to create a meditative movie that inspires awe and terror as well as joy and sorrow, and often in the same breath.
The cast of this movie is arguably stronger than its predecessor, helmed by Ryan Gosling whose understated acting reaches new depths in this picture and efficiently does everything he needs to do to make the story work and not one thing more. Harrison Ford is as charismatic and energetic as ever, and his appearance in the movie happens at the perfect moment to give the movie its energy for the home stretch. Even a Joker-inspired Jared Leto isn’t able to make the movie go off the rails. But it is the trio of newcomer actresses Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, and Carla Juri who threaten to steal the show with their performances in this movie.
There is much more that can, and should, and will be said of this movie. But suffice it to say that it is the rare sequel that does the beloved classic justice. While I am not quite willing to say that the movie surpasses the original (time will tell), it is without a doubt one of the most transcendentally exhilarating movie experiences that I’ve ever had. Go see it.