Perhaps one of the most anticipated sequels of recent times (amongst film buffs and sci-fi nerds at least, as box office figures suggest the mainstream viewing public hasn’t shared such enthusiasm), Blade Runner 2049 satisfies most in the way that it is nothing more, or less, than we could have hoped from such an undertaking, which is great. In the hands of director Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, Arrival), this continuation of the story contains most of the elements that made the first film so exceptional, although it is cinematographer Roger Deakins who is perhaps the real hero in his stunning rendering of a not-too-distant future that is bleak and eerily beautiful all at once. As was the case in the first film (released in 1982), rain is ever present in the neon-saturated vision of Los Angeles in which a new breed of bio-engineered synthetic humans known as replicants work as blade runners, the title given to those responsible for tracking down earlier versions of their kind who have managed to thus far avoid detection and mandatory decommissioning.
A perfectly cast Ryan Gosling is a blade runner known only as K and the film opens with him tracking down a replicant (Dave Bautista impressing in a small role) living a peaceful life and seemingly little threat to anybody; but rules are rules and he has to go. What K discovers in the course of this mission kick starts what becomes a detective story as he sets forth on an existential quest in search of answers to the mysteries of his own past (about which he knows nothing because all of his memories have supposedly been implanted). This ultimately leads him to Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), the central figure from the first film; a former cop and blade runner who is now living in exile. Those who have been besotted with the ambiguities from the first film probably won’t find the clarity they seek because once again there is nothing definitive offered with regard to whether Deckard is, in fact, a replicant, although I think Villeneuve’s film makes it much easier to mount an argument challenging such a notion, but it is far from conclusive.
There are times when the stunning visuals, production design and musical score (courtesy of Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch) threaten to overwhelm the action and there are certainly some characters and story elements – such as K’s virtual girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas) – that seem more about hypothesising on the nature of future technology than serving any narrative imperative. However, there are some strong female characters in Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright) and Luv (Sylvia Hoecks), while Sean Young’s Rachael is resurrected from the first film and there has been conflicting reports about just how much of a role, if any, the notoriously outspoken, career-sabotaging Young actually played in the CGI-rendering of the character. Gosling is pitch perfect as the emotionless, clinical replicant who starts to question the nature of his own existence, while Jared Leto features in a role seemingly made for his particular brand of weirdness and the likes of Edward James Olmos and Barkhad Abdi also appear briefly.
Thankfully, Villeneuve has not set out to try and improve upon, replace or remake the original. He has made an entirely new piece that complements and enhances Ridley Scott’s first screen incarnation of Phillip Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Like Scott’s masterwork, Blade Runner 2049 muses on the nature of humanity and poses more questions than it answers. Philosophical and no doubt more accessible for those already familiar with this world, it doesn’t matter that this might fall marginally short of the impeccable standard of its predecessor, because Villeneuve has constructed a piece of art that that stands tall as a great film in its own right.