Though it eventually found its audience, Ridley Scott’s original Blade Runner never grew beyond a cult success. For a sequel to exist at all can be seen as a small miracle by audiences everywhere. That the sequel far surpasses the original in almost every aspect is a rarity. But for the film to be one of the most beautiful and perfect films ever made? Nothing could have prepared me for that.
From its first moments, Denis Villeneuve’s sequel draws on the franchise’s lineage. It sets itself apart. We’re treated to an opening crawl that explains the evolving role of replicants in this future society (which fills in the gaps, but like the rest of the film, assumes you saw the first), and then a beautiful shot of Ryan Gosling’s beautiful green eye, reminiscent of a number of shots from the original film. But then, an entirely new direction is taken. Rather than being treated to the neon-lit claustrophobia of Los Angeles, we follow our protagonist to a farm in the middle of nowhere. It’s here we meet our protagonist, Blade Runner Officer K (Gosling).
One of the most enduring artifacts of the original Blade Runner is the lingering debate over whether or not Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is a replicant. 2049 indulges in that debate, but there’s no ambiguity about Gosling’s character; this replicant hunter is a replicant, one of the newer models designed by the effortlessly creepy Niander Wallace (Jared Leto). He’s kept subservient to his Police Precinct with a ‘baseline test’, which keeps him from answering difficult questions, and lets him politely ignore the fact that everyone calls him a ‘skinjob’ and wants him off the planet. It’s an interesting dynamic; if the first film commented upon what it really means to be human, Villeneuve’s sequel builds on that by examining what it’s like to live in a society where you aren’t viewed as human, and taught to think that yourself.
There’s a few other interesting conceits about ‘humanity’ in this film, the least spoiler-heavy of which is Joi (Ana de Armas), K’s girlfriend, who is also a hologram. The effect is striking through its beauty; here are two non-human characters, bringing out true humanity in one another, showing more emotion than the bulk of the actual humans in the film. It’s actually shocking how touching it is. Joi is a product made for consumption (a corporate jingle announces her entrance in each scene), but so is K; it doesn’t make their bond any less real.
K’s blind subservience to his creators doesn’t last long. The replicant he retires at the beginning of the film tells him that he’s ‘never seen a miracle’, but he eventually does. Without wishing to reveal any significant plot details, K uncovers a secret that threatens the carefully crafted divide between humans and replicants, and his journey of discovery takes him everywhere from an orphanage, to the an abandoned wasteland of a city, to the man himself, Rick Deckard. Every moment is stunning; it takes its time without overstaying its welcome (even with an almost 3 hour runtime), it’s beautifully captured and framed, and set to a score that even puts the mighty Vangelis to shame.
It’s hard to explain why Blade Runner 2049 stands out without going into plot details, which is frustrating because it isn’t really even about the plot. Every bit of action in the film is tied to a grander, philosophical discussion, and watching the story play out feels like taking in a grand debate about any number of topics. Some might wonder why it takes so long to make its points, and others might lament the lack of stunning action pieces or a clear antagonist. But if you’re willing to let the film take you where it wants to take you, you will never find an ending more cathartic than Blade Runner 2049’s final moments. It’s important. It’s unique. It’s special. And it’s my new favourite film.