I have a long history with the original Blade Runner. I first saw it when I was seven-years-old, I think. Harrison Ford was on the cover, it looked futuristic and cool, in an action-packed sci-fi sort of way, given the, I don’t know, “space pistol” he was holding. Blade Runner, it turns out, is not appropriate for children. Not because of the violence, sex and nudity (though for some that may be a valid reason), but because it is a slow, ponderous movie that is more concerned with the philosophical notion of humanity than with action.
I’ve seen Blade Runner maybe about a dozen times—including the theatrical version, the director’s cut and the “final” cut. I understand Blade Runner is a masterpiece, and while I do like it, it’s just something that resonates with my on any sort of personal level. I can ooh and ah over the visuals, which are no doubt incredible. The movie spawned countless imitations. I know the history of the film pretty extensively. I just don’t really give a shit about it.
And when the 35-years-later sequel was announced, everyone assumed I loved the original. Because the original is a masterpiece. I kept hearing, “What do you think of this new one coming out? Do you think Denis Villeneuve can do Ridley Scott justice?” When I finally saw Blade Runner 2049 I felt like I was fulfilling a prophecy I wasn’t particularly jazzed for.
This is going to sound like a hot take, but I assure you it’s not: As a matter of personal preference, I liked Blade Runner 2049 better than its predecessor. I’m not about to claim technical, official superiority for it over the original. But, in terms of what I likes, I likes the sequel better. It is a long, long movie (damn near three hours), but never feels bloated. It’s a lean movie that allows enough time to cherish the wonderful cinematography and real, actual set design. It makes a huge difference to not see actors reacting against a green screen and computer animated imagery.
The plot of Blade Runner takes place decades after the original where “replicants”, artificial humans, are no longer outlawed because they have been perfected in order to offer slavish dedication to their human masters. The problem with the original models, such as in the original film, was that they gained sentience and rebelled. Ryan Gosling plays “K” a replicant blade runner who is tasked with hunting down the previous, rebellious models of replicant and destroying them.
K comes across a problem, though, when he finds that the older models of replicant are apparently now capable of sexual reproduction, which no longer makes them creations, in a sort of theological sense, since they are now able to be birthed. Does that mean that they now have souls? Like many movies, Blade Runner 2049 questions what it means to be human, but does so with such an elegant set-up.
The world of Blade Runner 2049 is a unique-looking one, combining lavish new visuals with archaic technology, creating a vision of the future that looks as ancient as it does advanced. The ruins of Las Vegas looks like the ruins of Egypt. The hieroglyphics, instead, are holograms of Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley, crooning to an audience that’s been dead for a very long time.
If I have a problem with the new Blade Runner, it’s the same problem I have with the original: That the characters don’t feel real. The dialogue is good, the acting is great, but no one has any depth to them. I’m sure that’s the point, but just because something is the point, it doesn’t make a flaw vanish. Part of the filmmaking process is to create characters an audience can relate to, so that when something happens, if we don’t want to see them hurt, it creates tension and thrills. If we don’t care about the characters, we don’t care what happens.
My problem, though, is a minor one. Blade Runner 2049 does have a heart. It does care about its characters, it’s just that the characters who populate its action are sometimes a bit too thinly drawn. All we learn of K is that he’s… in love with a hologram? Maybe?
Every element of filmmaking that went into Blade Runner 2049 is top-tier. The score is incredible—I want it to follow me around wherever I go. Roger Deakins is one of the greatest cinematographers alive (and he’s never won an Oscar), and he shows that off here in full, rich detail. The sets all deserve their own movies. The special effects combine traditional prop design with CGI so well that this is the movie people should study when it comes to making effects-driven pictures.
It’s a shame that Blade Runner 2049 is going to follow in the original’s footsteps and be a box office flop. The studio must have known that, I hope, because it’s hard to imagine a blockbuster event for such a long, contemplative, strange and beautiful movie. I just hope that Warner Bros. doesn’t double down on stupid money-makers because sometimes you have to risk money for the sake of art. Blade Runner 2049 may not be a financial success, but it’s one of the best movies of the year.