When Blade Runner debuted in 1982, it underperformed in the US and polarized critics. Director Ridley Scott had done two films at that point – the Napoleonic War story, The Duelists, followed by the seminal sci-fi film Alien. Based on Alien, hopes for Blade Runner were stratospheric, but people weren’t ready for a dystopian film noir loosely based on Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” It was the first film adaptation of Dick’s work, who died of a heart attack at age 53 a couple months before the film’s release. Since then, Blade Runner has been accepted as one of the greatest science fiction films of all time. Philip K. Dick’s work has been adapted multiple times for the big screen (Total Recall, Imposter, Minority Report, A Scanner Darkly, The Adjustment Bureau) and Amazon, who has a hit with their version of Dick’s “The Man in the High Castle,” will shortly premiere “Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams,” based on the author’s short stories. Meanwhile, Ridley Scott has become an entertainment conglomerate.
Now, 35 years after the original, comes the sequel Blade Runner 2049, which picks up 30 years after the first film. The years haven’t been kind to the world, or to the Tyrell Corporation that created the original Replicants. After the rebellions of the Nexus Series 6 through 8 replicants, the corporation went bankrupt. An event called the Blackout wiped almost every digital record in 2022; only partial files remain from before that time. The world’s ecosystems collapsed causing a massive famine that swept the Earth. It was solved when Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) invented synthetic farming. That made him a wealthy man, allowing him to absorb the Tyrell Corporation and introduce the Nexus-9 replicants.
The return of the corporation meant an expansion of the Blade Runner program to control the replicants, though now Nexus-9s are used for that purpose. Officer K (Ryan Gosling) is one such Nexus-9, working under Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright). He lives in a poor section of LA, which is now surrounded by a dike system because of the rising waters following the melting of the ice caps. K’s only companion is a holographic program called Joi (Ana de Armas).
When K comes to “retire” an older model Nexus (Dave Bautista) on a protein farm outside the city, he discovers a crate hidden beneath a dead tree. It contains bones of a female with marks that suggest she died during a C-Section delivery. The bones are also marked with a serial number; the woman was a replicant. Joshi is shocked since replicants weren’t supposed to be able to have children; it could cause the line between human and replicant to be obliterated if this became known. She orders the evidence destroyed and tasks K with finding the replicant child and retiring it. K begins his search by heading for the old Tyrell building to find out what he can about the replicant with the serial number on the bones. Wallace’s replicant assistant, Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), leads K to a partial audio file of the female replicant. When it’s played, we hear the voice of Rachel (Sean Young) being questioned by Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) 30 years earlier.
French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve is in somewhat the same position as Ridley Scott was when he made the original Blade Runner. In the last four years Villeneuve has made several stunning films: Prisoners, Sicario, and one of my favorite films of last year, Arrival. He is a strong visual stylist like Scott who works every single shot with a perfectionist’s eye. While the images of 2049 blend with the original, he also makes use of angles so that streets and reception desks seem to run to a vanishing point. The neon and building-size screens of the original are now expanded to 3D holographs. It’s like the director has stretched the original to cover a wider canvas.
Gosling gives a restrained, interior performance as K that makes the impact powerful as he goes deeper into the mystery. Wright, Leto, and Ford are effective in their roles, but the movie is stolen by Ana de Armas and Sylvia Hoeks. De Armas was born and raised in Cuba, but moved to Spain to pursue acting. She’s had supporting roles in the Roberto Duran biopic Hands of Stone and the comedy War Dogs, but here she gives a luminous performance as Joi, a hologram who is the most human character in the film. On the opposite side is the Dutch Hoeks, who was an Elite model in her teens before attending the Maastricht Theater Academy. She’d become a leading actress in Europe before taking the role of the beautiful but thoroughly ruthless Luv in her first Hollywood film.
Villeneuve matches the pacing of the original, which here means the film runs for two and three-quarters hours. With the slam-bam pace of most movies 2049 may seem slow to some, but here it’s Villeneuve giving the audience time to breathe and process the story as the mystery is peeled away layer by layer.
When Blade Runner 2049 was released a few weeks ago, it underperformed in the US and polarized critics. Some were put off by the pace while others felt it was more a paean to the original rather than a movie that stood on its own. But 2049 gets into your head and keeps rolling around in there as you consider the implications of the story. This also may be a movie that grows in stature as we move farther into the future.