The moment that made me believe in Blade Runner 2049 as a worthy sci-fi sequel came roughly 10 minutes into the film. The sequel’s star, Ryan Gosling, plays a Blade Runner who is only identified by his serial number, KD3:6-7. We see the film open with a sweeping outdoor shot; we see K take on a Blade Runner assignment of killing a humanoid “Replicant;” and we see K fly back to central, permanently dark Los Angeles. It’s all solid stuff, and it catches viewers up to everything that has, and hasn’t, persisted from the original film.
But it’s this 10-minute-mark moment that stayed with me: K’s interrogation by a fellow LAPD officer. K sits alone in a plastic, bright-white room, where he’s robotically pummeled by questions and call-and-response prompts. “Cells,” the invisible voice sternly states. “Cells,” K parrots back. Rapid-fire questions and bizarre phrases come and go—”what it’s like to hold a child in your arms,” that sort of thing—and K stares ahead, not directly into the camera and not really at anything, until the questions stop.
In another modern sci-fi film, this scene might have been drenched in CGI effects, replete with computer-seeming UI and flashes illustrating just how technological this robotic back-and-forth is. It might have resembled the first film’s interrogations. And it might have been accompanied by a lengthy explanation. Blade Runner 2049 does none of these things. The interrogation room is shining, cold, and simple, and the sound and visual design focus squarely on K’s face—maybe human, maybe robotic, and maybe a little too much like our own experiences. This is just how things are.
Blade Runner 2049 arrives with monumental expectations attached, and it’s worth exploring how the film fits into the greater, hard sci-fi pantheon and how successful it is as a pure sequel to the critically acclaimed, famously polarizing original. But I left the thoughtful film’s press screening with my cup of expectations overflowing. Blade Runner 2049 values practical effects over CGI and emotional intensity over clear exposition, while taking clear steps away from the original.
I have already purchased a ticket to see this 2-hour, 33-minute film again.
Replicants, but not a replication
Should you be worried about spoilers, fear not: most Blade Runner 2049 press screenings, including ours, concluded with a list of plot points that critics have been asked not to mention.
Which is fine—there’s still plenty to discuss. BR2049 largely follows the character of K as he chases a case that, unsurprisingly, explores the humanity and autonomy of humans and robots alike. K’s Blade Running day job at the LAPD is to take out the remaining Replicants that survived a massive “blackout” event in the year 2022 (learn more about that in a wonderful, official short film from the anime studio that brought us Cowboy Bebop ). Humanoid robots were banned for a while, but now they’re made by a new company, Wallace Corp., and are designed to be far more docile.
K’s primary job in this film isn’t to chase a gang of rogue Replicants but to track down one single, incredibly elusive person. (And it might not be who you think.) This narrow yet vague plot premise does wonders for the film’s momentum, because it allows K and the many forces interested in his mission to juggle and argue over a variety of missions and philosophies. Some want to protect the masses from a potentially dangerous revelation. Others want to lead a new social movement.
Two characters in the film—Robin Wright as a lieutenant and Jared Leto as the creepy Niander Wallace—spell their intentions out in uncomfortably specific ways. Leto’s worst speech feels like it might have had a cheesy “mwahahaha” burst of laughter edited out. I mention this because these two moments are really the film’s only stilted bits of dialogue, and they both come front-loaded in the film to set the narrative stage. Otherwise, BR2049 has plenty in common with its forebear in terms of brief, expressive blasts of dialogue that ask more questions than they answer.
Gosling channels his cold, elusive performance from 2011’s Drive , but I love how BR2049 nimbly dances with any expectations of a robotic performance. What does—and doesn’t—make Officer K crack in both his personal and professional life, and what does that say about his identity and humanity? This plot-driven back-and-forth with humanity led fans to talk about Harrison Ford’s 1982 performance (and its Replicant-related ramifications) for decades, and, while Gosling’s take won’t do the same, it evokes that same breathtaking sensation.
Sylvia Hoeks nearly steals the whole show as Luv, Wallace’s right-hand robot, who doggedly pursues K. This is acting-as-a-robot done right, because everything she declares and executes is devoid of emotion or intent beyond following orders—and the film does a very good job avoiding musical swells or other melodramatic bursts when focusing on her efforts. She’s an ass-kicker, and she’s full of surprises; one particularly charged moment for Luv won’t soon be forgotten.
Speaking of music: the soundtrack avoids ill-fitting bursts of pop music or analog instruments in favor of rumbling, glitchy bursts of noise and evocative synthetic swells. The results often sound like war as heard through a building’s ceiling—ever-present, dangerous, and yet muffled enough to make it sound like danger is just a mile or two away. It’s incredible stuff.
The weakest cast link may be Ana de Armas as K’s artificial-intelligence girlfriend Joi, though that has more to do with her concept as a built-to-order manic pixie dreamgirl, the likes of which was already explored to incredible effect in the Spike Jonze film Her . (Ars’ staffers have wildly differing views on that film, but BR2049 certainly doesn’t do a better job exploring the emotional, sexual, and existential questions posed by AI-as-love-interest.) de Armas’ most “sexual” scene, on the other hand, is one of the more disturbing and captivating “safe-for-work” moments I’ve ever seen in a film, complete with some wild effects work.
Diving into Harrison Ford’s performance gets into particularly spoiler-y territory—I almost wish his reveal hadn’t been outed so early-on based on how the film plays out—but Ford’s return as Deckard feels more nuanced and substantive than any of his other decades-later returns to a beloved character.
Sci-fi vs. sci-fact
My biggest frustration came from BR2049 ‘s general silence about our future as a society. Blade Runner did an incredible job remarking on both the world of the ’80s and where Western society was likely heading, but BR2049 is very committed to continuing down the path that the original film set.
In many ways, this is fantastic news. The film’s dependence on practical effects, along with cold-and-plastic set and machine designs, is absolutely stunning. Even the film’s most dramatic example of CGI, in which a character manually and magically invents memories to be inserted into Wallace Corp.’s robots, looks simple and down to earth. The character in question could invent and design any memory… and she makes a quaint, beautifully lit birthday party.
Meanwhile, flying cars, explosions, and even computer interfaces continue to uphold the original film’s philosophy of “new things that already look old.” (I particularly liked a trackball device used to parse through myriad police records, along with a flea market outpost packed to the gills with ancient tech and tube TVs.) When BR2049 takes its characters to sweeping outdoor scenes or massive buildings, the results somehow look perfect for the Blade Runner universe. At one point, K is led into a massive Wallace Corp. archive in an orange-light-bathed chamber that looks like an Egyptian tomb as if built by IKEA. And instead of an iconic fight on top of rain-soaked rooftops, BR2049 takes us to a mesmerizing, brutal battle on an ocean shore. It’s lit solely by a few neon lights and is thick with gorgeous silhouettes—so, yes, this is how you take the claustrophobia of the original and crack its skies open.
The film’s aesthetic triumphs are particularly great for a film genre that has lost its way in recent years with cheap, corner-cutting CGI. It may be the most visually stunning film I’ve seen in years, in fact. But then I see BR2049 ‘s skyline, stuck in the original film’s universe of companies like Pan Am and Atari, and I watch events unfold that speak more to what already exists in Western society. Unseemly factory labor, drone warfare, an automatic “food just appears” economy, and always-on AI assistants are tops on BR2049 ‘s list of “what could be” topics, but none of those are new to Western society. One rant from Wallace only hints to a dystopian world of widespread automation without forcing us to face the potential reality of such a thing by way of some incredible film staging.
Instead, BR2049 takes more comfort in looking at life in 2017, as if to tell audiences, the original film already warned you that a robot-obsessed future and its related existential crises was coming. If the sequel’s creepy and dystopian moments look a little too familiar, maybe you should examine your current life, it says to viewers. And it does a fine job of that via showing, not telling. You won’t watch K explore his own humanity without doing the same yourself.
The results strike an interesting balance between science fiction and science fact, and while that may not be what you seek in a new Blade Runner , the new film’s cast and production team deserve all the credit in the world for pulling something truly new off in an existing universe without spoiling the original. Fans will likely have issues with how many questions and themes from the first film are mentioned, answered, teased, and outright ignored—but, oh, we’re forbidden from talking about those for now. Believe you me, we’ll be back to say more soon.
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