When Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 was released this Fall, many were surprised that it did not meet box office expectations. Nor did it’s father, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982). Having seen the original on its opening weekend, I’m among those who witnessed its initial weak box office evolve into a cult phenomena. John Carpenter’s The Thing, released the same year as Blade Runner, also took off slow amidst lukewarm reviews, yet both became examples of visionary science fiction, joining a small cluster of classic films from the last half century that includes Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), Alien (1979), E.T. (1982), Videodrome (1983), Back to the Future (1985), The Fly (1986), A.I.(2001), Minority Report (2002), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mine (2004), Children of Men (2006), and Prometheus (2012) (and of course a few others). Like Steven Spielberg’s aforementioned Close Encounters, competing edits of Scott’s Blade Runner (my advice: go with “The Final Cut”) didn’t hinder its eventual cult status.
Based on Philip K. Dick’s novel “Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?,” the iconographic texture of Blade Runner was apparent mere moments into its release, despite the awkwardness of the silly studio-mandated Phillip Marlowe narration (supplied by star Harrison Ford as Deckard) and a happy ending that was woefully unconvincing for a film that practically defined dystopian noir. Thankfully, Scott was able to restore the film and added to it considerable by omitting those executive errors (while excising five minutes).
With his “Final Cut,” Scott cemented Blade Runner as his second (and greatest) of three unquestionable science fiction classics (the first being Alien and third being its belated prequel Prometheus—which of course will provoke futile debate). The cast is uniformly excellent. Despite its initial weak box office performance, Blade Runner made a brief star of antagonist Rutger Hauer, whose characterization of the replicant Roy is far more haunting and aptly hammy than its source material. The same could be said for Sean Young; she’s magnetic as Rachel, in her chic 2019 Joan Crawford shoulder pads and Louise Brooks-inspired bob, diaphanously exhaling a smoky-treat. Darryl Hannah as Pris (with lethal thighs), Brion James as Leon, and the eternally underrated Joanna Cassidy as the snake-wielding Zhora make a trio of memorable replicant villains, more poignantly human than most of the humans. Apart from Ford’s Deckard, who—as has been noted and debated endlessly—is possibly a replicant himself, the human exceptions are Joe Turkell as doomed Dr. Tyrell and William Sanderson as the pathos-ridden toymaker Sebastien. Both remain etched in the memory.
There’s little need to rehash Blade Runner’s plot or dive into the polemics it has inspired (i.e. the significance of the origami unicorn). What we can assuredly agree upon is that it is an innovative production of its time—MTV does German Expressionism and John Houston—brilliantly doused in social commentary on the 80s Reagan-era materialism (EROTIC COCA-COLA… ’nuff said).
Production designer Laurence Paull’s smokey, rain-drenched metropolis-as-Gehenna set design is still startling, as are the chromed-neon FX and stirring score by Vangelis, which ranks among this composer’s most accomplished work. (Surprisingly, the full score has never been officially released on CD and its marketing history is as checkered as that of the film itself). Yet, despite good work by all, Blade Runner stands as the eloquent masterwork of both director Scott and star Ford, neither of whom have ever been better. Dick was reportedly thrilled with the script, but unfortunately did not live to see the film, dying shortly before its completion. Blade Runnerrightly became one of the most influential, iconic films of the last half century. Dick couldn’t have asked for a more perfect homage.
So Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 has proverbial big shoes to fill, and damn near does. Narratively and visually, it is the work of a consummate artisan. The initial setup echoes its predecessor with the inevitably quirky twist. The impeccably cast Ryan Gosling is LAPD officer K, or rather Joe K (an opaque reference to Franz Kafka’s Joseph K): a 2049 updated replicant commissioned to take out older, faulty replicant models. Gosling’s Kafaesque performance fits the robot K like a second skin. His intensity in quiet moments contrasts expressionistically with his phlegmatic approach to violence, which we see in the opening when he takes out one such “outdated” model: Sapper Morton (the impressive Dave Bautista, who, in contrast, evokes pathos and irony in the midst of survival mode). A startling discovery is made on Morton’s property, which could fatally undermine the structure of this artificial Fourth Reich held together by a replicant slave labor force.
Yes, there are remnants of the Delphian world we departed in 1982, but it is also unfamiliar terrain, awash in rusted cerulean blues, courtesy of ethereal production design of Dennis Gassner and enhanced immeasurably by the typically spotless lensing of legend-in-his-own-time Roger Deakins (who, echoing colleague Richard Propes, I believe most assuredly will take home the Oscar). The original’s screenplay author Hampton Fancher returns, and refreshingly doesn’t overwrite (a blessing after one too many Christopher Nolan experiences). As before, Fancher produces an epic that feels refreshingly intimate; a blessing after spectacles like Rogue One.
Scientist-with-God-complex Niander Wallace ( Jared Leto) has assumed control of the bankrupt Tyrell Corporation, and is now obsessed with the secret of the discovery found on Morton’s estate. Assisting him is devoted replicant Luv (Sylvia Hoeks, who steals every scene she’s in). Enter K, a cyborg Phillip Marlowe by way of Kafka. His extended family includes enigmatic employer Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright) and doe-eyed protective hologram GF, the redolent Joi (Ana de Armas) who, like David from A.I., would be so much happier if she could only be real.
As trailers revealed, K’s quest leads him to Deckard, found in a ghostly Vegas ghost casino, entertaining himself with holograms of Sinatra and Elvis. He has an extremely creepy shaggy dog for company (the dog doesn’t do anything creepy. He’s just filmed that way).
Sean Young makes a cameo (albeit with digital botox) as does Edward James Olmos, who, along with Ford, is allowed to age (they’re males, after all). The grizzled Ford magnetically expands on his original role, like the film itself.
It’s not flawless. It could have used some shaving. Hans Zimmer can’t hold a candle to Vangelis. Leto can’t hold a candle to anyone, let alone Hoeks. Occasionally, 2049 plays it safe. But these are mere quibbles. It’s a rarity in being a damned fine sequel; visually, narratively, and in most of the performances. How often do we get to say that?