Spoiler-free, for your protection!
I never wanted to like Blade Runner 2049, for the simple reason that I didn't feel the original needed one.
Let the record clearly show that I'm a huge fan of Blade Runner, having snuck into the theater to see it when I was but 15. Within a handful of months I'd purchased the 'making of' magazine, the Marvel comic adaptation (with way more backstory, it turns out!), and even written a set of rules for playing out replicant hunting adventures in TSR's old espionage RPG, Top Secret. I watched my VHS copy more times that I can count, and likewise for the Director's and Final Cut. Hell, there are a staggering seven different versions of Blade Runner already out there, so it is fair to say that the ground has been well and fully trod upon, right?
Enter Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, to chart fresh new ground. Fresh off the critical and audience acclaim from last year's Arrival, and another outspoken fan of the original. He shares my affection for both the theatrical and director's cuts of the film, and has spoken of the tension existing between the two versions as being a source of power and inspiration. Where the original film asks the viewer "What does it mean to be human?", Villeneuve's Blade Runner 2049 seems to ask "Where is the humanity in a society propped up by slaves?"
It is almost impossible to talk about the plot without divulging some absolutely wonderful and occasionally stunning surprises, so I'm afraid that's off the table. I will tell you that the cast is a splendid mix of new and established faces, and Ryan Gosling conveys a tremendous amount of thought and emotion despite having a fairly taciturn role and a lot of screentime to himself.
Visually, the movie is nothing short of amazing, and I am so glad I took Earl's advice to see it in IMAX. The production design perfectly emulates the cyberpunk look the first film practically invented with its mix of high tech and low-brow. A welcome return to model-based effects, and very little in the way of discernible CGI.
Nearly every prop has some sort of design element reflective of the future, from the variety vehicles, both ground and air, to an automat-style diner that probably wouldn't look too out of place in the Ginza today, except perhaps for the pervasive and provocative holographic ads.
Frequent Coen collaborator Roger Deakins handled the cinematography, and does his usual amazing work. His use of light and shadow are right up to par with what we saw 35 years ago under Ridley Scott and Jordan Cronenweth, but he trades in a portion of the overall noir look of the original for something with more variety (i.e. the occasional brightly lit room) and nuanced, and at times, almost painfully colourful.
Most important though, is probably the tone. Hampton Fancher's screenplay, which is what compelled both Villenuve and Harrison Ford to take part, makes it easy to believe that the derelict Los Angeles of 2019 was a real place, with real inhabitants, and a history that kept on going after the elevator doors closed on Deckard and Rachel three decades previous. The present story doesn't need to connect to the past, at least not initially, and when it does, that tone is both appropriate and respectful.
In terms of literal tones, Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch wrap themselves in the electronic sounds of Vangelis, but aren't afraid to make them louder, angrier and more dissonant in places. This is remarkably effective in both ratcheting up the tension and reminding you of just how much eerier Blade Runner's opening scenes were because of them.
On top of all this though, we are treated to some big science-fiction ideas, the kind where you are given a beat to realize, whoa, if that's the case, then...the world is gonna change. Between Arrival and this film, we may well be turning the corner on seeing more gorgeous looking, well written and acted sci-fi with some real meat on it.
Or maybe not.
In case you couldn't tell, I quite enjoyed Blade Runner 2049, and I advise everyone who likes a bit of though behind their sci-fi, or those who like fully imagined visions of the future (I should probably say a future- at one point you see a holo-ad of a ballerina with the caption "CCCP - Happy Soviet") to go and see it, preferably in IMAX, and without delay. Or even if you just appreciate a sumptuously visual and imaginative take on the detective genre, which is just one more way BR 2049 emulates its forebear.
But there is also no denying that it is a long film, clocking in at 2:43. It sure didn't feel like that to me (or my two teenaged daughters, for that matter), but that may be asking a lot of the modern movie-going audience. The complexity of the story, both in plot and morality, has Wired magazine asking if audiences are too lazy to appreciate it.
It's no secret that a relatively weak box office in the face of an enormous production budget means that financially, Blade Runner 2049 may end up classified as a flop. And if that happens, well, that will make for pretty tough sleddin' for the next director who pitches a thoughtful, detailed and languid film that takes time to explore its theme instead of just delivering the next summer tentpole or special effects spectacle.
On the other hand though, maybe it will end up being a sleeper, like its predecessor. The plot that I have taken such cares to step away from, is certain to generate conversation, as is the patina of ambiguity the viewer carries away from the theater. As the author Daniel H. Wilson says in that same Wired article, "If your friend hasn’t seen it, well then they damn well better go see it, so that you can talk about it, because I’ve got things I need to talk about,” he says. “That is how this virus spreads.”
If you haven't already seen Blade Runner 2049, I hope you take steps to do so, and soon - we still have a lot to talk about.