In 1982, director Ridley Scott released a new science fiction film known as Blade Runner. Telling the tale of Rick Deckard, a futuristic cop who hunts down rogue bioengineered humans known as replicants, the film mixed together a film noir narrative with a bleak vision of a dystopian future. The movie had underperformed when it first came out but has since grown to be regarded as one of the finest science fiction films made. Its striking visuals, along with a story that explored the line between man and machine, have made the movie a landmark in the field of cyberpunk and served as an influence in later works. In fact, the anime series Ghost in the Shell, the video game franchise Deus Ex, and the updated reimagining of Battlestar Galactica all have their roots in Blade Runner. The idea of doing a sequel to such an impactful film, much less a sequel made thirty-five years after the original, would seem a dangerous gamble. Of course, the director this time is Denis Villeneuve, a newer director who has already proven his capable talents with films such as Sicario and Arrival. Now, with the hotly anticipated Blade Runner 2049, Villeneuve manages to pull off making a great sequel that expands upon the world of the original film.
Once, replicants (a race of bioengineered humans designed for off-world work, effectively a slave race) were prohibited from Earth when their fight for rebellion and their own freedom hit a breaking point. Now, in the year 2049, replicants have become legal once more and integrated into Earth society, though the newer models have been made to be more subservient than past creations. One such replicant is K, an officer for the LAPD who works as a “blade runner”, hunting down older replicant models that are still on the run. During one such mission, he discovers evidence of a powerful secret that could upset the relationship between human and replicant. His boss sends him out to destroy all evidence of this secret, afraid of what would happen to society if someone found out. Of course, there are those who seek to learn this secret, such as Niander Wallace, a powerful corporate figure whose company is currently responsible for replicant production. As the clues begin to emerge and Wallace’s agents threaten to claim the secret, K finds the evidence pointing him towards a key figure: Rick Deckard, a former blade runner who has gone into hiding.
Blade Runner 2049 is a great follow-up to a classic piece of sci-fi cinema. It helps to have good performances, and the actors here work hard with the great material they are given in the script. In particular, Ryan Gosling works well as K, presenting an understated exterior that fits his manufactured origins but hides a depth of consideration. More than that, the film manages to pick up the look and feel of the original quite naturally and even build upon it. For instance, the original film captured a strong film noir vibe with the use of a limited color palette and plenty of shadows around its dystopian Los Angeles. Though the same dystopian LA shimmers with bright holograms standing out in the city’s deathly green, new locales offer a sharp punch with a similar visual style. From the dark grays across the junkyard-like remains of San Diego to the burning bright orange of a once irradiated Las Vegas, the familiar technique is used in a way that also helps to expand the film’s world by revealing the states of these once familiar cities. More than just recapturing the visual aesthetic, this movie also finds its own approaches in exploring the issue of what makes humanity.
In Blade Runner, Rick Deckard had made his living by hunting down replicants. They looked human and wanted their freedom instead of being doomed to a life as slaves, yet the fact that they were created by a company is enough for people to see them as “other” and as nothing more than a machine. The film used that to explore the line between man and machine by exploring the morality of hunting down beings that are virtually human. For Blade Runner 2049, they explore this point from the angle of a replicant protagonist. Even if replicants are now integrated into society, K is still treated as lesser and called a “skinjob” by those who see him as a machine. Indeed, he would seem to be like a machine considering how much his replicant model was designed to be subservient to humans. However, there is a humanity lurking in him, displayed through moments like his romance with a holographic AI system named Joi. That sense of humanity grows over the course of his investigation, his knowledge of the grand secret causing him to reexamine the world around him and the state of human and replicant relations. His own empathy beyond the current structure grows. Indeed, his own empathy for the beings he is hired to kill grows more than some humans who see them as just slaves. He just might be more human than human, one might say.
Blade Runner is an influential piece of science fiction, and it would seem bold to attempt a sequel to such a seminal work. However, Blade Runner 2049 manages to pull off being a good sequel that captures the feel of the original while exploring its key themes in its own way.