‘Blade Runner 2049’ Bold, Breathtaking, and Beautiful

Dir. Denis Villeneuve—5 Stars

It would be kind to say that Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” was released to mixed reviews back in 1982. The film was not only a critical flop, with people complaining about its slow pace and thin plot, but also a box office misfire. Although over the decades the cyberpunk thriller has achieved the status of a cult classic, it is still odd to think that 35 years later, we would be getting a $150 million R-rated sequel to a film that people didn’t even like. Yet here we are. “Blade Runner 2049” has arrived, and it’s amazing in every way.

Picking up 30 years after the original, “2049” follows LAPD Officer K (Ryan Gosling), a blade runner whose job is to kill bioengineered androids made to resemble humans, referred to as replicants. As he follows a mysterious case that could determine the fate of the world, he is eventually led to Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), the protagonist of the first film.

“2049” does exactly what a sequel should do. While it is very clear that director Denis Villeneuve is a massive fan of the original, “2049” tells a very different type of story while still keeping the DNA of the first film. Whereas “Blade Runner” was a sci-fi drama thriller, “2049” takes the form of a detective tale. Villeneuve doesn’t simply rehash what Ridley Scott perfected in the first one. Instead, he adopts a different visual style, expands the world, and takes deeper explorations of both old and new themes. The result is a film that is not a carbon copy of the original.

Unlike Scott’s film, which was primarily about the human nature of replicants and less so about Deckard, “2049” is first and foremost a character-driven film about K and Deckard. Both blade runners are given deep characterizations, allowing audiences to be emotionally connected to the film, and it is through their eyes that they discover the film’s thematic depth. Villeneuve revisits the theme of humanity, but also explores it on another level by introducing the theme of identity. Do we create our own identities, or are they given to us? Can we ever break free from our identities? These powerful ideas serve to make the film incredibly human, but in a different way than the first one was.

One of the best things about “2049” is its scope—it takes place throughout the larger “Blade Runner” universe rather than just in the first one’s dystopian Los Angeles. The rainy, crowded, blue and neon Californian city is still present, but it’s accompanied by the post-apocalyptic orange of Las Vegas and the chilly white of San Diego, among other locations. At times, however, it feels like Villeneuve visits so many magnificent new locations that one wishes he gave more time to the cyberpunk Los Angeles that was so memorable from the first film.

Still, Villeneuve’s direction is bold and thoughtful, and his confidence in his vision is made clear by the film’s length—“2049” is a nearly three-hour-long epic that takes its time to tell its story, but it doesn’t feel unnecessarily long. Rather, it is incredibly dense but never overcrowded, as Villeneuve gives the audience plenty of time to breathe and process everything that is presented to them. Villeneuve also understands that “2049” needs to be one cohesive film rather than a film merely setting up a future franchise. “2049” does a lot to build the “Blade Runner” world, but it still tells one complete story that properly concludes, while hinting at potential future stories to come.

Even more impressive than Villeneuve’s assured direction is the cinematography by the legendary Roger Deakins. Deakins creates a unique and immersive atmosphere with both grandeur and intimacy—long and steady wide shots of beautiful landscapes allow the audience to soak in the richness of the world, while close-ups of various details such as fallen statues and buzzing bees create a sense of presence. Every shot looks like a masterfully crafted painting, with perfect lighting, potent colors, and exquisite framing. It will be no surprise if the 13-time Oscar nominee finally wins the award for his work on “2049,” although he doesn’t need it to prove his mastery.

All the cast members give excellent performances. However, the real standouts here are Harrison Ford and Sylvia Hoeks. Ford delivers some of his best work yet with an incredibly emotional performance, while Hoeks, playing one of the film’s villains, is suitably chilly and terrifying, as if she could unhinge herself at any moment.

Composers Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch also deliver a surprisingly satisfying score. These composers understand the genius and significance of Vangelis’ revolutionary score from the original, but also that this new story requires different music. The music from the film is very consistent with the style of the first film’s while still feeling fresh. It is instantly recognizable as something from the “Blade Runner” universe, despite consisting almost entirely of new themes.

“Blade Runner 2049” is an ambitious, beautiful, and powerful film. It is hard to think that anything could even compare to the original “Blade Runner,” yet Villeneuve and team have pulled off this impossible task. “2049” is an arthouse film as much as it is a blockbuster. As such, it offers something for everybody. Go out to the theater and see this on the biggest screen possible. Hollywood doesn’t make blockbusters like this anymore, and it is uncertain how long we will need to wait till another “2049.”

—Staff writer Jeffrey Liu can be reached at jeffrey.liu@thecrimson.com.

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