First of all, I’d like to apologize for not having this review prepared in time for Blade Runner 2049‘s release. Sadly not all movies debut at the same time in all countries (well, not so sadly when I’ll get to watch Thor: Ragnarok a week earlier than most people stateside) thus I had to wait a week to finally watch one of my most anticipated films of 2017.
It was during this wait that two curious things happened. After falling short of its 50 million dollar expected debut, Blade Runner 2049 has already become the subject of numerous articles and videos describing it as “struggling” and “stumbling” labeling it a “flop” and a “box office failure.” While this seems ridiculous, especially considering how phenomenal the movie is and that its predecessor – now regarded as a seminal work of science fiction cinema and one of the most copied films of all time – met with a similarly unspectacular opening but far more divided reviews, big movie releases typically make the majority of their revenue in the first week with a huge drop off in the second, thus a 150 million dollar film opening to 45.4 domestic really is a bit of a failure. Mentioning this news to a group of friends the other day lead to the second curious thing as one of my friends was glad to hear of this “failure.” His argument was that Blade Runner 2049 flopping would prevent the film from growing into a franchise. In this sense, it could be argued, even Blade Runner 2049‘s failures are successful.
The original Blade Runner has become the stuff of cinema legend since its initial release in 1982. Itself an adaptation of a novel by Philip K. Dick, whose work has similarly grown in popularity and influence in the decades since release, the combination of a cult following, imitators, and numerous re-cuts have allowed Blade Runner (a deceptive but much better title than the original Do Androids Dream of Electronic Sheep) to live far, far longer than its initial release. Even rumors of a Blade Runner sequel have outlived entire franchises, growing louder as original director Ridley Scott circled back to the Alien films for sadly diminishing returns. Scott’s variance in quality (see The Martian but don’t see The Counselor or Alien: Covenant) made the idea of a second Blade Runner film a source of dread for many fans. For me, while I never grasped onto the original Blade Runner the way moviegoers and sci-fi fanatics of my dad’s generation did (my dad actually corrected me in a previous review that Blade Runner is his favorite of Ridley Scott’s films), it’s clearly a great movie. It was only after learning that Scott had handed the reins to Denis Villeneuve, and after seeing Arrival, another initial film release I missed only to have it become my favorite of last year, that Blade Runner 2049 became something I truly wanted to watch, and review, no matter how long it took to come out. Thus, in 2017, thirty-five years after the release and two years before the events of the first film, we finally have a continuation of the Blade Runner narrative.
Perhaps even more than a mere continuation, we have a demonstration of how science fiction cinema, or more accurately cinema as a whole, and audience expectation have changed in the decades since Rick Deckard first walked the gritty, neon-soaked streets of future Los Angeles. Opening on a sequence which simultaneously parallels and contrasts the original, 2049 wastes no time in establishing itself as existing in the same world after several years of technological and social development. Returning to Los Angeles, a synth-heavy score punctuates the holographic advertisements, now bolstered by computer-generated effects, cluttering the screen as K, Ryan Gosling, decidedly a replicant, is subjected to rapid-fire baseline questioning. The questioning itself is in many ways an encapsulation of the sequel’s relationship to the original as its quick, punctuated, at times harsh series of syllables comes off as the logical development of the brutal, emotive questions used years before. Further, where the original’s replicant test – a slow and tense affair with a direct focus and outlining ambiguity – represents the tone of the movie as a whole, this new baseline test – with its flashy verbiage surface while monitoring the entire being beneath – demonstrates the way that 2049 uses its modern effects to tell what may in fact be a more satisfying narrative. While bigger, louder, and less ponderous than the previous iteration, 2049, as exemplified by its replicant baseline test, captures the entirety of the story rather than spotlighting one part and letting the rest exist in shadow.
This of course isn’t to say that 2049 doesn’t have its own philosophical elements, only that they are delivered with a bit more clarity than they were in the earlier Blade Runner. If anything, the themes of 2049 may in fact be a little too obvious, along with several of its plot points, where its various parallels serve as clever but ubiquitous nudges toward the film’s ideas of what it means to be alive and what qualifies a being as “human.” Making who is and isn’t a replicant at the very start frees the narrative from having to cover ground already gained by the original, making 2049 a nice contrast to recent reboots and sequels which seem content to just retread the same territory covered years before. Although there are still plenty of callbacks to fulfill the nostalgic, Blade Runner 2049 doesn’t stare so firmly into the past that there’s no progress into the future. Rather it picks up further down the path of the first to navigate its own journey toward a new destination, balancing parallel and contrast the entire way along with a bevy of absolutely beautiful sights to behold. From the giant, brightly lit nude holograms which strut along the streets to the orange-hued emptiness of an irradiated wasteland, 2049 solidifies Villeneuve’s place as a director of exceptional visual storytelling prowess. What’s more, the weaving of philosophy and action, the subtle bits of artistic exploration, the elegance of the framing, and the way the pacing offers no drag during its two hour and forty minute runtime, makes Villeneuve the logical furthering and development of Scott himself. As with the new model of replicants, Villeneuve and 2049 aren’t replacements of Scott and Blade Runner, but the next step in their refinement and evolution. 2049 may not be the revolution-in-the-making that Blade Runner was, it may not even be remembered for a quarter of the time, but it is a great achievement in itself, and so much more than a soulless facsimile. Where Blade Runner was ahead of its time, Blade Runner 2049 is firmly of its time.
This is perhaps one of Blade Runner 2049‘s few problems. In addition to a film being declared a flop after only one week, a constant frustration of modern filmmaking is an over-reliance on attention-grabbing trailers which give away too much of the story (likely to drive those first weekend revenues). Harrison Ford‘s presence in the advertizing of 2049 means that the audience spends the entire time knowing that Deckard, who we’re told had disappeared, will show up. If this had been left unknown than perhaps the narrative twists and turns would have more force rather than feel like delaying the inevitable. If Ford/Deckard’s presence had been left in question then there would have at least been some mystery, not to mention that his presence destroys the multi-ending ambiguity which built much of Blade Runner‘s legacy. As well, although the music of the film furthers the elaboration and development of the original, the chanting, synthesizers, and laser effects are as often overwhelming as they are beautiful.
While those who have strong memories of time before Blade Runner was a landmark of scifi cinema may not enjoy seeing this work changed into something a bit flashier, a bit clearer, and a bit less film noir than the original, or how its director has diminished, Blade Runner 2049 is a tremendous piece of work from a director whose own legend is still solidifying. At this point, Villeneuve is what Scott had once been: a must-watch filmmaker who trades on depth and deftness rather than style alone. Yet perhaps the greatest testament to Blade Runner 2049‘s strength is that even if you haven’t seen the original in years (for me, probably around twenty, since I didn’t have to rewatch it) you know exactly where you are, where you’ve been, and wonder where you’re going. Thirty-five years after the original, Blade Runner 2049 does exactly what a sequel should. It’s a continuation, a furthering and refinement, rather than a retread or a copy. It is the new model building off the old. This “flop” may mean we have to wait another thirty-five years for another generation of filmmakers to return to the world of Blade Runner, but at least we’ll never see that world diminished by rushed, oversaturated projects (unlike Philip K. Dick adaptations overall). In this case “flop” doesn’t mean the film has failed to connect with the audience, but that the audience has failed itself.