Warning: Spoilers ahead for Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049
Last year fans were treated to the release of Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049, the long-awaited sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi classic Blade Runner. Despite expectations being simultaneously high and tentative, as is the case with any major cinematic property prior to release, the film had a rock-solid director behind the camera, an impressive cast that included some from the original film, as well the return of Hampton Fancher and Ridley Scott to write and produce respectively.
There was every indication that it had the potential to be a sequel worthy of the heights set by the original which, somewhat paradoxically, served only to intensify the potential for bitter disappointment.
While the film did disappoint at the box office, critics and fans alike were able to breathe a collective sigh of relief at the finished product, as many agreed the film had exceeded expectations and then some, being labelled as an “instant classic” by a number of publications.
For the most part, I am inclined to agree. Yet, what is it that makes Blade Runner 2049 not just a great sequel, but one of the greatest of all time? In a word, I would say respect.
Blade Runner 2049 respects all that came before canonically, and everything that has happened in the film industry in the 30 years since the original’s release. In no way is this more evident than the management of Rachel’s character.
Sean Young, who played Rachel in the original Blade Runner, was a much sought-after actress in the 1970s and 1980s, but has since fallen from the graces of the Hollywood mainstream due to her erratic behaviour both on and off set. Thus, filmmakers sought to integrate her character without the need to bring Young back. The narrative concocted by the writers does just that, while still emphatically acknowledging her importance to the greater story being told by both films.
Additionally, the writers were unafraid to take events established in the original and construe the long-held perceptions of audiences, such as the first time Deckard met Rachel, which the villainous Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) suggests could have been “designed” in order to produce the first ever child born of a replicant. This simultaneously feeds into the mystery of whether Deckard is human or a replicant, which is a heated debate among fans that has been raging for years.
In fact, it is one of cinema’s great unanswered questions, something that the filmmakers were undoubtedly very much aware of, and chose not to truly resolve. There is considerable risk in choosing to maintain the mystery of Deckard’s existential status, but in hindsight, to explicitly address it would have betrayed one of the main themes that began in the original Blade Runner, and continued in 2049: what it is that defines meaningful, sentient existence. Maintaining the mystery of Deckard’s race consequently allows the film to then pose the question: if you cannot tell the difference between human and replicant, then what does it matter?
Blade Runner 2049 somehow manages the rare feat of seamlessly continuing the existential questions posed by the first film, whilst expanding them in a compellingly thought-provoking manner.
Where the film falls slightly short and eludes masterpiece status, though, is with several moving parts that noticeably lack wholesome solutions. I understand that it would do the story a disservice by granting a well-rounded happy ending that ties every thread into one tidy unified knot, as that is simply not the world these characters live in, but there are too many elements left hanging to be truly satisfactory.
For instance, after discovering that his existence lacked any unique purpose beyond bending to the will of humans, lead character K (Ryan Gosling) chooses to forge his own purpose by freeing Deckard from his captors, before reuniting him with his long-lost daughter. This is an indisputably touching, character-defining moment for K, but its unacknowledged ramifications leave a lot to be desired.
Enter Niander Wallace. He is certainly one of the most intriguing characters of the film, yet he is underutilised and too carelessly discarded to ignore. Remember, this is a man who has colonised 9 planets and saved the world from famine, proving he is a driven, hyper-intelligent, and consequently dangerous adversary. Suffice to say, this is simply not someone who would just passively presume the death of his closest companion Luv following K’s ambush, not to mention Deckard, who is the only hope he has of discovering the key to replicant procreation. I am not saying that such a loopholes ruins the film by any means, but it certainly dulls the edge of its conclusion, whilst neglecting an enthralling character that should have warranted more screen-time based off Leto’s magnetic performance alone.
This is all without mentioning the replicant resistance, who were very much on the peripheries of the story until they are thrown in near the end. Their presence comes across as more of a narrative buffer than an active element of the story, as they are quickly discarded when they’ve fulfilled their narrative purpose of saving K and connecting him to the final piece of its otherwise well-conceived puzzle.
Nonetheless, Blade Runner 2049 is a resounding achievement in filmmaking, from its multi-award-winning cinematography and special effects, to its direction, world building, and strong performances. The screenplay is outstanding too, even considering the issues I have previously pointed out. These elements only elevate what was already a solid foundation for something special, despite falling slightly short of masterpiece status. Possibly its most admirable trait, though, is that it is not a sequel for the sake of profit, but a sequel in the pursuit of an artistic vision, a vision that is wondrously realised.