ONE: Blade Runner 2049 is immersive science-fiction at its finest. Director Denis Villeneuve builds a future that is meticulously crafted around a culture and history that has texture. There is shared backstory, communal interests, thematic resonance. All of which aids in building LA in 2049, but doesn’t overwhelm audiences. Technologies exist that are wondrous and imaginative; buildings and vehicles inhabit a version of Los Angeles that contains decay and vigor in equal measure.
While it is big, and beautiful, and fantastically executed, Blade Runner 2049 is not particularly bold. It’s story is moving, but familiar. It’s heroes are expressive, but also familiar. Still, it felt real, in part, because the runtime (2 hours 45 minutes) allows Villeneuve the time to be patient. That patience pays off.
TWO: Blade Runner is set in Los Angeles, in 2049. In this Los Angeles, all the rich people have gone to live off-world, and all the poor folks and sick folks and administrative folks are left behind to operate a city in decline. And yet, Villeneuve’s Los Angeles, is remarkably white. Glaringly so.
The real Los Angeles, in 2017 is only 29% white. Yes, it’s true that Blade Runner is set in a fictional version of LA. But audiences are invited to overlay the real Los Angeles onto the fictional version presented in the film. If we were not invited to do so, then Villeneuve would have set his movie in some other city, real or imagined. But he didn’t. He set it in LA and he made that LA very, very white. There are actors of color in the film–a prostitute with one line, a man using child labor recover goods from scrap heaps–but far too few, and in no major roles. The flavors of the city are white, and the power is white, and the actors in every consequential role are white.
That’s not just reflective of an industry problem (it is, and a huge one), but in this case, it’s also a failure at the story level. What happened to the city’s majority Latino population? Like, for real? With one notable exception (one that felt unnatural, I’ll add) there were no Latino citizens populating the world of Blade Runner 2049.
But Jared Leto does wear a kimono, so…(I hope that’s not a spoiler from Denis’ list).
THREE: Blade Runner 2049 is perhaps the loudest movie I’ve ever seen. This is not a compliment. At times the movie felt so loud as to be distracting and annoying. That’s not good.
FOUR: I’ve found Ryan Gosling an actor of little excitement over the past few years. His drift into Nicolas Winding Refn style of intensity exuding silent seriousness has given most of his work since drive a surface level obsession that has made even his goofy or lighthearted roles feel shallow. Gone has been the quirky Gosling of Lars and the Real Girl, the emotional Gosling of Blue Valentine. Instead, we’ve been left with is the blankness of Only God Forgives or the blandness of La La Land.
But such is not the case with Blade Runner 2049. Here, Villeneuve gets Gosling to embrace his silent serious phase, but adds rich and complex interior journey that forces the actor to do more. And, perhaps most critically, Blade Runner gives Gosling the time to mine the changes his character undergoes. He does fantastic work with the role.
FIVE: And, finally, Blade Runner 2049 is better than it’s originator.
This is in part because the reputation of the original Blade Runner has been vastly overinflated, and in part a testament to the achievement of Villeneuve.
Ridley Scott’s achievement in Blade Runner is not nominal. Scott created a visual style that combined hard science-fiction with film noir and a dark futuristic aesthetic that is emulated (too much, frankly) to this day. He also, it should be noted, fronted a Latino actor in his film (Edward James Olmos), and created a vibrant, kinetic, and highly diverse version of Los Angeles in 2019. It’s too bad Villenueve didn’t do the same.
But what Scott wasn’t able to do is inhabit his visual world with a empathetic human story. 2049 does just that. The reason we have stories like Blade Runner is to mine the philosophical and existential underpinnings of what it means to be a human being. To find out why we are alive, what animates human behavior, emotion, love, hate, violence. Ridley Scott poked at this questions in interesting and satisfying ways, but he never found a way to crawl underneath them and truly explore the consequences of replicants and humans and what it would mean for Deckard to be one thing or another.
That digging is what Blade Runner 2049 does best. It uses story and image to contextualize, deconstruct, and undermine what it means to be a human, what it means to be other than human, and what the consequences of either identity might mean. The slow moving cameras, the gigantic structures, the empty and dead earth, the washed out colors, the dark and misty sets, the dead-eyed humans, the hungry replicants, the lonely holographic partners, the technological solutions to isolation that are only make the user sad and lonely, the light, the dark, the real, the unreal.
Stories like this have animated storytellers since the beginning of stories. In Greek mythology, Talos was a giant built from metal to walk the perimeter of Crete; he wasn’t human but he was something, and he protected humanity from outside forces. Pinnochio wasn’t human; he was made by a master, but sought to be a real boy. Alice lost her head in the upside down world of wonderland; her visit was compelling, sure, but all she wanted only to return to what she was. We’ve traveled through time and space in endless stories searching what it means to be human, and what it means to lose our humanity, what it means to share it. These are questions Denis Villeneuve asks in Blade Runner 2049, and in his nearly three hours of crawling, wandering science-fiction, he finds something.
–Christopher Zumski Finke