When I heard that Blade Runner was getting a sequel, like many others, my initial reaction was something like, “Why? Why now? Why ruin the legacy of this film now?” Such is my skepticism towards Hollywood greed and misunderstanding of the entertainment needs of American viewers. But when I heard Denis Villeneuve was involved, my thought process turned towards, “Holy fuck! I can’t wait to see this.” Thankfully, I was not disappointed.
Villeneuve is on a cinematic hot streak that has rarely been seen in movie history (think Kubrick from Lolita through Full Metal Jacket, Buñuel from The Exterminating Angel through The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoise, or Scorsese from Mean Streets through King of Comedy). Since his early Canadian-produced films, including 2000’s Malestrom, 2009’s Incendies, and 2013’s Jake Gyllenhaal-starring Enemy, Villeneuve has proven himself a gifted art director and visual stylist capable of weaving grand, humanistic parables into his films (perhaps if Darren Aronofsky had been taking notes, mother! wouldn’t have been such a disaster). Yet, unlike so many other filmmakers who have seen their idiosyncratic talents wither once crushed under the weight of the Hollywood studio system (like Alejandro Jodorowsky, who, after the success of The Holy Mountain couldn’t even get his adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune into pre-production. There’s a whole documentary about that failure), Villeneuve’s vision has grown sharper, grander and more purely cinematic as he has entered the studio system and seen his budgets balloon. Both Prisoners and Sicario projected a brutal, despairing vision of the state of the world (and featured killer performances by Gyllenhaal and Emily Blunt respectively). A world where evil happens and nothing can be done about it. Then, of course, there was the gorgeous sci-fi drama Arrival, which had its own kind of despair, but also presented a deeply humanistic vision of life on Earth. Arrival asks, “If you know everything bad that would ever happen to you, would you bother to live?” The answer: “Of course you would.” Though they are tonally polar opposites, Sicario and Arrival still compliment one another; Sicario suggests the world is controlled by evil forces that can’t be stopped, but Arrival reaffirms that even with that evil there is still beauty in the world and life is ultimately worth living.
Drawing equal influence from visually gifted blockbuster giants like Spielberg, philosophically-driven auteurs like Kubrick, and even experimental filmmakers like Stan Brakhage, Villeneuve has crafted a body of films which vary wildly in tone, from cold brutality to humanistic empathy, that nevertheless forms a cohesive body of work in which the world’s biggest questions are asked, pondered, and seldom answered. With Blade Runner’s central question asking viewers, “What does it mean to be human?,” it isn’t hard to understand why the original film’s director Ridley Scott found Villeneuve to be the perfect candidate to helm the sequel, Blade Runner 2049.
But did Scott conceivably think he’d be hiring the director that would ultimately surpass his 1981 film with a sequel that not only didn’t betray the franchise, but elevated it to a higher importance in the canon of great cinema? Proably not, but that’s exactly what happened. I’m sure there are Blade Runner die-hards out there who think I’m committing sacrilege to even suggest the sequel is better than its predecessor, but I’m also positive that if they’ve seen the film these same people would probably agree with me, if they were being honest with themselves. How could this be? Well, Villeneuve is, let’s face it, a much more sophisticated visual storyteller than Scott is or ever was. Scott, prior to doing feature films, was a big advertising director, and he maintained his commercial sensibilities as he moved onto features. Even in his early masterpieces, like Blade Runner and Alien, Scott approached filmmaking as a system of problem solving: how do I get this angle that will communicate the viewers this idea? How do I incorporate enough crowd-pleasing images to keep the producers sending us money? Because of this, Scott is infamously dictatorial on sets (Harrison Ford has talked about being deeply disappointed with Scott’s inability to communicate with him while making Blade Runner).
By contrast, Villeneuve utilizes a much more artistic spirit of collaboration to his films. He has his ideas, and then works out those ideas with his actors and cinematographers. His films are jolts of pure cinema, and as pure cinema (and not considering things like unprecedented innovation and “lasting influence,” because in that regard the original Blade Runner is unmatched), Blade Runner 2049 greatly surpasses its predecessor. Below are seven specific ways that Blade Runner 2049 transcends the achievements of Blade Runner (WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD).
1. Narrative clarity
How many cuts of Blade Runner did it take for Scott’s point to come across clearly? Three. The original film released in 1981 features an obnoxious voice-over provided by Harrison Ford that greatly diminishes its viewing experience. It also barely hints at the fact that Ford’s Deckard character is himself a replicant [editor’s note: maybe? Depends on who you ask]. It wasn’t until 2007, when Scott’s third cut of the film, The Final Cut, that viewers could reasonably expect to walk away from watching Blade Runner pondering its central question, “If Deckard is in fact a replicant, are replicants as human as we are?” But even in that cut the plot feels rushed at times, as Ford’s Deckard goes from assassination to assassination, “retiring” the rogue replicants. Blade Runner is a visual masterpiece, but a narrative clunker. That’s just facts. Meanwhile, Blade Runner 2049 is clear and precise in the ways that it navigates its plot. The movie, however sprawling in length, confidently pulls you through its complex weave of information and ideology. Unlike with the original film, I never had to ask, “What is he/she talking about?” while watching Blade Runner 2049. The characters’ motivations were all expertly communicated, which makes the film’s complex plot easy to digest.
2. New questions asked, old questions clarified
The concepts explored by Scott in Blade Runner are further contemplated by Villeneuve in Blade Runner 2049. The decades-pondered question as to whether or not Deckard is a replicant should be answered by now: yeah, he’s definitely a replicant [editor’s note: while Adam thinks he’s definitely a replicant, I’m still not convinced and neither are the writers]. But Villeneuve renews this idea with his own conception of Deckard as replicant thrown into the mix. In Blade Runner 2049, Deckard seems more or less aware of what he is, but nevertheless has a very casual way of dealing with it. Villeneuve’s concept of Deckard seems to suggest that Deckard simply feels that he has these memories and thoughts and personality and he could care less what he is. He’s a living, breathing manifestation of “I think, therefore I am.” At one point in the film Ryan Gosling’s Agent K asks Deckard if his dog is real to which Deckard responds, “Ask him.” I love this idea. It doesn’t matter to Deckard what he is. He has memories and a will to live so he lives.
In that, we can view Blade Runner as both an android character’s journey towards both self-awareness and self-acceptance. In Blade Runner 2049, Gosling’s K knows that he’s an android, and because of this he views himself as a machine with a duty and without humanity. But as the film makes clear later on, he’s selling himself short. Like its predecessor, Blade Runner 2049 looks at humanity as a mélange of memories and experiences that go to form the fabrics of who we are. Because K can learn more about himself he can depart from his original programming. He has freedom of will. He finds that he has empathy (particularly in Deckard). Blade Runner 2049, therefore, is a self-aware android’s character journey towards finding his own humanity, which brings another fascinating layer into the franchise’s overarching philosophy.
3. Visual ambition and grandiosity
I don’t want to disparage Blade Runner here too much. Clearly its contributions to visual style in cinema are legendary. But nevertheless, Blade Runner 2049 is much grander and bolder in scale and style. Part of the reason for this is, of course, budgetary. Blade Runner was made on a budget of $28 million. It was surely a huge sum of money for its time, roughly equivalent to a budget of $90 million today. 2049, however, cost $185 million, surely making it the most expensive art film ever made (the fact that it is quite sophisticated and philosophical might partly explain its lackluster box office performance so far). The expensive, sophisticated, “prestige sci-fi” has become something of an Oscars season cliché in recent years (Gravity, Interstellar, The Martian and Villeneuve’s own Arrival), but even with that in mind, Blade Runner 2049 is some of the most overwhelming eye candy ever produced. Remember all those beautiful aerial shots Villeneuve employed to illustrate the magnitude of the UFO spacecrafts in Arrival? Think of those, but hovering over the industrial wasteland of Blade Runner’s vision of techno-corporate America. Ridley Scott’s original film would be hard to equal in visual majesty; that film rendered Los Angeles into a digital-hallucinatory apocalypse (like walking from Downtown LA to Skid Row during rush hour on DMT). But Villeneuve, knowing he had to do something sublime to even live up to Scott’s vision, takes his Blade Runner all across America. He introduces us to middle America after environmental holocaust, illustrating the smog and air pollution with lush hues of pink and red. Agent K travels to San Diego, which has been reduced to a massive landfill. And that’s to say nothing of the interiors. When Agent K visits the headquarters of replicant manufacturer Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), he is led through a massive staircase by replicant assassin Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) lined by oversized bodies of replicant designs incased in glass containers, like gigantic jaws filled with overblown Tip Toland sculptures. Villeneuve and master cinematographer Roger Deakins (Barton Fink, Sicario) illustrates the surrealism of the sequence with a gorgeous wide-angle shot from far away with Gosling and Hoeks viewed as tiny specs on the screen. There are so many glorious things to look at in this film it’d be redundant to go through all of them.
Blade Runner, especially in its chilling conclusion with the showdown between Deckard and Rutger Hauer’s replicant Roy Batty, had some excellent uses of cinematic violence. But let’s face it: if there’s one thing that 30 years of moviemaking technology has actually improved about movies is stylized violence. Blade Runner 2049 features long scenes of introspection and philosophical dialogue (indeed, the cameras spend a lot of time in close-up on Gosling’s handsome, contemplative brow) that are sharply punctuated by some thrilling jolts of stylized ultra-violence. Gosling has made half of his career playing amoral, unfazed men capable of explosive bodily harm (the other half in playing self-deprecating, good humored, stupid good looking romantic leads). In one excellent sequence, Agent K, whose hover craft has been shot down by isolationist wasteland-dwelling humans, wakes up and in a moment disarms three of the men who have surrounded his car with some creative neck snapping and ligament shattering, shoots three more, and tells the rest to back off. Blade Runner 2049 more clearly illustrates the physical superiority of replicants over humans than its predecessor, which expounds on the franchise’s central anxiety: in cultivating AI we are creating something that feels and thinks like humans but is physically and mentally capable of the superhuman. A showdown sequence between Luv and Agent K’s superior Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright) demonstrates that humans in this vision of Blade Runner know that they are simply no match for the programmed violence of replicants. She doesn’t even bother putting up a fight.
5. The Ending
My god, the ending of Blade Runner 2049 is just so much more satisfying than Blade Runner’s was. The original featured Deckard and his replicant lover Rachael floating above a desert landscape in a hovercraft, off to live happily ever after. It was an inappropriate and jarring happy ending to an otherwise bleak film. Its improved versions (see: Final Cut) got rid of that ending, instead focusing on the paper crane unicorns that were used to further the debate about whether or not Deckard was a replicant. It was better, but still lacked conceptual clarity.
Blade Runner 2049 however is Agent K’s film, and Villeneuve gives K a more than satisfying ending to his emotional arc. Throughout the film, K is lead to believe that he is the first and only replicant to be born (to Deckard and his android lover from the first film Rachael). When he meets Deckard, both he and the audience believe that he is meeting his dad. This proves to be untrue. But nevertheless, when tasked with killing Deckard to cover up the actual birthed replicant, K decides to hold on to his artificial memories and use them to go against his own programming. In one of the most magnificently shot fight sequences of recent film history, K brutally retires Luv to save Deckard in the process. Mortally wounded, K brings Deckard to meet his real android daughter before bleeding out and dying in peace. Deckard asks K, “Why me?” Meaning, why would this seemingly cold, killer android care about his fate? The answer is that those memories implanted in him made him feel closer to human than he had ever felt. Even though Deckard wasn’t his father, K still used the implanted memories to feel, and to feel is to be human. K, as it turns out, does have a soul. This was the ending that Blade Runner fans deserved.
Blade Runner 2049 isn’t perfect (Jared Leto’s portrayal of Wallace is typically over-wrought and annoying, and K’s relationship with his holographic girlfriend Joi is corny and overly campy at times), but it’s pretty damn close. Villeneuve has created a Blade Runner sequel that is equivalent to its predecessor in visual beauty and philosophical intrigue but superior to it in narrative clarity. Every bit the aesthetic landmark that Blade Runner was, Blade Runner 2049 is actually a greater feat of pure cinema. In my opinion, it is one of the two best films of 2017 (the other also just came out, go and treat yourself to a double feature of Blade Runner 2049 and Sean Baker’s stunning The Florida Project for two pieces of perfect cinema on opposite sides of the genre spectrum).