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Blade Runner 2049 and The Ups and Downs of Trying to Follow a Classic

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COURTESY OF WARNER BROS. PICTURES
  • Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
What should a sequel be? It’s a simple enough question, yet after more than 100 years of cinema — and 40 years of the blockbuster franchise era — it doesn’t feel like we’re any closer to a reliable answer. Maybe audiences want an exact replica of the original, something that reminds them of a great movie experience. Maybe they want a replica- plus — the original movie, but bigger. Maybe they want to take characters we know in a completely new direction, like Aliens did with Alien. Or maybe they just want a movie that’s, you know, good. Blade Runner 2049 proves to be a particularly weird answer to that question. On the one hand, director Dennis Villeneuve’s follow-up works overtime to connect itself to the 1982 Ridley Scott original, both visually and in its story elements. On the other hand, it expands that world’s philosophy and aesthetics in fascinating ways. It somehow feels both utterly distinct and too beholden to its predecessor, in ways that prove both engrossing and deeply frustrating.

On its most basic — and studio-mandated-no-spoilers-allowed — level, 2049 is set 30 years after the original, and follows K (Ryan Gosling), a blade runner just like Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard, assigned to track down human-resembling replicants who have fled from their servitude and gone into hiding. One such mission leads to a strange discovery that threatens the precarious line between humans and their synthetic labor force, sending K in search of — among other things — Deckard himself.

While 2049 certainly doesn’t avoid the rain-drenched, neon-advertisement-lit Los Angeles that made Blade Runner so iconic, it also doesn’t dwell in that world for long stretches. Villeneuve maximizes the gifts of cinematographer Roger Deakins in the creation of multiple other settings: carcasses of industrial buildings that have become child-labor “orphanages”; a sun-blasted, abandoned Las Vegas haunted by fallen statues; the office of new replicant-manufacturing tycoon Niander Wallace (Jared Leto, predictably Jared Leto-ing the hell out of the role), set like an island in the middle of a
pool. If there’s one thing Villeneuve (Sicario, Arrival) has proven himself more than capable of as a director, it’s making a movie that’s worth looking at.

It’s also, surprisingly, more than a little worth thinking about. Blade Runner 2049 doubles down on the original’s ideas about what constitutes consciousness and an entity with a “soul,” as various characters contemplate the nature of their own existence as artificial beings. Though it may not be a radically new concept — explored in everything from Isaac Asimov to Star Trek — the screenplay by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green offers multiple levels of such beings, each of which struggles with the ways in which it is perhaps inadequate or not human enough. There may be missed opportunities to tease out more of the allegory for societal roles of racial and other minorities, but it’s still solid philosophical material.

Yet by diving more deeply and more literally into those questions, 2049 also becomes considerably more lugubrious. The enigmatic and elliptical nature of Blade Runner has become as much a part of the movie’s legacy as its look, but Scott kept the story’s pace relatively fleet. Villeneuve serves up 163 minutes of ever-deepening conspiracy, which doesn’t serve a performance by Gosling that’s designed to be mostly quiet and stolid. This is a movie that becomes far more interesting to think about on the way home than it is to actually sit through.

Most complex of all is this movie’s relationship with its predecessor, which goes beyond the presence of Ford as a graying, paranoid and soul-weary Deckard. References to the original are frequent, as though everyone involved were somehow afraid that a different bunch of primary cast members might lead us to forget why we’re all here. The trailblazing uniqueness of Blade Runner’s style cemented its place in the cinematic canon, and this next chapter is stuck between trying to carve out its own place and recognizing that it doesn’t exist — and certainly doesn’t demand so much attention — without the original’s existence. As many different ways as there are to make a sequel — and Blade Runner 2049 is very good at some of them — it helps to pick one and go with it, rather than try to be every kind of sequel at the same time.
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