Creating a sequel to a beloved classic film is the cinematic equivalent of navigating a minefield. There are few ways to do it well, even less ways to do it fantastically, and an incalculable number of ways to fail miserably. What sequels so often fail to understand is that attempting to create a carbon copy of something groundbreaking never breaks any ground. People watch sequels to see a new spin and continuation of a film they love, so retreading the same film the audience has already seen feels crushingly stale. Lightning never strikes the same place twice, so sequels need to branch out and become films of their own, not shadows of their forebearers. This doesn’t mean that they must be completely different, otherwise they won’t feel like genuine continuations, but they still need to forge their own independent identity as a movie, which Blade Runner 2049 follows to a tee.
Blade Runner 2049 is the long-awaited sequel to Ridley Scott’s, 1982, science fiction masterpiece, Blade Runner, and stars Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, and Jared Leto. In a dystopian future Los Angeles, powerful CEO Niander Wallace (Leto) has nearly perfected the manufacture of Replicants, a disposable workforce with people who look and act exactly like regular humans, yet they are hated and feared by society for their superior strength and intelligence. One such replicant is K (Gosling), who works for the LAPD as a Blade Runner, hunting down others of his kind who are on earth illegally. After uncovering a mystery that could upend the world’s replicant dependent society, K must track down grizzled former Blade Runner Rick Deckard (Ford) for answers, escape the clutches of the nefarious Niander Wallace, and discover the troubling secrets of his own creation.
If you haven’t seen the original Blade Runner from 1982*, then see it, now. It is a masterpiece of cinema, a breathtakingly beautiful film which raises questions about humanity and consciousness that few mainstream films had tackled up to this point. It has an eerie yet timeless soundtrack, and ground-breaking special effects that still hold up to this day. The original has inspired and influenced science fiction cinema in the decades that followed it. You would think that since the original Blade Runner is such a seminal piece of art, its sequel would attempt to capture what made it work and reintroduce it to modern audiences, and in many ways it does. But what makes this film truly special are the ways it departs from the original and becomes its own work of art.
This film feels like a genuine sequel, continuing the story and themes of the original but tweaking and expanding them just enough to become a creature onto its own. Both films explore what makes a person human, with the original being more ambiguous and indicating that there is no concrete determination of what constitutes humanity. 2049 takes a different stance and puts forward that humanity can be defined, and the journey of the main character is centered around discovering what it is.
In the story, K endeavors to feel human in a world which constantly reminds him that he isn’t, that he is just a tool of society. For K, being human is feeling connected to something bigger than oneself, to exist for a greater purpose and meaning. On his search for connection and meaning, K tries to reject his identity as a replicant, but he is always conscious of the fact that he will never be real and finds his own unique sense of self because of it. The realizations and conclusions that K comes to on his journey, while not possessing the gravity of the original’s, still feel more interesting and satisfying than a lot of other messages in modern films.
In addition, 2049’s narrative takes some unexpected turns towards the end of the film that subvert audience expectations of conventional blockbuster plot structure in interesting and surprising ways. Unfortunately, there are certain aspects of this movie that adhere to more common hollywood storytelling trends. For example, there is no ambiguity in the characters, with the villains being clear-cut evil and the heroes being clear-cut good. Additionally, this film creates a very standard hopeful and conclusive tone for its ending, which, while satisfying, doesn’t mesh with the dark and ambiguous tone of the previous film and the rest of this one. In addition, there are a couple superfluous characters and plotlines that feel like they were squeezed in to make the ending of the film feel more climactic, cluttering an otherwise sleek story. Thankfully, despite being a direct sequel, 2049 clarifies its predecessors thought-provoking ambiguous ending, an aspect of the first film that has made it timeless.
Moving on from the plot and themes, aesthetically this movie also branches out in the most beautiful way. The film moves away from the intricate and grimy urban Los Angeles of its predecessor and provides a cleaner, more polished setting where colors and weather change more often to match the picture’s larger emotional range. In addition, this film’s soundtrack also expands on the original’s, employing the same synthesized harmonic monolithic sounds but not using them excessively, as they feel out-of-place in modern cinema. In place of dramatic music, this film uses calculated silences to emphasize important scenes, a tactic which makes them all the more impactful. All of these ways 2049 departs from the style of the original, while not necessarily creating a superior film, make it stand out as it’s own little masterpiece of modern cinematic visuals and storytelling.
While I enjoyed Blade Runner 2049 immensely and thought it was a beautiful experience that paid great respect both to the original film and fan expectations, I must acknowledge that as a fan of the series, I am more predisposed to enjoying this movie than the common movie goer. Myself and other fans of the series can easily relish the slow pacing, style, and lack of action because those are staples of the previous film. However, I fear that if you are not a fan of the first Blade Runner and just want a short distraction to take up some free time, this film may not hold your attention nor deliver the promised entertainment, especially considering 2049’s nearly three hour runtime.
This film feels like a loving attempt by dedicated fans of the first Blade Runner to create a worthy sequel, and because of that, it feels like this film won’t be appreciated or entertaining to anyone but dedicated fans of the original, doomed by a run time that strains the attention spans of anyone other than those few devoted followers. Mainstream audiences expecting a standard sci-fi experience will probably find it boring and slightly incomprehensible, which is unfortunate because it is neither of those things. That doesn’t mean you won’t enjoy it or that you are wrong for not being a fan of the original. This film can be appreciated on its own merits, but it will deliver a more comfortable and fulfilling experience if you are a fan. So, watch the original and then watch this film; they are both expertly made, masterworks of science fiction storytelling, with 2049 being a stylistically and thematically brilliant thriller worthy of carrying on its predecessor’s legacy. I will give Blade Runner 2049, an A-.
By Sam Finbury
*If you haven’t seen the original 1982 Blade Runner and want to, only watch the 2007 Final Cut version. It is the definitive and best iteration of the film.