Dreadfully Distinct: Is ‘2049’ The Greatest Sequel Of All Time?

I hate to react too quickly to any movie, because opinions settle over time.

I often see a movie and have a negative reaction, only to find that it sits better over time. Sometimes, I leave a film satisfied, but gradually find reasons to like it less.

But it’s been less than an hour since I walked out of Blade Runner 2049 and I’m already comfortable calling it one of the best science fiction films of all time, and quite possibly the greatest sequel ever made.

I dove deep into Ridley Scott’s 1982 Blade Runner for the When We Were Young podcast, reading both Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? and Future Noir, a comprehensive recounting of the making of the film. Both texts gave me a greater appreciation for the film itself, which contains many obscure references to themes from Dick’s story that easily go over most audiences’ heads during their initial viewing. It is difficult to fully piece Blade Runner‘s plot together as a casual viewer. Crucial details are mentioned but not shown. This exposition often feels off-the-cuff and half-told — there’s no indication that these are important facts the audience should hold onto, yet the movie makes little sense without them.

Blade Runner is a fascinating and unique piece of cinema, but it doesn’t always come together as a fully realized story. Learning more about scenes that were never shot or didn’t make the final cut (in any of the many versions), one discovers plenty of intentions that might have made for a more coherent and more powerful story. (Screenwriter Hampton Fancher’s original ending was beautiful.) I don’t begrudge anyone who thinks the original Blade Runner is a bona fide masterpiece, but I also have no beef with anyone saying it isn’t. I appreciate the film’s look and sound and the individual creative contributions of many players, while also wishing certain elements of the story had been developed better.Blade Runner 2049, on the other hand, is more or less a perfect film, both entertaining and soulful. The story makes sense from beginning to end, yet its beats are frequently surprising. It is not in any sense a “reboot” of the original, but rather a very direct sequel, in that it couldn’t possibly exist without the first film. (In fact, I wonder if anyone who hasn’t seen the original could fully appreciate it.) And it might be the best sequel ever made.

A handful of films are probably popping into your head as possible counterpoints. The Empire Strikes Back? The Godfather Part II? Aliens? The Dark Knight? Batman Returns? Terminator 2: Judgment Day? Those are all great sequels, on par with the first film — and in some cases, better — but none of them really make the original better. Blade Runner 2049, on the other hand, feels made in part to fix the shortcomings of the original. It has subtle and not-so-subtle homages to Dick’s novel and Scott’s film (including my favorite nod, an origami sheep). It’s not a retread, nor does it abandon the elements that made its 35-year-old predecessor so distinct. Set 30 years after the original’s 2019 placement, director Denis Villeneuve’s vision of 2049 feels like a natural progression from the future we glimpsed in Blade Runner. It doesn’t just revisit the themes and story elements from the first film — it pushes them in intriguing, unexpected, but completely consistent directions. Has any sequel made such a strong argument for the original film’s mere existence?

Like Blade Runner, 2049 shows us a vision of the future that’s not quite like any other film we’ve seen before. (Not even Blade Runner.) The original film shaped the collective cinematic vision of dystopias over the past three decades — it’s a marvel Blade Runner 2049 found any new ideas to play with, given how popular the subgenre has been. No film I can think of so honors its predecessor while feeling so fresh simultaneously. Blade Runner 2049 not only expands on certain murky story beats from the original — what we learn in Blade Runner 2049 makes the original film stronger and more satisfying. It’s hard to fathom how a sequel to Blade Runner could be any better.(I’ll keep my synopsis vague and spoiler free, as it works best to know as little as possible going in.) In the film, Ryan Gosling plays K, a blade runner who is both similar to and very different from Harrison Ford’s Deckard. Like Deckard, he’s an isolated bachelor who puts his work first. In the opening scene, a routine assignment goes in an unexpected direction, sending K on a crucial mission that, as his boss Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright) puts it, “breaks the world” if it fails.

The marketing has made no secret of the fact that this quest eventually leads K to meet Deckard. Other key players include replicant manufacturer Liandel Wallace (Jared Leto), his dutiful employee Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), and Joi (Ana De Armas), an A.I. who is best described as the 2049 version of Amazon’s Alexa. Three other women, played by Mackenzie Davis, Carla Juri, and Hiam Abbass, also have important roles, not to mention the thematic importance of a female character from the original Blade Runner. Refreshingly, Blade Runner 2049 is bursting at the seams with compelling female characters. In fact, with the exception of K and Deckard, almost every pivotal character in the film is a woman. (Leto’s Wallace is a compelling figure, but he’s more the puppet master than a direct player.) I can’t remember the last time a big budget studio film was so peppered with great roles for women… quite possibly because the answer is “never.”

Blade Runner set the scene for some interesting debates. Blade Runner 2049 is a loving correction of the original’s sins. The story makes perfect sense, and also makes more sense out of the original. Both are hauntingly beautiful aesthetically, but Blade Runner never drums up much sympathy for Deckard, which may or may not be intentional. (A little of both, I think.) The most emotional readings of the original film take place outside the text of the movie. If Deckard is a replicant, his dirty work takes on an added layer of ironic sadness… but the film only hints at this, giving viewers little reason to even consider the possibility (unless they do some additional reading and view alternate cuts of the film). Either way, Deckard is a miserable son of a bitch. He shoots a fleeing (replicant) female in the back, kills Daryl Hannah’s Pris in equally brutal fashion, and forces himself upon Rachael in ways that call her consent into question. (Maybe they didn’t so much in 1982, but it wouldn’t fly in 2017.) The female characters in Scott’s original are, in many ways, the highlight of the film. Dangerous but child-like Pris is somehow the most relatable character, while Sean Young’s Rachael also earns our sympathy. But these women are also violently abused by our supposed “hero.”

Blade Runner seems rather indifferent about how we should feel about Deckard’s actions. We aren’t given much evidence that replicants really deserve to be so violently offed — yes, they’ve been known to kill humans, but did that start before or after humans started exterminating them? History has taught us that human beings aren’t always right when they declare themselves superior to a different kind of person. American slavery was justified with the notion that black people were savages, intellectually and morally inferior to white men. Some slaves did, then, behave rather savagely — but that’s just a consequence of treating people like savages.

Scott’s Blade Runner half-poses many fascinating questions, then never answers them. Ambiguity can be a powerful tool in storytelling, but only when we it’s intended. Some of the ambiguity in Scott’s film comes instead from budgetary restrictions, too many cooks, and lots of rewriting. Blade Runner 2049, on the other hand, never loses its way for a second. Every scene and shot are painstakingly thought through. We can tell. It doesn’t just revisit the troubling moral questions the original asks. It asks them again, with new story beats that make them even more impossible to answer.One love story in Blade Runner 2049 adds layers of complexity onto the original model — the Deckard-Rachael romance. At first, this is pretty par for the course in a sci-fi dystopia, but it ends up adding real heartbreak to the film. How capable are replicants of empathy? Of love? Blade Runner 2049 keeps this open ended. Many characters are on screen for just a few minutes, but each is fascinating and full of life (whether or not they are “alive”). You could make a fascinating film about any character in this movie. Clocking in at nearly 3 hours, Blade Runner 2049 is long enough, yet plenty that goes unresolved, and several characters we could stand to learn more about. The conclusion of this film makes it difficult to imagine a direct sequel — and also difficult to imagine that there won’t be one.

Science fiction films in which androids or artificial intelligence take on human characteristics certainly aren’t rare these days — take, for example, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Her, and Ex Machina, to name a few very good ones. Both Blade Runner films are less explicit than most, implying moral dilemmas but rarely voicing them. Where Blade Runner 2049 triumphs over its predecessor is in empathy, of all things. Gosling’s K is a more defined character than Ford’s Deckard ever was. He undergoes an enthralling emotional journey over the course of the film, and it’s clear what kind of journey it is. Blade Runner‘s vision of the future was so dreary, it was hard to care if any humans or replicants survived to return to their dark, damp, joyless existence. Blade Runner 2049‘s vision of the further future is about as bleak as Blade Runner‘s 2019, but there’s enough soul and verve in these characters to make it worth the investment. This is not an entirely hopeless world, as frightening as so much of it is. The sequel also adds biblical undertones that make it easier to grasp the stakes in this narrative. Blade Runner 2049 touched me in ways the original never did… in ways studio films rarely attempt.I’m not exactly surprised at how great Blade Runner 2049, both as a sequel and a standalone cinematic experience. It is directed by Denis Villeneuve, after all, who made my Top Ten thrice in the past three years with Enemy, Sicario, and Arrival. (In case you can’t tell from this effusive review, he’s on deck for a fourth.) The film was shot by the legendary Roger Deakins, who’s been nominated thirteen times for an Academy Award, and curiously never won. (I expect this to change in the very near future.) On an artistic level, Blade Runner 2049 is anything but a failure.

The film’s box office take thus far has fallen short of expectations. Fittingly, so did the original Blade Runner. But so what? There’s a good chance Blade Runner 2049 will have staying power in one way or another, just as the original did. It has Oscar potential in numerous categories, provided the Academy is willing to consider a genre sequel through an artistic lens. Costume design, visual effects, and cinematography are all superb. It just might be a Best Picture nominee as well, unless Star Wars: The Last Jedi is several cuts above The Force Awakens and steals Blade Runner‘s thunder. (That’s plausible enough, considering it was directed by Rian Johnson, who made a near-masterpiece original sci-fi film of his own with Looper.) Blade Runner 2049 could be too adult and ponderous to cross the $100 million mark in the United States, which will unfairly categorize it as a flop; then again, I’m already frothing to see it again in theaters, and I’ll bet you I’m not the only one.

Blade Runner 2049 is already one of my favorite science fiction films of all time. It deserves to be held up as a classic of the genre, right alongside the first Blade Runner. In spirit, both Blade Runners share so much — they’re morally complex, visually dazzling, and somewhat disturbing. With a few excisions, Blade Runner 2049 could have been an original sci-fi story, but both films are made better with the existence of the other.

You might even call Blade Runner 2049 a replicant of Blade Runner. Common sense tells us that the original is inherently superior, because Blade Runner 2049 wouldn’t even exist without Blade Runner. Sequels are meant to be vapid, functional carbon copies of something better — but in the Blade Runner films, the replicants end up having more life to them, more personality. Such is the case with Blade Runner 2049.

This film is a masterpiece.*


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