There was, to my mind, no earthly reason to make a sequel to Blade Runner, any more than there was a reason to make a sequel to 2001: a space odyssey. But they did in fact make 2010: The Year We Make Contact with Arthur C. Clarke, if not with Stanley Kubrick, and it was good although short of great.
And they did in fact make Blade Runner 2049, with screenwriter Hampton Fancher, if not original author Philip K. Dick, and with original director Ridley Scott as producer and Denis Villeneuve in the director's chair. What they delivered stands so comfortably next to the original, and yet with so much of its own to offer, that it suggests a blueprint for how to do such an impossible thing: just give it to another artist of vision, assuming you can find one, and stand back.
2049, as the title implies, takes place thirty years after Blade Runner — just as we, too, are now thirty years and change past the original. And like the first film, it's not set in the 2049 we might know, but the 2049 the inhabitants of the BR-verse would know. Los Angeles, ever more built up and cavernously inhuman, cowers behind seawalls to keep out the rising oceans. The Tyrell Corporation, bankrupted by the fallout from replicant rebellions, ended up in the hands of synthetic food maven Niander Wallace (Jared Leto). His other products range from holographic love-companions to a new line of compliant replicants. They work at many jobs — including that of blade runner, the name for who hunt down and "retire" rebel replicants.
Where before there was mystery (and controversy) about whether Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) was himself a replicant, 2049's protagonist has no such shroud of doubt: he is one, period. Officer KD6-3.7 (Ryan Gosling), LAPD, feels no kinship for the earlier models. When at the start of the film K tracks down one such fugitive, Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista), K not only receives a beating but a berating: new models like him are "happy scraping the shit ... because you've never seen a miracle!" K doesn't linger on what Sapper might mean; he takes both the other man's life and his barcoded eyeball (the 21st century version of the scalping), and prepares to head home.
Except something gives him pause. The gnarled tree, the only thing half alive in that blasted landscape around Sapper's cabin — why is there a sprig of fresh flowers laid at its roots? "A sentimental skin job," joshes K's co-worker Coco (David Dastmalchian), as he examines an improvised coffin unearthed from beneath the tree and discovers in it the bones of someone dead decades now. The remains of another replicant, no less — and one that the forensic evidence says died in childbirth. Impossible, as replicants are mules in both the sense of labor and sterility. Only human beings make replicants. But if replicants can somehow self-replicate, then K's ice-hard supervisor Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright) is prepared to do most anything to keep word from getting out and unbalancing things.
From what we can tell, K's the right one for a job this touchy. He has no sentiment or greater longings to get in the way. He endures with aplomb his humiliating "baseline test" interviews to determine if his psyche has gone out of tolerance. At night he retires to his wretched little apartment, makes himself a Wallace-patented meal, and savors (if that's the word) the company of his Wallace-made digital girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas). Hierarchies: if humanity treat replicants as their playthings, then a replicant's choice of companion is one down from itself: a hologram. Yet despite Joi's obviously canned responses — and the fact that J can press Pause on her anytime he wants — there's something about the presence of another person in some form that provides comfort he clearly needs. And there are hints K has an inner life (why else have Nabokov's Pale Fire on a shelf?), just one buried as deeply as that ossuary was.
Like a moth to a lightbulb, K follows the paper trail on the dead replicant back to Wallace's — formerly Tyrell's — ziggurat. There in its catacomb archives, Wallace's steely replicant XO, Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), digs out half-corrupted data about this long-gone prototype Nexus 6 from an empathy-test interview. Her name was Rachel, and her interlocutor was Rick Deckard, now also legendarily vanished. K is not one to stop at a cold trail, though. He returns to Sapper's digs and finds more clues, most significantly a date of birth: 6-10-21, a number that echoes unnervingly in his own memories.
Whoever Rachel's child was and whatever happened to it, K is in it up to his neck. But he presses on with Joi at his side (virtually speaking), tracing the child's path back to a Dickensian orphanage in the middle of a county-sized garbage dump. He learns that the memories he believes he has of that place were real, not one of the usual synthetic concoctions designed to keep replicants docile. And when he follows the thread of that belief out into the wastes beyond Los Angeles, others follow in turn to keep his discoveries silent.
Blade Runner is iconic in so many ways any discussion of it threatens to turn into a mere catalog, but what comes most immediately to mind for most people was its vision of a future urban environment. Every other near-future cityscape in film since then has been in its shadow, in the same way it's hard to make a science-fiction movie without hearkening back to either 2001 or Star Wars. Blade Runner 2049 wisely does not try to one-up its predecessor directly, but instead introduces different kinds of speculative realism. The opening sequences offer up massive solar fields and desolate protein farms, and they're as eye-filling as the rainswept L.A. of 2049, but the most visually striking sequences are in the junkyard orphanage. They seem like something that Villeneuve & Co. could have gone somewhere in our own world to film, not a set construction or a CGI mirage.
The vast majority of the movie, though, is clearly constructed, but like its predecessor it's been put together with a loving eye for shambolic detail. Our own world is not consistent — not in its street signs or its license plates, certainly not in its architecture or technology — and 2049's alterna-future is constructed out of the shreds and shards of both its own past and our own present. The few things that are consistent (or clean) are aspects of the powers that be: the sterile plastic clothes worn by K's buddies in forensics; the deadly Zen garden interior of Wallace's ziggurat. (If K keeps a clean house, it's only because he has so little to fill it with.)
In my review of 2001 I noted how that movie's alternate future didn't track with ours in many ways: Kubrick's vision included almost no women and no people of color. Maybe deliberately so, the better to enhance its sterility. Blade Runner's timeline is more diverse than Kubrick's, but also more explicitly colonialist and sexist (and nationalist) than our own, and 2049 leans even further into that. K's apartment building crawls with criminals of Eastern European and Russian extraction, with Korean and Japanese advertising flashing outside his window. It's hard to put a world on film that's informed by xenophobia or cynical cultural conceits without the movie itself feeling xenophobic, but I think 2049 mostly avoids that.
What's a little harder to take, and again only moderately justified by the movie's worldbuilding, is how the film's female characters also come off as products of their setting, to a fault and beyond. If this is a sexist world, the movie seems to be saying, it's only because everyone in it, especially the women, are commodities. That said, the movie tries to invest them with, well, character: Joshi begins as a familiar template, the hard-nosing supervisor. but reveals avuncular (maybe "materternal"?) dimensions with K over time — maybe only as a way to keep him on a leash, but still. Joi, K's holographic girlfriend, starts off as little more than a cross between "Eliza" and the GPT-3 model, but grows in sophistication and even wit — and it's to the movie's credit that we don't know if this is spontaneous or simply a measure of the craftsmanship of her makers. Like K himself, like all replicants, she was built to do a job, even if that job is giving love to the unlovable and the unloved. (Femininity is merely another commodity in this setting.)
The ironically-named Luv has little dimension to her save the totality of her cruelty, but the movie visualizes it with zeal: at one point she directs a missile strike to save K's sorry hide from marauders, all from the security of her comfy chair while having her nails etched with holograms. A small but significant role goes to Dr. Stelline (Carla Juri), an artist who designs memories to be implanted into replicants, stuck for life in a controlled environment due to a compromised immune system. The more we find out about her, the more her broken state makes sense, but long before that she serves as a crucial catalyst for K's uncertainty about himself. And there is one more female character, whose identity I will not spoil, whose appearance near the end of the film is the ultimate, and deliberate, embodiment of the movie's notions about the commodification of women.
The one thing 2049 needed most to get right was how to extend on the ideas of the original without just repeating them. I mentioned before how the original mystery of Deckard's replicant-hood has been strategically inverted for 2049's protagonist. K is a replicant, no doubt there, but what kind and to what end are mysteries both to him and us. It sets him on a quest for self-knowledge that we sense will end tragically, as all such quests do: if the world you live in cannot tolerate self-knowledge on your part, it will close ranks to destroy you. And so K ventures out into the once-radioactive wastes of Las Vegas to confront the past in the form of Rick Deckard himself (Harrison Ford, who else?), now living off the grid in the remains of one of the casinos, and only able to give the kinds of answers that send K both deeper intro trouble and deeper into bewilderment, and then to a choice — not between humanity and replicant-hood, but between sitting on the sidelines (or fleeing), or risking whatever there is left to risk.
The other theme 2049 extends on from the first film is two intertwined themes — the nature of humanity and the importance of memory to the former. We are not human because of our DNA, but because of our propensity for building a collective body of memory outside of ourselves - because of human culture, not merely human biology. Replicants have long been offered synthetic memory as a way to keep them from demanding the real thing — by, for instance, creating a culture of their own by reproducing on their own. What K remembers of himself defines him, but when he finds that this self-definition no longer suffices, he feels existential agony of a kind his conditioning cannot compensate for. And with no larger community around him to help him deal with this (as per the rebel replicants), he is doomed to fall. But at least he can aim for something else on the way down. If K is human, it is to the extent that he is able to defy and transcend his limits, much like the rest of us.
I am fascinated by actors who do little and yet embody much: Takeshi Kitano, Jessica Chastain, Mads Mikkelsen, Viggo Mortensen, Ryan Gosling. Gosling first caught my eye in Drive, not because of what he showed but because of how much he held back. He radiates the same self-contained calm here, suggesting everything with only the slightest of changes. When Dr. Stelline gives him shattering news, don't look at the tantrum he throws at the end of the scene; look at everything up to it, at the way his calm beforehand ripples ever so slightly. I also admired de Armas (she is absolute gold in Knives Out) and the way she moves her character from the mere performance of companionship and empathy to something like the real thing — or as close to the real thing as it gets in that world, anyway. She chooses to risk a permanent digital death, the better to be closer to K in his time of greatest need. And then there's Ford, anchoring the final third of the film with an outsized presence that the rest of the movie seems to have been quietly constructed to give him room for. His style of acting is a foil for Gosling as much as Deckard himself is one for K.
Villeneuve's films run long, but not without purpose. I liked that Sicario took the time to establish the great and desolate spaces it took place in, and I also admired how Arrival didn't hurry. 2049 is long — 2 hours and 32 minutes, minus its ten-minute credit crawl — but also not without purpose. Some of the best scenes are the slowest ones, as with a terribly sad sequence where Joi "borrows" the body of a prostitute for K's sake. The film also takes inspiration from, but avoids copying, the original movie's iconic Vangelis score: Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch created something far more atonal and dystopian than Vangelis's blues and jazz-inflected synths (although we do have a nod to the iconic "Tears In Rain").
When 2049 was first announced, I had no idea what to expect, and the sneaking suspicion this wasn't something I even wanted. One possibility that crossed my mind was an adaptation of one of K.W. Jeter's follow-up Blade Runner novels, notably mostly for how well Jeter mimicked Dick's style sentence-by-sentence but not much more than that. Then more details rolled in, like original screenwriter Hampton Fancher, and Villeneuve as director. Villeneuve was fresh off Arrival, and that movie's success made it possible to see how 2049 might work, and did. One review called it a "$150 million art film," and I agree. It lost money upfront, but so did the original, and I suspect everyone involved knew that was a gamble worth taking. Maybe the ultimate way to make a sequel to something as singular as Blade Runner was to be just as heedless about its fate, to say the hell with the money, just make the movie in the way it asked to be made. This they did, and plenty more besides.