Science fiction stories tend to fall on the more epic side. Typically, a creator imagines a strange new world or future and sets their characters off on sweeping adventures, often with the fate of countless lives on the line. What makes Ridley Scott’s 1982 cult classic “Blade Runner” so special is its more personal, introspective storytelling. In it, humans have created Replicants, androids that mirror us in obvious physiological ways, making the perfect slaves. However, some Replicants begin to rebel against the system, escaping captivity and longing for a life of freedom. Harrison Ford plays Deckard, whose role as a Blade Runner is to hunt down and “retire” rebelling Replicants. On his journey, Deckard learns more about the emotions that Replicants are designed to feel, how their manufactured humanity is not at all unlike the “real” kind. He even falls in love with one named Rachel.
“Blade Runner” was a philosophical look at our definitions of humanity, how we decide what makes our kind more special than others. Now, thirty years later, phenomenal director Denis Villeneuve has taken a more complex, nuanced dive into this existential crisis with “Blade Runner 2049.” This is not your average, cash-grab sequel that comes decades past its due; this new entry builds upon the original’s foundation in profound, vital ways.
The plot of “Blade Runner 2049” is best experienced without much context, so the synopsis here will stick to worldbuilding. After so many Replicants stopped following orders, they were declared illegal. However, when a brilliant scientist named Wallace stopped a food shortage crisis with revolutionary synthetic farming, he was given rights to make new, more obedient Replicants. What few old ones remained are forced into hiding and face execution by a new generation of Blade Runners, like Ryan Gosling’s K. When K tracks down a Replicant, he uncovers a mystery that redefines the nature of Replicants and sparks a frantic race for answers.
Every aspect of this film is crafted with great care. The cinematography is utterly stunning, finding beauty in this future’s grimy industrialism. The synth-heavy soundtrack is abrasive at times, thrilling at others, and always adept at resonating with a given scene’s emotional frequency. And even though the film is just shy of three hours long, it earns every second of screen time. In fact, even though I could definitely feel the effects of sitting for that long, I was sad to see the credits roll. Tension is mounted wonderfully, and the well-placed action scenes are always enhanced by dramatic meaning.
But where “Blade Runner 2049” truly proves it worth is with its continuation of the original’s philosophical inquiries. Where “Blade Runner” closely examined the line between genuineness and artifice, this sequel blurs it completely. For example, K’s closest companion is Joi, an A.I. hologram who is programmed to say and do exactly what their owner wants. Just because their connection was designed by others, does that make it any less real? Their moments together, where Joi mimics touching K and he pretends to feel it, are incredibly powerful.
Going even further, the film questions the nature of life itself. What are the defining factors of a living, breathing human being? How are they different from an android that can experience the same emotions? And what happens when even those differences disappear? Portraying the empathetic distinctions and similarities between humans and Replicants is complex stuff, and “Blade Runner 2049” nails it. Gosling’s performance, the centerpiece of the film, is a display of emotional acrobatics, switching between detachment and intimacy whenever a scene calls for it.
Perhaps the most astounding thing about this sequel is how it completely justifies its existence. Especially surprising is Harrison Ford’s return as Deckard, which was much-publicized before the film’s premiere but is actually underplayed throughout the movie. It would’ve been totally fine without his inclusion, and Ford’s newest acting phase—crotchety old man—somewhat dilutes Deckard’s original personality, but as the third act unfolds, his presence becomes more integral, and finally vital to the film’s thematic significance.
Upon its release, “Blade Runner 2049” performed well below expectations. In retrospect, it’s not very surprising; it’s a sequel to a decades-old film that was never really popular in the first place, it is bordering on an absurd running time and its atmospheric trailers purposefully withhold action or plot details. However, watching the film is a mentally demanding and deeply satisfying journey which should not be missed.