Special Effects: B+
Production Design: B+
If "Future Noir" actually is a genre, then the 1982 film Blade Runner both originated it and remains the gold standard. How long that has been the case is perhaps up for debate, given the film's definitively lesser version that was seen in its original theatrical run; its much-improved tenth-anniversary "Director's Cut" in 1992 (which director Ridley Scott, ironically, did not directly work on); or the 25th-anniversary "Final Cut" released in 2007, which Scott did supervise and which remains widely considered the definitive version.
This puts Blade Runner 2049 into a peculiar position, with a uniquely rich cinematic history behind it, which includes what is arguably the most influential science fiction film of the past forty years, something it took years to be recognized as the masterpiece it remains, and gives this sequel truly impossible standards to live up to. Those of us with a working knowledge of the original Blade Runner are left to wonder: How does Blade Runner 2049 play to the many people likely to see it that have not seen its predecessor?
This movie, made 35 years after the first but set only 30 years later (so the aging actor Harrison Ford is playing five years younger than his real age -- typical), does work on its own terms. But is it a wholly original, or even potentially influential, cinematic vision? Plainly it is not. But that doesn't mean it isn't worthy of our attention -- original writer Hampton Fancher returns as story writer and co-script writer; Ridley Scott serves as an Executive Director; and visionary director Denis Villeneuve, who brought us the likes of Prisoners, Sicario and Arrival, steps in as director. All of these things are to its benefit.
But those things alone are not enough. I don't usually focus as much on production design as other elements of a film, and perhaps I should, but the world of Blade Runner commands it. What made Blade Runner unique was its very deliberate film noir aesthetic, set in the future -- right down to its 1940s-influenced fashions, Sean Young with her sculpted hair and high shoulder pads. Not one single scene was bathed in bright light; all exterior shots were at nighttime, and any daytime interior shots featured deliberately dimmed beams of daylight filtering in through tinted windows at sharp angles. This shroud of darkness served a dual purpose: it kept the film's look in line with film noir, and also helped obscure any set designs that might otherwise look far more dated over time. Almost every detail of that movie still holds up after all these years, with few exceptions (perhaps most notably, all the indoor smoking, which never occurs in 2049).
And while Blade Runner's claustrophobic and crowded cityscape was exclusively confined to Los Angeles -- that film's characters never leave the city -- Villeneuve goes out of his way to expand those horizons in Blade Runner 2049: there's even a fleeting glimpse of a sign that says NOW LEAVING GREATER LOS ANGELES. Police Officer K (Ryan Gosling), on a mission to unravel a new mystery very much tied to the first film, visits a vast area of San Diego turned into a gargantuan waste dump, and spends an extended sequence in a post-apocalyptic Las Vegas, virtually uninhabited and shrouded in orange fog, "radiation: nominal." This makes for several exterior shots featuring no crowds whatsoever, Ridley Scott's world of overpopulation replaced with vast, open spaces. It succeeds in making Blade Runner 2049 its own thing, but also pulls it rather far from the film noir aesthetic on which this world was originally predicated. Even the office of LAPD's Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright, continuing her late-career trend of delivering all her lines like a robot), is stark white -- so stark, in fact, that one can easily imagine that set looking dated within just a few years.
So what of the story itself, then? There really is too much to spoil, preventing me from saying much about it -- true fans of the original film in particular will want to experience on their own how this film turns what is accepted to be true on its head. Anyone who hasn't seen the first film should be able to follow, but they won't have a full grasp on the historical significance of 2049's twists, within the Blade Runner universe.
As such, I am left to comment on that universe itself -- the very thing that made the original Blade Runner the cultural touchstone it is. One thing slightly bugs me: the worlds of Blade Runner's 2019 and Blade Runner 2049 are a tad too similar. Villeneuve takes Ridley Scott's original vision of a future Los Angeles and successfully expands on it, but I hesitate to say he updates it. The world changes dramatically in three decades. Consider what an average crowd looked like in 1982 versus today -- most notably how today's crowds are made up of people looking down at mobile devices. The key change here is that in 1982, what Ridley Scott presented seemed like a completely new, but still plausible future. But that film's setting is essentially our real-world present, clearly turned out to be nothing like it, and by necessity turns Blade Runner into an alternate rather than future universe. Even within that framework, I would expect greater cultural shifts over three decades than what we see here. The Los Angeles cityscape remains the same kind of dense world of giant advertisements, just switched from screens to holograms and rendered with crisper special effects.
Yet, for all that nitpicking, I found myself completely absorbed by Blade Runner 2049, both its story and its world. Does it really need to be two hours and 43 minutes long? Probably not, but even for a film with very little in the way of action set pieces, that times goes by without a dull moment. Not even the friend I saw it with, who had never seen the first film and even declared "I'm just not that into sci-fi," complained about the run time.
And Blade Runner 2049 certainly has provocative and beautiful and haunting moments all its own. The themes of what it means to be human remain, and are expanded; not only does this world contain the original "replicants" -- synthetically created humans with shortened life spans whose rebellious members are hunted by the officers known as Blade Runners (of which Officer K is one) -- but here we have the addition of Joi (a luminous Ana de Armas), a holographic companion K keeps at home, who seems very convincingly to develop real feelings for him. If a replicant sex worker says, "Oh, you don't like real girls" as means of recognizing her own rejection, what are we to consider "real"?
It's hardly a spoiler to acknowledge that Blade Runner 2049 answers the defining question of its predecessor: whether Rick Deckard himself was a replicant. This alone is sure to disappoint some fans of the original, as many hold dear the joy in the mystery. But once Officer K catches up to Deckard, solving that particular mystery only gives way to myriad new ones. 2049 occasionally suffers from clunky dialogue like "If this gets out, it breaks the world," but there is something to the way this film expands that world. It can't possibly live up to what came before it, but it is still filled with riches that are their own reward, which likely increase with repeat viewings.