- Joe Gross American-Statesman Staff
To be a decent sequel is to obey an unspoken Hippocratic oath: First, do no harm (to the existing motion picture).
Sequels that do this well become almost mythical: “The Godfather Part II,” “Star Trek II,” “Toy Story 2,” the almighty “Empire Strikes Back.” They expand the previous film’s universe without cheapening what’s come before. And it is incredibly hard to do.
But a sequel to a science fiction classic more than 30 years after the previous film? That is a mighty difficult dive. It is to the credit of director Denis Villeneuve, screenwriters Hampton Fancher and Michael Green and producer Ridley Scott that they manage to pull it off in the carefully (and often brilliantly) realized “Blade Runner 2049.”
It’s easy to forget that “Blade Runner” was not always considered one of the all-time great sci-fi films. Indeed, it largely bombed upon release in 1982 and spent the next few decades building a reputation through recuts, re-releases and the home video market. Layers of meaning accrued: Based loosely on the Philip K. Dick novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” “Blade Runner” held fast to the essential Phildickian (Google it) questions: What does it mean to be human? How do I know this is real? And, the trickiest of all, to what extent does it matter?
The original film’s look, a blend of noir-ish romanticism and an endlessly raining, endlessly dense Los Angeles, was staggeringly influential; it was cyberpunk made real just as that literary movement was getting underway. Also keeping “Blade Runner” grimly relevant? It’s a movie about a cop who feels increasingly weird about killing people he and others don’t consider human beings.
The difficulty lies in balance: How do you create a sequel that honors the original work yet makes a visual and narrative case for itself? How do you serve fans without becoming pure fan service? And how much Jared Leto is really necessary? (About three scenes, mercifully.)
Fancher co-wrote the original, so the warp and weft of references is skillful, intentional and canny: The opening shot of an eye. Dead brands (Atari, Pan Am) everywhere. Square glasses and Johnnie Walker Scotch. The piano in the home of a replicant. A blade runner violently put through a wall. The “spinners” (flying cars).
The neo-noir vibe also is still here; at its core (hell, at its surface), “2049” is a missing person story, the skeleton of which could have come from Chandler or Hammett or the great James M. Cain.
Plot-wise, there’s not a lot to say without getting deep into spoiler territory.
It is three decades after the events of “Blade Runner.” The Tyrell corporation, which once made replicants, is gone, replaced by an agribusiness giant run by Niander Wallace (Leto). Agribusiness, especially in the never-seen Off-World colonies, needs quasi-slaves; Wallace makes them. His replicants are limited in lifespan yet totally obedient.
Officer K (Ryan Gosling, cast brilliantly) is one such replicant, a newer model. He is also a blade runner or, as one replicant puts it to him, “one who kills his own kind.” K doesn’t seem to have a problem with it, but could he even he wanted to?
K lives in a small apartment with a holographic partner named Joi. Gosling — who has toed the line between “movie star” and “good character actor who happens to be really good looking in an interesting way” better than anyone of his generation — is the perfect mixture of obedient and rebellious, of reserved and explosive. He is flesh and blood, but does he have a soul? His boss, a police chief played by Robin Wright, tells him “no” as if she is giving directions to the grocery store. K routinely submits to “baseline checks,” a sort of reverse of the old Voigt-Kampf machines in the original designed, as far as we can tell, to keep his empathy to a minimum. It’s an ingenious bit of microstoria world-building, the kind of which the film could have used a bit more.
On what was to be a straightforward “retirement” on a vast, empty farm, K discovers something that could, as we are repeatedly told, “change everything!” Which leads K, after a good two hours of blind alleys and child slavery and weird memories and scientists in sealed chambers, to Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford, a movie star if ever there was one), living in the middle of nowhere, keeper of a crucial secret.
It’s a tightrope: Where to innovate? Where to pay homage? Throughout this 164-minute film, Villeneuve often trades the original’s visual density for something more spare. “Blade Runner” filled every bit of the frame with stuff to look it, all these tiny details. There’s an emptiness to “2049” — Wallace lives in a massive, empty building, his replicants are birthed not on an assembly line but one by one in a room the size of an apartment. K flies over a dead Earth — naked trees here, sandstorms there.
In “Blade Runner,” we were told most folks were Off-World; here we are shown it. Los Angeles is still a sprawl, a massive city center surrounded by favelas. The rain is constant, the holographic advertising obscene.
Which is also to say, see “2049” on the biggest screen you can possibly find. Let the stunning visuals overwhelm you — Villeneuve is a brilliant craftsman. His mix of practical and CGI effect is dazzling (though one scene decides to build a summer home in the uncanny valley — it’s hard to tell if the queasiness one feels is intentional or not.)
And the creative team keeps the central questions intact: How human is K’s hologram companion? How human is he? Is there a bright line between human and not?
There is one significant reversal from the original. About halfway through, one realizes that “2049” is plot-driven, I mean truly DRIVEN, in a way that “Blade Runner is not. Indeed, some viewers of the original still wrestle with that problem. As one friend put it, “Do I have to see ‘Blade Runner’ to enjoy this one? That movie puts me to sleep.” The answer, by the way, is, “Yeah, you probably should.”
There is ambiguity in the new film, but nothing remotely close to that in “Blade Runner.” Questions, once asked, are largely answered. Which is to say, “2049,” as satisfying as it is, will likely not be generating the sort of philosophical chatter generated by the original, at least not as much. Those were different times.