This review was written for and appears on Punch Drunk Movies. Check out the site when you have a chance.
The accepted wisdom in movies is show, don’t tell. “Blade Runner,” though, took that to a whole other level; it didn’t show and didn’t tell. So much of the film is left to interpretation that it leaned into being obtuse. Of course, that mystery is partly why the film has stayed in people’s consciousness for 35 years.
“Blade Runner 2049,” its belated sequel, wisely keeps some of that mystery but expands on the setting and story exponentially, using modern special effects to envelop you in its world in ways the original never could, all while telling a complicated story with a strong philosophical backbone.
Like the original, it’s a detective story, but a much more complex one. Ryan Gosling stars as “K,” a futuristic detective who follows a long trail of clues that eventually tie into events from the first film and lead to dangerous revelations that have him questioning his own identity (a staple of Philip K. Dick novels, which “Blade Runner” is based on). A big part of the fun with “2049” is the unfolding of its labyrinthine plot and learning its secrets along the way, so I’ll leave the description at that.
At nearly three hours, it’s an unhurried film that luxuriates in its pace. “Honestly, it could have been 20 minutes long,” my friend said after the movie. That’s an exaggeration, of course, but he does bring up an interesting point. In another director’s hands, this story would have been told in half the time. But then it wouldn’t have been as good. It’s long, but not ponderous and director Denis Villeneuve (“Sicario,” “Arrival”) allows the scenes to unfold in the time they need. A sequence where “K” finds evidence with drastic implications is drawn out, starting with a slow descent through shadows into a boiler room. As he gradually moves across the room, the music drones and swells on the soundtrack, the tension becomes unbearable before it crescendos with his find. Yes, the sequence could have been shorter, but then the importance of the moment, the palpable dread, would have been lost.
That measured pace also allows you to really take in the setting. Even more so than the first film, you really get a feel for this futuristic Los Angeles dystopia, a giant city stretching in every direction, clouded over by perpetual rain. For some odd reason, I’ve always had a thing for this kind of a backdrop and with the help of Roger Deakins’s typical ace cinematography, the environment wraps around you like a wonderfully depressing and warm blanket.
I always thought that the story in the original “Blade Runner” was a little, um, aloof. Important events would happen off screen, things that people should know, they didn’t and vice versa. The world was drawn with bold strokes but it didn’t make that much sense. There was no color in the lines. “2049” adds that color. There’s more dialogue, clarity, and characters act more rationally, asking the same questions that the audience would be asking. But while answers are given, they are not always forthcoming. A sense of mystery still exists. It’s a good balance and this time the mystery feels earned.
Still, even though it is that carefully crafted, the sequel does lose some of the dreamy allure of the original. The rose-colored glasses of nostalgia might just be clouding my vision of the first film, but the sequel doesn’t have that specific music video look that director Ridley Scott brought to his version. And the music, with its driving rhythm and incorporation of the original’s themes, is good, but leans too heavily into the usual booming, elephant-clearing-its-nostrils tricks co-composer Hans Zimmer (here with Benjamin Wallfisch) has used since “Inception” and doesn’t come close to Vangelis’s ethereal score for the predecessor.
“Blade Runner 2049” is that rare sequel that is better than the original. It pays tribute to “Blade Runner” without simply imitating it, digging deeper into the previously established story, characters, and mythology. Leaving the theater, I felt something odd, something I hadn’t felt in a while. I felt satisfied, like I’d just had a complete meal. This isn’t just a great sequel; it’s a great science-fiction film and one of the best movies of the year.