Like the original film, Blade Runner 2049 is intently focused on the question of what makes us human, inviting us to empathize with beings that were artificially created, but still feel. But where the original film zeroed in on the concepts of mortality and memory, 2049 expands its scope to include the concepts of subservience, purpose, physicality, and individuality. It does this by introducing new characters and subplots as thematic reference points, asking the audience to tackle them by degrees. It’s true that Blade Runner 2049 could have been pared down significantly from its 2-hour-45-minute runtime without losing anything central to the plot, but doing so would rob the film of the complexity that makes it so special.
I’m being vague here, because another element that helps make Blade Runner 2049 such a joy is its marketing, which doesn’t dictate even the most crucial plot and character details. There’s a reveal in the very first scene which had not been spoiled for me ahead of time, and it’s essentially the linchpin of the whole story. These moments come frequently throughout the film, the world becoming larger and more complicated as the story draws the viewer deeper and deeper. I would hate to spoil that experience with a block of text.
But there are other elements that I can speak more openly about without spoiling. Take, for instance, the look of the film. Blade Runner 2049 is absolutely gorgeous. It was shot by living legend Roger Deakins, the same man behind the camera on Skyfall, True Grit, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, No Country for Old Men, O Brother Where Art Thou, Fargo, among many others. I’m not exaggerating when I say this might be his best work yet. While he still gets to work with the neo-noir material that defined the 1982 original, 2049 utilizes a far more diverse visual palate than the first film. Different locales are unmistakably unique in their lighting and color-spectrums, with some intentionally presented as barren and dull and others as technicolor futurescapes. There’s one scene in particular, set inside a Las Vegas entertainment lounge, which may be the most visually compelling thing I’ve seen this year.
While Deakins deserves a significant amount of credit for the above, director Denis Villeneuve is similarly deserving for making sure that it all hangs together. Despite being pulled in several different directions by its screenplay, there’s a cohesiveness in the scene-to-scene construction of the movie that keeps the viewer engaged in the journey. The tone and the mood are consistent, emphasized by the patient editing and often understated performances. Every scene is there for a reason, yet nothing ever feels like an obligatory drop-in for the sake of clarity. Blade Runner 2049 works most of its necessary exposition into the events of the narrative in a natural way, giving the viewer just enough information to understand what is going on while retaining some mystery to how this world operates.
The fusion of these elements make for a smart, confident, sophisticated film that transcends what audiences have come to expect from a blockbuster studio feature. With the budget being estimated at $155 million, it’s a miracle that it exists at all. It’s also, to be completely and brutally honest, probably a mistake from a business standpoint. Hard sci-fi films about lofty ideas are a niche genre, and while the studio was likely banking on brand name recognition, even the original Blade Runner is a polarizing film. Not as many people have seen it as fellow 80s Harrison Ford franchises like Star Wars and Indiana Jones, and those who view it expecting similar escapist fare are often disappointed. So it’s not surprising at all that the film has been seen as a box office flop (despite already making back its production budget internationally), or that it’s splitting audiences between those who love it and those who can’t stand it.
But regardless of whether people loved or hated Blade Runner 2049, I’ve noticed that they all want to talk about it. I’ve already had more conversations with more people about this movie than anything else released this year. It’s a film that invites the audience to think, and practically begs to be discussed and dissected. The world may never shower this film with riches the way it would a Transformers movie, but it’s not going to leave the public consciousness anytime soon, either. Blade Runner 2049 will just have to settle for being a cinematic touchstone and one of the greatest films of 2017.