In this Blade Runner naysayer’s point of view, Blade Runner 2049 is everything I have ever hoped for from this franchise.
There’s something absolutely euphoric about coming out of a movie and knowing that it’s one for the ages. Well the term “modern classic” is in and of itself a bit of an oxymoron (you can’t really know a film is a classic until it’s no longer modern, right?)…it’s a rare thing when a film ends and you’re absolutely confident it will go onto to become one for the ages. A movie talked about and endlessly discussed for decades, featured in Top 10 articles for years to come, and that inspires a whole generation of film lovers to cherish (and lend their own contributions to) the medium. Mad Max: Fury Road was that kind of film. Toy Story 3 was that kind of film. Baby Driver was that kind of film. And, somehow, Blade Runner 2049 is now that kind of film.
It’s a movie that absolutely floored me, and in ways that were pretty surprising too. Because, simply put, I am not a Blade Runner superfan. I am very much in the camp that the first film, well undeniably influential in terms of science fiction filmmaking, is in and of itself not a great movie. It’s not one of my favorites, it’s not what I consider “a masterpiece,” and it just leaves me cold no matter how many times I’ve rewatched it (I’m up to four now, and my opinion has not been improved with any of the revisits.) I like the film fine and find it a decent watch, but I want so bad to be one of those people who find the movie to be brilliant. But no matter how many times I see it, I just can’t.
But Blade Runner 2049? I am completely on board that hype train and, in fact, found it to be everything that I always hoped (and knew other people felt) Blade Runner could be. I love this film so much and, even with its few flaws, found it to be an absolute wondrous cinematic experience. I truly feel it does make the Blade Runner universe in its entirety better, and does it in ways that the first film could never do. So, with that being said, here are the improvements I think Blade Runner 2049 made that, ultimately, makes it a more rewarding experience than the first. Be warned, though: from this point forward, this article will feature FULL SPOILERS FOR BLADE RUNNER 2049. Read on at your own peril.
A Compelling Mystery At Its Center
At its very core, the Blade Runner universe is just one big giant sci-fi noir. And since I love both those genres immensely, such a thing should be pure cinematic candy to me. But the only problem is that, with the original Blade Runner, the noir elements never felt whole to me. Sure, there were the trappings: the lead detective, the femme fatale, the dark and shadowy angles piercing every corner of its cityscape. But in creating its detective noir flavor, the first Blade Runner was missing something essential: the mystery.
There is none to speak of in the first Blade Runner. Despite being a story about a detective on a case, everything about the story is pretty much revealed to you rather fast. Deckard’s entire investigation is based upon finding a group of rogue Replicants…a group whose whereabouts we are constantly reminded about throughout the entirety of the film. We are always one step ahead of Deckard and his mission in the first film, and for that reason, there was little propelling me through the actual story of the piece. Such fascinating themes and incredible atmosphere, all built to support a plot that just kind of…happens.
But right off the bat, Blade Runner 2049 was quick to change that. It presents a very compelling mystery in the first act (who is the Replicant child, and how was it created?), and follows Officer K’s journey in finding the answers to such a mystery. And in doing so, we actually get to see K do something that Deckard rarely did: actually act like a detective. He investigates leads, interviews sources, travels to new locations in search of answers–and starts to unlock a puzzle that is far beyoud what he initially thought it would be. Perfect, perfect noir, and simply keeping the audience engaged in finding pieces to the puzzle helps the nearly three hour long film never feel long. The experience never drags…which is unfortunately something I couldn’t say about the first film.
A Stronger Protagonist
I’m sorry, all you Rick Deckard fans out there: taken on his own, he is not that compelling of a protagonist. Paired with the problems with storytelling illustrated in the last point, Deckard is a frustratingly static character throughout most of the original Blade Runner. Yes, you have the whole question of whether or not he was a Replicant, which was somewhat interesting (although not nearly as compelling as some make it out to be.)
But take that mystery out, and you have a man that bumbles his way to his culprits, has his ass kicked by then, and is only spared due to the kindness of the film’s truly compelling character (one Roy Batty.) And well the bones of Deckard’s story is there (the hitman gains empathy for his target, essentially), I never found it presented in the first Blade Runner in a way that was all that compelling. It doesn’t help that Harrison Ford seems weirdly detached in the lead role, almost sleep walking through the entire thing in a manner that just doesn’t make for the most involving of characters.
But, once again, Blade Runner 2049 comes out on top in this department. Not only does it make Deckard a more interesting character (Ford thankfully brought his A-game with this one), but the actual protagonist, one Officer K, has an extremely compelling story, and rewarding character arc. At the center of this arc was the fantastic decision to, from the get-go, confirm that our lead character is actually a replicant. Making him an android leads to so many interesting story developments, developments that the first film could only really make in passing, simply because, even with this one, it’s hard to say whether or not Deckard is actually a replicant.
And so much of K’s story here is based around the idea of what a replicant really is: he might not be human but, ultimately, does it matter? Is he lesser for not being “born?” K himself ends up asking these question when his origins are put to the test, with he ultimately believing he is the birthed child of Deckard and Rachel. This in and of itself makes K such a unique character, but what Blade Runner 2049 does so brilliantly is yank the rug right under the audience AND K (or Joe, if you prefer) by saying that he ISN’T Deckard’s child. He is really just a replicant and, in the universe of the film, that makes him nothing more than another cog. He isn’t special at all…until he decides that he is, giving his life meaning by saving Deckard’s.
If Blade Runner is the story of a man who starts to question if he is a robot, Blade Runner 2049 is the story of a robot who begins to question if he is man. And when he finds out he isn’t, he decides that it doesn’t matter anyways: like Roy Batty before him, K realizes he can still matter regardless of his creation. It’s his DECISIONS that give his life meaning, not the nature of his existence. It’s a beautiful, complex, and ultimately fulfilling story arc for K, and seeing the character go through all of it (and Ryan Gosling so perfectly portraying it) is one of the huge joys of Blade Runner 2049.
A Touching, But Unique Love Story
Adding even more fuel to K’s already excellent character development is his main relationship in the film. I didn’t expect at all for Blade Runner 2049 to turn into basically an even heavier sci-fi sequel to Her, but man if it didn’t completely work for me. Gosling and Ana de Armas have a very warm chemistry, and the question it raises about the “reality” of such love just adds even more thematic tissue for the film to chew on as it races towards its endpoint.
…Which is in stark contrast to the love story of the original Blade Runner, which admittedly never worked for me. Well it’s interesting to think about (and is essential for the plot of this film to work), I never really FELT anything for Deckard and Rachel, and wasn’t exactly cheering their love on as the film progressed. In the first film, the relationship felt more like a device in which Deckard could start to question his reality, and gain empathy for the people he was assigned to terminate. And 80’s kinda-sorta-sexual-assault aside (I’m sorry, but this scene does not age well at all) the passion and warmth was just not there for me between Deckard and Rachel.
But the fact it is with K and Joi helps the film gain such a fabulous emotional center. And having Joi not even be sentient (maybe?) just adds a bitter-sweetness to the entire relationship. It is simultaneously sweet AND thought provoking, and brings up issues of our relationship with technology in ways that I love to see done in modern filmmaking. Basically, it felt like a mini Black Mirror episode squeezed into my Blade Runner movie, and what a wonderful thing to have indeed.
An Extremely Varied Design
One thing that even I can’t deny when it comes to the original Blade Runner is how absolutely gorgeous the film is. The effects and overall design of Blade Runner still hold up today, and creates one of the most fascinating and vivid sci-fi universes every put to film. That being said, due to the restraints of the period and the budget of the first project, there’s a certain “limited” quality to the effects on display. Yes, the production design of the futuristic Los Angeles, with its noir tinges and cyberpunk aesthetics, is incredible. But throughout the first film, that was all you saw, with the action being set entirely on the streets and in the buildings of 2019 LA.
But, like all great sequels, Blade Runner 2049 dramatically expands the scope. Due to its far higher budget, Blade Runner 2049 has the freedom to visit a ton of unique, equally realized locations. Sure, the film still takes place primarily in Los Angeles (and still looks amazing there), but pretty much every single scene gives us a wildly different location. There’s the crazy design and beautiful lighting of Niander Wallace’s headquarters (pictured above.) The trash covered wastelands of San Diego. The bombed out desert fog of Las Vegas. The rained out and flooded beach of LA’s outskirts. All of them look absolutely amazing, which is to be expected — Roger Deakins directing a science fiction film is pretty much a dream come true, as my favorite DP in all of history might have designed his magnum opus here.
But equally as important with the new locations is keeping things moving in a way that never feels boring. As I said previously, it’s a miracle that I never felt the length of Blade Runner 2049. With a running time that is over an hour longer than the original (and a pace that is nearly as lethargic too), Blade Runner 2049 should have felt like a slog. But because the film is always offering a new and breathtaking look at something I have never seen before, it had my rapt attention throughout every moment of its 164 minute runtime.
A Couple Very Fun Action Sequences
Blade Runner is not an action movie, and it’s something I’ve never really held against the film either. The only moment it truly indulges in “action” is the ending, and even then, its more of a cat and mouse chase between Deckard and Batty than a full on, action packed battle. You don’t go into this universe expecting something like The Matrix which, admittedly, is something that is probably keeping Blade Runner 2049 from really catching on with mainstream viewers. But I digress.
Though the film features a lot more violence and action than the first film, I still really wouldn’t qualify Blade Runner 2049 as a full on action movie either. But compared to the first film, it’s The Raid. The action might be limited, it’s also VERY good. I didn’t really need Dennis Villenueve to prove his action chops or anything here (he’s so good at so many things that he didn’t really need to), but he and Deakins still deliver in some big ways.
The action could have felt perfunctory and against the core concepts of the film (like it does in way too many other blockbusters), but it works surprisingly well in Blade Runner 2049. It’s used sparingly in moments where its needed, never feeling shoehorned in and ALWAYS feeling like an exciting change of pace. I’m especially a fan of the film’s final big set-piece, which does an excellent job of showing what a fight between two Replicants would really feel like. And does it in a way that is big, unique, and bold, with rain effects and underwater sequences that would make James Cameron blush. Even the small moments, like Joe fighting off Wallace’s henchmen as they come to capture Deckard (pictured above), is brilliantly realized, utilizing the same silhouette badassery that Deakins mastered in Skyfall. Blade Runner 2049 never lets the action overshadow everything else but, when it decides to work in that vein, is just as masterfully done as everything else in the movie.
Harrison Ford Has A Dog In This One
I mean, come on — did Harrison Ford have a dog in the last one? Nope, not at all. In fact, there were NO dogs in the original Blade Runner, just a stupid snake and owl who were both totally fake anyways. The question of whether Deckard’s dog is a replicant or not is brought up (because he’s that important to the movie, of course), but we never get a concrete answer on it. But, come on, he has to be real. Because he is super cute and drinks whiskey from the floor and IS A GOOD DOG, YES HE IS, YES HE IS.
The whereabouts of Deckard’s dog is unknown by the end of the film, but I chose to believe he’s out there. Just waiting to come back for the next sequel…35 years from now.
There you have it, five serious and one EXTREMELY SERIOUS reason why Blade Runner 2049, in my mind, is finally the cinematic experience people always tried to convince me the original was. I don’t dislike the first Blade Runner by any means, and still think it’s important as a piece of film history. And if you disagree with me, that’s fine — to me, the difference is like the original Terminator vs. T2: Judgement Day. Like with T2, I think Villanueva took what Scott was trying to do in the original and just made it bigger and better. But there will always be people who prefer the smaller scale charms of The Terminator. And there’s absolutely noting wrong with that! I’m just glad that, finally, I can say I personally love a Blade Runner movie. After all this time, it feels pretty damned good.
Also published on Medium.