The original Blade Runner was a flop when it was first released in 1982, greeted rudely by critics and indifferently by audiences. People wanted clarity and optimism back then, and opted for science fiction with clear rules and happy endings; this was the year of the suburban wonder of E.T., not the dystopian megalopolis of Ridley Scott’s future Los Angeles.
Blade Runner was a difficult and cold film, with few internal rules, murky morals, vague battle lines, and an endless monsoon of rain falling on its permanent night. Harrison Ford played a grumpy detective whose sole purpose was to kill sentient beings who were simply trying to outrun a death penalty they did nothing to deserve. You root for Harrison Ford because he's Harrison Ford (in this case, under the moniker Rick Deckard), but Rutger Hauer's final speech makes you reconsider your allegiances.
It's only thanks to the dual forces of years of critical reconsideration and Hollywood's thirst for recognizable IP that the movie has gotten a sequel all these years later. And considering just how desperate studios are for bankable, endlessly extendable franchises and multiverses, there was every reason to believe that the difficult exterior of the original would be deconstructed and discarded for the sequel. Why would studios, including Alcon and Sony, spend $150 million on something (with Warners picking up the distribution and marketing tab in America) that couldn't produce a long tail of future profits, via fan service, audience-pleasing familiarity, and endless sequels?
After all, it's not as if Ridley Scott has proven unwilling to go back to his iconic franchises and stretch them out for modern audiences and franchise standards; he just released another Alien film earlier this year, after all. But Blade Runner 2049 is different, because it is much like the original in that it exists on its own on a tech-ravaged future island shrouded in mist and darkness, concerned only with the tragic story it has to tell. Once again, 35 years later, a Blade Runner movie is great because it seems designed to not care about greatness.
Scott produced the new movie and helped write the story with original screenwriter Hampton Fancher. But it is undoubtedly the work of director Denis Villeneuve, the French-Canadian auteur who has long proven his willingness to make difficult movies with nebulous moral centers. Before last year's sci-fi hit Arrival, which proved he had the visual genre chops, he made movies like Prisoners and Sicario, hard-boiled detective and cartel dramas with antiheroes and bloodshed in which every drop felt heavier than the last. He was the perfect pick for Blade Runner 2049 because he has his own agenda with each of his films and does not seem to let audience expectations even enter his mind.
It'd have been easy to cave to the most vocal Internet fans, who both crave sequels and reboots and hold them to impossible standards against memories of the originals. And it'd have been even easier to neatly answer questions and set up a whole line of sequels and spinoffs. And while that still may happen, especially if the movie is financially successful, it's obvious that Villeneuve did not seem worried about any of that. That's what makes it so great and so rewarding to watch. You won't see anything else like it.
Blade Runner 2049 is long — two hours and 43 minutes — and it is ponderous and moody and atmospheric, punctuated by occasional violence. It first focuses on the quiet moments in the somewhat solitary existence of the agent K (Ryan Gosling), then pivots to his desperate search for self, a quest more important than any police work he has to do, though the two are inextricably tied. K is almost as lonely as Deckard, who returns here, though in a way that will be a bit unexpected by most viewers.
All of its characters live in relative isolation. It is not a movie about friends, or partnerships, or teammates; where there is cooperation, it is usually reluctant. We spend a lot of time with several characters, getting to know them in their solitary existences. It goes even further than the original; unlike in Blade Runner, the protagonist does not spend time on busy city streets or eating at bustling noodle shops.
None of this is to say that the movie is a difficult watch; it’s big, bold, gorgeous, and at times a lot of fun. Blade Runner 2049 is one of the most visually stunning films ever made and in a just world will win cinematographer Roger Deakins his long-awaited Oscar. People will see it multiple times, just for the visual splendor, and the winding plot and ace performances leave more to be discovered with each viewing. It’s not a Marvel movie, that’s for damn sure, but it’s no “dark and gritty” superhero-style movie, either. Really, Blade Runner 2049 stands on its own as a blockbuster — just like the original movie.