Published Oct 04, 2017While sequels should ostensibly expand upon an original concept and refine what made them special to begin with, more often than not, they feel like a cheap copy of a superior predecessor.
But Québécois-turned-Hollywood director Denis Villeneuve's latest film, a sequel to the Ridley Scott sci-fi classic Blade Runner, is the rare exception to the rule — a moody, stylish and nuanced movie that improves upon the first film in almost every imaginable way, even visually (no easy task, considering what a shock to the senses the Harrison Ford-starring picture was upon its release 35 years ago, and continues to be to this day).
Picking up decades after the events of the first film, Ryan Gosling plays a new blade runner tasked with "retiring" even more advanced replicants than we saw in the first film. A case takes him to a California farm outside of Los Angeles — and what he sees there sends him on a journey that finds him digging up facts from 30 years ago, making discoveries that have ramifications beyond the grey, sprawling metropolis he's forced to patrol.
To explain any more would ruin the incredible experience of watching this movie. (Although set in the near future, the film's makers, evidently, want watching Blade Runner 2049 to feel like you're experiencing it in the past — before screening the film for Canadian press in Toronto, a statement written by Villeneuve was read aloud, asking reviewers to withhold character and plot points online.) But we can say this: there are subtle allusions to the previous film (whether it's boiling water acting as a soundtrack in one of the movie's more tense scenes, or the click-clack of images being enlarged on futuristic devices); it's got the same noir-ish overtones; and it's visually stunning (Blade Runner 2049 is far and away the most captivating movie to come out this year).
It's also thematically richer. The original movie — based on the critically acclaimed Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, published at the tail end of the Civil Rights movement and as the counterculture of the 1960s began to fully bloom across the Western world — mostly dealt with issues related to free will and an ever-changing reality.
Those topics pop up again here, but Blade Runner 2049 focuses more of its efforts on exploring how technology changes society and us — something expanded upon by Dick in 1972, four years after the book's publication, with his speech "The Android and the Human." In it, Dick spoke about the human process of animating the things — now, mostly electronic — that surround us, how we inject meaning and emotion into the inanimate as they become more essential to our day-to-day lives. Are robots becoming more like humans, or are humans becoming more like robots? And how does that shape the value of our experiences?
Villeneuve (working from a screenplay by original Blade Runner writer Hampton Fancher and small screen/cinematic sci-fi stud Michael Green) tackles those issues in a stylishly — sometimes subdued, sometimes not — way. It's established early on that the world of Blade Runner wouldn't exist without slave labour and genetically modified food, and its characters grapple with intimacy (akin to the themes of Spike Jonze's Her), an increasingly corporatized society (those in-your-face Coca-Cola advertisements rear their ugly heads once again, and the film's main conglomerate has more power than the police) and the meaning of existence in a technologically advanced society.
It's heady stuff for a movie-going audience that's been more likely to spend money on horror movie reboots than anything else this past summer. But Blade Runner 2049, despite the bad connotations usually associated with big-budget sequels, is a must-see, an awe-inspiring movie with a seemingly limitless scope that plumbs unseen emotional depths. It will have you questioning what's real and what's not — and whether, at the end of the day, that even matters.