BLADE RUNNER 2049: Style Is Substance [Spoiler-Free Review]

Denis Villeneuve is Our New Sci-Fi God

Extremely elusive and ill-defined… “coolness” is a tough nut to crack. Critics and audiences alike didn’t catch on to the prophetic coolness of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner in 1982, but have been playing catch up ever since. Countless science fiction tales have aped its design, its tone, its future hellscape, its electronic soundscape, its every last detail. So elusive is the coolness of Blade Runner (itself an adaptation of a Philip K. Dick writing, further cementing its mythical status)that a sequel, follow up, reimagining, or remake of any kind felt ill-advised at best, and desperate at worst. Blade Runner was magic in a bottle that even sci-fi legend Scott himself couldn’t seem to recapture. Then along comes Denis Villeneuve, with original Blade Runner writer Hampton Fancher and Logan-scripter Michael Green, to recapture the tone, feel, and aesthetic of Blade Runner so casually as to almost make it look easy.

Audiences missed the import of Blade Runner in 1982, however, and it’s very possible the same will happen again today. While being hailed by critics (including yours truly), Blade Runner 2049 isn’t just methodically paced… it is outright languid. Clocking in at 2 hours and 43 minutes and a quiet soul at its core, wide audiences may struggle with Villeneuve’s patience and reverence for the style of the original.

But that style really is everything. Frame after frame, design after design, set after set flawlessly immerses us in one of the greatest science-fiction dystopias ever conceived of by a creative team. I’ll get around to the ideas and the themes and the relevance of it all. But in all honesty, we’ve seen a million great stories about what it means to be human, how we will evolve as a species, and how class disparity is ruining us all. Villeneuve and team have captured a weight and relevance in the continuation of the Blade Runner story that matters. But the greater accomplishment, in my estimation, is the style with which they do it. It’s just so rare anymore that the sheer spectacle of a film induces goosebumps. Having your brain kick you out of the narrative just to marvel at the visual and aural splendor of what you are experiencing just doesn’t happen very often. Blade Runner 2049 is that rare film where the effortless cool envelops you.

It is, of course, not effortless at all. This is a film in which top Hollywood talent that’s not often given the credit they deserve truly get to display their art. Roger Deakins’ cinematography is repeatedly awe-inspiring, as his ongoing collaboration with Villeneuve continues to mine new depth in visual splendor. Production designers, set builders, sound mixers… all are given an opportunity to shine, building a universe that feels so consistent with what came before it, and yet so boundary-pushing today. It’s not lost on the observant that this iconic, beautiful, noir-drenched experience in coolness is a combined effort to represent a desolate and broken planet teetering on the edge of apocalypse. Not since Fury Road has despair popped so vibrantly.

Narratively, 2049 holds up as a worthy successor to Blade Runner as well. Anchored fairly exclusively by Ryan Gosling as blade running replicant hunter “K”, all other acting roles in the film feel almost episodic, with a few vignettes here and there featuring stellar performances from everyone in the cast including Robin Wright as K’s commanding officer, Jared Leto as this chapter’s creator of the latest replicant models, Dave Bautista as a target in K’s investigation, Sylvia Hoeks in a breakout performance as Luv, a brutal antagonist to K, and of course… Mr. Harrison Ford as Rick Deckard. K finds himself on an assignment of extreme importance after his own detective work uncovers a secret that could tip the already ruined world into further chaos. The investigation is intriguing, feels wrought with import, will reward repeat viewings and spur debate, and never causes one to question why it was worth revisiting this franchise some 30+ years later. Continuing the themes and complications that come with a world set up around manufactured human beings and those who hunt them, 2049 more than justifies its existence. And yes, any further discussion of its plot would instantly plunge headlong into significant spoiler territory which is not necessary in order to offer a hearty recommendation of the film to the curious.

With a style so simultaneously reverent of the past and boundary pushing today, the genius of craft behind Blade Runner 2049 truly is its greatest asset. A 1982 film which has inspired a sci-fi aesthetic for an entire generation has given birth to a follow up which will somehow catapult that influence long into this future generation. It’s a magnificent achievement of style that appears so effortless as to make it feel almost inevitable. Denis Villeneuve takes another leap forward in his quest of becoming a modern master.

And I’m Out.

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