Blade Runner (1982) was a movie that did not really need a sequel, even if the tech noir future it set up was a great framework for more stories. It inspired others to tell tales in similar-feeling settings and there were official continuations in novels and a video game, but Blade Runner didn’t get a full movie sequel until this year, 35 years after the original. I was a bit dubious about the undertaking, as it would not be an easy task to live up to a beloved cult classic. Also, there was one central, important question intentionally left unanswered by the original film, an ambiguity that seemed unlikely to survive a sequel.
As it turns out, Blade Runner 2049 is not quite on par with the original, but it comes admirably close. And it respects and maintains that lingering mystery from the original, not conclusively settling it. Directed by Denis Villeneuve, whose previous movie was the philosophical puzzle Arrival, it is full of beautiful imagery and it tells an interesting story revolving around existential questions. It plays with the concept of humanity, showing humans and androids in both their best and their worst light. Humans generally just see the self-aware androids as tools to be used, not caring about their very convincing – semblance of – feelings. To complicate matters, this time the rung of holographic artificial intelligence has been added to the pecking order. Even most androids look down on these creations and see them as less worthy. The question constantly in the background is, where does the line lie between artificial intelligence and humanity? Aren’t humans and advanced androids the same, just constructed differently? It is a theme that pop culture has pondered a lot recently – in the lauded television series Westworld and Humans, for instance. So it feels a bit less fresh than it once did, but it is still a compelling question.
Like before, Blade Runner‘s future posits a world with incredibly large rooms full of photogenic shadows, in which the designers have been quite wasteful with their space, alternated with busy cityscapes with pushy neon signs and an overall sense of decrepitude. If there is one thing missing here, it is the peculiar melancholy warmth added to the original recipe by Vangelis’ soundtrack. Hans Zimmer’s score comes close in general, but it feels a bit colder, despite being equally epic.
Sadly, Blade Runner 2049 seems to have flopped at the box office, much like the original did before becoming regarded as a movie classic. It is not surprising, really, as younger audiences possibly never saw the original film to begin with and the movie trailer played heavily on affection for it, rather than explain to new viewers what they should expect. Add to that Blade Runner 2049‘s intimidating length (164 minutes) and it ends up not being an easy sell. When I saw this at an IMAX, the crowd was notably male and over 30, mostly over 40. Not even the appeal of gazing at Ryan Gosling for over two hours was enough to draw women to the theater. And a grizzled appearance by Harrison Ford, reprising his role from the first movie, will make fans happy but is also unlikely to have broad pulling power.
This may very well be the last we have seen of the Blade Runner universe on the big screen, but its financial disappointment is unlikely to stop writers from being inspired by it’s neon-drenched, tech-noir universe. Its world remains compelling, even if you would never want to actually live in it.