35 years after its premier, Blade Runner has gotten a sequel in Blade Runner 2049, a film that manages to capture the feeling, style and attitude of the original almost perfectly. However, without the dynamic between the protagonist and antagonist of the original, it comes up just short of being able to reach the same heights as the original as a watershed sci-fi film.
To begin this review, we need to do something new around here in acknowledging one of the real heroes behind this film: Roger Deakins. Deakins has been nominated for 13 Academy Awards, and has worked on some of the best films of this century and he is most well-known for his work with the Coen brothers. He is, of course, the cinematographer for Blade Runner 2049, one of the most visually striking and magnificent films of the past few years.
The original Blade Runner is very well known for its visuals, and it set the bar for a sequel very high. Despite being over 30 years old, the visuals in the original stand the test of time thanks to a very distinct style, use of practical effects and the vision of both cinematographer, Jordan Cronenweth and director, Ridley Scott. Considering the dominance of computer generated effects of the past 20+ years, it may have been expected for this film to also fall into the same trap and end up creating a film that would actually look worse than its ancestor in spite of all the technology it used. Fortunately, director, Denis Villeneuve alongside Deakins used real props, real sets and many different types of practical effects to create a sequel that is able to live up to and possibly even surpass the original purely in terms of visual artistry.
Where is can’t quite live up to its predecessor is in the message of the film that is born from the narrative and its characters. In addition to its visuals, Blade Runner has been able to live on as a high mark in the history of sci-fi because of its contribution to the genre thanks to its characters. Sci-fi films are at their best when they examine the qualities and aspects of our lives that make us human. The dynamic between Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) and Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) allows that examination to play out on screen. Though he is the antagonist, Batty is only on earth in order to prolong his artificially shortened life as a replicant. Ultimately, the end of his life is punctuated by his saving of another in Decker, followed by his famous monologue.
Blade Runner 2049 is never able to reach that level because it has no characters as compelling as Batty. Further, the actual antagonists of the film spend very little time interacting with the hero. That is not to say that the sequel needed to be the same as the original, but including an additional scene where the protagonist, Ryan Gosling as K, and the antagonist, Jared Leto as Niander Wallace, were able to confront one another and exchange their views of humanity and the world that they share would have added more to each character. Without that, we get K, who is a blank slate of sorts, and we get Wallace, who clearly has visions of grand things, but his vision is lost and bogged down the over philosophizing that he does; he almost sounds like a surrogate for Ridley Scott.
Ultimately, there is no greater message that comes from Blade Runner 2049. It dances around one, and makes hints at one throughout the film, but it does not commit in the same way as the first. The film is visually stunning, and while it is nearly 3 hours long, it never feels slow and instead feels methodical and deliberate. But the message it is trying to deliver gets lost without a strong enough voice to piece through the fog of philosophy that the film wanders in. Not having a greater message will not keep it from being a successful, entertaining and very good film, but it will prevent it from be remembered in the same way as the original.