Cinema: 'Blade Runner 2049' Ditches Fan Service for Breathtaking Ambition

Not only is Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner one of the most beloved and influential science fiction films of all time, it's also one of the most thematically challenging to grasp. It is a quintessential slow burn in terms of pace, stretching long periods of time without any action or dialogue. It poses questions about existence and what it means to be “human” without an inkling of clarification. And it ends on one of the all-time great film riddles: is Rick Deckard a man or a genetically-engineered replicant?

You might assume that a sequel to Blade Runner would need to answer some of these long-standing questions. It's a daunting proposition, no doubt, and presumably one of the reasons (along with the film's poor box office performance) that Hollywood has taken so long to dust off the franchise for younger audiences. Explain too little, and it feels like hollow fan service-- explain too much, and it risks spoiling the ambiguity of the original. Thankfully, Blade Runner 2049 manages to sidestep these concerns with breathtaking ambition. It is the rare sequel that uses familiar settings and characters not as commercial fodder or nostalgic relics, but as a genuine attempt at breaking new storytelling ground. As such, it denotes one of the most daring and unconventional blockbusters to come out in some time.

Given how closely Blade Runner 2049 intertwines with the original, it's difficult to discuss the plot without unloading key spoilers. Here are the basics: Agent K (Ryan Gosling) is the new blade runner in Los Angeles, tasked with killing (or "retiring") replicants who've gone into hiding. K, whom we later refer to as "Joe", takes his orders with the stoic indifference we've come to associate with the job. That is, until he stumbles upon an old case, prompting an investigation into the history of replicants, his own blurry past, and the fate of Deckard (Harrison Ford), who went missing thirty years ago.

The smoldering spirit of film noir is evoked throughout, both in terms of story and stylistic progression. Agent K is driven by the seminal goal of all private detectives, redemption, while director Denis Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins (in the best of their three collaborations) drop him into an unforgiving dystopia of neon hues and blinding fluorescent light. Male brooding hasn't looked this good in years. Every single shot in the film leaves a dazzling impression, especially when K ventures outside of his jurisdiction and into the abandoned ruins of what used to be Las Vegas. It's here, amidst the eerie silence and musky natural colors, that Deakins is able to distinguish Blade Runner 2049 from the homogenous setting of the first film and make something truly unrivaled in its beauty. If this doesn't guarantee his long-awaited Oscar win, I don't know what will.

Stepping in for Ridley Scott (credited here as executive producer), Villeneuve also delivers some of his finest work. In past efforts like Prisoners or Sicario, he applied a sort of "art house" approach to the crime genre-- elegant, solemn character studies punctuated by sudden bursts of violence. Blade Runner 2049 hones this practice to a near science, as evidenced by the opening scene, where serene landscapes of agricultural farmland are broken up by Agent K's deadly confrontation with a replicant. Villeneuve unpacks the remaining 163 minutes in equally uncompromising fashion. He constantly pushes the limits of his viewer's attention span, challenging them to reconsider where modern blockbusters can go in terms of pace and performance.

Gosling’s ability to evoke sympathy through body language makes him an ideal choice to play the isolated Agent K. So many of his scenes are played silent, to the extent that when he does interact with others, his desire for acceptance feels all the more doomed. It is an impressively subtle turn. The same can be said for Ford, who offers some of his bravest and most emotionally raw acting in years. His Deckard has the same caustic swagger of his youth, but there's a sudden vulnerability in the scene between him and replicant mogul Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) that permanently affects how one perceives the character. Villeneuve also extracts searing performances from Robin Wright (Lt. Joshi), Ana de Armas (Joi), and Dave Bautista (Sapper Morton).

Admittedly, there are some minor hiccups with the film. The intrigue of the first half tapers off once Deckard is found, and it takes a bit to calibrate his screen time with that of Agent K. Then there is the matter of the "plot twist" which, while inventive, may ultimately put it at a disadvantage to the original. Scott's Blade Runner cannot be spoiled. It's an abstract painting of a film that can withhold discussion because its themes are too complex to absorb in one sitting. It doesn't rely on big reveals to provoke awe. By comparison, Blade Runner 2049 is more of a film puzzle, enthralling to sift through but lacking in the hypnotic residue of its predecessor once it's been pieced together.

It's too soon to tell whether Blade Runner 2049 will match the original in influence and staying power. No film can truly deliver on thirty-five years of expectations, and it will likely take another thirty-five years before we can know for sure. But the fact that the discussion is being had at all is a testament to Villeneuve and his collaborators. They've made a challenging, absurdly epic love letter to one of science fiction's masterpieces, and imperfections aside, they have come surprisingly close to a masterpiece of their own.