It’s not often that a recently released movie can possibly be considered a “masterpiece.” The term carries a lot of weight.
Yet, many have already declared Blade Runner 2049, the long-awaited sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1982 classic Blade Runner, a masterpiece. 2049 extends Scott’s visionary world, in which near-human robots called “replicants” are second-class citizens, and those who stray from their slave status are hunted down by cops called blade runners (don’t ask why they’re called “blade runners”… it sounds cool). The original film followed a blade runner named Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), and this installment continues Deckard’s story but focuses on another blade runner, Officer K (Ryan Gosling), whose job is to kill outdated, less obedient models of replicants, as he uncovers a puzzle that could alter the division between humans and replicants.
I don’t know if 2049 is a masterpiece, but I do know that its director, Denis Villeneuve, is a master. He combines two genres that he has nailed down in the past, science fiction with Arrival and slow-burn mystery with Prisoners. As with most great sci-fi films, there is a palpable sense of wonder and awe, and, as with most great mysteries, there is persistent unease. Villeneuve’s ability to eke tension out of long scenes remains unparalleled — not a minute of this 2 hour, 43 minute spectacle is boring.
Villeneuve also proves, once again, that he can immerse his audience in a fictional setting. In this sense, he is the perfect choice to follow in Scott’s footsteps. 2049 has such a rich sense of location, from the towering monoliths of a brooding and rainy Los Angeles to the giant, erotic statues of a hazy and deserted Las Vegas. Even the interiors of buildings each have a unique look and atmosphere. The world of this film is so vividly realized, and everything from the sound design to the lighting makes us feel like we’re there.
The world is also brought to life by cinematographer Roger Deakins, who should finally win his first Oscar this year, after 13 nominations. Blade Runner 2049 is so resplendent that I would pay $15 to see it in theaters with the sound muted. Deakins uses every color in the palette to give each set-piece its own texture. He uses light and darkness to evoke specific moods. The cinematography doesn’t just improve the movie — the cinematography is the movie. If there was an Academy Award for MVP, Deakins would win it, hands down.
Much like Deakins’ cinematography, the music is an essential component of the film’s environment. Composers Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch do their best to take Vangelis’ groundbreaking Blade Runner soundtrack and make it their own. There are a few scenes where Ryan Gosling is just flying his ship or slowly walking around, but the score alone gives those sequences character and intrigue. I was also gripping the edge of my seat during an exhilarating, beautifully-shot climax with an eardrum-bursting crescendo of electronic sounds. If you haven’t caught my drift during the last four paragraphs, the filmmaking “Dream Team” of Villeneuve-Deakins-Zimmer is f***ing awesome.
I should probably say here that I like the original Blade Runner, but I think it has many flaws. Something like six different versions of the film have been released, and Scott and Ford can’t even agree on what the script meant, so I’m not crazy to think that there were issues. After several viewings, I still have trouble getting invested in its main character or its central love story, and I think it has problems with story structure that cause large portions of it to be, well, somewhat boring.
That said, it’s iconic and at times transcendent, so many of 2049’s sequences that mimic the original naturally fall short. No opening can surpass the effect of Vangelis’ heavenly synthesizer melody playing over our haunting first look at future Los Angeles and, of course, no climax can match the “Tears in Rain” monologue, which has its own Wikipedia page, for goodness sakes. Blade Runner’s influence and originality cannot be overstated, but 2049 still improves on its predecessor’s imperfections.
For one, K is an immensely compelling main character. Whereas in the original Blade Runner, the replicants Deckard was hunting were far more interesting than Deckard himself (and maybe that was the point), 2049 digs deep into K’s personal struggle. Some fans of the original might not like that this modern blockbuster sequel gives us a more standard hero’s journey, but I appreciated that, as opposed to just presenting a bunch of questions and ideas, 2049 gives us a real story that develops with momentum and drives every scene. Gosling is also fantastic. I can’t reveal anything about his character’s intriguing identity, but it’s a difficult part and Gosling plays it perfectly.
Blade Runner 2049 is nearly three hours long with weighty themes and a plot that forces us to pay attention. It’s certainly a lot to take in, and you’ll probably leave the theater, as I did, wondering if you understood it all. Nearly a week later, I’m still not sure I understood it all. I’m not sure that I understood what Jared Leto’s character was trying to accomplish. I’m not sure if I liked Jared Leto’s overwrought performance. I’m not really sure why he was cast in the first place. There are some abrupt narrative reveals and a nearly ten-minute sex scene. There’s also an artificial intelligence character, Joi (Ana de Armas), who either is the most interesting part of the movie or doesn’t work at all. I haven’t decided yet.
In short, I don’t know if Blade Runner 2049 is a masterpiece, but the fact that I can have the discussion says enough. Only a handful of movies come to theaters each year where “masterpiece” is even in the conversation, and this is one of them.
Lev Akabas is Blogs Editor at the Daily Sun and is a junior in the College of Arts & Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.