Visual style, an ethical dilemma, and great casting made the original Blade Runner incredible, and Denis Villeneuve built the sequel the same way
The science fiction neo-noir classic Blade Runner is the single greatest book adaptation ever made. It’s laughably divergent from its source material — it picked up Philip K. Dick’s concept of androids and that the world was screwed and didn’t run with much else. Usually, this ends poorly for everyone involved, and the result is less like Lord of the Rings and more like The Hobbit. The film worked because androids, the idea it cuts out of the book like a painting out of a gilt frame, is morally and intellectually the most interesting part, and because it filled in all the holes around that idea with a style so distinct and clear that every frame of the film is a work of art. Also, Harrison Ford’s star wattage doesn’t hurt.
The gulf between an original movie and a 35-years-late sequel is similar to the distance between a book and its movie. Blade Runner 2049 took a different direction with its source material — a direct and respectful homage to its original. The difference between it and something like The Force Awakens is that it stakes out enough of its own turf not to be an artistic failure. Hate to be a buzzkill, and I loved seeing it in theaters, but The Force Awakens was a beat-for-beat remake of A New Hope without a single new idea of its own. So, why is Blade Runner 2049 a success?
Well, before you go any further, take a gander at what you can see in theaters this weekend:
The strengths of the original Blade Runner
The success of the first Blade Runner comes down to its visuals, the stimulating central problem of replicants, and Harrison Ford. Its worldbuilding is the greatest artistic achievement of that decade, and it builds its world with visuals. Everything is gritty, wet, and cramped, either too bright or too dark, except for the Tyrell corporation building which is a soft-lit, wide temple to wealth and power. Rick Deckard’s job in the movie is “retiring” rogue replicants, androids who have begun acting anomalously. The movie spins around the moral core of killing sentient beings just because they’re acting like sentient beings, i.e. seeking freedom. Deckard never seems thrilled to be doing it, and towards the end of the film he not only falls in love with a replicant, but begins doubting whether he is one. Harrison Ford as Rick Deckard is the final style piece of the film — no one has a better put-upon-why-me face, and he’s also Harrison freaking Ford.
The movie’s plot is well-constructed, but it’s not the central component of the movie’s watchability. The action in Blade Runner is understated, almost ponderous, but what keeps the film going is that every single frame is beautiful, is art. It’s easy to watch because the literal act of viewing each frame is rewarding.
Blade Runner 2049, genetics, and inheritance
Blade Runner 2049 is definitely its father’s son. Denis Villeneuve tries to rebuild the same world Ridley Scott constructed in 1982, just adding in three more decades of we’re-screwed. There’ve been several bloody replicant revolutions and a complete ecological collapse. The first bankrupted the Tyrell Corporation (original manufacturer of replicants) and the second was solved by the agri-tech of Blade Runner 2049’s main antagonist, Niander Wallace (who bought up Tyrell’s assets and started making “safer” replicants).
Denis Villeneuve pays the same attention to visual worldbuilding as Ridley Scott did, only it’s a world 30 years more bleak. Urban areas are an industrial wasteland filled with scavengers, rust, and death, and natural spaces are an ecological wasteland filled with cracked earth, dust storms, and dead trees. People live in the middle of these extremes, in a cityscape filled with ever-advancing technology. The interplay of light and dark, the picture-perfect artistry of each frame of the movie is still there, paying perfect homage to the original.
The ethics of the sequel have shifted. Not only has the replicant-as-slave trope been made explicit, with Niander Wallace (tech magnate and the current manufacturer of replicants) stating that “[e]very civilization was built off the back of a disposable workforce” and regretting that he couldn’t breed replicants (as slaves were bred), but the main character, Ryan Gosling’s Officer K, starts the movie as an indisputable replicant, the property of the L.A.P.D. Blade Runner’s morality was ambiguous — the inventor of replicants, Eldon Tyrell, was a benevolent creator, and Rick Deckard’s attitude was “I’m killing replicants, ain’t it a shame, but hey, what else can we do?” In Blade Runner 2049, a definite replicant is struggling with issues of identity and morality. An unambiguous member of an oppressed class is at the center of the sequel, which changes the ethical landscape significantly. Not to mention Jared Leto’s amazingly creepy Niander Wallace is, unlike Eldon Tyrell, undoubtedly a Bad Guy (murder, torture, etc.).
Blade Runner 2049 has the same approach to plot as its progenitor — make it good, but don’t make it the center of the movie. The sheer beauty of the world that’s built is what makes the film. Its approach to action is a bit different — in the original, it’s a few short bursts of gunplay and chasing. In 2049, the fight scenes might be rare, but they’re definitely modern. Officer K is literally, as he was built, a killing machine, and it’s impressive to watch when he gets in a corner where the only way out is violence.
Ryan Gosling vs Harrison Ford
How cruel to put any actor up against living legend Harrison Ford, but Gosling does a really great job. Same balance of grim but emotional right underneath, same ratio of acting chops versus sheer ability to look cool. Ryan Gosling might be Harrison Ford for Millennials — good actor, attractive, with the ability to fill out an action movie without being typecast as an action star. Harrison Ford is part of what made Blade Runner great, and Ryan Gosling definitely adds style and charm to 2049. Ford is a legend, but Gosling is a worthy inheritor.
Blade Runner 2049 is the sequel every great movie deserves
Blade Runner 2049 and its predecessor are both primarily visual experiences. The plot of each is clear and strong, but the center of each film is just seeing the world it builds. Each frame, as a still photo, is interesting enough to make you want to see the next one. Preserving and intensifying the central moral quandary of the original and adding Gosling’s star power to the mix just adds more to love.
Blade Runner 2049 is heavily indebted to the original, but that’s by design. What’s important is that Villeneuve had the courage to use everything important about the original film — the stunning visual style and the central moral question of replicants — but still carve out his own original space. It might not be taught in film classes like Blade Runner is (yet), but the beauty of a director making an intellectual property his own is that one-to-one comparisons are no longer relevant. Villeneuve and Gosling made their own thing here, and it stands alone, and it stands strong.