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Ridley Scott's Blade Runner is arguably the biggest and best cult movie ever made. Its original form was famously dismissed by critics and general audiences alike, but subsequent re-edits and the persistent fluorescent and rainy vision of futurist Syd Mead have allowed it to stay relevant in pop culture to the point where it's now viewed as a sci-fi masterpiece. The film took the long road in establishing its legacy -- but director Denis Villeneuve's new sequel, Blade Runner 2049, won't be taking that same path. It won't take 35 years to view it as a sci-fi masterpiece because this time around, people are going to recognize it immediately.
Like its predecessor, the sequel is a genius blend of sci-fi aesthetics blended with a dense and complex noir narrative, this time around written by Blade Runner's Hampton Fancher and Logan's Michael Green. Telling too much of the plot would effectively ruin part of the experience of watching the mystery unfold for the first time, but can be explained in broad strokes. Set 30 years after the first movie, the story follows a new Blade Runner -- a term for a police officer who is assigned to hunt down illegal replicants (synthetic humans designed for slave labor). Sent on what seems like a standard job, K (Ryan Gosling) makes a discovery that could have implications for the entire world.
Assigned an exploratory and termination mission by his superior, Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright), to end the threat before word gets out, K begins an investigation that leads him to uncovering secrets of the past, the actions of a fugitive Blade Runner named Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), and the nature of his existence. Blade Runner 2049 returns to Phillip K. Dick's deep philosophical questions about the nature of humanity, and expressed through a captivating, epic mystery, it amounts to a breathtaking, mind-bending cinematic experience.
Finding success where so many other long-awaited sequels falter, Blade Runner 2049 strikes a tremendous balance between old and new. K is far from a substitute for Rick Deckard in an identical storyline, and instead is a character with completely different agency, motivations and relationships. By the end you are as invested in his singular fate as much as the entire world's, and it's powerful enough to let this story stand on its own. At the same time, having awareness of the previous chapter certainly does enhance every aspect of the feature, as it gives illustrative background to some of the film's elegantly-laid exposition, and makes it that much more satisfying when certain important touchstones are hit upon. Unlike many other faulty follow-ups, it never feels forced, and builds on the world instead of feeling only ancillary.
After questions about Blade Runner 2049's fidelity to the original, one's attention might be drawn towards the blockbuster's two hour and 40 minute runtime -- which is intimidating for any movie-goer. Really, though, it's just another way in which the film reveals how impressive it really is. In classic noir fashion, each new scene offers a puzzle piece that is crucial for what's ahead and leads to the next step, and it not only never feels like it's getting bogged down in exposition, but Denis Villeneuve orchestrates an incredible flow that keeps everything moving scene-to-scene. It doesn't play down to the audience in any way, so you do have to pay attention, but that's hardly work for a movie that is this entrancing.
"Entrancing" is a good word to focus on there, because what director Denis Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins have created here is unquestionably one of the most breathtaking big screen experiences you can have. Obviously they had an incredible template to launch from, but that original vision has been able to marvelously evolve in the last 35 years, and it's ultimately just a starting point for what the filmmakers and their team accomplish with the look of rainy 2049 Los Angeles and the world beyond it. There are moments where you will feel compelled to yell at the projectionist to pause the reel just so that you can spend an extra moment reveling in the immense beauty of what's been constructed.
In the same way that revealing too much about the plot beforehand would do its part to soil the experience, so would talking too much about the characters -- but the performances by the incredible ensemble here demand recognition. For example, between this film, Drive, The Nice Guys, and La La Land, "Ryan Gosling In Los Angeles" deserves to be seen as the amazing individual genre that it is -- as he delivers yet another subtle-yet-powerful turn here. Likewise, Ana De Armas and Sylvia Hoeks give two very different but equally commanding turns on opposite ends of the protagonist/antagonist spectrum; and while appearing in what are fairly limited roles screentime-wise, both Harrison Ford and Jared Leto showcase the full extent of their talent and what they can really do when given the proper material to work with.
To be perfectly blunt, Blade Runner 2049 is far better than anyone could have expected it to be. Decades-late sequels are almost never actually satisfying, let alone stand out in the shadow of its predecessor. Yet what Denis Villeneuve has created here is nothing short of phenomenal, crafting a movie that is just as epic, fascinating and beautiful as the original. With time and reflection, it may even be judged as the superior film.