Blade Runner 2049 – Mature Cyberpunk for the Modern Era

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The highly anticipated Blade Runner 2049 has arrived. As the sequel to one of the most well-regarded science fiction movies of all time, and arguably one of the best movies period, I set my expectations high, to say the least. Blade Runner 2049 came in the wake of the live-action adaptation of Ghost in the Shellanother of the must-see cyberpunk canon, but unlike the abomination that was Rupert Sanders’ treatment of a cyberpunk classic, Denis Villeneuve actually met those expectations.

In an attempt to keep this review free of as many spoilers as possible, the official pre-release synopsis of Blade Runner 2049 is: A young blade runner’s discovery of a long-buried secret leads him to track down former blade runner Rick Deckard, who’s been missing for thirty years.

If you can’t tell from the trailers, Blade Runner 2049 is visually stunning. It has a cyberpunk visual style more inspired by the modern era than by the 80s look of Ridley Scott’s vision. It’s a cleaner future, and while I do believe that Scott’s vision is closer to what will actually transpire, Villeneuve’s chosen approach does fit the story that he is trying to tell. Could the world be cleaner because of drone cleaning, or because of a large Replicant population? The setting here is also telling. We see spires of aesthetic creation that house the corporate elite that fancy themselves gods, and then we see the tenements that house the humans and Replicants that have been left on Earth. Left behind by those who have reached the offworld colonies. The cities are gathering places of the remnants of humanity, swelling with sprawl, while walls hold the disaster of our own creation, the rising seas, at bay. Adverts pepper the landscape, as they did in the original film, but here they seem to hold more meaning. A physical representation of the illusionary veil projected over our objective reality to distract from the barren desert of the real.

The cast chosen to populate Villeneuve’s vision of 2049 is nearly perfect. The roles in which we receive cameos are filled by the original actors and they deliver. Each one feels like an older version of the character that we met in 2019, even Harrison Ford, who looks like he walked onto the set and said, “I’ll play Deckard again, but I’m not changing.” Although I jest, even this didn’t break my suspension of disbelief. The newcomers, such as Ryan Gosling, bring their A-game. There are moments where some of the acting feels stilted, but in retrospect, this is also fitting of those characters and what they are meant to represent within the film.

Initially, I was concerned that the movie wouldn’t maintain the bleak, nihilistic tone set in the original Blade Runner and knowing that Hampton Fancher, Blade Runner‘s original scribe, wrote the script I should have had more trust. The philosophical themes that were chosen to be explored in Blade Runner 2049, such as identity within a manufactured reality, finding meaning within this space, the relationship of labor to freedom, isolation, and authenticity, are a perfect extension of ideas presented in Blade Runner and in cyberpunk media as a whole. There were moments in the film where I felt it was too predictable, but those moments, like tears in the rain, were lost and traded for subversions of those presented narratives, and not without excellent foreshadowing. This is a film that will be dissected to death like it’s predecessor and films like The Matrix and Ghost in the Shell.

An important metric for me, as a self-proclaimed cyberpunk, is that the film would be true to the essence of the genre. Blade Runner 2049 more than simply displaying the trappings of cyberpunk aesthetics, is cyberpunk on the nose, but more than that, it is a matured and an evolved form of the genre. Visually, the movie is brought up to date, but not at the expense of narrative. The visuals are true to modern cyberpunk visual style, but also hold meaning within the story itself. The themes are matured forms of ideas presented in the genre and in the philosophy that influenced cyberpunk itself. Even so, the film manages to not come off as heavy-handed. The high tech doesn’t gloss over the low life aspects of the world, which is still full of prejudice, uncertainty, and monotony.

The film does include a number of throwbacks to the original film, and even to Phillip K. Dick’s inspirational novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, but they too weren’t heavy-handed and didn’t oversaturate the film, distracting from the new narrative being told. A minor criticism is that the three short films that were released to bridge the gap between Blade Runner‘s 2019 and Blade Runner 2049, provide historical context that makes parts of the film easier to follow. This might negatively affect viewers in the future, who either don’t know these segments exist as they are new to the material, or they are simply unavailable for some reason. I enjoyed the soundtrack to the film too, however, unlike Vangelis’ timeless score, it didn’t tread any new ground. It complimented the film well, but I don’t think it will be inspiring musical artists for decades to come.

Blade Runner 2049 should act as an example to all future film adaptations, reboots, or continuations about how to be faithful to source material, yet tread new ground. Blade Runner 2049 is a near perfect sequel to a movie that never needed one. It provided a continuation to a story that didn’t need it but did it so well that all I want to do is walk back into a theater and watch it again to delve deeper into its layered, nuanced story and philosophical metaphors. This is coming from a guy that waits for most films to become available outside of theaters due to disillusionment with the current media landscape. I highly recommend this film, not only for viewing but for continued analysis for a long time to come.

Blade Runner 2049 – 10/10

7 Responses to “Blade Runner 2049 – Mature Cyberpunk for the Modern Era”

  1. CrazyNeon

    I saw this in IMAX for its opening night dressed as Rick Deckard in the original and even brought my copy of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. Needless to say it is quite possibly the greatest movie I’ve ever seen, beating the original for my favorite film of all time.

  2. As Denis Villeneuve would say, “I deeply, deeply, deeply love it.” Six tears-in-rain out of five. I’m sure Ridley Scott is either giving a standing ovation on the set of the Alien Covenant sequel, or kicking himself that BR 2049 is going to win at least one Academy Award.

  3. Brian Foster

    I really liked this movie. It was so faithful to the look, feel and tone of the original.

    Now everyone should go play a much overlooked video game called Binary Domain.

    I think they should make a third Blade Runner movie where Replicants overthrow humans and create the Matrix. They linked the Alien universe to Blade Runner, so why not the Matrix? I’m joking. But am I?

  4. I would love to see this movie become a financial success, but the way it is going, it’s seems headed towards a cult classic status. Historically, this might be the destiny of some of the best movies. The truth is that 2049 deserved to be viewed now, in its epoch, because it’s not an avant-garde film like the first one – that one was consciously ahead of its time. While not devoid of nuance – quite the opposite, actually – the message and themes of Villeneuve’s movie are absolutely for us and for this time. It proves that great storytelling is NOT a lost art, that 2h45′ are NOT too many when they are used this effectively, and it has faith in the audience’s intelligence. For anybody who brings Blade Runner: 2049 there are always missed points, misplaced expectations or pretentiousness: let yourself be the sole judge, watch it as soon as you can.

  5. StrangeDog

    I liked it but I didn’t LOVE it. I’m obsessed with the original Blade Runner and I’ll probably dwell on the sequel for a long time as well, but it didn’t have the depth of the first film. I missed the little bits of oddness and world-building that Scott crammed into the first one (growing eyes in a freezer, a parade of emus, the ever-present zeppelins with their gesiha ads); like you said this future was very “clean” compared to what we saw before (like Bryant’s cluttered office vs. Robin Wright’s spartan digs). I also missed the off-kilter performances of actors like Rutger Hauer and Joel Turkel; there weren’t as many compelling characters this time around and Leto’s scenery-chewing felt like an actor trying way too hard. BUT, it was a beautiful movie with stunning visuals. And it felt like it’s own story with bits of homage to the original without trying to replicate it — which would have been a disaster. And I’m thankful when anyone takes the time (and money) to craft a scifi story for adults that isn’t wall-to-wall action or kung fu, even if it’s not perfect.

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