There can be no more daunting job than trying to produce a sequel to an industry giant property. Book, movie, TV show, video game – it doesn’t matter. When you try to reproduce the success of a giant, your chances of success are slim. Blade Runner 2049 attempts to find its success by going big, way bigger than the original, in practically every way.
When Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner premiered in 1982, the cast had 5 big names. Harrison Ford had already released Star Wars: A New Hope and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Darryl Hannah, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young, and Edward James Olmos were at the beginning of their career trajectories. Of the 4 other than Ford, Hauer, had some bigger credits to his name, but most were overseas in films made in a foreign language. Blade Runner propelled Hauer, Young, Young and Olmos to bigger things.
In Blade Runner 2049, however, director Denis Villeneuve hit the ground with a cast of already established big names in Ryan Gossling, Robin Wright, Jared Leto and David Bautista. The three additional big characters were played by younger foreign actresses Ana De Armas (Cuba), Sylvia Hoeks (Netherlands) and Carla Juri (Switzerland), who are just beginning to garner bigger roles on the American screen. Add Ford and Olmos and the cast was certainly one of the strongest elements of Blade Runner 2049. The decision to go with some already established big stars was the first example of the new film going big.
The story centers on Gossling’s character, KD6-3-7, the new generation of Blade Runner, a specialty member of the LAPD whose job is hunting and “retiring” (a nice way to say killing) older model replicants, the organic androids built to be slave labor. There have been many discussions over the years about whether Ford’s character was actually a replicant, in the original film. In Blade Runner 2049, there is no ambiguity about the status of K, as he is called. He is a replicant, and the truth of his job is that he is tasked with killing his own kind. This idea is one of the many deeper themes of the new film. Gossling, delivers. K is a complex character. He is visibly desensitized to the nature of his work while on the job, and then returns home where he is in need of companionship and love. Gossling does an outstanding job with the contradiction.
I’ve made no secret of my feelings for Jared Leto. I’m no fan, and this was no exception. Perhaps, it’s because of his recent roles. Both the Joker and Niander Wallace, the villain in Blade Runner 2049, are over the top baddies. Leto’s Wallace is also a study in contradiction. The deed for which he gained fame before the beginning of the film was incredibly selfless, while his pursuits during the movie are anything but. He has a couple of scenes that are pretty off the wall, which minimizes the effect of his character, making him a cartoon character of a villain. Luckily, his assistant, Luv, a replicant played by Sylvia Hoeks, does the heavy lifting in the villain department. She gets more screen time and also does a remarkable job of playing a very complex character – an android, whose program is to do awful things, but who cries when she sees her boss do equally awful things.
The remaining performances were all solid. Despite the promo materials released, Harrison Ford’s role was much smaller than I expected, however, the film didn’t suffer for that.
The real heroes in this film were Production Designer, Dennis Gassner and Cinematographer Roger Deakins. From a visual standpoint this film was incredible from the first scene to the last. The visuals were the appeal of the original. The interiors, the lighting, the framing, and the dystopian vision of Los Angeles were all trendsetting at the time, and as such, one of the most memorable elements of the 1982 film. No sequel could even be considered without making the visual elements a main focus. Gassner and Deakins were able to deliver an even more impressive visual ride. What I particularly liked was the evolution of the environments. LA, now 30 years older than in the original film, had become even more dense, covering every ounce of land. The world has changed, the climate is harsh, with constant precipitation, switching between hard rain and snow. The ever-present smog gives the film a hazy quality that allows for great lighting effects.
One of the greatest scenes in the film actually takes place when K visits Las Vegas, a now abandoned ruin, completely enveloped in the red dust of the desert that has reclaimed its own. The emptiness, the encroaching dust, the ruined statues from empty casinos are breathtaking. Equally as impressive are several massive rusted industrial sites that tower over the characters, illustrating just how small they are in the world that continues to grow more harsh around them. The dystopian picture painted is near perfect. Almost too perfect. Sometimes it feels more Mad Max than Blade Runner.
Finally, the attention to detail was another winning element in the overall design. Every single scene was packed full of details, like the entire world of Blade Runner 2049 is an episode of Hoarders. There was stuff everywhere; on the floor, on shelves, on counters. The exception was the world of Niander Wallace at Wallace Corp. There was a simplicity to the decoration that was clearly designed to separate Wallace from the other characters.
The scenery and locations were another example of the go bigger approach. One of the best decisions (and possibly most difficult to execute) was the use of practical locations and sets versus CGI. There were a few obvious CGI elements, but overall, real scenery makes for better movies (see also: Star Wars return to real scenery in The Force Awakens). The CGI elements were used where they needed to be, to create memories to be implanted in replicants, and to advance the advertisements in the city, an element that was a critical element of the first film.
Overly Epic Sound Track
This was a curious decision. The soundtrack was overpowering; uncomfortably loud at times. At first I thought maybe it was set to a level meant for a full theater, which we were not even close to, but then I realized that the dialogue was at an acceptable level. It was just the music and the sound effects that were glaringly loud. Make no mistake, the score by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallsfitch was well-conceived, and was another element that built the complete experience. Perhaps the decision was to make the audience uncomfortable, like the discomfort that the characters were living in. If so, it worked. I was uncomfortable. There is no doubt that this contributed to Villeneuve’s bigger is better vision for this film.
Bigger is Better Writing Isn’t Always Better
Of all the major elements of Blade Runner 2049, the writing was the place the movie suffered most. In revisiting the Blade Runner world, anyone will acknowledge that the original film was a slow burn. It wasn’t filled with the epic action sequences that we have become accustomed to. Nor was the sequel. There are a few high-action sequences , but overall, the film moves at a much slower pace than other films this epic in nature, and this is where the two films differ most. Slow burn is a very effective technique, but the original film ran 1 hour 57 minutes, while 2049 runs 2 hours and 43 minutes. That is quite a difference.
The original was a detective film, with the very cool noir qualities. It absolutely felt like a sci-fi Sam Spade film. While Blade Runner 2049 tries to do that, it fails. It’s more of a detective film in a Mad Max cyberpunk kind of way, and it was the writing of the characters Rick Deckard and KD3-6-7 that caused that.
The new film did a nice job of connecting with the universe Ridley Scott created in 1982, but even in the 2 hours and 43 minutes it used, there were pieces of connective tissue that were missing. While, a new story, 30 years in the future, there is information that was missing for people not familiar with the original. If the films were only separated by the normal 2-3 years between installments, perhaps that wouldn’t have been an issue, but this film wasn’t as clear to people who hadn’t seen the original.
There were some powerful themes explored more deeply in this film than the others. I never really took away the idea of the rights of replicants, from the original film. Replicants were developed to essentially be slave labor. Replicants are also fully organic. They eat and drink and feel. They experience emotions, as many a replicant cried in this film, and while I recognize that Villeneuve was trying to subtly illustrate the complexity of the replicants, I felt this was a bit overused.
Finally, after seeing the film and taking some time to really reflect, I found there were some large plot problems, that in the interest of staying spoiler free, I won’t discuss in detail. The central premise of the whole plot is an assumption that really doesn’t hold water. It is sold as a revelation that would destroy the world as known, which drives K’s whole storyline. Conversely, to Niander the same premise is the golden egg. In neither case does it make any sense that it would drive the results that are expressed. While that is the biggest, it is certainly not the only plot problem.
Bigger Doesn’t Necessarily Yield Bigger Results
As I said in the beginning, trying to follow up an icon is no easy task, and often ends doesn’t succeed. In 1982, Blade Runner was a low budget film with a budget of $33.8 million. They maximized that budget with a cast of mostly newcomers, and lots of close up shots in the dark that allowed for them to do a few bigger things really well. The movie felt much bigger than it actually was. That was the magic of it.
Blade Runner 2049 had a budget in excess of $155 million, and big stars, big music, big ideas, and a script that was arguably too big, but none of this made the film bigger than its predecessor. Don’t get me wrong, it was a fine film. There was a lot of great things, and I enjoyed it, but I actually hope that it is the end of the line for the Blade Runner series. Some movies don’t need sequels. Blade Runner was one of them.
A very good attempt at the incredibly difficult task of creating a sequel to an iconic cult film. A great cast, incredible visuals, and like its source material, a very thoughtful film full of big ideas. Some problems with the volume of the soundtrack, some plot problems and the length of the film relative to the pace.
+ Gossling was great, as was Harrison Ford, and Sylvia Hoeks
+ Absolutely stunning visuals…incredible….amazing….phenomenal
+ Incredibly complex characters
– Sound was too loud.
– Some big plot holes that don’t hold up
– Holy cow was it long
Did you see Blade Runner 2049? What did you think? Leave me a comment below.
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The Grumpy Geek, Pete Herr is the author of “10 Things We Should Teach You In High School and Usually Don’t”. He is the oldest geek in the Geekiverse by a factor of two. Follow Pete Herr on Facebook, Twitter,and Instagram . If you don’t he gets Grumpy. You don’t want to see him Grumpy.
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