There are only two kinds of science fiction movies: those made before Blade Runner and the ones that came after. That is a measure of how high Ridley Scott's 1982 masterpiece raised the bar for sci-fi on film. Though classics of the genre abound, none equals Blade Runner for its fully realized depiction of our potentially dystopian future. For 35 years, sci-fi films of every type have been saddled with the thankless task of trying to surpass it.
The real secret to Blade Runner's artistic success is that it's far from limited by the trappings and traditions of sci-fi. Scott's film is equally rooted in hard-boiled detective fiction as first imagined in the literature of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and other writers in the 1930s, and later brought to the screen by the film noir of the '40s and '50s. Blade Runner is one of those rare films in which disparate elements come together so well it almost seems a matter of serendipity — difficult, if not impossible, to repeat.
All of which makes the idea of a Blade Runner sequel sound about as smart and appealing as a 21st-century Casablanca, Part 2 (which, thankfully, no one has suggested publicly). News of director Denis Villeneuve's Blade Runner 2049 was met with substantial dread by those who obsess over the original.
But the French-Canadian Villeneuve, who created a modern sci-fi classic last year with the eight times Oscar-nominated Arrival, may have been the ideal choice for tackling the Blade Runner sequel. Villeneuve repeatedly pays tribute to Scott's film with Blade Runner 2049 but avoids trying to replicate its elusive alchemy. The film's stunning visuals build on those originally created for Blade Runner but support a more traditional work of science fiction. Blade Runner 2049 may be no match for the one-of-a-kind original, but that doesn't make Villeneuve's film any less enjoyable or remotely signify a failure or missed opportunity.
Blade Runner 2049 takes place 30 years after Scott's film, at a time when a new version of Blade Runner's replicants (robots largely indistinguishable from humans) have been "perfected" and integrated into society. Ryan Gosling stars as K, a police detective known as a "blade runner," whose job is to hunt and destroy rogue replicants remaining from the previous era. A routine case leads to an unexpected discovery that may change public perception of modern-day replicants and result in social upheaval. K's investigation leads him to seek out Deckard (Harrison Ford), the blade runner from Scott's film who disappeared at the end of that story.
The real star of Blade Runner 2049 may be British cinematographer Roger Deakins, whose past work ranges from Sid and Nancy to Skyfall to 12 films by Joel and Ethan Coen. The film's stark representation of an environmentally ravaged 2049 Los Angeles remains enthralling throughout a sometimes slow-moving 164-minute film. Deakins also helps Villeneuve break new ground with the film's depiction of artificial intelligence, implemented most strikingly in the form of K's holographic girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas).
Villeneuve's low-key, minimalist approach to sci-fi as first seen in Arrival owes a specific debt to Blade Runner — especially the narration-free "director's" and "final" cuts of that film released over the last 25 years. With Blade Runner 2049, the director completes that circle while managing to cut a worthy path of his own.